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Uncomfortable Truths: War Crimes in the Balkans

Elira Çanga Priština, Tirana, Zagreb, Berlin and Braunschweig

Across the Balkans many survivors of the bloody conflicts of the 1990s still don’t know what happened to their missing loved ones. In Kosovo, even discussing the suffering of other ethnic communities is strictly taboo. What hope for lasting peace and reconciliation?

Nesrete Kumnova’s set up the Mothers’ Cries association after her son disappeared during the Kosovo war (Photo: Elira Çanga)

“If the bones of my son were to be found, then at least I would have a place to mourn him,” says 58-year-old Nesrete Kumnova, whose 21-year-old son Albion was abducted by Serb forces from the majority ethnic Albanian town of Gjakova/Djakovica during the Kosovo war.

Until she knows for sure what happened to her son - however painful the truth may be, Kumnova cannot even contemplate living peacefully with Serbs, let alone forgiving.

“Co-existence? No way. Reconciliation is not possible unless our wounds are healed. I cannot even tolerate seeing Serbian officials in the Kosovo government or hearing the Serbian language. It is immoral and unethical before the fate of our sons is clear,” she declares.

Kumnova is convinced Serb forces killed her son after he was rounded up on 31 March 1999, along with most of the adult male ethnic Albanians in Gjakova/Djakovica, a town 80 km west of the capital Pristina.

Her son is just one of the 1,904 Kosovans of all ethnicities listed by the International Committee of the Red Cross as still missing. She is far from alone in being unable to either forgive or come to terms with her loss. 

At least 750,000 Kosovo Albanians were forced to leave Kosovo in the period between the end of March and beginning of June 1999, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, when the Serb military began its Potkovica (Horse Shoe) offensive.

By the end of the NATO campaign in July 1999, the ICTY estimates up to 13,500 Kosovans died – including as many as 10,356 ethnic Albanians.

While the scale of violence visited on the ethnic Albanian population far exceeded that experienced by others, all ethnic groups – including Serbs, Albanians who were considered loyal to Serbia, Roma and Egyptians – suffered during and after the conflict. Many still do not know what happened to their missing loved ones.

Yet the challenge of achieving lasting peace and reconciliation after a brutal war is not unique to Kosovo.

The Balkan wars started in Croatia in 1991 and the conflict spilled over into Bosnia in 1992. There were human rights abuses on all sides, but Serbian security forces and Serbian irregulars took the lead in horrific massacres, ethnic cleansing, torture, rapes and the use of concentration camps.

The death toll in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) alone was 100,000, according to the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo. Of those, 65 per cent were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 25 per cent ethnic Serbs and eight per cent ethnic Croats.

In traumatised societies emerging from war, many regard convicted war criminals as national heroes - defenders rather than perpetrators of war crimes.

Unlike in Germany, governments in the Balkans are yet to sponsor high-profile programmes and campaigns to educate citizens about the past. The German state continues to prosecute suspected war criminals, compensate victims and maintain documentation centres more than 60 years after the end of World War II.

Burying, not Facing the Past

Serbia is seen by its neighbours BiH, Croatia and Kosovo as the perpetrator of the worst war crimes committed on their territories.  According to the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Serbia has handed over 47 suspects to be prosecuted by the ICTY, and processed 383 people in local courts, of whom 143 were indicted and 68 sentenced. Still, few Serbs understand the scale of the crimes committed in their name under the rule of Slobodan Milošević.

Reconciliation in the Region

Nataša Kandić is head of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and has set up RECOM, a regional commission aimed at fostering reconciliation through documenting the experiences of the victims and survivors of the wars across the Balkans.

Kandić believes that war crimes trials will only achieve a certain amount, her organisation is lobbying for a series of public hearings across the region to give people the chance to talk about what happened to them.

“To name victims, testify in public, listen to the voices of survivors; this will help to build a culture of understanding between societies. We always point to the number, but it is important to have the names and the stories,” she says.

“Cooperation with the ICTY is still regarded as a distressing obligation, the necessary price for joining the European Union,” says Nataša Kandić, director of Humanitarian Law Center.

Serbia dragged its heels when it came to handing over key war crimes suspects, including Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.  Both remained in hiding, Mladić for 15 years, despite being named by the ICTY as the key perpetrator of the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.

He was finally handed over to the ICTY in May this year, once it became clear that Serbia’s bid to join the EU was dependent on surrendering nationals wanted in connection with war crimes.

Dejan Anastasijević is a Serbian journalist who has spent many years investigating the war crimes of ‘90s. In his BIRN blog, he writes: “The majority of Serbs are not convinced that Mladić is guilty of any war crimes, but still don’t mind his arrest so long as it leads to membership of the EU, which they see as promised land where money grows on trees.

“This is a perfect illustration of Serbia’s struggle to bury its past without actually facing it. Even when faced with irrefutable evidence, people tend to shrug, say ‘bad things happen in wartime’ and then change the subject.”

Tanja Matić, a journalist covering war crimes trials at the ICTY for the SENSE news agency is highly critical of Serbia’s leadership.

“For Serbia to face the past, its politicians must clearly condemn the country’s own war crimes, not make statements which put the war crimes of everybody on the same level, thus justifying the crimes,” she says.

Defenders, Not Perpetrators

Interactive Map: Kosovo War Crimes

While most Albanians in Kosovo are aware that Serbia has failed to prosecute many war criminals suspected of committing atrocities against the ethnic Albanian population, most Serbs in Kosovo believe that Kosovo’s Albanian-majority government has failed to prosecute or punish ethnic Albanians responsible for committing war crimes during and after the 1999 NATO air strikes that led to the eventual withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo.

Some Albanian refugees who returned home blamed the Serb population for the actions of Slobodan Milošević’s forces. As a result, Serbs were directly attacked, forcibly driven from their homes or abandoned their houses in fear of revenge attacks.

Nebojša Perić’s father was killed in the aftermath of the war in Kosovo (Photo: Elira Çanga)

Nebojša Perić, 40, lives in the Serb-majority town of Gračanica, 10 km from the capital Prishtina/ Priština. He is determined to stay in Kosovo, despite his ongoing suspicion that local Albanians might be responsible for the abduction and murder of his father in late 1999.

While Nebojša wants his two children, aged five and three, to grow up in Kosovo he says reconciliation will only be possible once the truth is finally established.

“I want my children to have a future here, but I also want the truth for my father. I think all Serbs living here want the same thing,” he says.

“I personally know that many Serbs were killed especially after the war in Kosovo…  we need is an international investigation because Serbs here cannot believe an Albanian investigation would report on these issues,” says Jelena, a 33-year-old ethnic Serb housewife living in Gračanica.

The Kosovan government set up the Institute of War Crimes in June this year, charged with impartially investigating and documenting atrocities committed during the war.

However, with such high levels of distrust and animosity on all sides, it will be a very long time before any organisation will gain the trust of all ethnic groups.

International prosecutors and judges have handled most war crimes trials in Kosovo – 58 cases to date, according to the Humanitarian Law Centre.  Yet the trials have not helped ethnic Albanians to accept that their own people carried out any violent attacks on Serbs at all, despite findings of ICTY investigations and prosecutions. 

“It’s all invented, no Albanian could have done something like that. Serbs killed and tortured us and now we (Kosovo Albanians) are accused of abducting, torturing and killing Serbs. I cannot believe these lies,” says Armend, a 30-year-old Prishtina/ Priština taxi driver.

Jehona, a 35-year-old Albanian office worker, says: “We should be careful to distinguish those individual crimes that were committed for revenge from those organised crimes against a community or population.”

Aside from setting up the Institute of War Crimes, the government has largely left truth and reconciliation to the efforts of a handful of NGOs and campaign groups, like the Humanitarian Law Fund in Kosovo.

Bekim Blakaj, head of the Humanitarian Law Fund in Kosovo, browses the online pages of the Kosovo Memory Book (Photo: Elira Çanga)

Bekim Blakaj, head of the Humanitarian Law Fund in Kosovo, has set up the Book of Memory; a central register of all dead and missing Kosovans. Relatives and friends can add information and find details about where their loved ones were last seen.

He says that it remains “taboo to speak about the victims of other communities” in Kosovo and it will stay that way until war crimes suspects on all sides are prosecuted and held to account for their actions.

War Crimes on Albanian Soil? 

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) ran guerrilla attacks from bases they set up across the border in Albania during the war.

While most Albanians, including politicians, accept these KLA bases existed in Albanian territory, claims they were the scenes of horrific war crimes are fiercely rejected.

Allegations that the KLA detained ethnic Serbs and other Kosovo Albanians deemed disloyal in these camps first surfaced when Carla Del Ponte, a former ICTY prosecutor, published her memoir Madame Prosecutor in 2008.

These claims were repeated in the Dick Marty report published in late 2010, along with allegations that KLA leaders coordinated the removal of internal organs, such as kidneys, from detainees and then profited from selling them on the black market.

EULEX has appointed a seven-member team led by US prosecutor John Clint Williamson to investigate.

Yet public opinion in Albania remains dead set against the possibility these crimes could have ever taken place on their soil.

In his report, the Swiss senator and Council of Europe representative Dick Marty, claims the KLA brought prisoners of war to an unspecified warehouse near the town of Fushe Kruje, 19 km northwest of the capital Tirana. He says some had their organs removed against their will.

The villagers in this region are reluctant to talk to journalists, but when pushed it becomes clear all of them are furious about the Marty report and feel unfairly tarnished by the organ trafficking allegations.

Rexhep is in his late 60s and has lived in Derven village near Fushe Kruje all his life. He is adamant that allegations about torture and organ trafficking are completely untrue.

“It is all invented. If something like that would have happened here, we would have known from the beginning - everyone here knows everything. But we only heard about this crazy story some months ago, when all the television channels and newspapers reported the allegations. I wonder who would believe something like this,” he says.

Llesh, who is in his mid-forties, dismisses the idea that Serbs were even detained here.

“During the war in Kosovo, many Kosovars [ethnic Albanian Kosovans] came here. We gave them a home and we helped them, but I never heard that Serbs were brought here and killed by the KLA,” he says.

Such disbelief is not limited to the villagers; the Albanian media is united in its condemnation of Marty and any allegations of organ trafficking, torture and killing.

Around 60,000 Albanians signed a petition in January 2011 recording their outrage at the publication of the report. One of the signatories was the former prime minister, Pandeli Majko, demonstrating the strength of feeling from all sections of Albanian society.

Matti Raatikainen is chief investigator of the war crimes unit at EULEX, the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo.

While stressing there are currently 70 active cases, he says witnesses are reluctant to come forward and that many ethnic Albanians are against the prosecution of well-known Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA,  fighters whom they regard as freedom fighters and national heroes.

After years of oppression throughout the 90s, ethnic Albanians began to demand greater freedom from Belgrade and the KLA was born. By 1997, the KLA began to attack Serb police and military targets which in turn led to a brutal crackdown by Milošević’s forces.

“We have had difficulties in cases where KLA fighters are involved, we have found evidence but it's difficult to convince witnesses to take the stand openly.  At the same time, there are always protests when we press charges against ex-members of the KLA,” Raatikainen explains.

Attitudes Change Slowly in Croatia

In Croatia, many object to their fighters being prosecuted for war crimes, as they regard themselves as victims of Serb aggression who were forced to fight back in order to defend their country’s borders. 

This year there was public outrage and a sharp decline in support for the ICTY after it handed down a 24-year jail term to Croatian General Ante Gotovina.

Gotovina led the Croatian forces during the military offensive – Operation Storm - to take control of the Serb-controlled Krajina region in 1995, during which at least 150 Serbs were killed according to the ICTY.   Around 200,000 Serbs fled to neighbouring Serbia and most never returned.

Given this offensive secured Croatia’s independence and is credited with ending four years of bloody combat, Gotovina is widely regarded as a national hero.

The events of 1991 remain fresh in the memories of Croats. It was at this time when Croatian Serbs - with the help of the Serb-majority Yugoslav army and Belgrade - declared around one-thirds of Croatia’s territory to be the independent Republic of the Srpska Krajina.

The town of Vukovar was reduced to rubble in the first months of the war. Ljiljana Alvir, a Croat from Vukovar, lost both her fiancé and her brother during the conquest of the city.

Alvir was only 21 when she was captured by Serb forces. She was returned home after three days as part of an exchange of prisoners, her fiancé and brother were never heard of again.

“Even today I don't have peace of mind, nor does my family. We don't know if our brother is dead or alive. We're afraid to light a candle because don't want to consider him perished, but also fear not to light one, because everybody has a candle except him,” she says. 

Marica Seatović, a Serb from Nova Subočka, a village in Croatia, is also calling for the culprits to be punished. She lost her husband in 1991 during the conflict and says his killers have never been brought to book.

“I went to the neighbouring village for three days and when got back I found my husband killed, together with two other male neighbours. During the years, I found out who the killers were - six Croatian soldiers…I buried my husband 20 years ago and still I have to live with this,” she says.

Vesna Teršelic, head of Documenta, says ICTY prosecutions of Croat fighters remain deeply unpopular (Photo: Elira Çanga)

Vesna Teršelić, is head of Documenta, a centre set up to encourage all levels of Croatian society to accept that war crimes happened on both the Serb and Croat sides.

“We have seen a change in people’s attitudes during all these years, but it is still not enough. The media in Croatia is not interested in writing stories on war crimes trials. These would not only inform the public about what’s happening in the court [ICTY] but also educate and persuade people to condemn these kinds of crimes,” she says.

To illustrate the gap between the theory of prosecuting war criminals and the reality when the accused is one of your own, she quotes a national poll the centre carried out in 2006 which suggested 61 per cent of Croats believed all war crimes should be investigated and punished. This dropped sharply when respondents were asked if they supported the prosecution of Gotovina.

Damir Grubiša, a professor in Zagreb University, explains: “Cases like this [Gotovina] mix up war crimes and nationalism, which is not good.”

The Croatian government has recently proposed the adoption of new laws that would dismiss war crimes charges issued by Belgrade.

The move has drawn sharp criticism. Following the publication of a report by Amnesty International in October the EU criticised Zagreb, claiming politicians are courting voters who are strongly opposed to war crimes prosecutions ahead of the December parliamentary election.

Germany, Facing the Past

While events in Germany during World War II cannot be directly compared to the Balkan wars, the way German society continues to confront its past may serve as an instructive example.

Germany has not forgotten the victims of World War Two, including the six millions Jews killed during the Holocaust.

At the Jewish Museum in Berlin, factual evidence and accounts of the lives and fates of Jewish people are preserved, along with personal items and a replica gas chamber. 

Tanja Petersen, director of programmes at the museum, stresses it is important for Germans to understand the history of relations between the Jewish community and other sections of society before, during and after the war.

That said, she underlines it took Germany decades to reach this point, evidenced by the fact the museum was only opened in 2001, more than 50 years after World War Two came to an end.

Today in Germany there are many centres dealing with the documentation of Nazi-era crimes.

The Remembrance, Responsibility, Future foundation (Erinnerugn, Verantwortung, Zukunft) compensates victims’ families and survivors and is funded jointly by the German government and the private sector.

Ralf Possekel, director of programmes, says: “Education is the best way to understand the past and to this end, history books remain the key to learning about the truth”.

History Books Revised

Georg Stoeber says German schoolbooks did not cover Nazi war crimes in the past (Photo: Elira Çanga)

Georg Stöber, a 63-year-old researcher at the Georg Eckert Institute for International Research on Textbooks says, “When I went to school in the early 60s, we didn't discuss World War Two and the German role much.”

His 32-year-old colleague, Almut Stoletzki, had a totally different experience.

“During my school years, in the period 1980 to 1990, not only was the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jews spoken about but, in many cases we were tasked with going and visiting memorial places or victims’ families,” she recalls.

Hannes Grandits, chief of the South-East Europe department at the Humboldt University in Berlin, says that the German experience might offer useful lessons for the Balkans.

“The discovery of truth and understanding is a long process, but people in the Balkans need to talk and listen to each other. This, unfortunately, doesn't happen very often,” he says.

Back in Kosovo the prospect of ethnic Serbs and Albanians understanding and accepting each other’s pain is a distant one.

For Kosovans like Kumnova and Perić, knowing what happened to their loved ones is just the first step toward understanding and maybe forgiveness.

Without closure for victims, while even mentioning the suffering of ‘the other’ remains taboo, ethnic Serbs and Albanians will remain divided for many years to come.

Elira Canga is a Tirana-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

This article was researched, written and edited during the period May to October 2011.

Fellow Bio


Elira Çanga

Elira Çanga is a journalist based in Tirana, Albania. She currently works as a regional and international editor for the daily national newspaper Gazeta Shqiptare. 


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