By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor
The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing Friday, August 1, 2003, to address the issue of missing persons in the southeastern region of Europe formerly known as Yugoslavia.
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) presided over the hearing which featured testimony from four witnesses who lead non-governmental organizations representing the families of missing persons in Kosovo and Croatia.
In his opening statement, Chairman Smith noted the importance of stories from relatives of missing persons to underscore the human tragedy and legacy of the conflicts that erupted in the region. In exploring those experiences, Smith said, those in the United States can begin to empathize with such a heartbreaking issue not often noted as a consequence of conflict.
Citing the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, Smith remarked that "nothing is more appropriate for the Helsinki Commission than to have a public hearing not about policies and programs, but about real people who have suffered so much. Like the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the resolution of missing persons cases can help bring about at least some closure and help individuals recover from their tragic loss."
In prepared remarks for the hearing, Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) said, "While we are saddened by the stories our witnesses will tell of missing relatives--some for many, many years--we are also inspired by their courage and leadership as they forge ahead seeking truthful answers." Co-Chairman Campbell emphasized that stringent professional law enforcement procedures are needed throughout the region of Southeast Europe in order to help bring closure to existing cases.
Gordana Jaksic is a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Parents and Families of the Arrested, Captured and Missing in Novi Sad, Serbia. Jaksic testified that her Serbian-based organization is currently investigating cases of 560 missing persons who vanished from 1991 to 1996, immediately following the fall of Yugoslavia. One case is that of her own son, Slobodan, captured by Croatian forces in May 1992 while serving in the Yugoslav People's Army in Bosnia. "Eleven years is a very long time," Jaksic said. "I do not ask for pity. I do not need anyone's pity. I want to [awaken] people's minds and consciousness so that they raise their voices together with mine so that we can reach the truth."
In response, Chairman Smith expressed sympathy and added, "The time has come for closure, and the only way that there will be closure is if the political will exists on all sides to get to the bottom of this."
Cedomir Maric is President of the Association of Missing Persons from Krajina, a Belgrade-based organization investigating the cases of 2,824 Serbian families from within the territory of Croatia known as Krajina. Maric testified that his dedication to the cause of missing persons began in 1995, when his son, Jalimir, was kidnapped in the town of Knin.
"Our struggle has been going on for eight years, but it will continue until we find our loved ones," Maric told the Commission. "As time passes by, we become more conscious of the fact that maybe we will not reach the day, we will not live to the day when we wait for them at home and they come back alive, but we want to continue the struggle to get the remains of our children so that we know where we can bury them and go to light the candle according to our rights."
Olgica Bozanic and Verica Tomanovic represent the Belgrade-based Association of Family Members of Missing and Kidnapped Individuals. Bozanic described her five-year search for fourteen of her relatives who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998, during a period of high-intensity conflict involving the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "Serbs were kidnapped everywhere," Bozanic stressed.
Bozanic, who actually met with those responsible for her family members' disappearances, expressed frustration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting Balkan war crimes. Citing repeated contact with Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte. Bozanic explained that authorities were hesitant to assert jurisdiction in the cases of the families represented by her organization.
"I wanted to achieve something while people in my family were still alive, but Carla Del Ponte answered that they cannot arrest anybody or indict anybody because they have no evidence," Bozanic said. "I asked what they considered as evidence. I was told that if there were no bodies, there was no evidence."
Tomanovic discussed the work of her organization, formed in 2000 to bring organized power to many individual cases languishing before international and local authorities. Today, 1,303 families of those kidnapped since 1998 in Kosovo are represented. "We are a non-governmental humanitarian organization and our only goal is to find the truth about the fate of our loved ones," Tomanovic said in her testimony.
"All of these kidnappings and abductions had the same goal, which was the cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija of the Serbs," Tomanovic said. "It has been thousands of nights for some mothers who have not slept at all since their loved ones disappeared. There are children who [are] waiting for their fathers. There is so much pain and suffering, and this anxiety is more horrible than any truth."
Tomanovic's husband, Dr. Andrija Tomanovic, is one of the victims her organization represents. A popular full-time professor and vice president of the Red Cross of Serbia and Kosovo, Dr. Tomanovic was kidnapped in June 1999 at a Pristina Hospital, supposedly guarded by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
Tomanovic echoed Bozanic's discontent with the responsiveness of international authorities. After reporting her husband's kidnaping to KFOR and UNMIK officials, Tomanovic said she received a warm welcome, but limited direct action with no result.
"I have to emphasize that we have a very active cooperation with the UNMIK office in Belgrade, but we are not satisfied with this cooperation because there is no result," Tomanovic said. "The UNMIK has not helped Serbs, not even once, to resolve at least one case. I believe that we can find the truth very quickly if those people who kidnapped our loved ones are arrested."
Maric added that his group has had no direct contact with the Croatia military on their cases.
Chairman Smith responded, "If we are to have faith in the military of Croatia, the least they can do is be absolutely aggressive, thorough and transparent in resolving missing persons issues as it relates to their military."
Adjourning the hearing, Chairman Smith indicated the Commission would hold additional sessions addressing the missing persons issue elsewhere in the war-torn areas of Southeast Europe.
Subsequently the Commission scheduled a hearing, Missing Persons in Southeast Europe (Part 2), for September 18, 2003. The hearing was cancelled due to a hurricane which swept the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The scheduled witnesses, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, have been asked to provide written testimony for the combined record.
All Commission hearings and briefings are open to the public. Interested media and other individuals are encouraged to attend.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Joseph Rieu contributed to this article.