Today’s hearing of the Helsinki Commission is focusing on the plight of those in southeastern Europe who have relatives and loved ones missing as a result of the conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s. The personal and heart-rending stories we will hear today are a good reminder that the wounds of war have a lasting and deep impact on societies and families feel the pain not only in this generation but the next.
Our panel consists of four individuals. Two of our panelists are from Kosovo and remain displaced from their original homes. One has many family members who were abducted by Kosovar militants in 1998 before NATO intervention, and the other has a family member who was abducted in June 1999, immediately after the NATO intervention. Regarding the two other panelists, one is originally from Croatia with a family member who has been missing since being captured by Croatian troops retaking the Krajina area in 1995. The last individual is from Serbia proper, with a family member who was captured in Bosnia-Herzegovina while serving in the Yugoslav Army and last known to have been held in Croatia.
The group is here on the State Department’s International Visitors Program being organized by the Meridian International Center, and the Commission is grateful that they are available for this morning’s hearing.
It is estimated that as many as 40,000 persons are missing as a result of a decade of deadly conflict in the former Yugoslavia beginning in 1991. Mass graves continue to be uncovered, like the one in Republika-Srpska reported on just two days ago. All the while, the quest for information on lost relatives continues with government officials and possible witnesses to the acts of war or crimes. In some cases, the quest for truth and the unknown about the fate of loved ones have brought together individuals representing different ethnic groups.
Our panelists today happen to all be Serbs, but their ethnic background is irrelevant. Families are the same the world over, with hopes and dreams shared with parents, siblings, spouses and children. When we hear their personal testimonies this morning, we can empathize with the shattered dreams and hopes. When we hear your stories, we join you in the quest for truth.
In addition to their own stories, these individuals represent non-governmental organizations composed of others who want to find answers to questions about the fate of friends and relatives. They are part of civil society, individuals seeking healing for their losses. We are also asking them to speak about these groups and their ability to communicate with their own government, authorities of other countries of concern and the international community in advocating their cause.
Of course, this hearing touches on only one aspect of the larger issue of missing persons in southeastern Europe. The Commission considers this issue as a priority. Like the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the resolution of missing persons cases can help bring closure and help individuals recover from a very tragic time.
On this day, the 28th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, nothing is more appropriate for the Helsinki Commission than to have a public event not about policies or programs, but about real people with real life issues.