Albania + 4 more

Physicians for Human Rights: Kosovo Update #14

From News From PHR, Vol. 1, Issue 15
Physicians for Human Rights just completed a six month training project in Kosovo. Below is a report of our activities:

Families of Missing Persons and Victims of War

For over three years, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has organized extensive programs aimed at working with the families of those killed or missing and identifying bodies exhumed from mass graves in Bosnia (see for details). When Kosovo presented similar issues, PHR was in a unique position to assist.

PHR sought to implement mechanisms to ensure that the needs for support for families of those killed or missing in the conflict and support for the identification of those victims were being addressed in Kosovo.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) believes firmly that families of missing persons and other victims should be considered integral to the entire forensic process.

In early June, PHR issued a report, War Crimes in Kosovo: A Population Based Assessment of Human Rights Abuses Against Kosovar Albanians (see

On June 20, 1999, a few days after the peace agreement in mid-June, PHR deployed Mary Ellen Keough and Margaret Samuels, two veterans of PHR's Bosnia Projects, with the FBI forensic team to provide support for families involved in a series of International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) exhumations by providing the families with counseling on how the forensic scientific process works and how to cope with the strong emotions normally encountered in such a situation. The PHR team also identified local mental health resources to assist PHR at the sites. They provided support to families and followed up with the most severe and traumatized families.

Over the summer, PHR expanded its focus toward developing local capacity to address these issues. PHR's initiative to train local Kosovar social workers and forensic professionals was three-pronged: support for the families confronted by the identification process; forensic training in recovering and identifying remains; and antemortem data collection. Antemortem data is a detailed description of a victim or missing person - including physical characteristics, medical and dental history, and clothing and personal effects worn when last seen - which forensic experts use to identify bodies recovered in exhumations.

PHR has assisted with more than 40 different ICTY exhumation sites and has begun to work on sites with local forensic teams. Thus far, more than 400 bodies have been recovered from these sites. The ICTY has uncovered a total of 2,108 bodies from 195 of the 529 grave sites it has so far identified.

In addition, the ICTY has found cases of forensic evidence and grave tampering. Although many bodies have been identified at ICTY exhumation sites by family members, the identification rate has been low and bodies have remained unidentified. With local authorities only beginning their recovery and identification, it is clear the exhumation and identification process is in its early stages. It is premature for any definitive number of deaths to be determined. In fact, the total loss of death in Kosovo may never be known.

While understanding the full scope of loss of life during the conflict is a process that has only just begun, neither Physicians for Human Rights nor other organizations are tasked with computing a body count. PHR's June study, War Crimes in Kosovo, revealed that 35% of those interviewed (over 1000) witnessed murders or saw dead bodies. PHR's experience with forensics and antemortem data collection in the former Yugoslavia, which has spanned most of this decade, demonstrates that thousands of bodies could be recovered years after the conflict. Bodies associated with the massacres of the Bosnian wars are still being unearthed four years after the end of that conflict.In addition, the lists of missing compiled by local municipalities, human rights groups and the ICRC in Kosovo, indicate thousands of Kosovar Albanians remain missing.

In recent months, a public debate has erupted in the press regarding the fact that some of the suspected mass grave sites in Kosovo have produced fewer bodies than first believed to have been disposed of there. Critics assert that, because there have been fewer bodies recovered thus far than reported killed during the height of the conflict, genocide was not committed by the Milosevic regime and war was not justified.

Ultimately, the number of individuals found to have been killed in the conflict does not alter President Milosevic's carefully planned and systematically executed plan to rid Kosovo of its Albanian majority. In our view, every intentional killing of a civilian, no matter what the number, is a war crime. Every execution of a detained combatant is a war crime. The house burnings, emptying out of villages, mass forced expulsions, are all grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

The statistics on displaced persons and destruction of property, reported on by PHR in its "War Crimes in Kosovo" as well in other human rights and press reports, document the staggering scale of the systematic and brutal human rights abuses carried out by Serb authorities against Kosovar Albanians. Independent reports generally agree that Serb authorities forced more than 1 million people from their homes, with about 800,000 becoming refugees in other countries. Aid agencies now report that more than 100,000 homes have been at least partially damaged.

PHR's report, "War Crimes in Kosovo", was based on a population-based assessment of Kosovar refugees in April in Albania and Macedonia in order to assess the pervasiveness of violence and abuses suffered by the population. Virtually all of the 1,180 randomly sampled individuals - 91% - said Serb authorities forced them to leave their homes. 29% saw first hand Serb authorities burning their homes or the remains of their burnt homes after Serb forces had passed through their community.

For the past six months, PHR worked with the ICTY and other international and local agencies to further the principle that support for families of victims, conducted in a humane and sensitive manner, should be integral to the forensic process. PHR worked collaboratively with several international and local organizations including the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms (CDHRF), Pristina Forensic Institute, and Kosovo's regional Centers for Social Work.

PHR's project with local social workers and mental health professionals from many of Kosovo's regional Centers for Social Work focused training on many of the issues that families encounter in the identification and exhumation process such as trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the reburial of loved ones.

Mental health professionals, along with officers of the OSCE and local human rights groups which conduct investigations or have extensive contacts with families of victims, were also trained in antemortem data collection so that uniformly useful data is collected. Given that numerous bodies from ICTY exhumation sites are not being identified, antemortem data probably will prove crucial for identifications for years to come. PHR oversaw the collection of more than 400 sets of antemortem data from close relatives and friends of victims and/or missing persons. As members of communities and families of missing have generally been present during the exhumations, much of the collection of antemortem data has occurred at centralized locations in villages or at grave site.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) Civilian Police have agreed to be responsible for the storage of antemortem data. They are currently exploring computerized data options and will hire a missing persons staff and data entry workers, and have consulted with PHR's Bosnia Project about its Antemortem Database. PHR has worked closely with the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, an international social service organization based in Amsterdam, to continue working with social workers. They plan on continuing to provide support to the centers of social work through training and facilitating interagency collaboration.

For local forensic professionals, PHR led trainings to enable them to properly tackle the complex exhumation and identification tasks facing them. The trainings focused on three aspects of forensic work: exhumation, identification of bodies (including the use of antemortem data and comparison with postmortem data), and integrating family support services into the exhumation and identification process. It is proposed that OSCE continue PHR's work of monitoring forensic exhumations and conduct further trainings with the ICTY.

PHR is alarmed that the death toll continues to rise in Kosovo -- the violence and killing did not cease when KFOR Security Force entered the province. With the return of Albanian Kosovar refugees and the withdrawal of Serb forces, there has been a rise of abuses against Serb and Roma (Gypsy) civilians by Albanians - including killings, disappearances, and intimidation. This trend of violence also includes crimes perpetrated by Albanians against Albanians.

Approximately 200,000 Serb and Roma have departed Kosovo since June 1999. PHR has worked with international experts on sites with Serb and Roma bodies. PHR continues to work with the medical professionals to foster non-discrimination in the health care system and has undertaken a series of medical ethics and human rights trainings for hundreds of Kosovo health professionals.

PHR condemns those behind recent attacks by Kosovar Albanians on Serbs, Gypsies, and other minorities. We call on the leadership of Kosovo to forcibly condemn such attacks. We urge UNMIK and KFOR to aggressively deploy police and military units to prevent such acts.

For other Kosovo Updates please visit Archive