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Missing persons from the Kosovo crisis : ICRC response

The fighting may have stopped in Kosovo, but many thousands of people cannot find real peace whilst the fate of their family members remains unknown. For the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), tackling the humanitarian issue of missing persons is one its most important operational priorities in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) today.
Regrettably, neither the plight of detainees nor of missing persons was specifically addressed in the agreement signed in Kumanovo between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or the subsequent UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999. Nevertheless, the ICRC, on the basis of its internationally-recognised mandate, assumed a lead role on the issue of missing persons and successfully negotiated in Belgrade access to the detainees the authorities notified as being still in detention following the Kosovo crisis.

By February 21 2000, over 4,400 names of missing persons had been collected directly from families; over 1,400 of whose fate the ICRC has been able to clarify, mainly through its detention visits (see table below for detailed breakdown). The majority of the remaining almost 3000 still reported as missing are Kosovo Albanians, but they also importantly include Serbs, Roma and people from other communities.

Families visiting ICRC offices both in Kosovo and elsewhere in FRY anxious for news of their relatives is a daily occurrence; it is clear that the anguish in no way diminishes but increases as time goes by. They find it impossible to rebuild their lives in a fundamental way whilst the uncertainty prevails.

The ICRC's commitment is aimed exclusively at trying to help families in their quest to know the truth. It is and will remain active in using all the means available to provide answers; through dialogue with the concerned authorities in Belgrade and Pristina, through following up credible and reliable information on-the-ground and cooperating with other organisations active on the issue through a coordination group it has established and chairs (UNMIK and the international police, OSCE, OHCHR, ICMP and others).

On February 21 & 22, 2000, the ICRC officially submitted to the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina the names of the missing people it had so far gathered with the urgent request that they provide any information they may have which would shed light on the fate of individuals as quickly as possible for the sake of the families.

This step was part of an ongoing operational process which began in earnest with the massive return of refugees to Kosovo in June, 1999. After helping to bring tens of thousands of people who had temporarily lost contact with their relatives back in touch, the ICRC was able to begin to establish just how many people remained unaccounted for.

ICRC teams were mobilised in all of its offices in Kosovo to systematically visit towns and villages to encourage families to come forward with the information of missing relatives. Most of the names gathered were from Kosovo Albanians reporting that their family members had been arrested, but in Kosovo and also elsewhere in FRY the ICRC was also gathering information from hundreds of families of Serbian, Roma and other communities who were reporting that their relatives had been abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or civilians.

At the same time, the authorities in Belgrade notified and allowed access to around 1700 detainees which not only enabled the ICRC to clarify the fate of some of the tracing cases it had gathered, but was a source of considerable comfort to families on the outside.

The scale of the problem

So far, as from February 1 2000, the ICRC has gathered and recorded the following information on missing persons:

Persons reported as unaccounted for during the Kosovo crisis 01.01.98 to 01.02.2000

Total number of persons unaccounted for: 4,434
Total number of persons whose fate has been clarified:
of which:
  • confirmed dead
  • confirmed alive
    of which:
  • visited in prison
Total number of persons that remain unaccounted for:
of which:
  • persons reportedly arrested by the Yugoslav Armed and Security Forces or abducted by Serb civilians:
  • persons reportedly abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army or Kosovo Albanian civilians:
  • persons for whom there is no information on whereabouts:

Visits to people currently detained in relation to the Kosovo crisis 01.02.2000

Persons visited in KFOR places of detention
Persons visited in places of detention in FRY (Serbia and Montenegro)
Persons released by the authorities and transported by the ICRC to Kosovo

Measures taken by the ICRC

Visits to detainees: while the ICRC had been visiting Kosovo Albanian prisoners held by the Serbian authorities for many years before the current crisis, these visits had to be broken off during the conflict between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 for security reasons. In June 1999 the ICRC was able to negotiate the resumption of these visits and by July it had registered some 1'700 detainees, whose families were immediately informed. Further visits have been taking place continuously since then which have enabled ICRC to establish the fate of almost 1'300 people reported missing.

Approaches to the authorities concerned: repeated efforts were made during the internal conflict between the Serbian security forces and the KLA, through KLA field personnel and their political counterparts, to try to establish the fate of some 150 Serb civilians whose families had reported them abducted. Similar approaches on behalf of Kosovo Albanians were conducted with the authorities in Belgrade. Further efforts have been made at a local level since the ending of hostilities in Kosovo. Regrettably, no firm information on the plight of the 150 people, and the others reported since, has so far been forthcoming.

Tracing in the field: extensive efforts have been made by ICRC field teams in towns and villages throughout Kosovo to urge the population to come forward with information. A system of "tracing by event" was introduced, in which details were gathered of people who disappeared or were allegedly detained/abducted at the same time. Based on the ICRC's experience in Bosnia & Herzegovina, this could help provide additional information leading to the clarification of cases. Families were also invited to notify their missing relatives to the ICRC or the Yugoslav Red Cross in FRY.

Co-ordination with other agencies: the ICRC has been officially recognised as the lead agency in the question of missing persons in Kosovo, and has established a co-ordination group with other organisations to share information. It strongly encourages the continuation of the exhumation and identification process begun last year and has a good working relationship with those involved.

Further action to be taken

Support for families: ICRC is reviewing ways in which it can better help the families shoulder their burden of grief and uncertainty, for example through fostering the creation of family associations, through psycho-social support and by referrals to legal or other practical advice. The ICRC is aware of the unique responsibility it carries in being accessible to the families both in Kosovo and elsewhere in FRY: its sole responsibility is towards the families and their needs.

Continued field work: aware that other families might not yet have come forward with information on their missing relatives, the ICRC will continue to register new information and subsequently submit it to the authorities concerned, and will follow up on allegations of arrest or abduction.

Visits to detainees: visits to detainees in FRY will continue for as long as prisoners are held. Similarly, ICRC will continue to provide transport back to Kosovo for those who are released (the great majority of the 495 detainees released have been escorted home in this way). In Kosovo ICRC has access to persons detained by KFOR and the UNMIK police. In all cases the purpose of the visits is the same: the try to ensure that the prisoners have decent material and psychological conditions of detention, that they are treated humanely, and to enable them to keep in contact with their families through Red Cross messages.

Contacts with the authorities: having submitted to the authorities the information it has gathered so far, the ICRC will continue to maintain dialogue with them on the issue and urge them to take all steps to establish the fate of persons who disappeared in areas under their authority. The ICRC considers that it is the responsibility of the concerned authorities to spare no effort in seeking to provide answers.