Newsday - Kosovo missing mire hopes of peace

1999-12-22
By DANICA KIRKA - Associated Press Writer

KORENICA, Yugoslavia (AP) -- Six months after the end of the Kosovo conflict, not a single man between the ages of 16 and 60 from this ethnic Albanian village, which had a prewar population of 600, has been accounted for, residents and human rights activists say.

``We don't know if they are alive or dead,'' said Hateme Kameri, whose husband Rrustem was last seen being beaten by Serb paramilitaries when they raided the village April 27. ``We still have hope that the men are in prisons.''

The uncertainty about the men -- and the thousands of other people missing in Kosovo -- is hampering reconstruction and clouding hopes of reconciliation between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Serb authorities have told the International Committee of the Red Cross that they are holding about 1,700 ethnic Albanians -- men and women ranging in age from 13 to 73 -- arrested during the conflict and transported out of the province before NATO-led peacekeepers arrived in June.

Many Kosovo Albanians believe many more people are being held and that Yugoslavia is keeping them as ``bargaining chips'' for future negotiations on the status of Kosovo.

Serb paramilitary forces swept into Korenica, a village of some 70 houses, about a month after NATO began its 78-day air campaign to halt Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has documented 89 missing people in Korenica and 30 others from a village a few miles away.

All told, an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians died in the 18-month crackdown and 1.5 million were expelled from their homes, the State Department reported this month.

``People are very frustrated here,'' said Kosovare Kelmendi of the Humanitarian Law Center, a non-governmental organization. ``We are talking about people who have lost everything.''

The Red Cross is still trying to compile a list of the missing, said spokesman Urs Boegli. The work has been stymied because the agreement that ended the Kosovo fighting did not compel the parties to offer any accounting.

``The key to the solution is the warring parties themselves,'' Boegli said. ``They know what their soldiers have done ... They can take the skeletons out of the closet, quite literally.''

In the highly charged postwar atmosphere, there's no goodwill between Albanians and Serbs and few answers for those trying to find out if their relatives are dead or alive. International officials admit they don't even have a good guess on how many people are missing. There's also no system to centralize information on bodies that have been found.

International war crimes tribunal investigators already are overwhelmed by the number of sites to examine. Frustrated residents aren't waiting for investigators to verify their claims of massacres and have been exhuming bodies on their own.

Individuals like Hateme Kameri, 32, and her cousin, Bekrije Kameri, 26 -- whose husband, Besim, is also missing -- are largely on their own.

The women visited the Red Cross offices and scanned the lists of prisoners known to be held in Serbia. When that proved fruitless, they began watching mass grave excavations, hoping to find a familiar shoe or a recognizable jacket.

``Whatever it is, I would like to have the truth,'' Hateme said. ``Even if it is very bad, I would rather have the truth than not knowing anything at all.''

Unsure of whether to wait or to grieve, Hateme choses to hope, both for herself and her four children. Without other options, she and Bekrije are taking on the tasks their husbands once performed -- chopping wood, cleaning cow stalls, building fires.

The work helps them keep going during the day. It is only at night that things get really tough.

``The children cry every night because they call for their father to come back.'' Bekrije said. ``We cry with them.''

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