Undiscovered fates of the missing are a sign of social and institutional irresponsibility

There is no comprehensive reparations programme for the families of missing persons in Montenegro, nor is there a commitment to activities to prevent such crimes in the future. The issue of missing persons has a wider regional character and should be resolved in symbiosis with other former Yugoslav states, as it was concluded at today’s regional online conference “Forced Disappearance – from Truth to Justice“, organized by the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) and the Association of Families of the Kidnapped, missing and killed in Kosovo and Metohija “Red Peony”.

Tamara Milaš, Human Rights Programme Coordinator at the CCE, pointed out that the undiscovered fates of the missing are a reminder of our social and institutional dysfunction and irresponsibility. “For years, we at the CCE, as a reference member of the Coalition for RECOM, but also independently, use every opportunity to urge the competent institutions to act proactively in the direction of finding the remains of persons missing during armed conflicts and to remind families of the right to know the fate of the closest ones who are listed as missing,” she said. She stated that there is still an issue of thousands of missing persons in this area, which is depersonalizing these people. “Each of these missing persons has their own life story and we believe that that life story must be fully elucidated,” she underlined.

Matthew Holliday, Head of the Western Balkans Program in the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), reflecting on the Commission’s work and performance, said that data on the number of registered active cases of missing persons underline the need for intensive regional co-operation. “I consider that the agreements Montenegro signed with the countries of the region are important as it has a stronger contribution in relation to multilateral cooperation mechanisms” he stated. He also emphasized the importance of the framework plan signed with ICMP in November 2018 regarding the search for missing persons, which, as he noted, indicates the readiness of the countries in the region to cooperate more closely. “Such cooperation is needed for the families of the missing to get an answer about the fate of their loved ones as soon as possible. ICMP cooperation with government institutions, organizations and families has lasted for more than two decades and the results are good, as more than 70% of cases have been resolved. Unfortunately, another 11,000 people are on the list of the missing, which warns that the depoliticization of this process is crucial, and that greater involvement of governments in resolving the fate of the missing is needed,” he concluded.

Ylber Morina, senior programme advisor to the International Commission on Missing Persons, explained that two operational groups have been set up within the Missing Persons Group – for missing persons and for a regional database that works to list all missing persons in the region. “The Commission of the Government of Montenegro has given its full contribution in the search for families who fled from Kosovo to the territory of Montenegro. They found the addresses and submitted the data, which speaks of the results of our cooperation in the search for missing persons,” he pointed out.

Dragan Đukanović, President of the Commission for Missing Persons of the Government of Montenegro, agreed in assessing the importance of bilateral cooperation with the countries of the region through concluded protocols, emphasizing the positive role of the International Commission for Missing Persons and the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Discovering of the fate of persons who did not disappear on the territory of Montenegro indicates that we must have close cooperation with colleagues from the region to obtain timely information on the fate of the missing and inform their families about new facts in these proceedings,” he emphasised. Regarding the legislative framework, he said that Montenegro has not passed a special law on missing persons, given that it is estimated that all families can exercise their rights through other laws.

Ljubiša Filipović, president of the Association of Families of Kidnapped, Missing and Killed in Kosovo and Metohija “Red Peony”, believes that the work of the Commission for Missing Persons of the Government of Montenegro is the most successful so far, but also pointed out that further efforts and cooperation are needed. “Many families are disappointed in the system because they have been forgotten, and they have already lost everything they had. The investigation into the cases of the missing are not progressing, which is why the cooperation and agreement of the governments is needed to find out the truth. That is the only way to reconciliation, “he said. Filipovic also pointed out the difficult conditions in which the families of the missing life, and the problems in identifying the victims whose remains are in the Pristina chapel.

Alen Bajrović, the son of Osman Bajrović, who went missing during the deportation of refugees from BiH in 1992, shared his experience trying to shed a light on his father’s disappearance. “My family has been conducting proceedings before all the courts for 14 years, and we get the impression that there is a delay to make it meaningless. The case is just experiencing retrials in which there is no progress,” he said. The fact that the state has not resolved the issues of these crimes for almost three decades he sees as one of the important indicators of conditions in the Montenegrin judiciary. “Also, the state does not allow or wants to build a memorial, which proves its intention to cover up this crime. There is no guilt for the perpetrators, nor responsibility for the direct perpetrators, the perpetrators “, he concluded.

During the controversy that Bajrović had with Đukanović, it was determined that although the Commission for Missing Persons of the Government of Montenegro is aware of his father’s case, he was not entered in the database of the Commission nor is he actively searched for.

The historian from Zagreb, Hrvoje Klasić, pointed out that there are comparative similarities, but also differences in the countries of the region when it comes to dealing with the past. “It is causally connected with the democratization of society and the people who run the country. In Croatia, progress on this issue has been slow, with shifts in political will, seen through media coverage of the commemoration of Serb victims and history textbooks that today (unlike those of the 1990s) attempt to open a multi-perspective debate,” he said. “However, it is indisputable that relations in the region are largely conditioned by the 1990s. Croatia also has a Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, which deals with the investigation of the cases of 1,500 missing persons, “Klasić reminded. He stated that the past is often manipulated and that exclusive narratives are often forced in which there is no room for empathy towards others. “Since the 1990s and the war, we have not learned that multi-perspectival approach and that there should not be our and your criminals, ours and your victims. Our best example is the Hague Tribunal, which is good for us while judging others, and the moment it starts judging us, opinions change. The state, politicians, the media, history teachers, historians and, above all, the family have the greatest influence on change and the creation of a broader picture. We must become receptive to the general public so that they understand our messages and why it is in our interest to face the darkest pages of our past ” Klasić emphasised.

Marijana Toma, a historian and expert on transitional justice issues from Belgrade, believes that the opinion about the 90s is mostly expressed by decision-makers around important anniversaries. “Relations with the neighbours have regressed since the progressives came to power in Serbia, and their interpretation of the events of the 1990s has its significance here” she states. Toma believes that the state of Serbia avoids taking essential steps, especially when it comes to trials, the search for the missing, the processing of mass graves and the opening of the issue of responsibility. “The approach of the Government of Serbia is worrying, but realistically we cannot have high expectations from those who were not called to account when they should or who did not feel the need to deviate from the policy they advocated in the 1990s,” she said. Toma also pointed out the legal framework that continuously discriminates against the families of the missing and the civilian victims of the war. “In Serbia, Kosovo is a topic that is actively silenced at the level of responsibility, and there are a lot of stories when it comes to the victim,” she concluded.

Nearly 60 participants from Montenegro and the region, mostly civil activists, journalists, academics and political parties, actively followed this regional online conference and contributed through the discussion. The conference was organized within the project “Forced Disappearance – from truth to justice” which CCE is implementing with the Association of Families of Kidnapped, Missing and Killed in Kosovo and Metohija “Red Peony”, with the support of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) Union for the ICMP Program of the Western Balkans.

Maja Marinović, Program associate