Thousands of Bosnians Still Missing

By Ajdin Kamber

Bosniak Fedja Huskovic disappeared in May 1993, shortly after he and 12 of his fellow soldiers were captured by Bosnian Croat forces in the southeastern Bosnian city of Mostar.

His mother Jadranka says she no longer hopes she’ll ever see her son alive again. Now, she only wishes to find his remains, so that she can give him a proper funeral.

“In order to keep my sanity, I had been persuading myself for a long time that he was alive. However, as the time was passing, my hope started to fade and now I don’t have it any more,” she said with a deep sigh, looking at her son’s photo which she held in a trembling hand as we were sitting on a sunny terrace in Mostar.

When Bosnia’s 1992-95 war broke out, Fedja was in Sarajevo, where he was studying electrical engineering. In late 1992, he returned to his hometown of Mostar, but as soon as he arrived, he heard that his cousin had died and decided to join the Bosnian army, ABiH as a liaison officer.

On May 9, 1993, the 21-year-old was in the Vranica building in Mostar – which then served as the ABiiH Fourth Corps’ headquarters – when the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, launched an attack and took over the premises.

ABiH soldiers were captured by the HVO and some were shown in footage broadcast on Croatian state television the same day. Thirteen young soldiers, including Huskovic, were filmed one by one, with their hands above their heads, saying their names loudly, before being led into a blue van. That was the last time any of them was seen alive

“I thought he had survived – that they had all survived,” Jadranka said, struggling to hold back tears. “But later I heard that they had all been killed. Remains of ten of them were discovered fifteen years later, in a mass grave near Mostar. My son and two other young men from this group have never been found.”

Jadranka added that the remains of those who have been found were not complete, because they were exhumed from a secondary mass grave. She and the families of the other two missing soldiers desperately tried to find out where the primary grave was, but without success.

Four members of Bosnian Croat military and police have been indicted for the killing of the Bosniak soldiers captured in Vranica in May 1993. They had been previously acquitted by the cantonal court in Mostar due to alleged lack of evidence, but the Federation High Court ordered a re-trial, due to start this year.

Thirteen graves marked with white headstones stand in the Sehitluci graveyard in Mostar. Ten contain the remains of the young men who were captured together with Fedja 18 years ago. But three remain empty, and one is Jadranka’s son. The headstone has his name and year of birth engraved in it, with an empty space for the year of death.

In the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the Nineties, 40,000 people disappeared. Most of them, around 30,000, went missing in Bosnia.

So far, the remains of 26,000 missing persons from the whole region have been found and identified, but 14,000 are still unaccounted for. According to data collected by the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, between eight and ten thousand people are still considered missing in Bosnia, some four thousand in Croatia and about two thousand in Kosovo.

The ICMP has had a key role in finding missing persons in the former Yugoslavia and identifying their remains through a DNA analysis. Although the organisation has accomplished a lot, Kathryn Bomberger, ICMP’s general manager, claims much more could be done if governments cooperated fully.

“Governments have a responsibility to work on stabilisation and peace through solving cases of missing persons. And not just governments, but other institutions as well, such as the judiciaries,” she said.

She added that the process of tracing the disappeared is extremely difficult with various obstructions.

“Some people who have participated in these crimes are still in important positions and are still very influential political figures. In many cases, covering up these crimes is in their interest. Their logic is that if there are no bodies, there is no crime, and they won’t be prosecuted,” she said.

Families of the missing persons say that finding bodies is very difficult because those who know where they are often withhold that information from the victims’ families.

“I hope in time those individuals who have such information will finally speak out, because their conscience will make them do so,” Josip Dreznjak, president of Association of Croat Victims Grabovica 93, said.

In September 1993, members of ABiH killed 33 Croat civilians – 18 women and 15 men – in the village of Grabovica in Hercegovina. The youngest victim was a three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Several men have been indicted for this crime, including former ABiH chief of staff, Sefer Halilovic, who was acquitted of all charges by the Hague tribunal.

Dreznjak said that 18 of the victims are considered missing because their remains have either not been found or are incomplete.

“ICMP was of great help. If there weren’t their DNA analysis, we would hardly ever find my late father, who was the victim of this crime,” Dreznjak tells me, while we are sitting in the café of hotel Ero in Mostar.

Sanja Mulac, a researcher with the ICMP’s branch office in Mostar, tells me their biggest problem is lack of information, political obstruction and manipulation.

“I must say with regret that politicians in this country often manipulate the associations of victims’ families and want to use them for their own political goals. The ICMP has always dealt with all victims equally, regardless of their ethnicity, and our only goal is to find all the missing persons,” she said.

According to Mulac, ordinary people could do much more to help families find the remains of their loved ones.

“Citizens of this country are the ones who have information on the missing. Unfortunately, they do not sympathise enough with the families of the victims to make an anonymous call and tell us where we could find the remains,” she said, adding that she personally had close contact with persons who were privy to such information, but refused to disclose it.

ICMP employees say the task of finding the disappeared is extremely hard, both physically and emotionally, especially when they have to call a mother and tell her they have found her child’s remains.

“It’s horrific! It cannot be described. Someone who hasn’t experienced that process cannot even imagine it,” Mulac said. “Seeing a mother standing above her child’s remains and begging doctors to let her touch or kiss the bones is sometimes too much to bear.”

ICMP’s office in Mostar has so far exhumed and identified over two thousand missing persons. Today, the morgue of the Sutina graveyard in Mostar contains around 120 remains of persons who have yet to be identified.

In addition to the Bosnian state’s Institute for Missing Persons, a number of small NGOs throughout the country have been involved in searching for the disappeared in Bosnia. However, cooperation and coordination between these organisations is far from satisfactory, claims Milan Mandic, president of Association of Imprisoned and Missing Persons from Republika Srpska, RS.

“Not a single association from the Bosniak-Croat Federation has ever invited me to a joint meeting to discuss the problems with finding the missing. They always say they want better cooperation with associations in RS, but when I ask them to do something concretely, they tell me that it’s too early for that,” Mandic said.

Mandic, who said he had lost 36 members of his family in the Bosnian war, points out that being able to identify the remains of missing relatives gives families a sense of closure and helps them find peace of mind.

“Even 16 years after the war, some families still haven’t been able to bury their loved ones properly. They cannot visit their graves, perform religious rituals, lay flowers or light candles. And that’s important for every family,” Mandic said.

Jadranka Huskovic says she will not find peace until the remains of her son are finally located.

“Finding my Fedja would mean that I can go to his grave, put flowers there, talk to him. I wish I could find at least one tiny bone. That’s all I need,” she said.

This article was produced as part of Tales of Transition project funded by the Dutch government and produced by  SCCA/, IPWR and eFM Student Radio. Mirza Ajnadzic  contributed to this report.