Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Q&A: Truth Brings Reconciliation

Vesna Peric Zimonjic interviews war crimes prosecutor VLADIMIR VUKCEVIC

BELGRADE, Feb 17 2009 (IPS) - The guns have been silent for 10 years across what was Yugoslavia, but more than 130,000 violent deaths still cast a long shadow on the region.

Vladimir Vukcevic Credit:

Vladimir Vukcevic Credit:

Most victims were non-Serbs, and Serbia and its former leader Slobodan Milosevic are largely blamed for war crimes. Since 2000 and the downfall of Milosevic’s regime, Serbia has made a significant effort in investigating war crimes by Serbs, leading to many prosecutions. But the time has come also to shed light on war crimes against Serbs. Special war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic is in the forefront of leading these investigations.

The prosecutor has investigated the abduction of hundreds of Serbs in Kosovo in 1999, their alleged transfer to Albania, and ‘organs harvesting’.

Excerpts from an interview with Vukcevic:

IPS: In April last year, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Carla Del Ponte published her memoirs under the title ‘Hunt: Me and War Criminals’. She wrote about the investigation into the issue of alleged organ harvesting from Serbs abducted in Kosovo in 1999, transferred to Albania proper and supposedly killed for this gruesome purpose. What has been done by your office over this? A: We have provided the special envoy of Council of Europe Dick Marty with our full report, the evidence collected so far that surrounds the case. The report has almost 200 pages; there are 41 addenda by witnesses that point out locations of interest for further examination and reports on investigations carried out so far at the spot we are interested in. Dick Marty is obliged to go further, to exert political pressure to push for further investigation. We simply could not disregard the claims by Carla Del Ponte, former chief ICTY prosecutor, a person of high respect, and of witness reports at our disposal.

Q: What is the key item in the report?

VV: It is the basic report by Jose Pablo Baraybar, head of the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, dated 18.06.2004. It named items found in the (northern) Albanian village of Burrell, which was singled out in testimonies of eight sources as a place where crimes of cruel nature were committed. However, this appears to have been a very superficial investigation.

IPS: What happened with the items? VV: They were kept for a while in Kosovo, and then transferred to the ICTY. In the course of mass and regular destruction of evidence that was not of interest for the ICTY investigations, they were destroyed in 2005, together with some 2,000 irrelevant items from other cases. However, there are photographs of those items. It’s a pity that the plastic container was not tested for human DNA residue, for example.

IPS: Serbian media and the broader public were deeply upset by the possibility that the people abducted at the time of war in Kosovo in 1999 might have been killed in remote areas of Albania for the purpose of organs harvesting. Was this the principal motive for your investigation? VV: It is not only about the alleged harvesting of organs. We are primarily interested in the issue of missing Serbs and non-Albanians from Kosovo. We want to know where those people have gone, how they disappeared. Some 1,300 people are still missing and their fate is unknown.

IPS: There were stories about camps for prisoners during the conflict in Kosovo, where the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla force that fought against Serb security forces) held captives. Did you find any evidence on that? VV: We have testimonies of witnesses who spoke about camps in neighbouring Albania, and those are the documents coming from UNMIK in Kosovo. Those witnesses were located through the International Red Cross Committee, and told their stories of prisoners’ camps and transport of non- Albanian people from Kosovo into Albania proper in 1999.

IPS: Do you believe that your work in this case will bring closure to families of the missing if they finally find out what happened to their dearest ones? VV: Yes, and that is our primary motivation; to learn the fate of missing. There is firm ground to believe, upon the evidence collected so far, that there are three spots with mass graves in Albania. Three locations where bodies were buried, we presume of non-Albanians.

IPS: Did your investigation reveal other kinds of criminality? VV: As our work developed, and further along the road, there emerged the issues of narcotics, arms and human trafficking, all of them in the form of classic organised crime. This looked a wasps’ nest. We are now interested in who is leading the game.

IPS: Your work has been criticised by the nationalist part of the Serbian public, which still believes that the wars in former Yugoslavia were led for the defence of the national interest of Serbs who lived in the former Yugoslav republics Croatia or Bosnia, or in Kosovo. You received anonymous death threats from abroad, particularly the U.S., and particularly after the war crimes indictee Radovan Karadzic was arrested and transferred to the ICTY last July. VV: The FBI identified the man who threatened me. He’s a Serb in the U.S. It’s good that this has gone to a somehow higher level. Our cooperation with the U.S. is very good. We want even more direct cooperation with the U.S., and Canada as well. There are many people (of former Yugoslav origin) who fought in the wars and left the Balkans with blood on their hands. They obtained immigration visas claiming to be refugees and fled to those countries.

IPS: The Serbian public is still deeply divided over war crimes. Do you believe that enough was done to present them adequately so that people could comprehend them and go further with reconciliation and cooperation? VV: I believe that we have done our maximum to change and influence awareness among people, so that they could understand that those who went to wars were not any kind of patriots, but criminals who committed crimes; their motivation was criminal. I believe we have succeeded in proving this to our public. The truth can absolutely contribute to the process of reconciliation in the region; if all officials were working like prosecutors’ offices in the region, which are closely cooperating, there would be no more political problems at the level of former Yugoslav republics.

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