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‘A fate worse than death itself’: Women seek the remains of loved ones in the former Yugoslavia

In the languages of the former Yugoslavia “suza” means “tear.” And in the more than 20 years that have passed since the end of the wars that dismantled the country in the 1990s, it seems that there is one, very last tear that many mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters cannot shed until the mortal remains of their closest kin are found, identified, and properly buried. Despite the decades that have passed, there are some 10,700 individuals still unaccounted for, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There is a fate worse than death itself: that of not knowing the final resting place of your loved one,” said Dragana Djukic, president of an organization called Suza, which assists families of missing and deceased people from Serbia.

Some of the most affected and underreported victims of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995 and again in 1999) are, by the nature of war, mostly women whose loved ones are still missing. Remains are likely to be found in mass graves, based on earlier findings. However, until a death is confirmed, many women spend their days in waiting, alternating between a slim hope that their missing relative will return home and the hope that there will be a positive identification of their mortal remains. For many years, these women have not been able to go on with their lives. They have not been able to marry again, move to a new place. Even planning a future has felt like betraying their missing relatives.

Volunteers assist the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons’ search for remains at Lake Perucac, on the Bosnia/Serbia border, in 2010. (Velija Hasanbegovic)

Dragana Djukic knows this firsthand. She was in the seventh grade when, in 1991, her family had to leave their home in the town of Gradiska, present-day Croatia, and take refuge in the village of Okucani, which was then under Serbian control. In 1995, they fled again when the Croatian army reclaimed the town. Her father was taken to a detention camp and her older brother, Dragan Vujancevic, who was at that time 17, went missing. Her father returned home after 28 days as part of a prisoner exchange. He had been severely beaten and had broken limbs, but at least, said Dragana, he was alive. At the time, the family heard rumors about the death of Dragan, but they were not able to confirm the story, let alone find his body.

“My father passed away very soon after my brother went missing, and since the day my brother went missing, my mother started wearing black clothes—a sign that she is in deep mourning,” said Dragana. “It remained so until the day she died.” She added that her mother, until the very end, held on to the hope that maybe her son was still alive, perhaps in captivity somewhere.

Immediately after the wars, the names and general information of the missing people were printed by the ICRC in what are known as the “Books of Missing Persons.” At the same time, associations of relatives of missing people throughout the region started publishing bulletins and posters with names of unaccounted-for family members and their photographs. These books and the bulletins were a primary way of looking for relatives. Over the years, as various editions of the original books were published, they became thinner with each edition; today some 30 percent of the original number of people is still unaccounted for.

According to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a global organization based in The Netherlands established specifically to aid in the identification process after the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, an estimated 40,000 persons went missing as a consequence of those wars. Currently, there are roughly 18 associations similar to Suza that provide assistance to the families of missing people from Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia. The associations of missing people would like all missing cases to be resolved as quickly as possible. It has been more than 20 years since the end of the wars, and it is widely believed that authorities from all sides know the location of burial areas—but are not revealing them for political reasons.

Paralleling the “Books of Missing Persons,” in an attempt to assist in identifying remains that were often discovered in mass graves or unmarked cemetery plots, or were taken out of rivers into which they were thrown, the ICRC has published several “Books of Belongings.” These books feature photographs of personal items such as sneakers, T-shirts, or rings that were found near the bodies. The hope has been that by identifying the objects, which are also available for the further inspection, family members could get one step closer toward finding the truth.

“It is very painful to look through the ‘Book of Belongings,’” said Dragana, adding that the same goes for looking though photographs of unidentified remains. In order to minimize the possibility of error, the photos were carefully examined by her sister and her brother’s fiancée. They saw what they believed to be her brother’s T-shirt, socks, and a watch. Still, they were not able to say that with certainty.

According to Dragana, this identification technique worked well for some family members, especially immediately after the war, but many needed the ultimate proof—matching DNA. Since the wars, family members may have moved to different countries while continuing to look for their family members’ mortal remains, thus DNA identification depends on political cooperation between sides that were formerly at war. Through Suza, Serbia-based families are looking for their missing relatives in Croatia, and they are far from happy with the process. Some believe the Croatians have been delaying the identification process on purpose. “It all depends on political will,” Dragana said.

Her personal experience confirms something she’s heard from many family members, regardless of their ethnicity or which side they were on during the wars: “This tragedy is so deep,” she said, “that we cannot possibly talk about winners and losers.”

It took 16 years for Dragana’s family to get a positive DNA match from the Croatian Institute for Forensic Medicine and Criminology, in Zagreb. This led to the identification of Dragan’s remains and, finally, to a much-needed service and funeral. Very soon after that, Dragana’s mother died. She was 61, and some people believed that what had kept her alive was a mother’s need to find her son.

In the macabre absurdity of the Balkan wars, Dragana considers herself to be, in a way, lucky. There are still mothers, sisters, wives, and children who are anxiously waiting for the results of identification. At least now, Dragana said, she can starting looking toward the future and help others with her full strength.


(C) 2017 Women Under Siege

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