More than 30,000 people killed, 2 million people expelled

Omer Karabeg (Radio Free Europe): We are talking with Nataša Kandić of the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Centre and Vesna Teršelić of the Zagreb NGO the Documenta Centre for Dealing with the Past. In September last year, activists of the RECOM Initiative sent the presidents of all the states in the territory of the former Yugoslavia RECOM postcards asking them to launch an official procedure for setting up a Regional Commission for establishing the facts about the war crimes. What was the presidents’ reaction?

Nataša Kandić: We carried out a brief enquiry of our own. We called the offices of the presidents of the states in the region to find out about their reactions. Macedonian President Ivanov responded by immediately calling Professor Biljana Vankovska, the RECOM Initiative representative in Macedonia. In Belgrade, we were told that President Nikolić had understood that the postcards were presents. Zagreb informed us that President Josipović had read the postcards. That was all we were able to find out. There were no reactions to the contents of the RECOM postcards. All this shows that our high-ranking politicians are not used to communicating with ordinary people, that in general they do not react to messages from the citizens.
Omer Karabeg: What is the Croatian government’s attitude to RECOM?
Vesna Teršelić: The government remains reserved. The questions we keep putting to it remain unanswered. However, the support we are receiving from President Josipović, who has upheld the initiative to establish RECOM on several occasions, is of exceptional importance.
Omer Karabeg: Ms. Teršelić, you said in an interview that RECOM should produce a large book of the dead containing the full names of all those who were killed as from 1991, as well as of all who are listed as missing. You said that the circumstances of their deaths should also be established. Would that be possible?
Vesna Teršelić: It would be possible, above all because substantial research has already been carried out. It has been carried out by civil society organizations such as the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo, the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade and Pristina, and our Centre for Dealing with the Past – Documenta, which has been documenting crimes in Croatia. Much information has also been collected by government services and scientific institutions. I think that all the governments in the region have the responsibility to make public through RECOM the full names of the killed and missing persons, as well as the circumstances of the crimes in question. They owe this above all to the victims, but also to each of us. Every citizen of a post-Yugoslav country is entitled to access to such information. As to the numbers, we are unfortunately still talking about estimates; however, I believe that we can say with a fair degree of certainty that more than 130,000 people were killed or went missing.
Nataša Kandić: How did we arrive at this number of some 130,000 killed or missing? In Bosnia and Herzegovina 69,000 lost their lives, and in Croatia about 11,000 Croats and between 6,000 and 7,000 Serbs. As regards Serbia, which, according to what its late president used to say, was not at war – some 1,600 citizens of Serbia and Montenegro lost their lives on the territory of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. With respect to Kosovo, 13,500 people were killed there between January 1998 and the end of December 2000 during the armed conflict and shortly afterwards. About 250 people were killed in the war in Macedonia in 2001 and about 50 members of the former JNA [Yugoslav People’s Army] and the Slovenian Territorial Defence were killed on the territory of Slovenia at the outbreak of the war.
Omer Karabeg: Are there any approximate figures regarding the number of expelled and displaced persons?
Nataša Kandić: What is certain is that at least two million people no longer live at their old addresses. There has been somelocal relocation, people having moved from one village to another. All things considered, my estimate is that there are about two million displaced persons, including over 600,000 who have left the territory of the former Yugoslavia for good and are now living abroad – in Europe, America, Australia, other continents.
Omer Karabeg: The ICTY has the largest archives for war crimes committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Would RECOM take over those archives after the closure of the ICTY?
Nataša Kandić: All the evidence on which the sentences of the ICTY are based is available on the Internet. It can be used by researchers, historians, political scientists, sociologists. We at the Humanitarian Law Centre also make use of the ICTY archives available on the Internet. This is terribly important, because we would never have obtained this information from our state institutions. The Humanitarian Law Centre had for years been asking the state institutions of Serbia for documentation concerning the disposition, movement and presence of particular military and police units in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia – and we never received any. The unvarying explanation was that all that had been destroyed in the NATO air raids, but then we found all those documents on the ICTY website. There is one part of the archives, namely the archives of the ICTY Office of the Prosecutor, which has not been used in the trial proceedings and which contains very important information that could be misused should it fall into the wrong hands. I am referring, above all, to the documents and information provided by individuals who wanted to help the ICTY but who insisted that they should never be made public and, in particular, that they should not be allowed to come into the possession of the states they came from. So far no decision has been taken as to what to do with those archives of the Office of the Prosecutor; but in any case they must not be returned to the countries from which the people who supplied the information and documents come, because certain services might be tempted to misuse them for political ends.
Omer Karabeg: The way I see it, you have done the better part of the job and now the ball is in the court of the states – but they are keeping silent. Do you think there will be a breakthrough in 2013 so that RECOM could become officially operational in, say, 2014?
Nataša Kandić: We are not waiting. We keep working on the list of names of those who were killed or went missing in the wars during the 1990s. Civil society has the capacity to do what the Balkan states have never done. For the first time in the history of the Balkans, a list of names of war victims will be drawn up to put an end to the Balkan practice of manipulating the numbers of victims, which have always been inflated or reduced depending on the political interests of those who present them. You cannot manipulate names. It should be remembered that public support for establishing RECOM is beyond dispute and is growing all the time. I was sure that this support would influence political backing for our initiative; however, I was bitterly disappointed to realize that these two kinds of support do not correspond; the fact that people keep signing things, sending RECOM postcards to state presidents, asking questions – has no influence on the politicians whatsoever.
Vesna Teršelić: It will be important to establish RECOM as soon as possible, because much time has passed since the crimes. Too many people have died before receiving any recognition of their suffering. The establishment of RECOM must not be postponed also because too often we see politicians from countries of the former Yugoslavia blaming and accusing each other. For instance, politicians in Croatia still blame Serbia for the 1991 expulsion of Croats, while from Serbia we hear accusations regarding the 1995 exodus of Serbs. In this connection, various figures are bandied about by the different sides, in accordance with what is to their advantage. RECOM will establish the facts and lay the foundation for recognizing the suffering of all the victims. While many of them have not lived to see any penal justice, all expect recognition of their suffering or at least establishment of the facts. That’s why I think that the governments of the post-Yugoslav states owe RECOM to all of us, and to the victims in particular. Whether they will establish it this year or some other year – that’s in the hands of the politicians – the ball is in their court.
Vesna Teršelić: When we published Jedna povijest, više historija a few years ago, the greatest amount of controversy was stirred up by the page bearing two photographs next to each other, the one of defenders returning to Zagreb from Operation Storm and the other of refugees leaving Croatia. According to the information of the High Commissioner for Refugees, just over 132,000 people have returned to Croatia, but only about 48 percent of them permanently. So it seems returns are still a formidable challenge – they have been stopped by the Croatian authorities and the crimes hushed up. All that constitutes the heavy burden of dealing with the past which we in Croatia are still coping with. The interpretations of what happened during Operation Storm vary widely, and we from the NGOs are trying to bring them closer together. The facts about the killed, the missing, the torched villages ought to be established and should not give rise to any debate among us. It would be improper for us to argue about facts. This is why we need RECOM as a joint mechanism for establishing the facts. Without it we can hardly lay the groundwork for building confidence and normalizing relations.
The Books of the Dead and the Memory Books
Nataša Kandić: On 21st January this year, the Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo and the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade will present The Bosnian Book of the Dead. The four-volume book contains the names of 96,000 people who were killed or went missing in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1991 and 1995. It will be the only monument to all those people who lost their lives. All of them are there, there’s no distinction between those who were on this, that or the other side. Incidentally, in September 2001 the Humanitarian Law Centres of Serbia and of Kosovo put out the first volume of The Kosovo Memory Book, containing 2,050 names. The circumstances of the deaths of each man, woman and child are presented along with their names. At present the Centre for Dealing with the Past – Documenta – and the Humanitarian Law Centre are preparing a list of people who were killed in the war in Croatia from 1991 to Operation Storm and afterwards. We will therefore be doing most of the work; it will remain for the states of the former Yugoslavia to establish RECOM, which would verify the facts we have collected and do the most important thing – something we cannot do, namely, ensure public recognition of the victims. Only states have the power to do that. These names will form a bridge linking everybody together. The names are verifiable and that’s something that will be respected by all. I don’t see any problem arising in that connection. What is problematic, however, is how these facts are construed. We don’t think that it lies with RECOM to establish a common truth. Every victim and every family is entitled to their own truth, and that is something no one can alter. What we want to do is bring about understanding of the views of the other person, trying to see things from their point of view – what they are actually seeing, what it was that happened to them which we are not seeing. This is to approximate different truths/ bring different truths closer together, something that can only be achieved through empathy. When that comes about, when there is understanding for the point of view of another person, then dealing with the past will be on the right track. But we cannot achieve that without the state, without the politicians – without the state affixing its seal to what has been accomplished by the NGOs which have been advocating the establishment of RECOM.