Truth Commission Activists Plan Yugoslav ‘Book of the Dead’

Truth Commission Activists Plan Yugoslav ‘Book of the Dead’
BalkanInsight_logoThe Coalition for RECOM, which is campaigning to establish a regional truth commission for the Yugoslav wars, is working to create the first full list of all those killed in the Balkan conflicts from 1991 to 2001.

The names of all the victims have not yet been included in the map because the research is unfinished, but Vesna Terselic, director of the Zagreb-based organisation Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past, said that is hard to continue without the support of governments.

“By refusing to create a joint commission [RECOM], the governments of the post-Yugoslav countries have made another political mistake. We think that the nominal list of victims cannot be abandoned. It is about taking charge of and assuming the responsibility for seeing this task through to the end,” Terselic told BIRN.

Past promises by some governments to commit to establishing RECOM have so far come to nothing.

Representatives of Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia were supposed to sign a declaration on the establishment of RECOM at the Western Balkans Summit in London in July 2018. But the signing ceremony was unexpectedly cancelled because the Coalition for RECOM did not receive official statements from the four governments confirming that they would participate.

The failure came despite urging from the European Commission, which said in its February 2019 strategy document on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans that governments must “unequivocally commit, in both word and deed, to overcoming the legacy of the past” if their countries are to make progress towards membership of the bloc.

Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also not committed themselves to supporting the establishment of the truth commission.

“I think the political support for the initiative to name all the victims, which is the goal of the initiative for RECOM, changed according to the political situation. But we expect to compile the regional list of all war victims in former Yugoslavia,” said Natasa Kandic, the founder of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Serbia does not accept some of the rulings of the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY as grounds for establishing the facts about war victims. For example, it does not recognise the ICTY’s classification of the Srebrenica massacres as genocide.

Slovenia meanwhile considers that there were no civilian war victims on its territory and so there is no basis for its involvement in RECOM. The brief, so-called ‘ten-day war’ that followed Slovenia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991 resulted in over 60 soldiers’ deaths.

‘Each country cares mostly about its own victims’

The Coalition for RECOM started gathering signatures of support for the initiative in 2011 in all the capital cities of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, as well as online.

It set out to get a million signatures, and so far over 700,000 people have put their names to its petition.

Terselic said that the coalition has capable researchers but not enough funds.

“Long-running research and documenting of human losses requires a lot of effort, cooperation and support,” she noted.

The coalition aims to step up the process by involving at least 100 organisations from local communities and academic institutions in its investigatory work to expand its existing database.

Terselic said that after the closure of the ICTY, which documented thousands of victims before it shut down at the end of 2017, it is important to make an additional step towards establishing the facts about the conflicts.

“Regional cooperation in this regard is growing weaker and weaker. There is insufficient solidarity with all victims because each country cares mostly about victims from its own group. But we are trying to establish the identities and circumstances of the deaths of all victims, regardless of their ethnicity,” Terselic said.

The ICTY has established beyond doubt the identities of at least 18,000 war victims and the forces responsible for the deaths, while domestic courts in various countries have established the identities of around 2,000 more victims.

Documenta in Zagreb has established the identities and circumstances of death of at least 7,000 victims of the war in Croatia, while the Humanitarian Law Centre Serbia has established the identities and circumstances of death of 1,100 more in the Croatian war.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Research and Documentation Centre, in cooperation with other NGOs, has gathered data on 96,000 victims of the Bosnian war and documented more than 1,000 detention sites where more than 100,000 civilians were detained and tortured.

Meanwhile the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo and the Humanitarian Law Centre Serbia have registered over 13,500 victims of the Kosovo war and has verified the identities and circumstances of death of at least 8,000 of them.

Bekim Blakaj, the head of the Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo, told BIRN that additional information is also being gathered on thousands of victims killed in the immediate aftermath of the Kosovo war.

“We are verifying data pertaining to the circumstances of the deaths of around 5,500 victims from 1999 to 2000,” Blakaj said.