Kosovo

– in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 17th December 2003.

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Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey 3:30 pm, 17th December 2003

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the subject of missing persons in Kosovo.

As with so many things, the issue was brought to my attention by a constituent who came to my surgery. He had been involved for many years with the charity Hope and Aid Direct, which delivers materials and goods to Kosovo. Over the years, he has naturally become attached to some of the families that he has met. It was because he was so obviously emotional about the subject that I thought that it was worthy of a little more attention than a standard letter to the Minister and my thinking that I had discharged my duty by doing that.

The basic problem is this: the Office of Missing Persons and Forensics—that is a bit of a mouthful, so I shall now refer to it as the OMPF—which is a part of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, stated on 12 November that there are 3,638 missing people in Kosovo, of whom 2,842 are believed to be Albanian. There are also about 1,000 missing Serbians.

I do not know whether the figures are entirely accurate, because I gather that the number of missing persons changes almost daily as previously unidentified remains are identified, the fate of those missing persons is established and, from time to time, new cases are reported. I understand that the number of remains exhumed and not identified is approaching the number of missing persons. The main problem appears to be that the pace with which bodies are returned is extremely slow. Obviously, people want to know what has happened to their loved ones and without proof of their fate many people cannot properly move on in their lives.

According to a statement published by Amnesty International in August, the OMPF's current priorities are

"the exhumation and examination of grave sites, and the return of positively identified bodies to their families for burial".

As most of the work on the former has been more or less completed, unless more sites are found, clearly the emphasis should be on identification.

On 8 May, the first group of remains that were identified using DNA analysis were handed over. The bodies are handed over to UNMIK at the administrative border between Serbia and Kosovo. The bodies had been identified, but were then handed over to the OMPF for further forensic examination, and even then the families had to wait until 1 August before they were able to bury friends and relatives. At that time, the families had been waiting for the first release of bodies for four years after the war had ended, and only 37 were released at that stage. Recently—early in December—there was a further handover of bodies, when another 44 were released.

The handing over of bodies in dribs and drabs is adding to the anguish felt by those families. I am told that each release has the effect of reawakening some of the old tensions. I may be wrong, but I am told that a lot of people go to the site where the bodies are released to check whether anybody they know or any family member is there. If not, it adds to the anguish. That may not be the situation, but that is the way it has been put to me, and I should be interested to receive clarification from the Minister if possible.

To date, only 157 bodies have been returned to their families. It would be in the best interests of everyone if the process was speeded up in some way. Last week, my constituent and I met a couple of officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The meeting was useful, but worryingly, it was apparent that no one really understood why all the bodies had not been transferred and what had caused the delay. I am pleased that officials undertook to try to establish where the blockages in the system are, the reason for them and any possible solutions. I therefore hope that the Minister will enlighten us further, but I understand that, because of staff changes, that might not be possible.

In order to understand why feelings are running so high, it is worth putting the matter in its historical context. Many of the bodies were originally found in mass graves. One of the most famous locations is Batajnica, where some of the graves contained as many as 300 bodies. The bodies were exhumed and examined, and the initial task was to try to establish the cause of death. The process included taking many photographs to help identification and gathering bone samples that could be used for subsequent DNA analysis. Much of that work took place more than a year ago. It is believed that the bodies in Batajnica were victims of atrocities committed in the Kosovo conflict two years earlier. The "clean-up", as it is sometimes referred to, is understood to have been organised by Slobodan Milosevic's officials to destroy evidence of the widespread massacres that Serbian forces committed in Kosovo in 1999.

Prior to that, a refrigerated lorry was discovered. It was pulled out of the Danube at Kladovo in eastern Serbia in April 1999. The Serbian Government tried to hush up the story, but the news spread very quickly as it was the first known incidence of Serbian atrocities. Admittedly, the Serbian Government set up a working group to investigate the matter, but that investigation met with only limited success. Several similar incidents followed, but according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Serbian Interior Ministry under Milosevic is believed to have blocked all investigations into the first lorry load of corpses.

Milivoje Srzentic, the prosecutor from Negotin, said that he asked the state prosecutor at the time why no investigation was taking place. Majstorovic apparently answered, "Because nothing has happened." It has since been reported that Vlajko Stojiljkovic, who was Milosevic's Interior Minister, and Vlastimir Djordjevic, then chief of public security, instructed the district chief of police to refrain from launching any investigation. They ordered him to transfer the bodies to Belgrade and the case was declared a state secret. However, evidence to The Hague tribunal shows that the day after the discovery of the lorry on 7 April 1999, the corpses were taken by truck to the police training compound in Petrovo Selo in eastern Serbia and destroyed by 30 kg of explosives.

The director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, Natasa Kandic, condemned the affair as a heinous crime. She believes that the people in the freezer lorry were likely to have been on the list of Albanians who had been missing since the Kosovo conflict, and she has called for an investigation into the removal of evidence. She stated that there were serious indications that the Serbian police and the Yugoslav army jointly destroyed evidence of atrocities committed against Kosovo Albanians during the NATO bombardment.

An investigation by Kandic concluded that between 24 March and 12 June 1999, the bodies of at least 800 murdered Albanians were transported from their initial burial sites to secret locations in Kosovo and Serbia, where the corpses were then burned or reburied. I stress that we are talking not just about active young men, but about old people, women and children. After the conflict, the Yugoslav army launched an investigation into the conduct of 245 soldiers. Charges for crimes were brought against 183 of them, but none of them related to the more high-profile cases—including those involving refrigerated lorries. Officers in the new regime and new members of the judiciary were expected to comment on the freezer lorry affair, but the Serbian Justice Minister and the Police Minister both declined to do so.

In May 2001, the Serbian Interior Ministry announced that a special police investigative unit had been set up to investigate the case under the guidance of Dragan Karleusa. Hopes were high that the names of those involved in the apparent cover-up would be revealed in days. Karleusa told a press conference at the end of May 2001 that his team had established that a working meeting was held in Slobodan Milosevic's office in March 1999 and that at that meeting Milosevic had ordered the then Interior Minister to take measures to cover up all traces of the crimes.

The working group questioned several police generals, but all of them denied involvement in or knowledge of the mass graves. Karleusa has not said whether efforts were made to interrogate Colonel Zivko Trajkovic, the Serbian SAJ police commander who was in command of the Batajnica and Petrovo Selo bases in which the mass graves had been discovered. Sadly, since those statements were made, some time ago, no arrests have been made, no charges have been pressed and the police force has turned a deaf ear to most questions asked. Understandably, there is a great deal of anger that the issues do not appear to have been adequately investigated, and the fact that the identification issues are still rumbling on is not helping matters.

It is known that the authorities can move swiftly when it suits them. It might be useful to point out the case of the Bitici brothers, Albanians who happened to have American citizenship. They were each sentenced to 15 days in prison for illegally entering Yugoslavia. They served their sentence but a year later their bodies were discovered in one of the two mass graves at a police training camp at Petrovo Selo. The bodies were wrapped in wire, there were blinds over their eyes, they had head wounds and they had clearly been shot. They were discovered on 8 July 2001 and their identity was determined very quickly, by August 2001. They were identified by FBI pathologists working at the Belgrade forensic institute, so admittedly they were part of a different system.

However, it is worth mentioning the speed of identification of those bodies in order to highlight the fact that the delays are not due to science. If suitable samples are available for cross-referencing—these are usually obtained easily—there is no scientific reason why the identification of the bodies is taking so long. Indeed, this week, Saddam Hussein was positively identified within 24 hours, so identification is not always a prolonged process. All of this leads people to believe that the reasons for the delay are political. Allegations have been made that the bodies are being used as bargaining counters in some macabre political game. That is the nub of the issue, and it is what concerns me most.

I have visited Kosovo as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Part of the reason for that visit was to witness the role of the British Army in peacekeeping. I visited at an interesting time, because the Queen's Royal Lancers were handing over their chunk of the country to a Czech peacekeeping unit. The different reactions of the public to the British and Czech soldiers were fascinating. It was very clear to me that some of the tensions in Kosovo are bubbling dangerously close to the surface.

As a result of that visit, I am aware of the great capability that the British forces have in providing the necessary infrastructure wherever they are. They are probably second to none in that respect, as I hope the Minister agrees. Even though there are now fewer troops in Kosovo, it strikes me that there is a great deal of expertise.

Clearly, the first step is to establish through UNMIK the precise reasons for the delay. In some respects, it is difficult to suggest what to do next if one does not know the reason. If the reason turns out to be infrastructure limitations, I would urge the Minister to try to use the resources that I have mentioned to provide the facilities to clear the backlog of bodies quickly. It could be that the delay is due to human resources, so it might be helpful to try to establish how long the process of identification takes for any particular individual, because I appreciate that with mass graves there is some sample contamination.

It might be helpful to come up with a clear timetable showing how many bodies can be released and by when so that expectations are not unduly raised and are managed positively. I ask the Minister to consider whether there is any expertise that we can lend to speed up the process and what could be done in that direction. The bigger picture is that Kosovo is a country that we went to war with for real humanitarian purposes, and so much has been done there already that this request seems almost like a drop in the ocean; but to the families, many of whom will be facing a fifth Christmas without their loved ones, the resources would be well spent, and very timely.

There might be fears that once the bodies were returned there would be immense political pressure to identify the perpetrators of the crimes. That may well be so, and I can understand that, but I sincerely hope that that is not being used as an excuse to duck the issue. It is too late to do anything for this Christmas, but I urge the Minister to do all that he can to ensure that there will not be a sixth Christmas of uncertainty.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 3:45 pm, 17th December 2003

This is an important debate on a fundamental issue, and I am grateful to Sandra Gidley for initiating it. She has visited Kosovo, and she has responded to a constituent much involved in that field of work who has come to see her. It is entirely to her honour as a hard-working constituency Member that she has found time to raise the issue.

The broader subject of forensic pathology and the identification of remains is, tragically, a pressing issue throughout the world. I have visited the forensic pathology laboratory in Guatemala City, which is partly supported by Her Majesty's Government. There, one sees young men and women examining the exhumed skulls and bones of people killed in massacres 20 years ago. I fear that there will be years and years of agony in Iraq as the victims of Saddam Hussein's torture and mass murder are exhumed from the mass graves into which he flung them.

Although not directly germane to that point, it is entirely to Britain's credit that we took the lead in using military force to free the people of Kosovo from the terror that they faced from Milosevic, and that we were prepared to use military force to free the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein—in both cases, of course, without UN authorisation. However, I hope that, after this weekend's discovery, the whole House will unite in backing the Government and the Prime Minister, who showed courage in being prepared to use our authority and military forces in both Kosovo and Iraq to take things forward.

The hon. Lady raised many valid points about the continued suffering of the many families in Kosovo who lost relatives during the 1999 conflict. No one can fail to be moved by the humanitarian catastrophe and the blood shed across the Balkans and in the rest of Europe and our own country in the 1990s, and there can be no hon. Member who has not, in his or her constituency advice surgery, met asylum seekers and others displaced as a result of that violence, which was without parallel in Europe after the second world war.

Since becoming a member of the Government in 2001, I have sought to visit the Balkans regularly, and I am happy to report that each time I am struck by the fact that it feels less and less like a region that has suffered brutal repression and war. Real progress has been and is being made, not just in rebuilding economies, but in the healing and reconciliation process. For example, last week, another war criminal was sentenced for his part in the massacre at Srebrenice. A dialogue was launched between Belgrade and Pristina on 14 October 2003, and that was a key step in beginning the normalisation of the difficult relationship between Kosovan Albanians and the Serbs who live in Kosovo, as well as the Serbian nation and its capital city of Belgrade.

The war is still there, however. It continues for thousands of families who are unable to put the events behind them due to the simple fact that their husbands, sons and daughters were taken away and have never come back. In this country, we have a doctrine of habeas corpus, which we apply to arrests and criminal investigations, but there is also a sense that until families know the location of the body of a missing person to whom they were close, and until there is a body to grieve over, they are trapped in the continual emotional torment of wondering, "What if my son, my father or my uncle is still alive?" That is the tragic situation faced by many families from all ethnic groups and communities throughout the Balkans.

From the moment that the UN entered Kosovo in June 1999 and established its mission, UNMIK, it has been a key priority to try to find those who went missing in the conflict. That was never going to be an easy task, and until 2000 it was made more difficult by the fact that Milosevic was still in power in Belgrade. After the fall of Milosevic, UNMIK set up a dedicated Office of Missing Persons and Forensics to pool the expertise of those working on the task in Kosovo. The OMPF is creating a combined database of statistics and files on missing persons from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, the International Committee of the Red Cross and police data. It also has an outreach office in Belgrade to facilitate closer co-operation with the Belgrade authorities.

The scale of the issue is immense. In June 1999, the UN estimated that 6,000 people of all ethnicities were missing as a result of the conflict in Kosovo. The latest version of the consolidated list of missing persons, issued by the OMPF on 9 December, states that 3,638 are still reported missing.

Missing persons is one of the most highly politicised and deeply divisive issues in post-conflict Kosovo. Obtaining accurate information about the location of mass graves is a problem. The wounds from the conflict are still very raw—we are only four years on from it. The hon. Lady referred to the tension that she could feel as one contingent of national troops replaced another. I have experienced that, too. There is still a sense of two communities finding it difficult to live in peace with each other.

It is possible that those who have information are afraid or unwilling to pass it on to the authorities. We therefore need to assist UNMIK and what is called its pillar I, which is responsible for law and order: any witnesses who come forward must be supported. That becomes logistically difficult if entire families have to be moved outside Kosovo. That is why we must work with the UN and the Kosovo provisional institutions of self-government—the PISG, in the jargon—to build a safe and secure environment in Kosovo so that all its citizens feel protected.

A credible local police service is an important contribution to that. I have had the pleasure of meeting serving UK police officers in Pristina who are helping to train and lead the new Kosovan police service: 122 of our police officers are attached to UNMIK. That is an important British contribution to this work.

There is also the issue of the identification and return of remains to Kosovo. Progress has been made, but UNMIK and Belgrade have more to do on that. In 2000, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported the existence of 4,392 bodies from the conflict in Kosovo. Since then, another 150 bodies have been found. So far, 4,019 bodies have been exhumed and 2,212 have been identified. In addition, approximately 800 bodies have been exhumed from the mass graves at Batajnica and Petrovo Selo in Serbia, the majority of which are unidentified, but 157 of those that have been identified have been returned to Kosovo.

The creation of the International Commission on Missing Persons for the Former Yugoslavia was announced long ago—at the G7 summit in Lyon in France in 1996. However, delays in this process cause great distress to families waiting for news. There are harrowing descriptions of relatives arriving on the border with Serbia to try to find their relatives among the unnamed bodies returned to Kosovo. No one should have to go through that sort of trauma, but no one should have to suffer civil war either.

The hon. Lady asked why the bodies exhumed in Serbia cannot be returned to Kosovo more quickly. In fact, bodies need to be identified and returned not only in Belgrade, but in Kosovo. There have been long delays in returning the remains of loved ones who have been identified, which cause huge distress for the families. I confirm that as a priority I am asking our embassy in Belgrade and our mission in Pristina to call upon the ICMP and the OMPF to raise that. I have not yet received responses, but I assure the hon. Lady that I shall maintain pressure and write to her when I hear of developments.

A key obstacle to the process is the fact that the Serbian police did not begin to discover or exhume the mass graves in Serbia until March 2001, with the arrival of a reforming Government in Belgrade after the ousting of Milosevic. Further delays have arisen over the best way to identify the remains. Should one use traditional forensic techniques or DNA testing? DNA testing relies on matching the DNA of a family member with that of a victim. Post-mortem and ante-mortem data, such as physical characteristics, clothing and location, can provide crucial circumstantial information, which makes finding DNA matches easier.

That has now been resolved, and the ICMP and UNMIK signed a memorandum of understanding on 26 November 2003. I hope that we now move forward, and, in passing, I pay tribute to Mr. Portillo, who has been heavily involved with other organisations working in the field of forensics and in identifying victims of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Is there a problem with the fact that the identification process has to be carried out twice—once in Serbia, and once when the remains are returned to Kosovo? The difficulty is that the OMPF would not be complying with its formal obligations to co-operate with war crimes prosecutors if it did not carry out a forensic examination to determine the true cause of death. However, we must look again to see whether we can have one examination rather than two.

The next question is: why are not all the exhumed remains returned en masse from Serbia to Kosovo? I am told that one reason is that if the bodies were returned to Kosovo en masse before identification, there would be greater delays in their return to their families because the local capacity for identifying remains would be further overloaded. Indeed, those of us who visit Kosovo from time to time see that the state administration is limited in what it can do.

Since taking up ministerial office and during my visits to Belgrade and Pristina, I have regularly raised the issue of missing persons and returns. Most recently, I visited in April this year. I spoke to the families of Serbian missing persons in Belgrade, and I had extensive discussions with Prime Minister Rexhepi of the Kosovan provisional Administration.

The international community has to take the issue seriously. It is true that the Serbian Government have exposed to their people what Milosevic had done in Serbia's name during the Kosovo conflict. That came as a shock to many Serbians, who had been genuinely unaware of the scale of the attacks on Kosovar Albanians. I do not think that the Government were using the bodies that were discovered politically—as in Iraq, it is important that we understand the crimes with which people are being charged.

The UK Government have so far provided £750,000 to organisations working to locate and identify persons missing as a result of the armed conflicts in the Balkans. We will continue to play close attention to the matter, and I invite the hon. Lady to stay in contact with me on this issue on behalf of her constituents. I congratulate her again on placing this matter in the record of the House of Commons. It will be of great interest and perhaps some comfort that she is a champion of the families in Kosovo and Serbia who are seeking to come to terms with the great losses that they have suffered.