Interview with Natasa Kandic, Director, Humanitarian Law Center, on the occasion of the launch of a book about victims in Kosovo, 1998-2000
There Will Be No More Nameless Victims
The Kosovo Memory Book: 1998-2000 is an exceptional work in many ways. For the first time in the history of the Balkans, a group of humanitarians, from the Humanitarian Law Center’s research and professional teams, managed to collect, research and gather into a single grand document, a living, indestructible monument the names and lives of all those who were killed, injured or forcibly disappeared in Kosovo from early 1998 until the end of 2000. And yet, this book is not a mere list of war crimes victims or an impersonal statistical record listing the individuals killed in one way or another, over this period. Hence, behind the cold statistic of 2,046 lives lost in Kosovo in 1998, the first thing one notices, is that these are individuals, rather than members of nations or military formations. Readers will see sketches of these mostly ordinary, yet individual lives, violently cut short by the tragic circumstances in Kosovo. When over the course of the next year the remaining three volumes of this project are released, about ten thousand dead and missing persons in Kosovo will have been saved from oblivion.
The subtitle of this volume reads: Let people remember the people! What do you want to achieve with this project? What does The Kosovo Memory Book mean to you?
Our goal is to end the Balkan practice of nameless victims and human losses, and to influence the creation of an historical memory, founded on real victims. The first volume of The Kosovo Memory Book takes us back to the recent past through the lives and fates of people who differ from one another by ethnicity, language, and by whether and in what way they bore arms. This document narrows the possibility for lies, exaggeration, and attempts to play down the number of victims and the total number of human losses. Each record in the book is verifiable, and that is the source of its strength and credibility. There is no commentary, no judging of anyone, but the data alone speaks for itself. We invite the public to remember all those who lost their lives, and to remember the circumstances under which lives were lost.
The book seems unique in that it neither emphasizes nor divides the dead along national or any other lines.
At first glance, the book is a record of names with short narratives about the lives the people lost in the war. A more careful reading reveals the cause, the context and circumstances in which a person was killed, died in the fighting or disappeared. We took special care that each record contains sufficient information on the circumstances of death and the status of those who died. The book clearly distinguish civilian from military losses, as well as victims of war crimes from veterans and soldiers killed in combat.
Have there been objections that the methodology you used equates “victims with criminals,” “defenders with aggressors”?
Three years ago, when we began verifying the information we had collect over the past years, we often heard, both from Serbian and Albanian families, how they do not want “their victims to mix with the enemy.” Over time, the families have softened their position. I would say that the RECOM process, which involved a number of victims’ families, helped to reduce tensions among them, especially the families of missing persons. Perhaps it made them realize that all victims are indeed equal, while differences exist in criminal and civil liability. The first volume begins with the municipality of Decani and the name of a deceased Serb. The families accept this because they understand that in creating the list, we arranged the municipalities in alphabetical order, and then within each municipality we presented the killings and disappearances in date order.
This work emerged as a result of cooperation between the Humanitarian Law Center and the Humanitarian Law Center of Kosovo, of which you are one of the founders. How did this cooperation work?
The HLC has had a branch office in Pristina /Prishtinë since 1996, in which Albanian and Serbian researchers worked together until March 1999. In June 1999, the office resumed its operation: at that time, it was the only office in Kosovo where the Serbian language was spoken. Immediately after the war, the office was managed by Kosovare Kelmendi, the daughter of the most famous Albanian lawyer, who had been killed with his two sons on the first night of the NATO bombing. The murderers have not been brought to justice. Since 2002, Bekim Blakaj has been in charge. Bekim was a Belgrade student during the NATO bombing when, together with a group of Albanian students, he was arrested and served a year and a half in prison. Allegedly, the group conspired to poison the Belgrade water system. Since April this year, the HLC in Kosovo has been an independent organization: HLC-Kosovo. The Kosovo Memory Book is the result of cooperation between these two organizations, about 30 researchers and 8 analysts. Bekim Blakaj and Sandra Orlovic manage and coordinate the research, while the analysts process the evidence and write records. The work was hard, but we forgot the problems and difficulties as soon as the book was launched on September 7 in Pristina /Prishtinë, and the day after in Belgrade.
While searching for the truth, you managed to connect the Serbian and Albanian families, and their associations, who have been looking for their dead and missing. What is their view of The Kosovo Memory Book?
In my view, the book is a great achievement. We managed to connect the victims, and to obtain the support of their families. The book promotion in Pristina /Prishtinë was held in the presence of some two hundred family members, who all genuinely welcomed its publication. The Belgrade promotion went well too. Not a single political official showed up, but the family members spoke plainly and with respect for Albanian victims. All this is a result of the RECOM process, where the families of missing persons and other victims learn to listen and respect each other, to empathize.
What does the classification of the 1998 victims look like? I suppose that war crimes victims are by far the most numerous?
The suffering of Albanian victims unfolded according to a recognizable pattern. First, the military shelled a village; the ethnic Albanian population fled; the police showed up – namely, members of the Special Police Unit – and plundered and killed. They showed no mercy for women, children or the elderly. As many as 100 people would be killed in the shelling, while on the run or in the woods where they were hiding. In 1998 alone, 1,100 Albanian civilians were killed. In the same year, 340 Serbs, Roma and Bosniaks were killed, of whom 174 were civilians. People who weren’t fighting in the war were getting killed. The KLA took revenge on Serbian and Roma civilians for the terror carried out by the Serbian police and army.
From these condensed descriptions of the lives and deaths of real people, on all 446 pages of The Kosovo Memory Book, there are stories of wide-ranging, uncontrolled violence. The police elements that stand out are the 37th Detachment of the Special Police Unit (PJP), the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ), the Special Operations Unit (JSO)… The KLA doesn’t seem any less brutal, does it?
The book offers an insight into a vast amount of material and evidence about the war in Kosovo, about military and police forces, but also about the activities of the KLA. Horrific murders were committed in the wars in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in Kosovo they had a different dimension. For Serbian policemen, Albanians were not human beings. The police were allowed to kill them, and to plunder and burn down Albanian houses. Serbian peasants in Kosovo paid a high price for the actions of their arrogant and brutal state.
What was your role in this project?
My task was to define the research methodology and, after the analysts and Project Coordinators had written the narratives about the victims, I reviewed, corrected and approved the final version of the entire record. Three more volumes are yet to be published.
In your opinion, how will the book be read and interpreted in future?
The Kosovo Memory Book should serve as a bridge between Serbs and Albanians, a bridge to a different future. For the first time in their respective histories, a Serbian and an Albanian human rights organization will together have recorded the most reliable evidence of what had happened to Albanians and Serbs. Sometimes I like to say jokingly that we are the only ones who managed to stay together, committed to establishing the facts about war crimes and the past. During the NATO bombing, our mixed ethnic composition confused the Serbian military officers, which is why they let me cross over to Serbia together with my Albanian partners. In Gnjilane, the soldiers at the checkpoint were shocked to find out that two Serbs were in the car with three Albanians. I think they envied us.
Will this project continue within the RECOM project? Will there be a Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian … Yugoslav Memory Book 1991-2000?
Two years ago, we began to research the human losses of Serbia and Montenegro in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. That document, too, just like The Kosovo Memory Book, is our contribution to RECOM. With these documents, the establishment of RECOM, which will be tasked with compiling a list of all casualties in the Yugoslav wars, will have proven to meet a real social need.