Albanian and Serb unite in search for the missing


Divided by ethnicity and politics, two residents of Mitrovica find common ground in efforts to locate missing relatives.

By Ivana Jovanovic and Safet Kabashaj for Southeast European Times in Belgrade and Pristina -- 24/08/13


A display in Pristina shows photos of people missing since the conflict of the late 1990s. [Nikola Barbutov/SETimes]

Bajram Cerkini and Milorad Trifunovic live in the divided Kosovo city of Mitrovica -- Cerkini in the Albanian southern portion and Trifunovic in the Serbian north.

While they are separated by the bridge over the Ibar River, they are united in their search for family members who have been missing since the conflict of the late 1990s.

In spite of the many issues dividing Belgrade and Pristina over the status of northern Kosovo, the two men -- Albanian and Serb -- joined forces to find out what happened to their relatives.

Their approach has led to joint meetings with local and international authorities in Kosovo, meetings with family members of both camps, the sharing of information and visits to suspected mass grave sites.

Trifunovic, 65, escaped from the predominantly Albanian town of Vucitrn to Mitrovica in 1999. The father of four daughters and seven grandchildren worked as a mechanical engineer in the Elektrokosovo power plant until 1999. Now he leads the Association of Families of Kidnapped and Missing Persons in Kosovo and Methohija.

Cerkini is in his 70s. His son, Reshat, was 28 when he was abducted in Mitrovica with seven other Albanians in August of 1998. A retired mining worker, Cerkini has three other children and is desperately advocating to discover the fate of his son and other missing people in Kosovo.

Trifunovic’s brother Miroslav disappeared in 1998 at the age of 33 along with nine of his colleagues from the Belacevac open pit mine.

"We have some information [that] he has been kidnapped, imprisoned and killed by the KLA, but this is only speculation," Trifunovic told SETimes.

Cerkini and Trifunovic met three years ago in Norway during an International Commission on Missing Persons conference for five Albanian and five Serb associations.

"We didn't even talk in the airplane at that moment, but shortly after we decided to start working together on this painful issue for both of us and all of us. Our first idea was to gather together Albanian and Serbian mothers who lost their children, but we couldn’t manage this at that moment but continued working," Trifunovic said.

Cerkini was a panellist at the conference, and his words proved to be an inspiration for everyone in attendance, including Trifunovic.

"I appealed not to see us through ethnic lines, but instead only as family members of the missing, like people that have the same pains and concerns, the same objectives and demands: to understand what has happened with our lovers ones," Cerkini told SETimes. "At that moment Trifunovic approached me, and since we have been everywhere together, and we are jointly working for the common cause, the fate of the missing."

"We realized that it is not possible to do anything alone, and we are trying to reach the truth together now," Trifunovic added. "Together, we are organising meetings with international community representatives, embassies and already we are meeting better understanding, getting better support. They have to help us since they represent countries where human rights are on high level, and even animals have graves. Our brothers and sons deserve graves as well."

Both men agree that their co-operation will have a positive impact for all people in Kosovo.

"If we, who have had such painful losses, are ready to work together, this should be the message for all people here that reconciliation is achievable," Trifunovic said.

"On a personal level we are equal," Cerkini said. "He has a pain as I do, he aims the same as I do, just to reveal the truth of our loved ones."

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Gordana Djukanovic, spokesperson of Association of Families of Kidnapped and Killed in Kosovo, told SETimes that missing persons' families from Belgrade and Pristina work together, as well, and make joint resolutions demanding for Belgrade and Pristina to co-operate on the issue, since their institutional support is crucial.

"A victim is a victim. A mother's pain is a mother's pain, no matter whether her name is Marica or Shpresa. The process of reconciliation is slow but achievable. We couldn't even see each other 10-plus years ago, but it is not the case anymore. We made a link, but our institutions and international community should support us in order to help our efforts," Djukanovic said.

Their next joint step is to send an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, seeking to accelerate international efforts to seriously tackle the issue of more than 1,750 missing people in Kosovo.

What actions should Belgrade and Pristina take to assist in the search for missing people? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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