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Yugoslavia: Thousands In Kosovo Face Agonizing Wait Over Families' Fate

The postwar excitement in Kosovo is not shared by the thousands of people still awaiting word on the fate of missing family members. Correspondent Alexandra Poolos writes that the wait can be unbearable for survivors, and the process of finding and identifying victims will take a lot of time.

Pristina, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The excitement of postwar life colors many towns in Kosovo. Everywhere, traffic blocks city streets, vendors hawk fruits and vegetables, and children run and shout.

But for those still searching for missing family members, holding daily vigils for word on the fates of their loved ones, time has stood still for months.

Bashkim Krasniqi, a father from the village of Damanek in the Malisheva district, is one of those people. Krasniqi lost five family members in April after they tried to escape their village to come to Pristina.

As he tells the story, the five were stopped by local police and turned back. Serbian police later raided the house, taking the five and 10 others away. All he knows of his family's fate is what a local doctor told him, after she saw police enter the house:

"She [the doctor] told me that there were some people with masks who entered the house with weapons, well-armed. They had a police car. They started to raid the house. And they gathered up the members of the family. After half an hour, she heard some shots. She doesn't know if they were killed or what happened to them."

Krasniqi says he is going crazy with the waiting. He feels powerless to help his missing relatives and only hopes the international community will be able to find them.

Like hundreds of other people in similar situations, Krasniqi's only comfort comes from regular visits to the Humanitarian Law Center in Pristina.

The center searches for missing Kosovars of every ethnicity, employing both Albanian and Serbian lawyers and staff. The Humanitarian Law Center also fights for the release of the 1,500 Kosovar political prisoners in Serbia and visits Serbian jails to find any prisoners whose names may not have been released.

Authorities say finding the missing is no easy task.

Halit Berani of the Council for the Defense of Liberty and Human Rights in Mitrovica says that many of the missing may be in Kosovo's mass graves. But he says that it is very difficult to identity the bodies. Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has exhumed some 20 graves in the Mitrovica area, only 66 bodies have been identified.

"The doctors and pathologists who are working during the examinations, they don't allow anyone to see the bodies until they have finished their job. Pathologists [often] take pieces of clothing or other personal effects, a watch or a key, of the dead and put them on display to see if anyone recognizes them. It's very hard to identify people this way because in many cases, people were wearing the same clothes."

Berani says the problem of identifying bodies is further complicated because Serbian paramilitaries often took the dead far from their villages for burial:

"In the mass graves that were found in the region of Mitrovica, there were bodies not only of people who lived in the area, but also of people who lived in other parts of Kosovo."

Of the more than 500 grave sites reported to the tribunal, only about a third have been examined. A total of 4,300 bodies have been found, but only a small percentage of those have been positively identified.

For those left waiting for news, the numbers are just numbers. Survivors say that only when they know the truth of what happened, can they lay their loved ones to rest.