Emina Kozljak sits at the edge of the couch in her living room. She ties her colourful scarf on her head and looks towards the table which is full of family photos in which everyone is smiling. She sighs heavily and nervously, squeezing a napkin in her hands and begins her story.
“He went missing on July 4, 1992. On that day the Serbian army surrounded Tihovici, (municipality of Vogosca) and while some residents were able to escape through the forest, the ones who could not were killed. Since then I have no information about him. I searched for him day [after] day. There’s nothing in this world that I did not do, but nothing happened,” said Kozljak.
For 18 years, Kozljak has been patiently waiting for the day when they she will find out what happened to her husband Ramiz. The only information she has is that he was caught and killed in July 1992 near the village of Vrapce while trying to escape from Tihovici where the family lived.
Kozljak’s experience is shared by many families in Bosnia and Herzegovina where 10,000 people are still missing.
In order to find out what happened, over 1,000 families including Kozljak’s have turned to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Constitutional Court for help.
Kozljak, together with other families of missing people from the Vogosca area, appealed to the court in 2005. Judges ordered the governments and the Council of Ministers to provide information about the disappearance of their loved ones within six months.
Four years later, Kozljak and the others are still waiting.
Nedim Ademovic, Chief of Cabinet of the President of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Constitutional Court, said this isn’t unusual. Ten decisions relating to families of missing persons have been handed down. But in most cases the decisions are not implemented.
He explained that the majority of decisions of the Constitutional Court are not respected, even though they are “final and binding”. Ademovic said the governments of the Brcko district, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Council of Ministers are “exclusively and solely responsible” for the implementation of court decisions.
“If the decision is not implemented for any reason then that certainly violates the principle of the rule of law and the legal system and also the reputation of the Constitutional Court. And in the end, the problems concerning the protection of human rights and freedoms are not solved,” said Ademovic.
He said that non-implementation of the decision can sometimes be justified, because “it is objectively not possible to get information regarding missing persons”. However, if it is determined that some individual or institution is obstructing the execution of decisions of the Constitutional Court, then the State Attorney’s Office’s must investigate.
According to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina, non-execution of a decision of the Constitutional Court, State Court, Human Rights Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina or the European Court of Human Rights carries a prison sentence of six months to five years.
The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina has launched several investigations because of non-implementation of decisions of the Constitutional Court.
Boris Grubesic, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said that the number of investigations would increase if prosecutors had the names of the individuals failing to comply with Constitutional Court rulings.
But there have been some successes.
Esma Palic searched for her husband for 13 years. In 2006 the government of the Republic of Srpska established the Investigatory Commission to find the remains of Avdo Palic, the wartime commander of Zepa, which were eventually identified eight years after being exhumed in 2001 from a mass grave in Vragolovi in the municipality of Rogatica.
Families of those who are still missing are often forced to turn to other institutions in order to get information.
In April 2010, with the help of lawyers from the Swiss organization TRIAL, Kozljak filed a complaint before the United Nations Committee for Human Rights hoping that it would accelerate the process of obtaining information on the disappearance of her husband.
“The decision of the Constitutional Court is significant to me, but I have not received any information. But when someone calls you, you think, here they are, now they’ll tell me that he is found. I searched again and again, but nothing happened. I lost all my strength. Hope is still there so I launched a second lawsuit in hope that I will succeed,” said Kozljak.
In the last two years, TRIAL has launched more than 20 lawsuits before the European Court of Human Rights and the Committee of the United Nations on behalf of families of missing persons from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“We expect that the decisions put pressure on the entities and the District of Brcko and generally to change the current practice of violations of rights of this group of victims. The state has to respond to families where their missing loved ones are, but it unfortunately does not do that,” said Lejla Mamut, coordinator of human rights at TRIAL.
Klaudia Kuljuh, coordinator of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) for the Western Balkans, has a similar opinion. She believes that the state is not aware of the seriousness of the problem of missing persons.
“The state is the one that owes its citizens the answers on the fate of their missing ones. So far, more than half the missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina are found, but it is not enough for the families. For them, a day of waiting is a lot, let alone 18 years,” said Kuljuh, adding that the identification process often takes several months which further prolongs the agony of families searching for their loved ones.
Regardless of the state’s lack of commitment, the process of searching for missing persons will never end, according to Amor Masovic, a member of the Collegium of the Institute for Missing Persons of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“As long as there is someone who searches for his father, son or brother, institutions and state should take care of these victims of war. The lives of these people have stopped at one point during the war, and they are waiting to be resumed as soon as they receive the news on what is bothering them for 15 or 18 years – that … their loved one is found,” said Masovic.
For Kozljak, the process of mourning and uncertainty continues. She is hoping that with the new lawsuit she will get the information which will change her life.
“I would like to find him so that I can calm down, because I am alone and old. I have lived in uncertainty for 18 years, and I think about that day and night. Why my God? The others were found but not him. We also repaired the house, but nothing can substitute for him,” she said.
Aida Alić is a BIRN – Justice Report journalist. [email protected] Justice Report is an online BIRN weekly publication.