Most Americans have never and will never experience the devastation that occurs in the aftermath of war on their homeland. It is hard to quantify the scale of missing persons in conflict, but available statistics reflect a vast number have gone missing due to conflict, migration and disaster.
Kosovo refugees in the aftermath of war. Photo courtesy of Euromaidan Press.
Over 20 years have passed since the armed conflict in Kosovo but as many as 1,647 families still await answers about the whereabouts of their loved ones in connection with the 1998-1999 events and the aftermath.
Families of the missing are left with ambiguity, not knowing what has really happened to their loved ones, unable to give them a dignified funeral, and unable to go on with the lives.
To help family members find information about the fate of their missing loved ones, Belgrade and Pristina adopted the Procedures on the Handover of Human Remains in 2018. The session was chaired by the ICRC along with families of the missing and international community.
Treated as a humanitarian effort, ICRC is concerned about the snail pace rate of progress. According the Chairman of the group, Fabien Bourdier of ICRC, “Only seven cases were resolved in 2018.”
Hasiba Zlatarac has been searching for her son, husband and brother since 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
According to Balkan Transitional Justice, Hasiba Zlatarac , who lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, is still searching for the remains of her son Nedzad, 22, when he disappeared during the war, along with her husband Huso, 53, and her brother Fikret who was 42.
All three men were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and held at the Planjina Kuca detention facility in Vogosca during the spring of 1992.
“In June 1992, they were taken from Planjina Kuca . . . I don’t know where to” said Zlatarac. Nobody knows . . . up to this day, I’ve not heard a rumor, a trace . . . nothing.”
Zlatarac accused Bosnian authorities and politicians of “forgetting” the families of missing persons.
“I am bitter. I am angry at the government and all of them . . . It’s been 22 years since the end of the war, and they can’t even tell us where the bodies are, so we can find our loved ones and lay them to rest. Then I could also rest,” Zlatarac explained.
According to the country’s Missing Persons Institute, more than 30,000 people were considered missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the conflict, and the remains of more than 7,000 of them remain missing.
Halil Ujkani in searching for his three sons, Shaip, Nahit, and Nazmi since 1999. Photo courtesy of BIRN/Serbeze Haxhiaj.
Halil Ujkani prays he will live to learn the fate of his three sons. The eldest, 29, and the youngest only 19.
On the evening of April 16, 1999, Ujkani’s three sons, Shaip, Nahit and Nazmi, left the house to travel to Montenegro to try to survive the war in Kosovo.
For three days, they stayed in villages near the Kosovo-Serbia border before they were stopped by Serbian armed forces.
“The Serbian military caught them the evening of April 19 in the village of Dreth which was Serb occupied. Ujkani told the Balkan Investigative Network (BIRN), “An old Serb woman who was taking care of her cows said that she witnessed the moment when they were stopped by the military. There was no shooting of killings that day,” Ujkani added.
Three days later, two of the 24 people who were stopped by Serbian forces, along with his sons, came back to Mitrovica after getting lost in mountain roads. They had lost contact with the rest of the group, never making it to Montenegro territory.
“On April 22, my Serb neighbors in north Mitrovica saw my son and some other while Serbian military took them in a military truck,” said Ujkani. “My neighbor Bogoljub Aleksic heard that they were taking them to Pozarevac [in Serbia].”
Ujkani, 84, is a former mine worker, said he has spent 19 years searching for his sons in what has become the most painful chapter of his life.
In addition to his three sons, two of his nephews are among the group who went missing.
“I have searched for them both among the living and the dead, said Ujkani. “Everyday I imagine that I’m finding them.”
The number of those disappeared during the communism in Albania is impossible to know, some experts believe the number to be close to 5,000 people killed that still await proper burial.
The families know the clock is ticking while living with the torture of doubt about the fate of those who vanished and were never heard from again.
Bodies Mistakenly Identified
Unknown graves at a southern Kosovo cemetery. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.
On March 26, 1999, two days after North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces killed Halim Hajdari. His son Flurim Hajdari recollects that day when they killed his father and five brothers, the youngest only 12 years old, along with 108 other Albanian citizens.
About half of the victims were found in a nearby river, the other are still missing.
In July 1999, Hague experts invited Flurim Hajdari to a makeshift morgue in the Kosovo town of Rahovec/Orahovac where he hoped to find the bodies of his father and brothers.
Flurim Hajdari awaiting word of the fate of his missing father and five brothers. Photo courtesy of BIRN.
Personal belongings and clothing found in the graves was put on display in the same building as the improvised morgue, so family members of the missing may be able to identify the items.
By 2003, when the ICMP signed an agreement to use DNA to identify bodies, thousands of victims had already been identified by sight.
“This traditional method of identification carried significant risk of error,” the ICMP told BIRN media. The ICMP is lobbying to reverse the identifications made without using DNA.
Like efforts here in the United States, ICMP proposes collecting genetic reference samples from family members whose loved ones were already identified without the use of DNA.
In 2015, Flurim Hajdari was notified by neighbors that the graves at the Pristina mortuary were being dug up again.
A forensic team was able to identify the remains of two of his brothers, Salajdin and Rasim.
“When I showed them identification documents issued by the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), they took them from my hands and gave me some with the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) stamp, without further explanations,” said Flurim Hajdari.
EULEX stated that it “held a number of meetings with those affected to explain why the exhumations were needed.”
Since then, the ICMP has issued 2,466 DNA identification reports. The exhumations were a direct result of EULEX’s efforts through forensics work and the advancement of DNA aimed at rectifying the mistakes made in the past. However, the remains of 400 people at the Pristina morgue do not match with any DNA reference samples of families of missing people.
Kushtrim Gara of the government’s missing person commission expressed concern about mistaken identifications.
“This has happened in the aftermath of the war when those responsible for these issues were international institutions and identifications were made with the traditional method,” Gara said.
Victims have been exhumed and reburied at least twice by Serb forces before hidden mass graves were discovered causing some body parts to become mixed up. At times only parts of remains were found.
“There was also mixing of the remains during the handing over of human remains,” Gara sharing her concern that there was also a problem after DNA matching started to be used.
Another problem is convincing the victims’ families to cooperate with a slow and painful process.
EULEX emphasized that the key factors for proper identifications are “the provision of accurate information as well as of complete blood references in order to carry out essential DNA testing.”
Arsim Gerxaliu, the head of the Kosovo Institute of Forensics said that the identification process must now involve talking to every family to get blood samples for DNA matching.
“Based on tests so far, around 20 percent of the cases are incorrect burials,” said Gerxaliu.
Depoliticizing the Search for Missing Persons
On the National Day of the Disappeared, the families of missing persons gather to memorialize the graves of their loved ones. Photo courtesy of ICRC/Jetmir Duraku.
On July 18, after eight years of negotiations, Albania signed an agreement to find remains of missing persons with the help of the International Committee on Missing Persons.
In September, parliament is expected to ratify the agreement to open the way to begin exhumations.
International Day of the Disappeared, on August 30, marks the day that the International Commission on Missing Persons will be launching a website to exchange information with the public about missing persons.
“We take this opportunity to once again pay tribute to the families who struggle with despair of not knowing what happened to their loved ones,” said Agim Gashi, head of the ICRC in Kosovo. “On their behalf, we urge authorities to increase their efforts in solving this humanitarian problem that continues to affect Kosovo even two decades down the line.”
Under international humanitarian law, the former parties to the conflict are responsible to provide answers about the whereabouts of people who have vanished on territories under their control.
Meanwhile, families await justice and information two decades after conflict.
Mackenzie “Kenzie” Lueck, 23, is a vanished Monday, June 17, 2019, from Salt Lake City, Utah. She last contacted her family during the early hours of June 17, to let them know her plane had arrived. No one has heard from her since.
During an intensive investigation of Lueck’s disappearance, police made a grisly discovery Friday, June 28.
On June 28, police announced they arrested Ayoola Ajayi, 31, in the kidnapping and murder of Mackenzie Lueck. Photo courtesy of Deseret News.
After scouring a digital trail, Salt Lake City police have arrested Ayoola A. Ajayi, 31, in the kidnapping and murder of Lueck after serving search warrants on his home and finding remains and other articles that had been burned in Ajayi’s backyard.
Mackenzie Lueck vanished after leaving Salt Lake City International Airport on June 17, 2018 after taking a ride from a Lyft driver.
Last week police released surveillance footage at Salt Lake City International Airport, showing Lueck had deplaned at approximately 2:09 a.m.
It does not appear that Lueck talked to anyone while at the airport. The footage shows she was at the airport for approximately 31 minutes, quickly stopping to pick up her luggage before leaving the jetway and getting into a Lyft rideshare at 2:40 a.m.
Salt Lake City Assistant Police Chief Tim Doubt told reporters that Lueck sent a text to her mother at 2:01 a.m. on June 17, shortly after landing in Salt Lake City. Lueck had been returning from California after visiting family for her grandmother’s funeral whom she was very close to.
From the airport, Lueck did not go home but instead took the Lyft to Hatch Park in North Salt Lake City. The park is nestled between restaurants and apartment complexes with a police department up the street. A hot spot for families and community events, the park is large with two playgrounds, basketball court, baseball diamond, and grassy field.
Lueck arrived at the park at 2:59 a.m., and according to the Lyft driver, a person was there waiting for her in a car.
The Lyft driver told police Lueck did not appear to be in any kind of distress when she was dropped off.
Police say they are not aware of Mackenzie Lueck having any mental health issues or a history of going off the grid.
Lueck was a part-time student at the University of Utah in her senior year majoring in kinesiology and pre-nursing, attending the college since 2014.
Since her disappearance, Lueck failed to show up at a laboratory where she is employed, missed her mid-term exam and failed to show up for her return scheduled flight to Los Angeles on June 23. There was also no social media activity raising concern. Despite numerous attempts to reach her, Lueck’s phone had been turned off since she vanished.
Lueck’s cat and car were still at her house.
At the time of her disappearance, Ashley Fine, one of Lueck’s friends told the Salt Lake City Tribune that Lueck was a dedicated student and said missing classes is not something she would ever do.
Police had canvassed the park numerous times to get surveillance video and knock on resident’s doors to inquire if anyone saw anything the evening she vanished.
Police had received several tips that Lueck may have been using dating apps and might have been interested in meeting older men and casually dating.
KSL TV reported that two comments to a social media post were sent anonymously to a private investigator and subsequently forwarded to a Utah cold cases podcast creator suggesting Lueck may have been seeking a “sugar daddy” type relationship with older men.
“Try Tinder and be blunt about it,” read one comment appearing to have been authored by an account belonging to a Kenzie Lueck.
The next comment reads, “Mine says ‘I want an SD/SB relationship with a real connection’ if don’t know what an SD/SB is, tell them, sugar daddy and sugar baby. But if they don’t know, they aren’t worth your time. Set (your) age preference to 35+. You’ll have the most luck there. Private message me, if you have more questions! I have experience.”
“I have some experience on seeking arrangements, online only, tinder, and currently have two lol,” the timestamp on the message indicates it was made 12 weeks ago.
The dating app noted the profile says the user is seeking a “mutually beneficial” relationship, from California, going to school in Utah and graduating kinesiology in Spring of 2020, along with what appears to be an image of Lueck.
Police have uncovered several other social media accounts including an Instagram account they continue to investigate.
Thomas Lauth, a private investigator based in Indianapolis, Ind., has worked on missing person cases for 25 years and watching the investigation closely. “One of the first things we do as private investigators is to investigate a missing person’s social and personal life,” said Lauth. “The information that can be extracted from social media accounts can be critical information that police can use to potentially move forward with the investigation and solid charges,” Lauth added. “I am sure even after the arrest they are scouring both Lueck’s and Ajayi’s social media accounts to determine how and when Mackenzie and Ajayi met.”
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown makes announcement they have found the charred remains of Mackenzie Lueck. Photo courtesy of Fox News.
At a press conference announcing the arrest, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said after Lueck disappeared, the suspect originally denied knowing what she looked like but several pictures of her were found on his phone, and the “digital footprint” has continued even after the arrest.
“This is a digital forensic investigation,” Brown said. “This is covering computers, cell phones, IP addresses, URLs and texting apps.”
Investigators also found forensic evidence after searching Ajayi’s home and property police said. As they did, neighbors came forward and told police they saw Ajayi using gasoline to burn something in his backyard on June 17 and 18, Brown said.
“A forensic excavation of the burn area was conducted, which resulted in the finding of several charred items that were consistent with personal items of Mackenzie Lueck,” Brown added.
Police also discovered charred material that was determined to be female tissue consistent with Lueck’s DNA profile. A mattress police were searching for has been located but they did not offer additional details.
After Ajayi’s arrest, Brown contacted Lueck’s parents to give them the news. They were “devastated and heartbroken” by this news Brown Said. “This is one of the most difficult phone calls I’ve ever made,” he said.
According to Ajayi’s LinkedIn profile, he is a former information technology specialist for the US Army and recently worked for Dell and Goldman Sachs. He lived approximately 5 miles from the park where Lueck was last seen.
Brown told reporters they expect to charge Ajayi with aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body.
Their due dates have passed, but these women have still not been found…
The ticking of the clock is resonating as a heavy blow in Chicago, as communities continue to demand answers in the cases of two pregnant and missing women who have disappeared from the south side over the last year. As of today, their due dates have passed, further compounding the concern and worry of friends and family.
Back in October of 2018, we shared the story of 26-year-old postal carrier, Kierra Coles. She was three months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, and her projected due date was April 23. She was last seen leaving her apartment on October 2, 2018. She lived by herself in her new apartment, having lived there for four months. She was regularly in touch with her mother, Karen Phillips.
When Karen could not get ahold of Kierra for three days, she reported her missing to the police. The key piece of evidence in Kierra’s disappearance is CCTV footage showing her leaving her apartment on the morning of October 2nd, walking up and down the street a few times before disappearing from view forever.
The search for Marlen Ochoa-Uriostegui is barely a week old as authorities search desperately for answers. The 19-year-old was last seen on April 30th, leaving the Latino Youth High School in Pilsen. Like Kierra, CCTV footage taken from the school’s exterior shows Marlen walking off campus alone at 3:05 PM. She was nine months pregnant and was expected to deliver her unborn child on May 5.
Less than a week after Marlen was reported missing, a newborn infant was discovered on top of a trashcan in an alley in the 1700 block of North Keystone Avenue. The umbilical cord was still attached, but was not clamped, so the infant was actively bleeding. The infant was unresponsive and starting to turn blue when a couple rescued him and got him medical care. Now, the family of Marlen Ochoa-Uriostegui wants authorities to perform a DNA test to see if the baby boy could be her child.
In the cases of both missing women, there were rumors and allegations of involvement on behalf of the fathers of the unborn children. Police now suspect Kierra has met with foul play, though they have not specified it was at the hands of her boyfriend. While her mother has publicly discounted rumors the father of Kierra’s child was involved in her disappearance, the family of Marlen Ochoa-Uriostegui believes her husband to be responsible for her disappearance.
Pregnant and missing women are some of the missing persons who are at the most risk. The March of Dimes estimates 1 in 6 women will be abused during pregnancy. Pregnancies are a time of heightened stress and emotions, and this can trigger abusive behavior in intimate partners. Perhaps the partner is upset because the pregnancy was unplanned or kept from them. As a stress response, the financial burden involved with giving birth and raising a child can be enough alone to trigger this behavior. The partner might also have feelings of jealousy towards an unborn child, because the mother’s attention is now divided. The leading cause of death in pregnant women after car accidents is homicide as the result of intimate partner violence. This is why it is not uncommon for pregnant and missing women to be investigated as homicides from the start.
If you are pregnant and you are the target of domestic or intimate partner violence, please visit The March of Dime’s website for resources, including a guide to a safe exit strategy for a volatile situation.
If a loved one has gone missing in your life, please contact Lauth Investigations International (317-951-1100) for a free consultation from the firm of the leading expert in missing children and adults.