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Lost and found

If a friend or family member goes missing in the former Yugoslavia, a region plagued by crime and people-smuggling, the authorities are not likely to be of much help. “If we see them, we will let you know" is about the best you can hope for from the police, according to Sasa Lekovic, a journalist at B92, a television station in Belgrade.

Lekovic, presenter of a TV and radio show called Potraga ("the search"), wants to do rather better, by sharing touching stories with all the nations of the former Yugoslavia. The hope is that the process will help to heal some of the wounds inflicted since the country's break-up 18 years ago. "People who watch the programme learn to become a community," Lekovic says.

Eighteen thousand people went missing from the region during or after the war. The chances of finding any of them alive are now very small. But it does happen. Recently, Potraga identified a man living on the streets of Cagliari, in Sardinia, and going by the name of Antonello Satta, as a former resident of a Roma settlement in Aleksinac, central Serbia. When confronted, Satta - once known as Dragan Jankovic - admitted this was the case. "He could still sing Serbian songs and knew all the train stations between Aleksinac and Belgrade by heart," says Lekovic.

Satta had been kidnapped at the age of seven, taken to Italy and forced to beg and steal.He made an emotional return to Aleksinac, though he has said that in the long term he will stay in Cagliari.

Potraga has so far dealt with more than 470 cases, of two types: those where people are missing, and others where they have just lost touch, an easy thing to do in the upheaval of the past two decades. But the dividing line is not fixed. "Sometimes someone who was thought to have simply lost touch can turn out to be a missing person," says Lekovic. So far eight people have been found; probably another six cases have been solved. Viewers can assist with each search.

Naturally, in some instances people have perfectly good reasons for wanting to disappear. But as Lekovic says: "We won't help in cases where, say, parents are simply trying to interfere in their daughter's decision to move away, or where someone says, 'This Croat owes me €100.'"

The team is most interested in cases where plenty of information is available, but sometimes blind luck is as important as detective work. In June the programme ran a story about a girl who disappeared seven years ago from Pancevo, a town 15km north of Belgrade.A five-hour interview with her mother yielded little, but a photograph was published on Potraga's website. "A few days later the daughter emailed from Italy to say she had been trafficked and was living there without any documents," Lekovic says.

Potraga already goes on air in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, and Macedonia seems sure to join in the next year or so. But there is little prospect of reaching viewers in the breakaway state of Kosovo in the near future. According to Lekovic, "EULEX [Kosovo's European overseer]
is not interested and it is always difficult to find anyone in charge."

The programme seems to be achieving its goal of creating a sense of community. Of the thousands of letters, emails and phone calls it has attracted since its first broadcast last year, Lekovic says only one has brought up nationality, asking: "Who cares about missing Croatians?" Answer: hundreds of thousands of people watching or taking part in Potraga.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads