Can reality TV heal war wounds?

BELGRADE, Serbia — A television and radio program hopes to reunite some of the thousands of former Yugoslavs who have have gone missing or lost touch with friends and family and, in the process, foster a sense of togetherness 18 years after the nation's bloody breakup.

"If we see them, we will let you know," is the most likely police response to a report of a missing person, said Sasa Lekovic, who heads the five-strong team of journalists behind "Potraga" ("The Search"), produced by Belgrade broadcaster B92. The show, on the other hand, has recruited its viewers — averaging about 400,000 — to contribute as "citizen journalists" by helping in searches.

"People who watch the program learn to become a community," said Lekovic, adding that only one email among thousands of messages received since the show first aired in November harped on old ethnic hatreds. Lekovic himself is a Croat who has moved to Belgrade to lead the project.

"The viewers of the program have the chance to learn about problems in neighboring countries through the cases that are presented. It is not about not about high-powered politicians, but the stories of ordinary people," said Oliver Vujovic, head of the South East Europe Media Organisation, which aims to foster regional press freedom. A typical story from war time is that of a man who lost contact with his wife and 11-month-old baby daughter when the war flared up in Bosnia in 1992. He returned home one evening to find the house empty and later found out his wife had run off to stay with her Croatian family in Pula. He says he was unable to visit and persuade her to return to Bosnia or flee with him to Germany because he was stopped and beaten at the Croatian border because he was a Serb. The daughter, now 18, was located by the "Potraga" team living in Croatia, but she decided not to see her father despite his emotional, televised appeal.

Another case from the period was of Zoran Djurovic, a police officer in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, who went missing in 1993. The authorities in Bosnia and Serbia had been informed, but had come up with nothing. "Five minutes after the broadcast someone phoned to say he was living in Serbia," said Lekovic, who subsequently contacted Djurovic only to find that he preferred not to appear on the program or re-establish contact with his sister. "Even if it is the biggest story of my life I will not broadcast it if there is no consent from those involved," Lekovic said.

In the nine months since it started the show has looked into 470 cases, including ones where people seem to have simply lost touch and ones where someone seems to have truly gone missing. The distinction is not set in stone, however. "Sometimes someone who was thought to have simply lost touch can turn out in the end to be a missing person," Lekovic said. So far the team has found eight missing people and another six where it seems likely they have succeeded, but they can't be absolutely sure. People will, after all, sometimes go missing on purpose. In every case the contact details of the person being sought are kept a secret.

While the show is broadcast in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, with Macedonia set to follow suit, there seems little prospect of reaching an audience in the disputed territory of Kosovo. "EULEX [Kosovo's international overseer] is not interested and it is always difficult to find anyone in charge," according to Lekovic.

Official figures put the number of missing from war time at more than 18,000, with the vast majority being dead unaccounted for on the battlefield. "Potraga" can do little to help in such cases. In the case of human trafficking, a thriving business in the region, there is more chance of success.

A broadcast in June contained an appeal for information about a girl who disappeared seven years ago from Pancevo, a town nine miles outside Belgrade. An interview with the girl's distraught mother resulted in the publication of the girl's name, photograph and date of birth on the program's website.

"A few days later the daughter emailed from Italy to say she had been trafficked and was living there illegally," said Lekovic, adding that the program had respected their wish to re-unite in private. The story of a 42-year-old homeless man in the Sardinian capital of Cagliari going by the name of Antonello Satta showed that trafficking is not a new thing. His personal history had caught the imagination of a Sardinian journalist after an Italian took him in as his son, only to think otherwise and throw him out a year later. "Potraga" followed up the story and discovered that Satta was brought up in a Roma settlement in Aleksinac in central Serbia. Presented with documentary evidence, Satta admitted that this was the case. "He could still even sing Serbian songs and knew all the train stations between Aleksinac and Belgrade by heart," according to Lekovic.

The story of Dragan Jankovic, as Satta had once been known, could then be told in full. At the age of 7 he was kidnapped and taken to Italy and made to beg and steal. He escaped after a few years and made his way back to Aleksinac, where locals say they can remember him suddenly arriving one day speaking Italian. But it was not long before he was again trafficked to Italy. When he managed to escape a second time he decided not to return to Aleksinac.

Satta accepted the "Potraga" offer of an on-camera return to Aleksinac, but decided for the long-term to remain in his adopted home on the street in Cagliari.