AIM: start

FRI, 11 JAN 2002 22:13:19 GMT

Exhumation of Mass Graves Ends

In the Shadow of Crime

The remains of 427 people have been exhumed so far from mass graves in Serbia. These are probably the bodies of ethnic Albanians killed in fighting that ended on June 11, 1999. Except Slobodan Milosevic and three of his police collaborators, no other possible suspects have been mentioned.

AIM Belgrade, December 24, 2001

To this day only one of what appears to be a series of organized attempts to cover up crimes committed by the Milosevic regime in Kosovo and Metohija has been reconstructed with a degree of reliability, and, of course, not in full. Shortly before the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began, in the night between March 20 and March 21, 1999, a freezer truck was dumped into the Danube near the town of Tekija, about 200 kilometers east of Belgrade. Two weeks later, the truck surfaced: a police investigation determined that it contained the remains of 86 men, women and children. On orders from Gen. Vlastimir Djordjevic, then head of the Public Security Department of the Serbian Interior Ministry, investigators were called off and the case was declared top secret: the bodies were loaded onto two trucks and taken to Belgrade, "for autopsy."

Two years later, at the beginning of May 2001, Gen. Vlastimir Djordjevic was retired, only to shortly afterwards disappear in an unknown direction. From that moment on, the Serbian Interior Ministry has been intensely communicating with the public and releasing considerable information about the freezer truck case. Two key documents were an order to remove all traces of crimes in Kosovo and Metohija issued by Slobodan Milosevic in mid-March 1999 at a meeting with then interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Public Security Service head Vlastimir Djordjevic, State Security Service (secret police) head Radomir Markovic, and "others," whose identity remains undisclosed. Slobodan Milosevic is currently in Scheveningen, Vlajko Stojiljkovic has been indicted by the Hague International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and is an MP in the federal Parliament, and Radomir Markovic has been convicted of revealing state secrets (whose nature has not been explained). Meanwhile at three locations in Serbia a total of five mass graves containing the remains of at least 427 persons have been dug up, and it has been determined that at another location there are at least another three mass graves, and at a third, one more.

At the beginning of June an expert team from Belgrade University's Institute of Forensic Medicine began exhumation of the first mass grave found on the Special Operations Unit's May 13 training center, along the Zemun-Batajnica road, near Belgrade. In a relatively small, 3x3m pit body parts of at least 36 people, including eight children and an eight months old fetus were buried, all dressed in civilian clothes. The condition of the remains has prevented the team from determining the cause of their death: only two bullets were found on the spot. Some of the remains showed certain signs of burning: the archaeological part of the team managed to determine that there had been an attempt to burn the bodies -- they were piled up on a pyre of planks about the size of railroad ties. Seven identity cards were found in the grave, of which six were issued to individuals with the family name Berisha, all of them from the same street in Suva Reka. One of the few documents was dated March 1, 1999, which could mean that at least one person was killed after that date.

In July and August 2001 another two mass graves in Petrovo Selo, near Kladovo, where another special forces training camp is located, were exhumed. A total of 74 bodies were recovered, 16 from one grave, and 58 from the other. A team from the Nis Forensic Medicine Center had a much easier job because the bodies were put in sacks or wrapped in plastic sheeting before being transported and buried. Only one female body was found. Later reports confirmed that among them were the bodies of three ethnic Albanians with U.S. citizenship. In the spring of 1999, they were sentenced to 15 days in prison for illegally entering Yugoslavia and were to be deported afterwards. However, they disappeared after being released from prison under unclear circumstances. According to what little information is available, the U.S. has asked that the identity of these three KLA volunteers be determined by DNA tests. All the exhumed bodies were dressed in civilian clothes and, according to Vujadin Otasevic, the forensic team's head, most "had marks left by bullets."

The exhumation continued in September when a mass grave was unearthed at the spot where the Derventa River runs into Lake Perucac, near Bajina Basta in western Serbia. From this mass grave 48 bodies were recovered. The Humanitarian Law Fund warned that yet another freezer truck was dumped into the lake during the NATO bombing as early as May 23, in letters sent to the speaker of the Serbian Legislature and Serbia's justice and interior ministers. The fund's claims that the truck had been dumped into the lake and that police knew about it were denied by local authorities until the beginning of September, when information was published on the exhumation and the autopsy performed by the Institute of Pathology and Forensic Medicine of the Belgrade Military Hospital. Of 48 bodies, 38 were male, one was female, and the sex of nine could not be established. According to autopsy results, all were adults with lethal wounds inflicted by small arms. They had been buried for about two years. The condition of the remains indicated that they had spent some time in the water. Most of them were dressed in civilian clothes.

In mid September the last exhumation was carried out at the 13 May Training Center, near Belgrade. In a pit large enough to hold the truck that transported them, the remains of 269 people were discovered, all males of different age. According to an official announcement by the Belgrade District Court, some bodies bore marks indicating exposure to high temperature which could mean a failed attempt at burning them. Their wounds were caused by firearms and their clothes were civilian.

In addition to classical elements used for identification, including personal documents and, at least in one case an Albanian army ID tag, samples for DNA tests have been taken. The process was observed by representatives of the ICTY, OSCE, the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Fund, and the International Commission for Missing Persons. At this point forensic reports pertaining to the first mass grave in Batajnica, and the two in Petrovo Selo, where the bodies have been reburied, are complete.

As far as the more than 300 bodies dug out in Batajnica are concerned, they have been stored in on-site underground tunnels until all reports are completed, which might take until next spring.

Domestic exhumation and forensic experts, probably thanks to ten years of war in the former Yugoslavia, are among the most experienced in the world. They stress the difficulties they encountered in determining even the number of bodies, because some were buried twice or three times, because at least in two cases they spent some time in the water, and because the bodies were fragmented during transport and while being buried by bulldozers. Except in the first grave in Batajnica, among the dead there are no women and children, and some of the experts say that regardless of the civilian clothes found in the graves, it is not certain that they were actually civilians, because many bodies had several layers of clothing and shaving kits.

Police have reliable data indicating that there are at least three more mass graves at the Batajnica training camp, and at least one in the region of Vranje in southern Serbia. According to Police Capt. Dragan Karleusa, who is in charge of the investigation, there also is a mass grave under the Leskovac-Bujanovac road, in Vranje municipality. The bodies were buried in some of the craters created by NATO bombs in 1999, that were later covered with concrete and asphalt. There are five such locations near Vranje, and the exact location of the mass grave has not been determined.

News of the discovery and unearthing of mass graves was in the media focus from the beginning of May until the end of June, 2001. The opposition believes this was a deliberate campaign meant to prepare the public for the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal. This explanation was not rejected by certain members of the ruling bloc, as well as by certain intellectuals who perceive themselves as "protectors of Serbia's national interests." Because of this, at least until now, there has been no serious confrontation with crimes committed by "us," regardless of whether they were invented on orders from the West, whether they are smaller, the same, or greater than the crimes committed by the other side, which provoked them, or whether there are something that only Slobodan Milosevic will be held responsible for. The exhumation was undeniable proof not only of the crimes themselves, but of the crime of trying to cover it all up as well. The investigation so far has not resulted in a single indictment, despite the fact that dozens of people, mostly police officers, participated in the coverup. Moreso, even Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic justifies their participation in transporting the bodies and their secret burial by duress, fear for one's life or job, following orders, lack of knowledge...

It turned out that all this failed to silence the witnesses, or at least did not silence them at the point when discovery of the crimes, whatever the reason, became unavoidable. What can cause much more concern, however, is the fact that even in cases where the name of the victim has been determined, there are still no signs, at least not public, that efforts to catch the culprits are underway. In other words, if the investigation has discovered that several members of the Berisha family have been killed in Suva Reka, the Serbian Interior Ministry has to have data on police units operating in the area in 1998 and 1999. Everything else is a routine job. The lack of any indication that such an investigation has been launched only strengthens the arguments of the new government's critics, who accuse it of being unprepared, hesitant, or incapable of facing the magnitude of the crimes, even in terms of police action, if in no other way.

Aleksandar Ciric