Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Danube Surrenders Kosovo Cover-Up Evidence

The discovery of a lorry full of bodies in the Danube strengthens claims that Milosevic attempted to conceal Kosovo atrocities
By Mirko Klarin

According to the Serbian interior ministry, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic issued an order in early March 1999 that all traces of war crimes in Kosovo be removed.


The order sought to ensure that Serb forces did not repeat the error of Serbs in Bosnia, whose atrocities were quickly exposed. But according to tribunal prosecutors, the effort at a cover-up may itself strengthen their case that war crimes were planned in advance.


Serbia's former political and police leaders, it seems, sought to put into practice lessons learned from the "mistakes" made by the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, in the summer and autumn of 1995, when General Ratko Mladic's forces committed appalling atrocities in Srebrenica.


Mladic's mistake, in Milosevic's estimation, was not the killing of over 7,000 Bosniak (Muslim) men and boys but the "clumsiness" with which the operation had been carried out. Within a few weeks of the massacres - carried out between July 11 and July 17, 1995 - the whole world was aware of what had happened.


Almost everything to do with the Srebrenica operation was recorded in air reconnaissance photographs taken by United States spy planes and satellites. The execution sites, complete with piles of unburied bodies; and the heavy construction equipment used to dig the mass graves and subsequent exhumations, aimed at concealing evidence of the crimes, were all captured on film.


So clumsy was the operation that tribunal investigators upon arriving at the scene of the crimes had no difficulty in discovering where the victims were murdered, where they were initially buried and where their remains were hidden.


To compound the mistakes, VRS engineering and other units involved in the operation kept work-logs detailing the use of heavy machines and their movement between execution and burial sites.


Tribunal investigators later seized the documents, which were so meticulous that they detailed every litre of petrol used - the VRS had been keen to prevent the theft of fuel, which was then in short supply.


General Radislav Krstic, commander of the VRS Drina Corps, charged with genocide for his alleged role in the massacres, could pay a heavy price for this attention to detail. Prosecutors presented a host of the seized documents during his trial.


Until recently, Serbia and her apologists in the West dismissed claims that the Milosevic government committed crimes in Kosovo or had conspired to conceal evidence of them.


They said the accusations were aimed at "justifying NATO aggression" and "covering up the failure" of Hague investigators working in the province, who so far have exhumed "only" 4,000 Kosovar victims.


But what Serbia and her friends once deemed anti-Serbian propaganda now appears to have been accepted in Serbia, at least, as the true version of events. On May 30, Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic confirmed to parliament that more than 50 bodies of Albanians had been found in a refrigerated lorry hauled out of the Danube on April 6, 1999, saying this was probably not an isolated case of the former Serbian authorities trying to cover up killings in Kosovo.


Belgrade radio B-92 then reported that police had exhumed the remains of suspected Kosovo Albanian victims from a mass grave near Belgrade. Over eighty bodies were found and police sources indicated all showed signs of torture, the station said.


An interior ministry official, Dragan Karluesa, then accused Milosevic directly of ordering that steps be taken to eliminate evidence of crimes committed in the province.


According to Serbian officials, Milosevic instructed former interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic and a handful of senior Serbian police officials to oversee the removal of all traces of war crimes, some time in March 1999. Stojiljkovic faces a Hague indictment for crimes against humanity in Kosovo.


An eyewitness has testified that the Danube lorry was dumped in the river on the night of March 20-21, 1999. It appears this was one attempt to carry out Milosevic's orders.


The dates are important here. They not only enable a reconstruction of the sequence of events and the chain of responsibility, but counter revisionist theories in Serbia and elsewhere that Kosovo crimes, if they happened at all, were a direct result of NATO's bombing campaign.


The air strikes began on March 24, 1999 - after Milosevic's alleged order to cover-up crimes, which were presumably committed before that date. The women and children found in the sunken lorry were not the victims of "revenge" against NATO's bombs.


Mihajlovic told Belgrade radio listeners that evidence from the lorry case confounded claims by extreme nationalists that Serbs were the only victims of the Balkan wars. "I think the entire case will cast a completely different image of these so-called patriots," he said.


So how did Serbia's former leaders manage to screw up their Kosovo cover-up operation.


Milosevic's biggest mistake was clearly losing office. Smaller bungles could be glossed over provided he held the reins of power. An oil smuggler, crossing the Danube from Romania to Serbia on the night of March 20-21, 1999, says he saw the refrigerated lorry being dumped.


According to Serbian media reports, when the lorry was pulled from the river and the bodies removed on April 6, 1999, around 200 "passers-by" were witness to the gruesome discovery.


While Milosevic was in power there was no danger of any of them talking. Besides fear of the authorities, anger at the perceived responsibility of Kosovo Albanians for NATO's "aggression" would have maintained the conspiracy of silence.


It took seven months from the ousting of Milosevic for a local newspaper to dare to publish details of what the witnesses had seen. Soon after, the authorities announced an investigation, the first fruits of which were the claims that Milosevic had ordered a cover-up.


It is still unclear what Belgrade plans to do with these revelations. They have been shocking and sobering for the Serbian public. The government has two options - exploit information from the investigation to swing public opinion in favour of extraditing Milosevic to The Hague or to use it in a domestic trial of the former president on war crimes charges.


Belgrade officials would no doubt prefer the latter option. They have already asked to be given "a year or two to demonstrate they are capable" of trying Milosevic for war crimes. But that option rests in the hands of the international community. And although Washington and Europe HAVE SOME DIFERENCES on the issue, international policy clearly favours a Hague trial.


The discovery of the lorry may have shocked Serbians, but not The Hague tribunal. Deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt told Tribunal Update that prosecutors knew of the lorry's existence "long before the case became public in May".


He declined to shed more light on the episode. "It is only one of the cases of deliberate concealment or destruction of traces of Kosovo crimes we are investigating," Blewitt remarked, revealing that his investigators were also looking into claims that over 1,000 Kosovo victims were incinerated in the furnaces at the lead ore smelting plant at Trepca near Kosovska Mitrovica.


Blewitt said prosecutors were trying to gather corroborating material evidence and eyewitness statements to prove that a planned and systematic operation was carried out to remove traces of crimes committed in Kosovo during 1998 and 1999. If the prosecution can prove the cover-up was deliberate and organised, then that would in itself add credence to their belief that the original crimes were equally deliberate and planned.


Mirko Klarin is IWPR's senior editor in The Hague.