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

Grim Secrets Unearthed

Forensic teams from The Hague Tribunal are exhuming hundreds of gravesites around Kosovo.
By Geoff Parish

The Dragodan cemetery in Pristina is a quiet, almost serene place.


Perched on a hillside on the edge of this dusty, crowded city, it offers a view to the north of rolling hills. From here you can see the site of the battle of Kosovo where Serbs were defeated by Turks in 1389 - a conflict used by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to fan Serb nationalism.


No small irony, then, that this graveyard bears witness to the grim results of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.


Today, the trill of birds in the cemetery is broken by the sound of a mechanical digger exhuming bodies - part of a concerted effort by The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, to strengthen indictments issued against Milosevic and four of his aides.


The exhumation team is led by Steve Watts, a burly police superintendent from Portsmouth in England. His expert forensic team, drawn from all over the United Kingdom, has been working for a month in the cemetery and has so far exhumed 90 bodies and expects to "lift" many more.


"It is one of the more significant sites in relation to the number of bodies recovered and to the indictments," says Watts.


To date the ICTY has identified 440 sites for exhumation across Kosovo. Last year their work yielded 2,108 bodies and they aim to excavate all the identified areas before the next winter. They have completed work at 93 locations since digging resumed in April. The ICTY learned of the Dragodan sites following investigations and interviews with local communities.


In the broiling morning sun, Watts and his team work diligently to reveal the secrets of the sloping site.


After digging down a metre or so, a patch of disturbed earth is clearly visible. The sickly smell of death hangs in the air. The exhumation team moves into the pit and begins work with picks and shovels and, when fine work is required, they use their gloved hands.


When the decomposed body is revealed it is photographed with a numbered card and then lifted into a black zippered body bag where it is photographed again - part of a rigorous process of documentation aimed at delivering watertight evidence to the prosecutors in The Hague.


The muddy body appears to be a male, wearing dark sneakers and blue trousers. It is not immediately apparent how he was killed.


The cause of death will be determined by a forensic pathologist in the Pristina mortuary. Some bodies are unearthed bearing clearly visible bullet holes in the skull. Years of work investigating murders and kidnappings haven't quite prepared Watts for the grim results of ethnic cleansing.


"I don't think you can ever get used to this sort of thing...I think you deal with it in your own way, the satisfaction comes from knowing you've done a job that is part of a process that says this sort of thing should never happen, that the world won't stand for it."


Interestingly, despite apparently strong eyewitness evidence, digging at some sites reveals no victims. However, this in itself can be beneficial to villagers, dispelling their fears about what may have seemed a suspicious patch of disturbed earth.


But whoever dumped the bodies at Dragodan has gone to considerable length to try and avoid detection. And what better place to dispose of their dirty work than a cemetery?


The exhumation team uses a sniffer dog to warn of booby traps. The bodies are found buried between marked graves. Some are almost underneath legitimate burial sites. At some sites carcasses of dogs and cows have been exhumed, apparently buried as a decoy or to waste the time of investigators.


These devious methods seem to suggest the perpetrators may be aware of the Tribunal's work in The Hague.


"Well I think in this day and age people must realise that at some stage people like us are going to come along working for the ICTY and looking for the perpetrators," says Watts.


By lunchtime, the team have exhumed six bodies, which will soon be taken to the mortuary for post mortems. The victim's clothes will be washed and digitally photographed, with the image transferred to a computer database.


People with missing relatives and friends will view the photos. It's part of what Watts calls the "multi-faceted" nature of their work - gathering evidence for indictments, providing information for relatives and building a better picture of what happened during the dark days of ethnic cleansing.


"It's very, very important to let people know what happened to their loved ones and it's about letting the society know about the extent of the war crimes," he says. " It helps to bring back stability to the province, knowing the extent of what the atrocities were."


Watts and his team finish for the day around lunchtime. It's too hot to work any longer. They pour water over each other to cool off. Tomorrow morning they will return to continue their grim but valuable work.


Geoff Parish is a journalist with the Australian Broadcast Corporation.


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