Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Investigation: Serbia: More Mackatica Body Burning Revelations
Eyewitness accounts obtained by IWPR contain dramatic new evidence of how police working for Slobodan Milosevic burned truckloads of ethnic Albanian corpses in a factory in southern Serbia during the 1999 NATO conflict.
IWPR sources have presented fresh testimony on the chronology of the crime, the way it unfolded and the key role played by the police in both the burnings and the cover-up that followed.
Their accounts will increase pressure on the courts to resolve the mystery surrounding who these people were and who ordered their incineration.
Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, first revealed the grisly secrets of the Mackatica aluminum complex, near Surdulica, in the Pcinj district of southern Serbia, last December.
In an article in daily Danas newspaper on December 24, 2004, she said the factory's blast furnaces were used to burn the bodies of Albanians killed in Kosovo on May 16 and May 24, 1999 - during the NATO conflict.
An IWPR source - a shift worker in the factory - says the whole affair started with the unexpected arrival at night of a number of unknown trucks.
"Trucks with mysterious freight kept entering the factory with their lights off. Third-shift workers, like myself, were sent home at the factory entrance," the source said.
The IWPR source confirmed seeing the bodies arrive on two separate occasions, "at the middle and end of May" in 1999.
"No one told us what was being transported and none of the workers had access [to the place of burning]," he told IWPR. "But I know many people who took part in it and saw some of it myself.
"Direct participants confirmed to me what I had seen. Bodies were brought to the factory and burned there. I was not the only one who watched it.
"I was not present at the very act of the burning of the bodies but I could see the trucks being unloaded.”
A second IWPR source, whose status and occupation we cannot disclose, confirmed the shift worker's version of events, saying he also witnessed the bodies being unloaded. This source added that the bodies were transported from western Kosovo, mainly from Prizren, Djakovica and Pec, and surrounding villages.
"When the trucks left [after the burning] so-called 'cleaners' took over and checked whether any body parts or their personal belongings had fallen onto the tarmac by the entrance to the plant,” he said.
"For days afterwards, you could smell burned flesh in Surdulica. I know what this smell is like, as I have been on all the battlefronts in [the former] Yugoslavia."
This second source said Mackatica was chosen as a site because it was close to Kosovo, only around 170 kilometres from Prizren, and was relatively anonymous - few people few people outside the factory even knew it had blast furnaces.
Kandic’s Danas article said both incinerations took place around midnight under tight security provided by the police's Special Operations Unit, JSO, then based at Bele Vode, near Vranje, in southern Serbia.
It said the then JSO commander, Milorad “Legija” Ulemek, now the prime suspect for the 2003 murder of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, escorted one convoy of bodies to the site and was present as they were burned in "furnaces numbers four and five".
According to the HLC, top police officials - some of whom are still at their posts - organised the burnings, while other trusted Milosevic officials organised the subsequent "cleansing of the terrain".
NEW INFORMATION ON ROLE OF MILOSEVIC’S POLICE IN THE CRIME
A third IWPR source, a former inspector in Milosevic's secret police, was active at the time of the events at Mackatica, and has assured IWPR that the police possess "precise and systematised information" on how the bodies were burned at Mackatica.
"There is clear data on this in local police archives, marked 'strictly confidential'," this source said, referring to the two burnings.
"The people who participated in the whole action were staying at the Theranda Hotel in Prizren. Such a job had been prepared for a long time and could not be completed in a day or two.
"The local public and secret police know everything but this is being concealed also because current as well as former police officials and ordinary operatives were involved.
"Everything is contained in the police documentation - from the code name of the action to the list of people who stayed at the Theranda Hotel and worked on the 'sanitation of the terrain', to those who loaded the trucks and drove them to the Mackatica factory, where Legija and his team took over the whole thing.
"It is also known exactly who drove and who escorted the trucks with the bodies, who was in charge of covering up the action at the factory itself and who directly handled the furnaces during the burning."
"The names of those who were later in charge of eliminating the traces at the factory and those whose job it was to conceal the truth from the local public are also known. Finally, there is a list of politicians who were familiar with all of this, when the action was being planned."
The former police officer claimed he knew most of these names himself but was fearful of divulging them publicly.
Along with all those who possessed direct knowledge of the burnings, he had encountered strong pressure to keep quiet.
"All those in any way connected to the events at Mackatica in May 1999 are being exposed to threats, pressures and blackmail," he said.
"I fear for my safety and for that of my family," he said. "The participants in the crime in Mackatica would know it was me who revealed the secrets, which they are doing their utmost to hide."
IWPR's first source, the shift worker at Mackatica, says several other witnesses who saw the trucks with bodies entering the factory are still out there.
"Other people know what was done, although everything was done for the operation to be carried out in the utmost secrecy," he said.
They were all subject to threats and blackmail, he added, to prevent the story from getting further out. In spite of that, this source said he was ready to testify in public.
IWPR has also spoken to a fourth direct source on the events at Mackatica. This source did not want either his residence or job divulged but insisted he was present at both burnings in May 1999.
"Everything took place after midnight, but I remember there was a clear sky and moonlight," he said. "I saw, for a few minutes and from a distance of about ten metres, bodies being unloaded from a truck and transported in a large factory push-cart to the part of the factory where the furnaces are located."
This source said he "knew for sure" that some of the bodies were or women and children. He insisted he did not participate in the burning.
None of IWPR's sources was able to estimate the exact number of bodies unloaded and burned at Mackatica, though one said they had been transported in "more than ten trucks," which suggests a large number.
THE LIST OF NAMES BEHIND THE BURNINGS
In her article in Danas, Kandic cited several of Milosevic's most trusted associates as key figures behind the operation.
She named ex-police minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic; a former deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic; the then head of the public and state security Vlastimir “Rodja” Djordjevic, and Radomir Markovic, former chief of secret police.
Sainovic, charged by the Hague war crimes tribunal for crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999, voluntarily surrendered to the authorities in spring 2003. He was released in mid-April 2005 pending trial.
Markovic is currently in jail in Belgrade's central prison, facing criminal proceedings. Stojiljkovic, also on The Hague's list of persons indicted for crimes in Kosovo, committed suicide on April 11, 2002.
Among all the names Kandic mentioned, the most interesting was that of Djordjevic. One of four generals wanted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, he was born in Koznica, only miles from Mackatica.
Djordjevic is known to have been a key figure in the area whose word was virtually law. He kept all the local power structures, especially the police, under his control.
After the Milosevic regime fell on October 5, 2000, Djordjevic reportedly fled the country and is believed to be hiding in Russia.
THE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR STARTS TO INVESTIGATE
For several months, after the publication of the groundbreaking article in Danas, neither the authorities nor the courts in Serbia reacted publicly to any of the grave claims that it revealed.
However, in mid-April 2005, Vladimir Vukcevic, the special state prosecutor for war crimes, visited Surdulica.
Acting on Vukcevic's request, the investigating judge of the district court in Vranje, the deputy special prosecutor and a team of specially trained court experts also visited Mackatica.
Vukcevic told B-92 radio he had talked to witnesses, but stressed that most things were still in the stage of "complete secrecy, owing to the serious nature of the procedure". The prosecution was awaiting the result of forensic reports, he said.
Detailing the extent of the investigation thus far, he added, "The blast furnaces at the Mackatica complex were inspected, as were the places where waste is deposited." He underlined that only experts' findings would confirm whether traces of human remains were in the waste.
Vukcevic did not conceal the fact that his decision to personally oversee the process implied a lack of confidence in the ability and willingness of the local police to investigate the case.
He also said he regretted that a special police unit had not yet been set up to investigate such war crimes and help the prosecution team.
An IWPR source close to the police in the Pcinj district confirmed that the special war crimes prosecutor's initial field work in Mackatica had upset members of the local police force.
"The police of the Pcinj district still operates according to the same principles and mostly with the same people as it did in 1999," this source said.
IWPR has also learned that the case would never have come to light at all if one former and one active operative from the Security and Information Agency, BIA - successor to the State Security, DB - had not sent Kandic the evidence.
Zoran Stosic, head of the regional DB at the time of the Mackatica case, was dismissed just over a month ago as general inspector of police in Pcinj district and replaced by Vujica Velickovic, also a key figure in the regional police over the past decade.
IWPR's third source, the former secret police inspector, reiterated that local police records contained exact data on the entire affair. "All it takes is political will for it to be disclosed," he said.
A WALL OF SILENCE IN SURDULICA
Surdulica is a small town of around 10,000 people, some ten km from the motorway that runs from Belgrade to Skopje. It is less than an hour's drive either to Bulgaria, or to Macedonia and Kosovo.
People in Surdulica whom IWPR interviewed either did not want to speak about the body burnings, or defended them. No one denies something happened, but in the town itself, where the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party is in power, there is a conspiracy of silence.
In the cafe in the centre of town, a large piece of graffiti proclaims "Serbia for the Serbs".
"So what if they did burn Shiptars [a derogatory name for Albanians]?” one man said. "They deserved nothing better. Why don't you write about the crimes against Serbs in Kosmet [a Serb nationalist expression for Kosovo] today?"
A shop saleswoman was more conciliatory. "Hardly anyone dares to speak publicly about it," was all that she would say on the grim events in the nearby factory.
But the arrival in Surdulica of the special state prosecutor for war crimes suggests that however much the local population wants to a draw a veil over the affair, the judicial authorities are determined to confront this painful issue.
Whether justice will ever be done for what happened at Mackatica remains to be seen.
Bruno Vekaric, spokesperson for the war crimes prosecutor, said it would not be easy. The facts that the crimes were committed long ago and that the police and justice ministry were far from cooperative were just some of the obstacles they faced, he told IWPR.
The reporters who contributed to this report are members of BIRN, IWPR's newly localised Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight