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

Kosovo Investigation: Initial Forensics Corroborate Witness Evidence

Tribunal Update 132: Last Week in The Hague (28 June - 4 July, 1999)
By IWPR

He was particularly proud that in his briefings he had spoken of only 4,000 killed, whereas it now appears that the real figure is set to be far higher. "Of course," he added, "I would rather be accurate, but at least it shows that we were not making it up and trying to exaggerate. We were going on the best evidence that was available. But, there is more credibility in underestimating, than overestimating."


Although the KFOR international peace-keeping force has only been on the ground for three weeks, Western forensic experts led by Hague Tribunal investigators have already examined most of the locations mentioned in the indictment of President Slobodan Milosevic and his collaborators. The indictment maintains that several hundred Kosovar Albanians were murdered at these sites between January and May this year.


Published results of preliminary investigations show that in each case - in Djakovica, Velika Krusa, Bela Crkva and Izbica -sufficient evidence has been found to corroborate statements given by eyewitnesses and evidence from intelligence sources, which jointly form the basis of the first Kosovo indictment. According to the tribunal spokespersons, fresh indictments for Kosovo are only a question of time.


A forensic team from London's Scotland Yard first exhumed 32 bodies from one mass grave in the village of Bela Crkva, where, according to indictment, around 75 people were killed. Last week, they moved on to open another mass grave with 12 bodies, containing remains of two men, three women, and seven children aged between seven and 12. Some were shot at close range in the back of the head. According to David Gowan, the British government's war crimes supremo, the discovery of this second grave "certainly does strengthen the case against Milosevic."


This discovery ties in with an eye-witness account quoted in the indictment, that on 25 March 1999 a Serbian police patrol opened fire on a group of villagers who sought shelter under a railroad bridge, killing 12 persons, including 10 women and children.


The story surrounding the village of Izbica is another case in point. According to the indictment, around 130 Kosovo Albanian men were killed there on 28 March 1999. Two weeks later their neighbours found the bodies when they returned from hiding in the forest, and buried them in three rows of individual graves. The burial was videod and the graves were also clearly visible in photos taken by unmanned drone aircraft. Both pieces of evidence were shown during briefings in Brussels and at the Pentagon.


French forensic experts who investigated the location, however, found no trace of either graves or bodies on site. But in freshly dug earth they found ample proof of the removal and destruction of evidence. They found parts of human bodies, human bones, skulls still covered with hair, stray pieces of clothing and shoes, personal documents, and a pile of discharged shells. Even if the mass graves in themselves do not prove anything - at least not until it is determined how the people died - the digging up and removal of the bodies is, according to Tribunal, convincing evidence that both the crime and subsequent removal of evidence were planned and organised under somebody's orders.


The investigation so far shows that even more systematic than the removal of material evidence was the removal of written documentation that could illuminate the chain of command by which orders to commit crimes were issued and executed. So argued Paul Risley, the Office of the Prosecutor's spokesman on his return from a two-week mission to Kosovo.


In almost every police station, military headquarters or seat of civilian administration in Kosovo, Risley said, "piles of ashes as high as person's chest were found," which betray "an extensive process of burning papers" that may have documented the events of preceding months. Despite this, Risley said, many documents were found which might contain evidence in various military, police and civilian administration offices. These, he said, could be useful in establishing the "paper trail" from executioners to those who gave orders, and vice-versa.


The scale of destruction of certain parts of Kosovo towns and entire villages, Risley said, also demonstrates the planned and organised character of the crimes. Outside Pristina in particular, he said, the physical damage and destruction is quite apparent and seems to be quite extensive: whole villages and sections of key towns have been devastated. It would appear that much of that was result of arson, with some signs of shell and mortar fires, that would indicate a deliberate campaign targeting whole villages and sections of towns.


While Canadian, British, American, French and Dutch teams worked on various priority sites last week, Risley announced that German and Danish teams would start soon. He welcomed not only the personnel support the Office of the Prosecutor has received from various countries but also the financial support and equipment given by police forces from all over the world.