Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbia Exhumes Mass Graves
The discovery of another mass grave in western Serbia last week added more weight to the war crimes charges leveled against Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague. But whether the ultimate target of these revelations, spearheaded by the Serbian police ministry, is Milosevic, Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica or army chief General Nebojsa Pavkovic, is harder to fathom.
President Kostunica is locked in a political struggle with Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic over the command structure of the Yugoslav army, VJ. Kostunica has shown no intention of changing its leadership, despite growing evidence of the military's involvement in covering up crimes against Kosovo Albanians during the NATO bombing in 1999.
On Saturday July 14, a Serbian police ministry official, Captain Dragan Karleusa, told journalists that a freezer truck, containing between 50 and 60 corpses, was pushed into the reservoir of the hydroelectric plant at Perucac, western Serbia, in April 1999. Seven corpses immediately floated back to the surface and were removed. Two days later the remaining bodies floated up.
The Belgrade daily, Danas, published on July 16 eyewitness testimony phoned in to the newsroom by an anonymous reservist. "It was night time, I saw a freezer truck being pushed into the lake," he said. " They previously lowered the water level. Then they fired a rocket into the truck to sink it. But the corpses began to emerge from the hole the missile made. They took them out and buried them in the estuary of the river Derventa, near the village of Rastiste."
The reservist said that the bodies that appeared on the lake two days later were buried in a separate grave, next to the first. He said the operation was characterized as a "state secret".
A senior police officer told IWPR that witnesses to the incident were first threatened and then paid 20 German marks to shut up about it. "That's true," confirmed a government official who did not want his name known. "The witnesses of the horror near Kladovo were silenced in the same way."
Kladovo in eastern Serbia is the site of another atrocity against Kosovo Albanians involving a freezer truck (BCR No. 256, 15-Jun-01). That truck, found on 7 April 1999 on the bed of the Danube, contained more than 50 bodies of men, women and children.
These civilians may be among the bodies buried at the mass grave uncovered in Petrovo Selo, 11 km west of Kladovo. On June 29, district public prosecutor Miroslav Srzentic said 74 corpses had been dug out, though there were no children among them.
According to IWPR's source in the Serbian government, a third freezer truck filled with Albanians was sunk in the Danube in April 1999, not far from Djerdap hydroelectric dam. "We have the witnesses," he said, "and the investigation will follow soon."
The locations of all four episodes are within easy reach of the N752 highway that links Kladovo, via Nis, with Pristina.
The same source said VJ members drove some of the freezer trucks, "Do you know what their officers told them to do? Collect the bodies in a pile, splash them with petrol and burn them. When they found that not everything would burn, those young men had to load them onto trucks with shovels."
Three VJ soldiers, responsible for the grisly task, are currently in the Military Academy Hospital in Belgrade. In their medical records - which IWPR has read - doctors say the men are suffering from grave psychological disorders "caused by the burial of corpses".
Meanwhile, the excavation of another mass grave continued at the Serbian interior ministry training ground at Batajnica, 18 km northwest of Belgrade, according to Djordje Alempijevic from the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Alempijevic conducted forensic work at the first mass grave in Batajnica in June, when between 36 and 38 corpses were exhumed.
"We are still identifying the spots and initial digs," he said. "We removed the surface, and it is evident that something is there. We found some human bones. But I cannot predict how many corpses could be there."
Investigators from The Hague tribunal are attending the exhumation. Prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann said that they will remain in Serbia until all the bodies brought from Kosovo and buried in Batajnica have been counted. "Our goal is that the complete truth should be established," she added.
Over ten hours of video footage was shot during the exhumation of the first mass grave in Batajnica in early June. An edited tape was passed to the prosecution in The Hague shortly before Milosevic's extradition.
And the secrets are still spilling out. On July 17, Serbian police minister Dusan Mihajlovic told a press conference that three brothers named Bytyqi, all US citizens of Albanian origin, were among bodies exhumed at Petrovo Selo.
"In one of the two investigated graves, three male corpses were found with their hands tied and eyes covered," said Mihajlovic. "These bodies were more preserved than others, and there were firearm wounds in the region of their heads." The written verdict of a judge in Kursumlija, dated 27 June 1999, was found in the jacket of one of the corpses. It sentenced them to 15 days imprisonment for violating their foreigners' stay permits.
The killings of the Bytyqi brothers and the others in the grave clearly took place after the Kumanovo peace agreement was signed, ending the conflict in Kosovo.
None of this bodes well for Slobodan Milosevic, but nor can General Pavkovic or President Kostunica himself feel entirely at ease. Kostunica consistently blocked Milosevic's extradition and is now resisting moves to replace Pavkovic. Kostunica also appears ambivalent about the bodies now being dug up from mass graves across Serbia.
When the Serbian police claimed that these are the remains of Kosovo Albanians, the president condemned the statement as "premature and irresponsible". He urged the Serbian Justice Ministry not to hand the bodies over to the UN in Kosovo "because they could be victims of Serbian nationality".
Ivan Nikolic is a correspondent for the Belgrade daily Danas
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight
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.