Dead bodies on the move
by Milos Vasic
The graves were dug and covered over in secret, all in the hope that they would never be found. Some were ashamed - or scared. But others did not want to remain silent, since their shame was stronger than their fear. Nikola, the man in this story, did not want to remain silent.
The man does have a name and a surname, but let’s call him Nikola. He chose that name himself in May 1999, fearing for his life; Milosevic’s guns had a long reach during that year. The man is about forty and comes from eastern Serbia. His story is simple and dry; he sticks to what he heard himself and saw with his own eyes, first hand. He knows that in one short moment of decision, he changed the rest of his life. For there are some things with which a person can no longer live.
Nikola was mobilised as a reservist in early February 1999 [i.e. over a month before the NATO intervention] and was posted to the barracks at Bor, not far from where he lived anyway.
Always at night
‘Because I was a driver during my army days, as soon as I reported for duty I was given an empty refrigerator truck with orders to drive it down to Kosovo, to a prisoner-of-war camp. As soon as I got there, some general led me aside and started questioning me. For almost an hour he asked me about my past, my political beliefs, whether I’d ever been abroad, and all the rest of the usual questions: am I a patriot, do I want to defend my country, and so on. Since I’d done my military service, I knew the answers to those questions from before. While we were talking, the refrigerator truck was loaded and sealed somewhere - I don’t know where, they never used to let me go anywhere near it - and then brought back. I wasn’t supposed to ask questions, just drive. I drove on that route from Kosovo to Bor about ten times. I found it odd that a big truck was being driven to and fro like that, while the fighting in Kosovo was still going on: there was a shortage of people, vehicles and supplies -and I was driving an empty truck back.
I soon realised something wasn’t right. I’d bring an empty truck from Bor. In the camp - full of soldiers, police and various paramilitary units from God knows where - a policeman would sit behind the wheel and drive it off somewhere. Then he’d bring it back loaded and sealed, with a travel order that, against all the rules, just had written on it ‘Confidential!’ and nothing else. I always drove from Kosovo to Bor at night. I’d hand over the truck to the police at the entrance to the copper-smelting plant at the Bor Basin Mining and Smelting Complex. Then I’d wait by the gate for them to bring back the empty truck. I soon realised I was transporting corpses - that didn’t take much brains. It was clear to me where the corpses came from; what wasn’t clear was where they ended up when the truck was unloaded at Bor. I presumed they were being burned in the furnaces used for smelting copper, but perhaps they weren’t... Perhaps they were being buried somewhere on the grounds of the mine; there were lots of opencast excavations there, lots of waste tips, lots of places where a mass grave could be dug... I don’t know what happened to the corpses afterwards. I only know that I could no longer stand it. I started having panic attacks and nightmares. Like: I’m driving the truck, and someone from inside who isn’t dead stands up and comes at me gun in hand to kill me. I couldn’t go on. Besides, I was scared they might kill me once the job was done - as a witness, sooner or later - what was it to them to kill a man?
When I came to a decision, I sought help from two friends in my village whom I trusted. We arranged to meet in a secluded spot not far from Bor. I drove faster, since there was a set time by which I had to report to the police at the entrance to the smelting plant and I wanted to avoid suspicion; I saved half an hour for the whole business. My friends were waiting for me as we’d arranged, and as I changed into my ordinary clothes they opened the refrigerator truck. It was full of corpses, to within about half a metre of the roof. My friends photographed the inside of the truck, then I ran away while they drove it to a safer place and counted the corpses. There were 78 of them: mainly civilians, one woman among them, but also three VJ soldiers. My friends recognised one of them, a young man from our town.’
Escape from Serbia
The night before, Nikola had told his wife what he was going to do and asked her to go to Republika Srpska. Whatever the outcome of opening the refrigerator truck might be, he thought that both of them could be in danger. And so they were. Nikola then crossed over into Republika Srpska. He doesn’t want to reveal the details of his journey, but he hints that he managed to get false Bosnian documents there for himself and his wife. He doesn’t know what happened to the truck afterwards, or perhaps he doesn’t want to say in order to protect his friends. Nor does he tell us how many photographs were taken that night, but he shows us two good ones, in which you can see the legs and shoes of corpses piled almost to the top of the truck. He wouldn’t say either how many photographs he took with him.
Nikola and his wife left Republika Srpska for Croatia in early May 1999, i.e. nearly three months after his decision to open the truck. Where they were and what they did during those three months, Nikola refuses to say. Once he arrived in Croatia, however, his journey became easier to trace: he sought help from a humanitarian organisation of reformed Christians, which put him in touch with a lawyer from Zagreb known for his moral integrity and concern for human-rights issues. The lawyer proceeded very cautiously, and contacted certain diplomatic representatives who - he suspected, or perhaps even knew - had close relations with the Hague Tribunal. For reasons of operational security and justified mistrust of the Croatian government and its feelings towards the Tribunal, making contact took several days of careful work.
Around 20 May 1999 Nikola entered the Zagreb embassy of one of the big powers. The meeting that followed took place in the specially protected ‘clean room’ of the embassy, in the presence of heavily armed, uniformed security guards. Nikola told his story and showed his photographs, but absolutely refused to let them out of his hands. His interviewers asked for a few days to check the authenticity of the photographs: only then could they offer him personal protection and get him out of Croatia to a third country. Nikola asked them to take him and his wife out of Croatia first: only then would he give them all the details and photographs, and answer the many additional questions they had for him. The negotiations took some time, but eventually the representatives of the big power in question accepted Nikola’s conditions; apparently the photographs were too convincing for them not to do so. Quietly and discreetly Nikola and his wife were escorted to an EU country, where they continue to live under the protection of that country’s very effective secret service.
By retracing Nikola’s route, Vreme was able in Zagreb and elsewhere to confirm the whole story, and also to acquire the additional information detailed in those parts of the foregoing text not enclosed in inverted comas. In response to repeated enquiries from our reporter, sources from the investigative bodies of the Hague Tribunal - two investigators, one of whom is directly involved in the case - reluctantly confirmed that they do have the witness in question and that his story is genuine. During a number of interviews with both former and current officials in FRY and Serbia, Vreme gained a well-founded impression that neither Milosevic’s régime nor the new authorities were aware of Nikola’s existence, let alone of the whole story. This is just one illustration of the slovenly, superficial, seedy tactics of the Milosevic régime in such matters. In the period from 1991 to 5 October 2000, his officials were not even capable of committing war crimes properly: here people escape from mass executions (Ovcara 1991), there masses of witnesses are left behind (Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo - throughout the wars), elsewhere their own executioners sing (the Erdemovic case) or witnesses come to the conclusion that they are better off handing themselves in and seeking protection. Other people lost their nerve, disobeyed orders, dumped a refrigerator truck in the Danube and ran off God knows where. Leaving aside the sudden feeling of panic among certain key figures involved in the dirty history of our martial glories over the past ten years, it is not surprising that all of a sudden a series of mass graves are being discovered that were believed to be buried forever, or that people are ever more frequently committing public offences that suggest they want to be arrested while they are still alive...
Nikola’s story goes exactly as it has been revealed here, according to his personal testimony and the additional statements of ‘honourable people and reliable witnesses’ (Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovic ). Whether or not - or to what extent - this story constitutes true evidence of crime, Vreme has not been able to confirm absolutely for various reasons, of which two will do: the Hague Tribunal grabbed Nikola before we did, and fear is still sufficiently strong among the people who would be able to clarify certain details. But that does not relieve us of the obligation to analyse what we do have. Above all there are the photographs which Nikola and his friends took, and which have passed every test - otherwise the Tribunal would have shown him the door (just remember the forger Cedo Mihajlovic and those ‘secret SDP documents’ that he tried to bluff the Tribunal with in 1995). We must also consider the fact that Nikola’s story has been checked and compared with all kinds of intelligence materials: the territory of Serbia in the critical period was under intensified surveillance by spy satellites, electronic devices and operatives on the ground. In other words, this story can be taken as reliable.
So where does all this leave our side? First, Nikola’s story goes to prove that the secret reburial of corpses from Kosovo began even before the outbreak of hostilities between FRY and NATO on 24 March 1999. This is likewise confirmed by the case of the refrigerator truck from the Danube. On Tuesday 19 June 2001, minister Dusan Mihajlovic announced the existence of another mass grave ‘in a completely different part of Serbia’, in addition to those already identified at the ‘13 May’ base in Batajnica and in Petrovo Selo near Kladovo. How many more still concealed mass graves shall we find?
For the problem of these mass graves lies not just in the fact of their mass character, but in the fact that they are concealed. During normal ‘clearing up’ after military operations, the corpses collected are registered, identified if possible or described in detail for further identification, and buried in known places in clearly named and numbered graves. In other words, they are not loaded secretly at night into refrigerator trucks, which will then will be driven far away to police stations or copper-smelting plants, there to be clandestinely buried or burned (the melting-point of copper is 1083 degrees Celsius). Nikola says that he had transported dozens of these trucks before he escaped The editor of Timocka krimi revija, Dragan Vitomirovic, told Glas Javnosti (Tuesday 19 June) that just one driver from that area, a retired policeman, in the period from April to June 1999 transported thousands of corpses from Kosovo to various mass graves across Serbia. The basic question is so obvious and cries so loud that it has not even occurred, as per usual, to Serbian public opinion: why were these corpses driven around Serbia secretly at night and buried furtively in police courtyards where uninvited guests do not enter? Why is everyone so scared as soon as these corpses are mentioned? The army and the police are fighting over the issue at present, shoving onto each other’s shoulders all command responsibility for what went on in Kosova.
So the case is clear: there is a well-grounded suspicion that serious crimes have been committed here, involving multiple murder (if not genocide), obstructing investigation, concealment of evidence, abuse of official positions to protect murderers or their associates, forcing others to commit crimes. As for infringement of communal and sanitary regulations on the transport and burial of the dead, concealment of evidence concerning dead persons, and so on - we won’t go into those now. In comparison to the rest, these are trivial. Gradually evidence of the most horrible crimes and their concealment is coming out into the open. The problem with these dead bodies lies precisely in the fact that they know how to scream very loud and seek justice.
This article has been translated from Vreme (Belgrade), 21 June 2001. For a graphic account of the Kosova end of the operation, see ‘Body of evidence’ by Roy Gutman and Rod Nordland in news index on this site