Kosovo Atrocity ‘Cover-up'

Author: IWPR contributors in Belgrade and London
Uploaded: Tuesday, 14 January, 2003

Important IWPR report on the failure of Serbian authorities to investigate properly who bears responsibility for the killing - and subsequent attempted cover-up - of Kosovars found in mass graves and refrigerator trucks across Serbia and RS since 1999.

The mass graves at the Batajnica are not a sight for those with weak nerves and sensitive stomachs. A semicircular tent covers the excavation pit, which exudes an almost unbearably strong smell. The stench comes from the bodies of what are believed to be Kosovo Albanians murdered during the conflict there with Serbian forces in 1999, and then transported north as part of an alleged cover-up to ensure the world never knew of the atrocities.

The first exhumed grave in the Batajnica police camp - used to train special anti-terrorist units (SAJ) - lies in a field close to the right bank of the Danube. The other four are close by, next to one another, at the far end of a firing range, which is about 300 metres long. This space is about 50 by 30 metres and is ringed by a high fence on three sides, made of earth supported by wooden buttresses. (Two other pits have been dug but no bodies were discovered)

The path to the firing range leads through a Yugoslav army barracks and training grounds. Only those who are thoroughly screened twice and possess a special court order can pass through. Until now, no one from the media has been granted access. One journalist was sent back without getting
anywhere in spite of the fact that she was accompanied by The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.

When an IWPR contributor, the first journalist allowed to attend the exhumation, arrived at the excavation site, one of about 300 bodies was being exhumed from the largest grave, known as Batajnica 5. A shapeless, black, glittering mass about 2.5 metres down immediately caught the reporter's eye. It was a mass of plastic bags containing bodies. They had been buried in layers. Some had clearly been pushed into the grave by people, while others had been shoved in by diggers, or tipped in by dumper truck.

The tracks of heavy-duty vehicles and traces of bulldozer blades could still be seen near the surface. Someone had clearly attempted to burn the bodies before they were covered up, according to an IWPR source - a member of large team of experts comprising archaeologists and staff from the
Belgrade Institute for Forensic Medicine. The team is the part of International Commission on Missing Persons, in charge of exhumations and autopsies. The names of the team are being kept secret, as there are people in Serbia who are still very unhappy that the Batajnica exhumations are even taking place.

The archaeologists begin the exhumation procedure by removing the surface layer of soil with the most up-to-date techniques, and then defining the pit and the bodies' positions. The remains found in this space are mapped after which a computer simulation of the grave is made. The bodies are then dug up and the clothing and the remains of soft tissue removed. Then follows the examination and autopsy, as well as the anthropological analysis of the skeletons. This procedure is carried out in the tent, about 10 meters from the grave. Two tables are reserved for the exhumation team. Medical documentation is compiled at a fourth table on a computer. Various entries are made - gender, age, height, condition of teeth as well as other elements that may identify the body.

The IWPR source said, ‘Our aim is to determine the cause of death. Wounds inflicted by firearms were found on a number of mainly male bodies exhumed from Batajnica 5. We put together the photo-documentation and a video recording and we send all this to the court. Bone samples are also taken after the examination which can, on a court order, be used for the DNA analysis.' He showed this reporter photographs on a computer screen of items found in the grave, such as jackets, jumpers, trousers, ID cards, drivers' licences, health-insurance cards, keys, money, cigarette-cases and jewellery. Then, he picked out a wallet containing an almost undamaged ID card, an address book with phone numbers and photographs of two young men and a girl. The ID card belonged to a middle-aged man, Albanian, from the Djakovica region. ‘We took photos of all these items and this album can be shown to the relatives of the missing through the International Red Cross,' the source said.

At the Batajnica firing range, archaeologists opened another two pits this summer, Batajnica 4 and Batajnica 6, but it turned out that no bodies had been buried in them. The earth from Batajnica 4 was used to fill up Batajnica 5, whose bodies were dumped in Batajnica 6 and burned. In the latter grave, many car tires alongside piles of human bones were discovered. It has yet to be determined how many bodies were burnt on this pyre. Burnt car tires were also found in other Batajnica graves, but the method of burning the bodies used in Batajnica 1 was different from that used in the other graves. Car tires had been placed at the bottom of this pit, which is about 7 meters wide and 2.5 deep, and covered by planks with nylon sheeting on top. The bodies had then thrown on top of them and doused in petrol. This apparent attempt to cover up evidence had not been successful.
Because the bodies had previously lain in the water, they had become so waterlogged that the fire did not destroy them. It is thought that some of the bodies from the freezer truck that surfaced in the Danube in April 1999 ended up in Batajnica 1.

How The Bodies Got to Batajnica

The bodies now being excavated in Batajnica, are all believed to be victims of atrocities committed in the Kosovo conflict two years ago. The ‘clean up' is understood to have been organised by Slobodan Milosevic's officials to destroy evidence of widespread massacres Serbian forces committed in Kosovo in 1999.

The massacre revelations began with the publication in May 2001 of a story in a small local magazine in Zajecar, in eastern Serbia. The Timocka Krimi Revija (Timocka Criminal Review) reported that a refrigerated lorry containing some 50 corpses had been pulled out of the Danube at Kladovo, in eastern Serbia, in April 1999 and that the Milosevic regime had hushed up the whole business. The magazine said the corpses appeared to have come from Kosovo. Intriguingly, the owner of the paper, Dragan Vitomirovic, who died recently in a car accident, said early in 2001 that he had offered the story to a Belgrade-based privately-owned weekly close to the Serbian government. Vitomirovic never revealed the name of the title. Vitomirovic was a former member of Serbia's state security service.After making the aforementioned proposal, he was visited in Zajecar by two current state security officials from Belgrade who told him to say nothing about the case and refrain from publishing any information and articles, Vitomirovic is reported to have said.

News of the freezer lorry spread like wildfire after it was published, as the public had never been informed before about Serbian atrocities. The Serbian interior ministry formed a working group charged with investigating the circumstances surrounding the case, under Dragan Karleusa, deputy chief of the police unit combating organised crime. The media made the story headline news. They also attempted to investigate the case, though with only limited success. In May 2001, Radio B92 interviewed the man who gave Timocka its exclusive story. Zivojin Djordjevic was the diver who had found the lorry in 1999. The station also spoke to Milivoj Srzentic, the new district prosecutor in Negotin, where the lorry was found.

‘It was a Mercedes lorry - the name of the meat processing company from Pec was written in Albanian on the cabin,' Djordjevic told B92. ‘The licence plates were from Pec. A huge stone had been placed on the accelerator pedal to send the truck plunging into the water.' He added, ‘When the lorry was pulled out and the doors of the freezer opened, corpses slid out. There were numerous bodies of women, children and old people. Some women wore Turkish trousers, so
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