Body Of Evidence

The cover-up began in the gloom of night, shortly after NATO launched its Kosovo bombing campaign in March 1999. A Serbian manager at the sanitation department in the southern Kosovo town of Prizren barged into the homes of four employees and roused them from sleep. The sanitation workers, all Gypsies (or Roma), were packed into a white van and driven to the Yugoslav military's rifle range on the outskirts of town. As they emerged from the van into the freezing rain, and saw police and Army officers milling about, the four men wondered if they were about to become the next victims of the Serbian rampage.

The rifle range was illuminated only by a pile of burning tires that spewed foul, dark smoke. But the Gypsy workers could see the silhouette of a backhoe at work in the distance. As they moved closer, it slowly became clear what the Serbian authorities were up to, and why they had summoned a sanitation crew. The Serbs were exhuming a mass grave. A white refrigerator truck pulled up, and the sanitation workers were ordered to load it. "Hurry, hurry," shouted their Serbian taskmaster, nicknamed "Buda." It was a nightmarish task: in the dim light, the excavator sliced through bodies, scooping up some without arms or legs, cutting others in half.

A massive campaign to erase the evidence of Serbian crimes in Kosovo continued for two months, until the war ended on June 20. Refrigerated trucks made repeated shuttles between Kosovo and Serbia, hauling corpses away from the sites of massacres because the Serbs feared that NATO troops might discover the bodies. Many mass graves were exhumed. At least one truck stuffed with 86 dead civilians was dumped into the Danube northeast of Belgrade. A NEWSWEEK investigation into the cover-up, focusing mainly on the botched disposal of corpses from a massacre at the village of Suva Reka in Kosovo, indicates that it was directed from the highest levels of the Serbian leadership in Belgrade. In fact, it appears that Slobodan Milosevic himself gave the order for the cover-up campaign on March 26, the day of the slaughter in Suva Reka.

How important is the evidence of this cover-up, given that the atrocities themselves are so well known? Few people in the NATO countries of the United States and Europe, anyway, can doubt that Milosevic is guilty of orchestrating war crimes in the Balkans. But the legal case before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague is less airtight than some might believe. This is a trial, like Nuremberg more than half a century ago, that will reverberate for many decades to come. It is the first war-crimes trial of a former head of state. The trial could set important precedents for international law--or, perhaps somewhat like Nuremberg, it could come to be viewed as legally dubious, mere victor's justice. Certainly that was what Milosevic had in mind during his first appearance before the court, when he stated in broken English: "I consider this tribunal false tribunal."

An extraordinary onus is on the judges and prosecutors to conduct a trial that not only brings justice, but is also perceived to be just. As a result, much depends on proving Milosevic's complicity in a few documented massacres like Suva Reka, prosecutors say. In interviews, they now concede they have not yet been able to directly connect Milosevic to earlier war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia that were often carried out by proxy militias. In the Serbian province of Kosovo, by contrast, there was a formal chain of command between Milosevic and the people carrying out deportations and massacres. As it stands now, Milosevic faces three counts of crimes against humanity, and one count of violation of the laws or customs of war. And the chain of command may be enough, in and of itself, to convict. (Even if Milosevic didn't directly order the massacres, it may be argued, he should have known about the ethnic-cleansing campaign and stopped it.) But good defense lawyers can cast doubt on even the best-looking cases. So for the trial to be fully convincing, prosecutors will need to establish more than indirect responsibility. That is why fresh evidence of a cover-up could be vital: the details of the campaign to hide corpses include the first apparent evidence--in the public domain, at least--directly implicating Milosevic in the crimes committed under his command.

The four Gypsies shoveling corpses on that rainy night in late March were part of an orchestrated if badly bungled effort to eliminate evidence from a horrific slaughter in and around the village of Suva Reka in southern Kosovo. The accounts of the killings come directly from survivors (and were first reported in NEWSWEEK in June 1999). In one gruesome incident, the Serbs killed 49 people from one extended family. In the dry, bloodless language of the tribunal indictment, the story of the Berisha family massacre unfolds like this:

"The police ordered the occupants out of the houses. Men were separated from women and children, and six members of the family were killed. The remaining family members were herded towards a coffee shop by Serbian forces. Those family members were herded, along with three extended Berisha family groups, into the coffee shop. Serbian gunmen then walked into the coffee shop and opened fire on the persons inside. Explosives were also thrown into the shop. At least 34 civilians were killed and others seriously wounded."

That night the Serbs loaded the corpses onto a truck headed for the Prizren town dump, according to participants. Three survivors who had played dead dug themselves free of the pile of bodies and rolled off the truck. When the driver of the truck realized that survivors had escaped, he radioed his superiors for instructions; they diverted the truck to the Army rifle range, where the bodies were dumped into several pits.

But in Belgrade that same day, Milosevic met with worried police and Army brass. Deputy Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Vlastimir Djordjevic warned that Yugoslav forces might soon have to surrender Kosovo, according to a Yugoslav source familiar with the meeting. Djordjevic cautioned that NATO forces would find corpses in many places--including victims between 2 days and 2 years old that could be used as evidence of war crimes. (The Suva Reka victims included a woman eight months pregnant, and six children under the age of 5.) "Take care of it," Milosevic told the group, according to Dusan Mihajlovic, Serbia's reformist Interior minister, who learned about the meeting from participants. That account of the meeting was confirmed by a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade, who told NEWSWEEK that the order to remove evidence "was done from the very top." He also says that a tape of the meeting was provided to The Hague. (Two participants are certain to be called on to testify on the decision: retired Lt. Gen. Rade Markovic, at the time chief of state security, and retired Lt. Gen. Geza Farkas, then head of Army security. Djordjevic himself has fled to Russia. Another participant is under indictment by the tribunal at The Hague for the war in Kosovo.)

Fortunately for investigators, the Serbs were as sloppy in their cleanup as they were in their killing. It was well into the night before the four Gypsies finished the job at the Kroni Popit rifle range, where they loaded what they estimated to be 60 to 80 corpses into the truck. The Gypsies, by their own accounts, were then ordered to the Prizren town dump, where they loaded the remains of an additional 20 to 30 people--presumably victims from the Suva Reka area--into a second refrigerator truck. The bodies then were supposed to be disposed of, and never seen again. But in early April, a fisherman on the Danube spotted one of the two trucks--with markings from the Progres food-processing firm in Prizren--floating in the river. According to later investigations, the driver had brought the truck to the riverbank, placed a rock to the gas pedal, and sent it sputtering into the water. But nobody had thought to shoot holes in the truck or its tires, and it floated away. Local police in the town of Kladovo recovered the truck from the river, expecting to find a load of meat. But when they smashed open one of the doors to the container, out fell a human leg.

The police quickly realized that the decomposing bodies in the truck were Kosovo Albanians, and called their superiors in Belgrade for instructions. From there, Milosevic's security apparatus again took over. According to Dragan Karleusa, chief investigator for the Serbian Interior Ministry, Deputy Interior Minister Djordjevic instructed local police to treat the incident as a state secret. Eventually, on Djordjevic's orders, the 86 corpses were transported to Batajnica, north of Belgrade, a base for the Yugoslav military and Milosevic's elite "antiterrorism" police, Karleusa told NEWSWEEK. The bodies were then placed on wooden beams, covered with tires, doused with gasoline and burned. The truck itself was blown up at an elite police base in Petrovo Selo, in eastern Serbia.

Mass graves like those at Batajnica, filled with bodies from various Kosovo massacres, are now being unearthed in at least four locations around Serbia. One truckload appears to have been dumped in a NATO bomb crater on the main Belgrade-to-Athens highway and then paved over. Reformist leaders in Belgrade used the new evidence of mass graves to help prepare the public for its decision to hand Milosevic over to the tribunal at The Hague. But since his hasty transfer and his defiant first appearance, sympathy for Milosevic has bounced back to 50 percent.

That doesn't bode well for the trial itself. In the thinking of the war-crimes tribunal, the prosecution of Milosevic may make it possible for ordinary Albanians and Serbs to face up to what happened and once again live together. Yet many Serbs remain defiant, and Albanian Kosovars are deeply dissatisfied. "I'm not interested in Milosevic," says Halid Berisha, whose brother Geshar was among the victims in Suva Reka. "Someone did the actual killing and he should be tried. It's not Milosevic's fault; it's all the Serbs' fault."

Many witnesses know the actual killers in Suva Reka. Hague officials have collected depositions from witnesses accusing Milorad (Misko) Nisavic, Zoran Petkovic, Boban Vuksanovic and Slobodan Krtic of being the key figures and the actual killers. Nisavic is now running a driving school in Kraguljevac in southern Serbia. Petkovic now lives in Pancevo, a suburb of Belgrade. Krtic's whereabouts are unknown. Vuksanovic was killed in a KLA reprisal ambush only a few weeks after the massacres.

Even now one of the survivors, Vjollca Berisha, bursts into tears at any discussion of the massacre. With her 8-year-old son Gramos, Vjollca managed to roll off the truck taking the victims to the mass grave at the rifle range. "Why didn't I die? Why am I the one to survive?" she asks. Her children Dafina and Drilon, who were 15 and 13 at the time of the massacre, are among those presumed dead. Vjollca never actually saw them die, and still feels guilty about jumping off with only Gramos. She knows Drilon was on the truck, and that he had been shot, but she doesn't know if he was dead when she escaped. The body of Vjollca's husband, Sedat, was found not far from her house.

Vjollca doesn't expect the trial to change anything. "For me it's nothing if Milosevic is prosecuted," she says. "My life is destroyed whether he is punished, or the individuals who did this are punished. It doesn't matter. Nothing will bring my children back." Still, she plans to testify at The Hague tribunal, and has given depositions to investigators. Last week The Hague's investigators were back in Suva Reka, taking additional testimony. Vjollca is likely to be a key part of the case prosecutors make against Milosevic in the Berisha massacre--and against the actual killers if they ever go to trial. The question is whether for her, as for Milosevic himself, the verdict at The Hague will amount to more than victor's justice.