By CARLOTTA GALLAs Spring comes to Kosovo, search for the dead resumes
May 15, 2000
DJAKOVICA, Kosovo, May 9 -- Strange men and women in white paper overalls with white vehicles and equipment have been busy in the cemetery here, carrying bodies wrapped in white numbered bags to a refrigerated van.
With winter over, teams from the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague have resumed their digging in Kosovo, searching for bodies and other clues that would back the indictment of the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and four of his top allies in Serbia on charges of genocide committed before and during NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia last spring. So far, in the 195 sites examined last year, the number of bodies found has been less than initially reported to the tribunal -- in part because of apparent Serbian tampering with the graves. But the investigators have 300 sites to examine this year and in just three weeks this spring have exhumed 160 bodies.
Of those, 120 were dug up in the cemetery at Djakovica, a town in southwestern Kosovo that is said to have experienced some of the worst violence by Serbs against Albanians during the war.
"We are exhuming those who are alleged to have been killed by war crimes, to try and find the cause of death and identify the person as best we can," said Eamon Smyth, the forensic project manager.
No relatives of those thought to be buried here chose to be present during the hot, unpleasant task of exhuming corpses. On a recent day, tribunal officials chased off three inquisitive boys with a bicycle who came to have a look.
Djakovica is the site of two of seven massacres that figure in the tribunal's indictment of Mr. Milosevic and his four allies on charges of murder, persecution and deportation.
Serbian military and police forces went on a rampage in Djakovica as NATO began its airstrikes on March 24, 1999. Six weeks later, fighting between rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces in the city prompted a second purge of the civilian population.
Some 1,500 people disappeared from Djakovica in the three months of NATO bombing. Some of those missing have turned up in Serbian jails, but most are presumed dead. Fifty of the bodies that the tribunal team exhumed here this week are unidentified, buried by Gypsy gravediggers who were ordered to do so by the Serbs. The other 70 were known, buried by family members during or after the war.
Philip Caine, director of the tribunal's investigations in Kosovo, said the first priority is to investigate sites connected with the indictment of Yugoslav leaders. But the need for relatives to know the fate of loved ones, the practical considerations of future construction avoiding mass graves and the desire for an accurate picture of the scale of Serbian violence will also drive the tribunal to probe many alleged mass graves, Mr. Caine said.
Some 3,500 people are listed as still missing from the war by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The tribunal exhumed 2,108 bodies last year, 70 percent of which were identified. There is no final count of the dead from the war, although statisticians from the University of Bordeaux, France, have estimated from what they say was an extensive survey of available data that some 9,000 people died in the 18 months from February 1998, when fighting erupted between the K.L.A. fighters and Serbian security forces.
The war crimes tribunal has reports of over 11,000 bodies in 500 graves, but generally the actual number of bodies found has been lower than that reported.
Investigators have drawn a blank at some of the sites of the most notorious alleged massacres. The village of Mala Krusa, not far from Djakovica, is one such site. A British forensic team investigated the house where the males of the village, 106 men and boys, were reportedly shot and then burned by Serbian police. No bodies were found. Last week, a team returned to the village to dig up four areas by the river where the police were reported to have dumped rubble that included remains of the dead. "We did find evidence of human remains, but very little, not enough to say 106 bodies were there," Mr. Smyth said.
At Izbica, in central Kosovo, villagers say they buried 142 bodies during the war, but Serbian policemen appear to have removed the bodies just before NATO forces arrived in Kosovo last June. The tribunal could only record evidence of tampering with the graves.
Investigators have also not been able to find most bodies from the Dubrava prison, where the police reportedly gunned down 175 Kosovo Albanian prisoners during the war. Blood on the prison floor was still evident last January, but large numbers of bodies have yet to be found.
Investigators have ruled out widespread rumors that some 700 bodies had been dumped at another site, the Trepca mine in northern Kosovo, since French teams explored the mine shafts but found no evidence.
Despite difficulties in gathering evidence, many small sites are yielding remains that match much testimony of mass killing by the Serbs, the investigators said.
"It's not the scale that matters," one said, requesting anonymity, "but the events that took place in Kosovo, which were horrendous."