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The Reckoning

Robert Fisk was Nato's sternest critic during the war in Kosovo. This month he went back to the killing fields. In a major new series of reports, he searches for the truth behind the propaganda and counts the conflict's real human cost
It was a sinister place, a small farmyard with two dirty haystacks and the wind blasting fog through the old wooden gateway, down from Mount Golesh. Huddled beside a shed, Bajram Isufi knew the secret of his little farm. "A KLA man saw the Serb police digging graves here on 18 and 19 April," he said. "I don't know who they buried, but I feel very bad. This is our home."

In the British Army Land Rover, they had all the tools of exhumation. Extraction equipment (1 box), bamboo sticks (1 box), trowels (10), small brushes, picks (2). The tape said "crime scene" and who were we to deny it?

Then it rained: heavy, dark rain that splattered the capes of the Canadian policemen and the uniform of the American cop from Wyoming and the British bomb-disposal men - with their screaming, whining metal detector - and the Kosovo Albanian pathologists and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) officials and the guy from the war crimes tribunal.

This was a joint operation, bringing a fledgeling Albanian crime lab into being, right here in this freezing swamp. And a few minutes after some local men had hacked away at the mud with shovels there came forth, from beside the haystack, an evil smell. We peered into the grave. No one knew who he was, pasty-faced and dead these seven months, his blue jeans and boots still intact, just as he had put them on the day he died.

The Kosovo Albanian - he was perhaps 30 - had been buried in a blue-and- grey rug, probably the blanket used to carry his corpse from the back of a truck. Somewhere beneath us in the muck of the farmyard lay another 10 corpses, so the crime men believed. The cop from Wyoming turned to a colleague. "Will you ask them to bring up the bone wagon?"

There are a lot of bone wagons on the move in Kosovo right now. Though winter is frosting over the mass graves, the UN and the OSCE and war crimes men and women and the embryo Albanian authorities can still open the occasional killing-field - when the rain or the sun melts the ice from the earth.

Of 500 potential grave sites, 150 have been opened and, no, we have not found the 100,000 "missing" declared by President Clinton, or the lower but probably equally preposterous figure of 10,000 advanced by Robin Cook and repeated by the BBC. There are thousands still under the ground. When I asked one man from the international war crimes tribunal what he thought of the estimate of a Spanish official, who packed up and went home after finding fewer than 200 corpses - that there may not be many more than 2,000 Albanian dead - he looked at me contemptuously. "Bollocks," he said.

The bomb-disposal boys were dipping mugs into a jerry-can of steaming coffee, ignoring the smell that now enveloped us. Another Bajram, Bajram Krasniqi, head of the Kosovo Albanian "commission for war crimes and missing people", watched a Briton and an American lifting the body from the grave. Krasniqi is a lawyer by profession, and his institution has as much reason correctly to calculate the number of dead as it has politically to exaggerate the figures.

Krasniqi is the KLA leader Hashem Thaci's man at the grave sites, and the statistics pour from him in thunderous announcements, in the voice of a man who likes talking to audiences. "We have more than 10,000 photographs of graves, sites and bodies, and more than 300 hours of video, and we share all our evidence with the war crimes tribunal. From survivors who are giving us testimonies, we calculate there were 6,000 Kosovo Albanians killed in the three months of the war and perhaps 2,000 still in Serbian prisons. In the 12 months before the war, there were 1,000 killed."

But then the figures became a little vague. The total of dead and missing becomes 7,000 rather than 8,000; the figure of pre-war killings rises from 1,000 to 2,000. Krasniqi explains that the numbers are not exact because bodies were removed after their original interment.

"At Izbica during the war, the KLA found 147 bodies of civilians killed by the Serbs and they buried them and videotaped the burials. Then the Serbs came back and dug them up, and we don't know where the bodies are." On some occasions, Serb police buried the dead in old graveyards, Krasniqi said, hoping that they'd remain undiscovered. "They didn't believe the Yugoslav army would leave Kosovo so quickly. They originally planned to take the bodies with them."

Is this true? Could this possibly be true? Were the Serb paramilitary and interior ministry cops really planning to haul thousands of dead Albanians out of Kosovo in trucks and lorries while Nato bombed them from the air? I am literally shaking my head in disbelief when a war-crimes investigator motions towards his vehicle. "I want to show you something," he says, and we bounce over the farm track towards Glogovac and the old ferro- nickel mine and, just above it, another rain-soaked, muddy hill.

Perhaps 50 people are standing amid row after row of graves, some wearing rubber gloves, searching through plastic bags. The bags contain the clothes of the dead and I watch a young girl pulling gently at the belt on a pair of trousers. And I know what she is thinking: that the dead man threaded this belt, perhaps only a few hours before he died; that this was one of his last acts on earth, the mundane, everyday act of a man who did not expect to die within hours.

"There are 118 bodies here," the war crimes man says to me as the rain gutters down our faces and clothes. "We've numbered them all and matched the clothes in the bags to the bodies. But, you know something very strange? Some of the clothes the bodies were dressed in didn't match the wounds. We found men with one bullet wound wearing a shirt with two bullet holes - and men with two bullet wounds in clothes with only one bullet hole..." Why, I asked, would their killers do such a thing? The war-crimes man shrugged. "To make it difficult for us?" he asked.

At least 50 of the dead were executed a few hundred metres away, on a cliff edge above the water-filled quarries of the mine, then buried in lines inside an old trench. They were dug up and brought to the hill of Ciktova e Vjeta where 68 bodies had already been discovered, and were given temporary burial here by the Albanians.

"But there was little earth on them, and the dogs came, and the children in the school over there saw all this, and we helped to arrange the proper burials today." I look at the girl again, and she is shaking her head slowly. Then a small man with a rough beard approaches us. "The clothes in my relative's grave do not belong to him," he says. Another man makes the same complaint. The war-crimes man insists that all the clothes were matched with the correct bodies.

Last night, it seems, some of the bodies may have been disturbed, and the awful thought crosses my mind: why, after all, would anyone disturb a mass grave? Had someone thought there might be a few Deutschmarks in the pockets of the long-dead, I ask? The war crimes man looks harshly out the window of our vehicle.

Across this great, damp land, on the other side of Pristina, they are digging in an old graveyard, and I see poor Azemina Mirena staring through the drizzle. She is 52 and last saw her husband, Ismet, on 21 April. "The Serbs came into our house at Nakarada on that day and took him away - some of the Serbs were our neighbours.

"They wore masks, but I recognised some by their voices... They put Ismet and the others on military trucks. Since the end of the war, I've gone to lawyers, the Red Cross. They know nothing. Some Kosovo journalists said he might be here." And Mrs Mirena looked blankly through the rain at the men digging in the graveyard.

It was 20 minutes before an American pathologist walked up to us. "We have found two small pieces of bone," she said. "They were old." So Ismet Mirena is not here. Nor are the other men his wife saw loaded into the green military truck on 21 April. The yellow "crime scene" tape is taken down; the bomb-disposal men put their little screaming machine into their Land Rover.

It is an odd moment, an army of investigators simply abandoning an old graveyard to look for another. What was it Mr Krasniqi said to me? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? Perhaps only 6,000. And I recall how - debating these terrible figures in Belgrade - a Serb woman admonished me. "You cannot say `only' when you are counting even 2,000. In that context,`only' is an obscene word."