Serbs swapped clothes of murdered Albanians to confuse investigators

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 18 July 2001 00:00
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When the Yugoslav army pulled out of Kosovo in June of 1999, they took their equipment with them, undamaged, unscratched by Nato's bombs. The convoys were, for the most part, a Boy's Own paper of Russian weaponry – BMP armoured vehicles, tracked radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and batteries of white-tipped Sam-6 missiles alongside Frog ground-to-ground rockets. Under Nato's agreement – designed, of course, to prevent a single Nato soldier being scratched in conflict – the Serb paramilitaries also left unmolested.

So we saw the drunken and hooded gunmen leave with the army, the "White Eagles" swigging beer on the back of their trucks, "Frenkie's Boys" – the principal murderers, along with the "MUP" interior ministry police – and some truckloads of what looked suspiciously like loot. And there, among the columns – diligently watched over by Nato troops – were refrigerated trucks.

I remember that a colleague asked me what they contained. I shrugged. All armies carry stores, frozen foods. We frowned at each other and watched several of the white refrigerated lorries passing up the main road east of Luzane in those hot, lazy June days after the war. It occurred to us that if the Yugoslav army had taken serious casualties – which they denied – then the bodies of soldiers might have been in those vehicles.

So what was inside? The Independent's revelations of mass reburials and body-transports of Albanian victims of the Serb "ethnic cleansers" of Kosovo added a new dimension to the charges levelled against Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague last week. But our first suspicions – based on real evidence on the ground (or perhaps "under the ground" would be the correct expression) – came only a few months after the Serbian retreat. I had returned to the province of Kosovo to record the search for bodies; and even now, when I go back through my notes of October 1999, I shudder at their implications. It was cold, wet, and the war crimes investigators – Los Angeles police morticians, a Warwickshire policeman, a Dutch cop, a whole range of made-for-television law enforcement officers – were attacking the earth with shovels and picks.

At issue then were the statistics. During the war, President Clinton talked of 100,000 "missing". The Foreign Office stuck to 10,000 "possible" dead. That there were thousands of Albanians murdered was not in doubt. When I asked a British investigator what he thought of a Spanish official's estimate of not more than 2,000 dead, he replied, "Bollocks". Then, beside the grave of an Albanian dug up near Mount Golesh, I found a Kosovo Albanian lawyer, Bajram Krasniqi, the graves investigator for the Kosovo Liberation Army leader, Hashem Thaci. He claimed that, in all, perhaps 8,000 Albanians had been murdered. Then he said something quite extraordinary. "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, Mr Krasniqi said, Serb police buried the dead in old graveyards, hoping they would remain undiscovered. "They didn't believe the Yugoslav army would leave Kosovo so quickly," he said. "They originally planned to take the bodies with them."

On 19 November 1999, I reported his words in The Independent, adding my own gloss. "Is this true?" I wrote. "Could this possibly be true? Were the Serb paramiliary 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?" And I reported how I literally shook my head in disbelief when a war crimes investigator – an inspector from a Midlands constabulary in Britain – motioned me towards his vehicle.

"I want to show you something," he said. And we set off for Glogovac and a rain-soaked, muddy hill above a ferro-nickel mine. There were 50 people standing there, amid row after row of graves. Relatives, mothers and fathers, identifying trousers and shirts and belts. "There are 118 bodies here," the policeman said. "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." I asked the policeman why their killers would do such a thing. He shrugged. "To make it difficult for us?" he asked.

All this I reported in The Independent back in November, 1999. But neither investigators nor journalists could yet grasp the extent of the cover-up, the deliberate, pre-planned attempt to confuse the war crimes men. The Warwickshire cop only suspected the truth. This was long before the corpse-stuffed refrigerated lorry was found in the Danube and the mass grave of Batajnica was opened. And I recall Mr Krasniqi, back in October of 1999, talking about 2,000 Albanian prisoners still "missing" in Serbia. Were they missing. Or were they secretly buried?

Looking back on it, there was a logic to the incomprehension which both the first war crimes investigators and the journalists shared. The Serbs treated the Albanians like dogs. A murdered Albanian would be left at the side of the road, surely, or thrown into a mass grave. Refrigerated trucks were supposed to preserve bodies, to take them home to loved ones. A refrigerated truck is something you use to look after those you care for prior to burial, not for your enemies. That this logic was overturned by the Serb interior ministry police shows either the extent of our innocence or their criminality.

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