Investigation 23 Apr 15

Serbia’s Kosovo Cover-Up: Who Hid the Bodies?

The Belgrade officials and policemen who took hundreds of murdered Albanians’ corpses from Kosovo to Serbia and concealed them in mass graves have never been prosecuted in their home country.

Marija Ristic, Milka Domanovic, Petrit Collaku BIRN Belgrade, Kladovo, Prizren, Izbica

Unknown graves at a cemetery in southern Kosovo in 1999. Photo: Human Rights Watch/Fred Abrahams.

On April 4, 1999, a fisherman in the eastern Serbian village of Tekija made a macabre discovery in the River Danube - a refrigerator truck, dumped in the waters, had risen to the surface.The truck had no licence plates, just a logo suggesting that it belonged to the PIK Progress Export Slaughterhouse from the Kosovo town of Prizren.

A frogman sent down to explore reported that driver’s seat was empty and a stone had been placed on the accelerator pedal. Crime scene technician Bosko ‘Bole’ Radojkovic from the nearby town of Kladovo and his police superior Milan Stevanovic both initially assumed it had been some kind of accident.

But when Radojkovic investigated further, he found the truck’s grisly cargo - not slaughtered animals, but scores of decomposing human bodies.

“At one point [the frogman] told me: ‘Bole, something like a human leg is sticking out, what should I do?’” he told Serbian police in 2001.

Inside the truck were the corpses of 86 Albanians killed by Serbian forces during President Slobodan Milosevic’s military campaign in Kosovo in 1999. They had been dumped in the Danube in what appeared to be a botched cover-up attempt.

Local police and state security officers initially tried to continue the cover-up by repainting parts of the truck and putting Serbian license plates on it. “I suggested preparing a story for the public, that those were bodies of Kurds and that the truck slid off the road after a gunshot from some soldier,” Radojkovic said.

Two days later, the problem was referred to a higher authority. A more senior police chief in the town of Bor, Caslav Golubovic, called the head of the Serbian interior ministry’s Public Security Department, Vlastimir Djordjevic. Djordjevic ordered him to conceal the incident from the public and then to send the bodies to Belgrade.

“The removal of the bodies was supposed to be done during the night in order not to be noticed,” Golubovic told police.

The covert operation started that night, when Radojkovic, his colleagues and utility workers provided by the local municipality removed 30 bodies and loaded them into a truck.

“Among the bodies there was a body of a boy aged five or six years and a girl of seven or eight years old, as well as a body of a boy of 18 to 20 years old with his hands tied behind his back and a wound from a firearm,” Radojkovic recalled.

They were acting under orders from the Serbian interior ministry – “because nothing could have been done without the interior ministry”, Milan Stevanovic, the chief of the crime department of the Kladovo police, told BIRN.

The truck was driven to the capital Belgrade early the next morning and handed over to the state security services. The next day, another truck was loaded with “53 bodies as well as three heads separated from their bodies”, Radojkovic said. It was taken to a police training centre in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica.

“Among the bodies there was a body of a boy aged five or six years and a girl of seven or eight years old.”

Serbian crime scene technician Bosko Radojkovic

The refrigerator truck in which the bodies were found was transported to a firing range at the police training centre in Petrovo Selo, near Kladovo, where it was blown up, according to Stevanovic.

“I did what I had to do, we did what we were ordered to, not just me, but all of us, including the [municipal refuse collection] workers who were engaged there,” he said.

A total of 744 bodies were uncovered two years later in mass graves at the Batajnica police training centre. A further 75 were found at a police training centre in Petrovo Selo and 84 in Lake Perucac in western Serbia, while 54 more were exhumed last year from a quarry near Raska in the south - all victims of Milosevic’s Kosovo offensive.

They came from villages like Izbica, the scene of one of the worst massacres of the war in March 1999. Demush Xhemajli’s elderly father was one of the dozens of Albanians who were killed in Izbica: “God, they did not spare anyone. Imagine this - they killed an old man who was an invalid. His crutches were found near him,” Xhemajli recalled.

The surviving villagers hastily buried the bodies of their relatives and neighbours and fled Kosovo to Albania to escape the Serbian offensive. But when they returned after the war ended, the bodies had disappeared.

It was only in 2001 that Xhemajli found out that they had been removed by Serbian forces and secretly reburied in Petrovo Selo. “This was like another murder for us,” he said.

Gruesome evidence emerges

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic holds a meeting with senior police and army generals in 1999. Photo: Srdjan Ilic.

Public Security Department chief Vlastimir Djordjevic was sentenced to 18 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague for the murder and persecution of Kosovo Albanians, including direct involvement in the cover-up.

Djordjevic was convicted of being part of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ that was responsible for various crimes during the Kosovo war - as were three top Serbian officials who were also jailed by the UN-backed tribunal last year. They too were found to have been involved in the cover-up.

The Hague Tribunal trials helped to reveal the brutal methods used by Milosevic’s regime to hide his forces’ atrocities during the Kosovo war. But many of those who also were identified by the international court as being part of the joint criminal enterprise with Milosevic have not been indicted and live freely in Serbia. None of those directly involved in removing and reburying the corpses has ever been prosecuted for it.

News about the mass graves at Batajnica started to emerge after Milosevic was overthrown. By 2001, the deposed leader was already wanted by the international war crimes tribunal, but the majority of Serbs opposed the idea of sending him to The Hague to stand trial, so the recently-elected democratic government revealed the information to help justify its case for extradition.

One of the first to speak out at Milosevic’s trial was Ali Djogaj, a worker from the municipal refuse collection service in the Kosovo town of Prizren. Djogaj said his boss visited him one evening in April 1999 and drove him and some other employees to a nearby firing range, where he saw a group of uniformed police officers, two excavators and three trucks.

Under cover of darkness, the excavators dug up the bodies and his boss told the men to load them onto the waiting trucks. “The excavator would use its scoop to grab several bodies, two or three of them. It would unload the bodies next to the door of the trucksand the four of us would then throw each of the bodies individually to the refrigerator trucks,” Djogaj said later in a statement to Serbian prosecutors in 2005.

Djogaj said that the bodies looked like they had been decomposing for several weeks in the ground. After they were put in the trucks, the police officers locked the doors and took them away.

“The excavator would use its scoop to grab several bodies. It would unload the bodies next to the door of the trucks and the four of us would then throw each of the bodies individually into the refrigerator trucks.”

Municipal refuse collector Ali Djogaj

Several others who were involved in moving the bodies from Kosovo to Serbia also testified at Milosevic’s trial in The Hague, mostly as anonymous protected witnesses. Bozidar Protic, a former driver at the Serbian interior ministry, was the first who decided to give evidence openly at the trial of the three top Belgrade officials who were jailed last year.

Protic testified that his superior officer told him that he had spoken to assistant interior minister Petar Zekovic about “a task which was very important and which was in the interests of the state”, and told him to find a truck.

The task was taking the bodies that had surfaced from the Danube in Tekija to Batajnica on April 7, 1999. It was to be the first of several such missions, Protic said.

A second truck full of bodies was dispatched from the Kosovo town of Janjevo to the police training centre in Petrovo Selo and a third from Kosovska Mitrovica, again to Petrovo Selo. The fourth and last time, Protic said he transported bodies from Pristina to Batajnica.

“Every time I set out… I received all my instructions from General [Petar] Zekovic,” he testified. “There were always verbal orders containing instructions as to how and where I should pick up the truck, which truck it would be, and where I should go to collect the bodies.”

Clearing up the terrain

The refrigerator truck containing 86 corpses in the River Danube in April 1999. Photo: Serbian Interior Ministry.

After a Serbian journal called the Timok Crime Review published more details in May 2001 about the cover-up operation which was codenamed ‘Dubina 2’ by its instigators, the interior ministry set up a working group that questioned around 30 people who were directly involved.

“Interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic and the chief of the Public Security Department, General Vlastimir Djordjevic, declared the whole case to be a state secret and launched operation Dubina 2 to deal with it,” the head of the working group, Captain Dragan Karleusa, explained at a press conference on May 25 that year.

When the corpses arrived at the Batajnica police training centre, they were dumped into pits on a training field and burned.

“I knew that everything was a ‘state secret’ and if anybody opened his mouth, you would lose your head.”

Serbian Special Anti-Terrorist Unit member Dusko Nenadovic

“As soon as the truck with the bodies came, a hole was dug by an excavator, petrol was poured on [the bodies], they were covered with tyres and set on fire, and after they burned, two or three hours later, the pits were covered,” a member of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit who was involved in the reburial, Dusko Nenadovic, told the working group.

“I knew that everything was a ‘state secret’ and if anybody opened his mouth, you would lose your head,” he said.

The working group’s probe established direct links between the cover-up and interior ministry officials. It also found that there was an advance plan for “clearing up the terrain” after massacres by Serbian forces in Kosovo, which was agreed at the highest level and was intended to conceal potential evidence from the Hague Tribunal.

“The first meeting in relation to this was held in the office of the then president, Mr. Milosevic. It was held in the month of March 1999,” Karleusa later testified at Milosevic’s trial.

“According to the information we received, in addition to Mr. Milosevic, the meeting was attended by the then head of public security, Mr. Vlastimir Djordjevic, as well as General Radomir Markovic, the minister at the time Vlajko Stojiljkovic, and some other people,” he said.

General Markovic confirmed what was discussed: “At the very end of the meeting, Vlastimir Djordjevic raised the issue of the removal of the bodies of Kosovo Albanians in order to remove all possible civilian victims who could be the subjects of an investigation by the Hague Tribunal,” he said in 2001.

“[Interior minister] Vlajko Stojiljkovic gave the order for conducting those actions directly to [police general] Dragan Ilic and Vlastimir Djordjevic,” added Markovic, who is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and other crimes.

“Ilic told me that police colonel Goran Radosavljevic helped him significantly with his men, who helped him directly to implement this task. I remember Ilic complained about the way [it was done] and the methods that were used, and that he mentioned how a refrigerator truck was found in the Danube, which was a result of Djordjevic’s bad organisation,” he said.

Djordjevic has denied receiving any direct order from Milosevic to conduct the clean-up operation, but during his trial in The Hague, he admitted that he took part in it.

“Yes, I was involved when trucks with bodies were coming to Batajnica, but I didn’t know when the crimes were committed. I didn’t confront those who tried to mask and hide the crimes and I didn’t take any measures to find those responsible for war crimes, which I was supposed to do,” he told the court.

Interior minister Stojiljkovic meanwhile killed himself in 2002 after he was charged by the Hague Tribunal.

A state-sponsored plot

The cover-up represents clear evidence of Serbian state-sponsored atrocities, believes Fred Abrahams, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch who has extensively documented war crimes in Kosovo.

“You cannot argue there was a random crime when afterwards the bodies were systematically removed,” Abrahams told BIRN.

“Removing hundreds of bodies is not easy. You have to have transport, you have to have the security forces’ agreement… That is a pattern; clear evidence that this was an organised and deliberate attempt to hide the crime,” he said.

“Most of those people were killed by police forces and then the police removed the traces of their own crimes.”

Serbian journalist Filip Svarm

Filip Svarm, editor at Serbian news magazine Vreme, said that it was clear that the Serbian interior ministry was trying to destroy evidence which could have helped the Hague Tribunal prosecute Milosevic and other senior officials.

“Most of those people were killed by police forces and then the police removed the traces of their own crimes,” Svarm told BIRN.

Several former Serbian fighters have been prosecuted in Belgrade for massacres in Kosovo villages in 1999, but not for the subsequent covert removal of the victims’ bodies.

Mustafa Radoniqi, a war crimes lawyer who has represented Kosovo victims’ relatives, alleged that the Belgrade prosecution has tried to avoid incriminating more senior interior ministry figures by not including the cover-up in its indictments.

“The prosecution was covering up the evidence,” Radoniqi told BIRN.

BIRN asked the prosecution to comment but received no response.

The accused deny everything

The police investigation revealed the names of more than 20 people involved in the cover-up – both low-ranking and senior officials. But most of the Serbian officials accused of involvement have insisted that they are innocent.

Former assistant interior minister Petar Zekovic has been named by several witnesses as the person who coordinated the operation to take the corpses from Kosovo to Batajnica. Zekovic told BIRN that he was innocent but did not want to comment on the allegations any further. He is currently on trial for the alleged abuse of public funds during the Milosevic era.

Slobodan Borisavljevic, the former head of Public Security Department chief Vlastimir Djordjevic’s office, was in charge of paying the men who were involved in the removal operation. In a statement to police in 2001, he said he got the money from Djordjevic.

Borisavljevic is currently a senior official at the Serbian interior ministry and during 2006 was briefly head of its war crimes investigation unit. He also told BIRN that he did not take part in the operation but did not want to comment further. He too has never been indicted over the cover-up.

“I saw so many bodies, unknown corpses which had started decomposing, and their condition was so bad I couldn’t see if it was a man or a woman or a child.”

Serbian police officer Radomir Djeric

Several witnesses including former interior ministry driver Bozidar Protic and a former police officer called Radomir Djeric have testified at the Hague Tribunal and in Serbian courts that police colonel Goran ‘Guri’ Radosavljevic, who was the head of an armed interior ministry forcecalled the Gendarmerie, was present several times when corpses from Kosovo were delivered to the Petrovo Selo police centre, where he was also the commander.

Djeric testified at a murder trialat Belgrade’s special court in 2006 that he and Radosavljevic were in Petrovo Selo when driver Protic arrived with one of the trucks.

“Only then I saw what it was about, I saw so many bodies, unknown corpses which had started decomposing, and their condition was so bad I couldn’t see if it was a man or a woman or a child,” Djeric said. The bodies were thrown into a garbage pit.

Djeric said he asked Radosavljevic: “‘Guri, are you familiar with this?’ He said yes, all this is known to me… The boss knew everything.”

Radosavljevic has also denied taking part in the cover-up, for which he too has never been indicted. The retired general now runs security companies in Belgrade and is on the executive board of Serbia’s governing Progressive Party.

‘No body, no crime’

Exhumation in 2014 at a mass grave of Kosovo war victims near Raska in Serbia. Photo: Serbian War Crimes Prosecution.

Reburials of the bodies exhumed from the mass graves in Serbia have continued this year, and the hunt for further secret burial sites from the war in Kosovo is not over yet.

KOSOVO COVER-UP: THE DOCUMENTS

Statements given to the Serbian police working group:
1. Slobodan Borisavljevic, Public Security Department chief’s head of office
2. Bosko Radojkovic, crime scene technician from Kladovo
3. Dusko Nenadovic, member of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit
4. Caslav Golubovic, police chief in the town of Bor

Serbian police working group communique, May 25, 2001
Serbian police working group communique, June 26, 2001

Statement by Radomir Markovic, Serbian state security service chief

‘Operational expenses’ for the cover-up operation:
1. Criminal investigation unit chief Dragan Ilic’s request for funds
2. Payment order for the costs of the ‘Dubina 2’ operation
3. Report on payment of expenses for the operation

But despite being named in the Hague Tribunal verdict convicting Vlastimir Djordjevic as members of a Serbian ‘joint criminal enterprise’ in Kosovo, two other senior police officials who allegedly took part in the cover-up operation in 1999 have also never had their professed innocence tested in court.

Former police general Dragan Ilic, who served as the head of Serbia’s criminal investigation unit in the 1990s, was named by several witnesses during the Djordjevic trial as one of the key people involved in the cover-up.

Ilic, who was the head of Serbia’s criminal investigation unit, requested 10,000 Yugoslav dinars (about $900 at the time) for “operational expenses” for the operation, a request granted by Djordjevic, while the refuse collection workers and the frogman in Tekija were also paid for their work, police documents have established. Ilic is now retired and lives in Belgrade.

Former assistant interior minister Obrad Stevanovic, a close associate of Milosevic and ex-commander of Serbia’s notorious Special Police Units, is now a professor at a police academy in Belgrade, where he teaches young officers about terrorism.

Stevanovic has also denied any involvement in the cover-up, although his wartime diary was one of the key pieces of prosecution evidence at the Milosevic trial.

In one diary entry recounting a meeting with Milosevic about what to do with the corpses of Albanians killed in Kosovo, Stevanovic wrote: “No body, no crime.”

Sixteen years later, he too has never been prosecuted in Serbia.

 

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