Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: Kosovo War Crimes Investigations Pose Immense Task

  • Ron Synovitz

International war crimes investigators in Kosovo are still in the early stages of their work. RFE/RL's correspondent in the province reports on the current status of the search for evidence and looks at one of the communities at the center of the investigations.

Pristina, 5 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At a village near Djakovica in western Kosovo recently, an investigator of the International War Crimes Tribunal busily took notes about a suspected mass grave -- one of scores of such sites that have been discovered across the province since Serb forces withdrew last month.

The Hague tribunal investigator noted how plants growing over the eight-by-ten-meter plot were different from others in the field. Gouges in the ground appeared to have been made by the shovel of a bulldozer that only a week ago had still been parked nearby. Closer examination of the ground revealed human bones and teeth, as well as tattered fragments of clothing.

Looking at this site for the first time the investigator tried to question a villager who had told a western journalist he had seen four truckloads of bodies brought there by Serb security forces in April and May. But the potential witness was scared. There had been shootings in his village the previous night and the man said he feared making any statement would endanger his life. He insisted that he could only talk with the investigators away from his village.

The story is one that is being repeated many times as experts from the tribunal have fanned out across Kosovo. Working together with teams from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and British detectives from Scotland Yard, the investigators are in the earliest stages of documenting alleged war crimes in Kosovo.

Indictments already issued by tribunal prosecutors charge that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four other senior Belgrade officials gave orders that led to mass killings in six Kosovo towns since early this year. The prosecutors say the evidence suggests that the killings were part of a systematic campaign aimed at re-engineering the ethnic composition of Kosovo by frightening more than one million ethnic Albanians into fleeing the province.

Tribunal investigator Barry Hogan notes that charges filed so far against Milosevic and the others came before KFOR peacekeepers entered Kosovo. Now that investigators are traveling freely in the province, they say they are discovering a pattern of killings at numerous villages and towns they visit -- shallow graves, homes that were torched with the occupants still inside, and human corpses dumped into drinking wells.

Hogan said this weekend that the first stage of the investigation is to document as many suspected crime scenes as possible. He said additional indictments are likely. He cited mass killings near the western town of Pec as an example of one such case where strong evidence is being gathered. But Hogan admits that he and his colleagues are overwhelmed by the task ahead.

"The investigation doesn't stop once the indictment is issued. We are continuing to look for further evidence -- more evidence of further crimes. I'm receiving reports of mass killings [and] crime scenes from [NATO], from [non-governmental organizations], from UN agencies [and] from journalists. [At this point] I try to get to as many scenes as possible to assess the likelihood of gathering good evidence [if I were to put] a forensic team in and also to document and photograph and gather physical evidence from crime scenes that they can not get to."

Hogan arrived in Kosovo two weeks ago. He says the evidence he has seen so far supports the testimony he had taken from refugees in Albania and Macedonia in recent months. He also said that the scale of the atrocities in Kosovo has been far worse than what he helped to document in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said he expects to be working in Kosovo for years in order to bring about more indictments and successful prosecutions of indicted war crimes suspects.

Hogan and other investigators know that convicting President Milosevic will take more than simply showing that many ethnic Albanians have been killed. Prosecutors must use evidence to prove that killings and forced evictions were part of a systematic campaign. They also must prove that Milosevic either directly planned such a campaign or was aware of plans and did nothing to stop them.

Excavations of mass graves can help to prove that killings were systematic. Bodies from a few graves have been exhumed at places like Velika Krusa and Izbica. But the real work on this kind of evidence is not expected to start until November. Bodies at many suspected mass graves will not be exhumed until next Spring at the earliest.

So far, the strongest evidence of systematic ethnic cleansing has been the similarity of accounts told by refugees who fled to Macedonia and Albania from different parts of Kosovo. Thousands of refugees have told investigators that their villages were first surrounded by Yugoslav Army soldiers and then shelled by artillery units for several days before masked interior ministry police and Serb paramilitaries went door-to-door killing and evicting inhabitants.

Analysts familiar with the command structure of the Yugoslav Army say it would have been impossible for local Serb military commanders to independently order such coordinated operations across the province.

Tribunal investigators are studying satellite images for evidence that supports the dates and specific locations named by refugees and other witnesses. Serb military radio communications intercepted and documented by NATO forces during the alliance's bombing campaign of Yugoslavia can confirm where specific military units were on the day of an atrocity. Physical evidence like shell casings and captured documents also could link Serb soldiers and Interior Ministry police to mass killings. By identifying Serb units involved, prosecutors hope to track the chain of command directly to Milosevic and other indicted civilian and military officials.

Djakovica, known as Gjakove in the Albanian language, is one of the six Kosovo towns and cities specified in indictments against Milosevic. U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer visited Djakovica last month and said the city is "emblematic" of what he called "the thorough but selective destruction" of entire ethnic Albanian communities in Kosovo.

But the existing indictments in the case of Djakovica are connected only to 26 killings in late March and early April.

Residents of Djakovica have told our correspondent in Kosovo about an even more troubling incident. Lumturie Hasiqi, like hundreds of other women from Djakovica's Cabrati district, says she has heard nothing from the adult males of her family since she was separated from them in a three-day-operation by Serb security forces in the second week of May. Hasiqi fought back tears as she described what happened to her and her three brothers on the morning of May 10.

"They started to shoot at us. We fled from our house and we were in the street trying to [escape] somewhere. They took our young men and separated them from us. Since then we haven't had any information about them. Some of [those shooting] were paramilitaries. They were wearing pieces of different uniforms. They had wide hats [like paramilitaries]. I don't know how to describe them any better. We were confused. There were more than 50 of them staying at one house. They took [all of] our young men. After they [separated us], they sent [the women and children] to the Elektromotori Factory [in Djakovica]. All of the women and children in our family were there with all the families from our street -- altogether more than 2000 other [women and children]. Nobody was allowed to leave the factory grounds."

Ardian Gjini, the interim deputy mayor of Djakovica, estimates that more than 1,200 ethnic Albanian men are still missing from the town. Women from Djakovica hope that these men are still alive somewhere, but they are not sure of their fate. They are calling on the UN and the International Red Cross to win the return of any of their men folk now in Serb jails outside Kosovo.

Local residents of Djakovica's Cabrati district say they believe that Serb security forces may have taken revenge on their community after members of the Kosovo Liberation Army killed some Serb paramilitaries in early May.