The thousands of Kosovo refugees spilling over the borders into Macedonia and Albania constitute unique witnesses to some of humanity's worst crimes. Officials for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague say they're busy taking statements from the refugees and preparing for the moment when their investigators can enter Kosovo to reconstruct what happened there. RFE/RL's Kitty McKinsey is in Macedonia, where tribunal head Louise Arbour recently talked about the immense responsibility the tribunal is undertaking.
Skopje, 12 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- From the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War Two to more recent trials involving atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, war crimes investigations are usually exercises in historical reconstruction.
Investigators often have to rely on documents -- such as the Nazis' own meticulous records -- or exhumations of mass graves, as in the case of Bosnia, to piece together evidence of the worst crimes known to mankind.
But now with some 800,000 ethnic Albanians having been expelled from Kosovo in just the last six weeks, investigators for the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague have unique access to literally thousands of witnesses to war crimes within weeks -- sometimes days -- after they have happened.
To take advantage of this opportunity, the tribunal has set up offices in both Albania and Macedonia in recent weeks to collect evidence and to be able to move quickly to the scenes of the actual crimes as soon as foreign troops enter Kosovo.
Louise Arbour, the Canadian judge who is the chief prosecutor for the War Crimes Tribunal, told a news conference in Skopje yesterday (May 11) that her teams are breaking new ground in war crimes investigations.
"I believe that it presents very unique challenges and opportunities for us. Part of the challenges are to live up to the expectations that we will in fact behave as you would expect of a domestic law enforcement operation.
Acting on stories the refugees have told international aid workers and journalists, the war crimes investigation teams -- consisting of detectives from major city and national police forces from around the world as well as legal experts and interpreters -- are now beginning to interview witnesses in refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania.
Once the investigators get into Kosovo, they will be acting much like detectives at a crime scene in any of their home countries. They will take photographs, make maps and diagrams, and collect physical evidence of the crimes of the Serbian police, military and paramilitary that the refugees have described -- from mass murders to the routine destruction of houses by explosives and fire.
However, by the time the war crimes investigators get to the scene, not only will the Serbs have had a chance to destroy evidence, but journalists, returning refugees and advancing NATO-led soldiers may have trampled over the evidence first.
"We will never have the luxury of operating the way you would expect a domestic criminal law enforcement operation to proceed, which is to be first, and to have full authority on a crime scene."
Because of fears of what Arbour calls contamination of the crime scenes, she insists that war crimes investigators be in the vanguard of the international force, to be led by NATO, that eventually moves into Kosovo.
Arbour has been lobbying both NATO and governments of leading NATO powers to make sure her investigators get what she calls "absolute priority, immediate access." She adds that: "We have been poised to do our work in Kosovo for a very long time and we expect to be supported in gaining entry very rapidly."
Her message has been well received at NATO headquarters, where spokesman Jamie Shea regularly stresses the need for investigation and prosecution of Serbian war crimes.
A NATO official, speaking by telephone from Brussels headquarters, told RFE/RL's correspondent in Skopje that "the NATO force, once it goes in, would not only make the way safe for the refugees to come back to their homes, but would also allow international organizations to do their work and that includes the War Crimes Tribunal." The official said NATO recognizes that the tribunal's work has to be a top priority for any NATO force in Kosovo.
The United States' top war crimes expert, David Scheffer, Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, has told our correspondent that the Serbs' atrocities in Kosovo constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.
Arbour speaks in more careful legalistic language, but she also speaks of "massive criminality" and says her teams will be investigating serious crimes such as killing, rape, torture, enslavement, deportation and persecution of the Kosovar Albanians.
Paul Risley, spokesman for the tribunal, said in an interview that investigators already have many leads to follow up.
"Generally our investigators are operating with specific crimes and incidents in mind and they are looking for individuals who can relate further testimony or further specific information on those incidents."
Although the tribunal will be investigating the actions of individual Serb soldiers, policemen or paramilitaries in the field, Arbour said the world community did not set up such an expensive institution to put on trial and punish every single low-level perpetrator of crimes.
She said it's more important to identify and bring to trial the military and political leaders who gave the orders for the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity, as well as those who committed the worst atrocities.
"Obviously we are going to have to be selective. We are aiming at prosecuting the ... persons who are most responsible by virtue of either their position of command, or the atrocity of their crimes that are attributed to them personally, for the most serious offenses."
For evidence of the chain of command, Arbour has appealed to the military and intelligence agencies in NATO countries to declassify and share such information as intercepted telephone calls and aerial reconnaissance photos that can help pinpoint which Serbs are issuing illegal orders.
And she has made it clear that not even Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic should feel safe from prosecution. In fact, there was much public speculation in February that the reason Milosevic did not personally go to the Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet, France, was because he feared arrest on one of the secret ("sealed") indictments that the tribunal is increasingly relying on to avoid tipping off suspects.
Arbour made it clear yesterday that she sees "absolutely no impediment" to charging Milosevic if the evidence warrants. And she stresses that her investigations remain completely independent of any negotiations between international powers and Milosevic over peace in Kosovo.
"This process is completely independent from the ongoing discussions related to any peace agreement. There is absolutely no connection between these two initiatives."