THE INDEPENDENT (London)
01 June 2001
'I never found their bodies'
When Serb police opened fire on a pizzeria, two of
Vjollca Berisha's children were shot dead.
The last time Vjollca Berisha saw her children was
when she lay in their blood in the back of a truck
full of bodies. She cannot bring herself to speak of
it now. She has agreed to talk to us, but no words
come. It is unbearable to meet her gaze. Her father
tells her story, while she sits in the corner and
Her husband and two of her children were among 50
people, mostly women and children, rounded up by Serb
police at a pizzeria in Suhareka on 26 March 1999.
They shot some, and killed the others with a grenade.
When the police thought they were all dead, they
loaded the bodies on the back of a lorry. Vjollca and
her eight-year-old son were wounded but still alive.
She took the young child and jumped. The retreating
back of the truck was the last she saw of the rest of
"I never found the bodies." It's almost the only thing
I hear her say.
Vjollca's children were just two of thousands of
Albanians murdered by Serb forces whose bodies
disappeared in Kosovo during the 1999 Nato air
strikes. The bodies would provide vital evidence that
the international war crimes tribunal needs to prove
its charge of crimes against humanity in Kosovo
against the now-deposed Serbian president Slobodan
Milosevic. Now, for the first time, evidence is
emerging that Milosevic himself was personally behind
the disappearance of the bodies.
Nexhat Bytyqi slipped out of the house in Trnje where
his wounded grandson was hiding, to fetch water. The
bodies of 16 members of his family lay in the garden.
Serb police prevented him from getting back to the
house, and he was forced to go into hiding for the
duration of the war. When he eventually made it home,
his grandson had disappeared and has not been seen
since. And the bodies were all gone. Nexhat's cousin
says he saw trucks come for them, heard the bodies
Shefqet Gashi saw his father shot dead. He saw them
preparing the body for burial at the local cemetery.
But when he returned at the end of the war and
searched for the body, it was not there.
Some in the Western media accused these people of
lying, of exaggerating the crimes committed by the
Serbs against them. They accused the West of going
along with the lies to justify the Nato air campaign.
If there were killings, they said, where were the
bodies? An article in The Spectator named Suhareka,
where Vjollca lost her family, among "the massacres
that never happened".
But now the truth has begun to emerge. All these
disappearances happened at the end of March 1999. Days
before, a secret meeting had been held in Belgrade. At
that meeting, Serbian police have since revealed,
Milosevic ordered his interior minister, Vlajko
Stojiljkovic, to dispose of all evidence of war crimes
Within days, a macabre clean-up operation began. Not
only death squads roamed Kosovo as the Nato bombs
rained down. There were body-snatchers as well.
Kosovo is a land of empty graves. Investigators
returned to several sites where massacres had been
witnessed, and found freshly dug graves but no
bodies. Sometimes they made strange, baffling
discoveries: the body of an old man dressed in the
clothes of a murdered child whose body had
disappeared; the body of a man wearing clothes with
bullet-holes in them, though he had no bullet wounds.
New revelations have provided key evidence of what
happened to the 10,000 victims of Kosovo's hidden
In early May, a Serbian diver revealed a secret that
had been astonishingly well kept. On 6 April 1999
about a week after Vjollca's family disappeared a
green Mercedes refrigerator truck had been pulled out
of the river Danube, more than 100 miles from Kosovo.
Inside were the bodies of murdered Albanians. How many
bodies is not known, but one eye witness put the
figure at 86.
"There were bodies of women, children and elderly
people," the diver said. "Some women were dressed in
salvare [traditional Muslim clothes]. Some children
and elderly people were naked."
As soon as the truck emerged from the river and its
contents were known, orders had come from high in the
Serb administration to disperse and conceal the
One grave digger, Nikola Dajic, was part of a team
ordered to reload the bodies from the refrigerator
truck into two new lorries in a secret police
operation. He told The Independent: "When we arrived
at the bank of the Danube, we saw a horrifying
scene... The bodies were piled up. Some were in
pieces, some were intact. I saw a dead child, maybe
two years old, women and men, some dressed, some
It is not known whether Vjollca Berisha's children
were among the dead, but it seems likely that they met
a similar fate.
One of Vjollca's relatives takes me to see the
pizzeria where her family died, along with so many
others. The Serbs loaded the bodies into vehicles
immediately they were not leaving any evidence
behind. "There were others alive on that truck,"
Vjollca says suddenly.
Investigators found a mass grave they thought
contained the bodies from Suhareka. Five or six things
a child's notebook, a pair of shoes, Vjollca's
sister's ID were found there. But that is not enough
to convince her. They found 48 pairs of shoes. She
checked every pair. None belonged to her family.
It has become clear that the Serbs deliberately
scrambled the evidence around Kosovo. It was all part
of the clean-up operation to ensure that bodies cannot
be produced in evidence against the former regime.
In Pec, Shefqet Gashi leads us to the spot where his
father was murdered. Thunder echoes in the Accursed
Mountains overhead. There is a plaque where Shefqet's
father died on the doorstep to his house. It bears his
dates: 25.06.1922 27.03.1999. He was too slow
leaving when the family heard the Serbs coming. The
The murderers left the bodies lying in the streets
where they died, some 50 of them. We are taken from
house to house, and shown where they lay. That night,
somebody went round the streets collecting the bodies
from house to house. Nobody saw them those still in
town were hiding but in the morning the bodies were
The next day, Shefqet fled to Albania. As he passed
the cemetery on the way out of town he saw his dead
father lying on a truck beside a newly dug grave.
When he got back after the war, investigators, guided
by local people, opened 205 newly dug graves. Most
were empty, but in some were bodies from villages on
the other side of Kosovo. The Serbs, it seems, had
moved the evidence around.
An old man comes up. He begs us to help find his
missing son. "Please help me. My wife is going mad,"
he says. His son was taken away by Serb forces alive.
The man has heard of "private prisons" in Serbia is
his son there? It is impossible to tell him no one has
ever found any private prisons, that his son is almost
certainly dead. That he may never even find the body.
In the village of Pastasell, the locals saw the
grave-robbers in action. One hundred and six people
were killed here, including Mete Krasniqi's son
lined up against a hedge, 10 at a time, and
machine-gunned. Mete and the other survivors buried
the bodies. A month later, he was hiding in the woods
with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) when he saw them
come for the bodies.
"There were two trucks, one green military truck, and
a yellow civilian one. The people were wearing orange
overalls," he says. "They dug up the graves and took
the bodies away." Since then, some of the bodies have
been found, scattered in several different sites both
nearby and far away. The trucks went from village to
village, dropping off a few bodies here, a few bodies
there. Others have never been found, including the
bodies of theyoungest victims, two 14-year-old boys.
In the village of Cikatova, investigators from the
tribunal in The Hague dug up the body of an old man
wearing a child's clothes. The clothes were identified
as belonging to a missing 13-year-old child, one of a
group of 36 children last seen in the village mosque
of Qirez after they were separated from the adults. It
later emerged from witness statements that Serbian
paramilitaries ordered all the people to change
clothes. Later some of the adults, including the old
man, were taken away and shot. A second group were
taken to prison in Serbia. Nothing was ever seen of
the children again.
Slowly, the pieces of the jigsaw are, however, coming
together. The truck at the bottom of the Danube was a
green civilian Mercedes refrigerator truck. A Kosovar
journalist has discovered that a refrigerator truck
answering that description went missing from the
state-owned Progres meat factory in Prizren during the
Nato air strikes.
The refrigerator truck corresponds to the story told
to American Radio Networks by a man who identified
himself only as "Branko", and said to be a member of a
Serbian special operations unit. He claimed he was one
of a team who incinerated the bodies of murdered
Albanians in the blast furnace of the Trepca mining
complex in the north Kosovo town of Mitrovica, to
destroy all traces of them, including their DNA.
Branko said that the bodies were brought to Trepca for
incineration in "smaller refrigerator lorries".
"We had to be careful and avoid pictures being taken
by Nato, although this slowed down work," Branko
added. This would account for the refrigerator truck
found much further north in Serbia: a column of trucks
all going to Trepca would be too suspicious. Again,
the Serbs were spreading out the evidence.
A Serbian military court has made public that an
accused reservist was a member of "the unit for
But who were the body-snatchers? At least 1,500 bodies
are impossible to account for, even if you allow for
known unopened mass graves. What became of them?
There are those once high up in the Serbian regime who
know. When the truck had been retrieved and its
contents became known, it was General Vlastimir
Djordjevic, who is now retired, who ordered the site
to be sealed and kept secret. He was one of the men
entrusted by Milosevic's interior minister with
getting rid of the bodies, according to Serbian
The current Serbian interior minister, Dusan
Mihajolovic, says that the police have evidence of
more trucks like the one in the Danube, and that the
whole truth will be revealed soon. That may bring some
peace at last to people such as Vjollca Berisha.
In Pec, Vjollca's cousin takes me to the family home
where his brother was murdered. He saw the body here
before it disappeared. White roses are blooming on the
spot now. "There is nothing harder than this in life,
when you don't have the bodies," he tells me. His
brother's widow agrees. "If I only had a piece of
him," she says. "Just one bone would make it so much
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