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IND: 'I never found their bodies'

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  • Dragana Mitrovic
    http://news.independent.co.uk/world/europe/story.jsp?story=75514 THE INDEPENDENT (London) 01 June 2001 I never found their bodies When Serb police opened
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2001
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      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.

      Justin Huggler

      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
      quietly weeps.

      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
      her family.
      "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
      being loaded.

      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
      in Kosovo.

      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
      hideous evidence.

      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
      others escaped.

      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
      incinerating bodies".

      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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