AIM: start

WED, 20 JUN 2001 00:08:23 GMT

Facing up to Crimes

Rising from the Dead

The discovery that the bodies from a freezer truck taken out of the Danube at the beginning of April, 1999, were buried near Belgrade as part of a systematic attempt to cover up crimes committed in Kosovo and Metohija, has left the Serbian public to ask: will the new authorities have enough strength to bring all criminals to justice

AIM Belgrade, June 9, 2001

Two days before the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia started, in the night between March 20 and March 21, a local gasoline smuggler saw several people from two cars dumping a freezer truck in the Danube, some 18 kilometers upstream from Tekija. Two weeks later, several fishermen reported to police that there was something looking like a huge trunk floating in the river. Diver Zivadin Djordjevic determined that it was in fact a Mercedes freezer truck with markings indicating it belonged to the Progres butchery based in Prizren, Kosovo. While the truck was being taken out of the water, human bodies began falling out through its cracked doors. Despite the fact that at least 200 people witnessed the operation, someone declared the event non-existent, that is, top secret. The next day, April 7, 1999, the bodies were loaded onto two trucks with Belgrade license plates, and the truck on a train. The story of a freezer truck full of dead bodies would not reach the public for the next two years.

Now it turns out that many people knew about this horrible secret. It was publicly first confirmed by diver Djordjevic to a local newspaper, then by workers of the Kladovo Komunalac company who transferred the bodies, the people who witnessed the dumping and the fishing out of the truck, the new investigating judge in Kladovo... On May 7, the head of the Serbian Interior Ministry's public security service, General Sreten Lukic, formed a fact-finding group to investigate the discovery of the freezer truck "and on the basis of its findings, take adequate legal action."

Over the next two months the following happened: after the case disappeared from the media, on May 18 Serbian Deputy Premier Zarko Korac said in Geneva that "the government is working hard so that a local indictment against the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, should be expanded to include war crimes." Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic demanded the next day that the president of the Serbian Supreme Court and the Serbian public prosecutor "take steps to clarify a 'mysterious case' involving dead bodies discovered in a freezer truck dumped in the Danube," and that "the perpetrators be brought to justice irrespective of their present or former rank."

With this in mind, the public was not surprised by the fist results of the investigation announced a week later, on May 25, by the deputy head of the Serbian Interior Ministry Crime Department, Dragan Karleusa. The inspirer and the key organizer of the cover-up was Slobodan Milosevic who, at the time, was Yugoslavia's president. The investigation and the facts established by the interior ministry's working group "show that in March 1999 a meeting was held at Slobodan Milosevic's offices. In addition to Milosevic, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Serbian interior minister at the time, Vlastimir Djordjevic, the now former head of the Serbian Public Security Service, Radomir Markovic, the head of the Serbian State Security Service, and others, were also present. Gen. Djordjevic spoke of the problem "cleaning things up in the region of Kosovo and Metohija. In relation to this issue, Milosevic ordered Stojiljkovic to take steps to remove all traces that could produce evidence of the crimes that were committed."

Thus the freezer truck case became a piece of a bigger mosaic of crime. An (un)planned consequence of signs that evidence of war crimes had been removed was the fact that the "cleanup plan" included many more people than originally thought. The retirement of Gen. Djordjevic and the transfer of the commander of the Serbian Interior Ministry's special forces units, Gen. Obrad Stevanovic, to the Police Academy was immediately linked to the freezer truck case and/or the cover-up. Their possible ties with the case were officially (and unconvincingly) denied by officials citing their retirement and transfer were ordered on April 14, and "carried out" on May 3. Meanwhile, Gen. Djordjevic left Yugoslavia and is, allegedly, in Moscow.

Much greater attention, however, was attracted by two other murky issues. First of all, by current public security service head Gen. Sreten Lukic. Namely, between June 1998 and the end of the NATO bombing on June 10, 1999, that is, at the time of the fiercest clashes, he was the Serbian Interior Ministry coordinator for Kosovo and Metohija. Holding that office he must have been fully aware of the crimes and the cover-up. Responding to a direct question asking him whether he was aware of Milosevic's order, he says: "The working group is still investigating. You will be informed of its progress, so let us not skip ahead." On June 5, when asked again about the freezer truck he said he had no knowledge of it. According to him, during the bombing police forces were under military command. It is unclear what that has to do with the truck found at Tekija, dumped in the river before the bombing began. Lukic is simply transferring the blame for the cover-up to the Yugoslav army: the Yugoslav army General Staff has rejected any involvement by the military in the incident and has asked to be given any evidence discovered by the prosecution. Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic suggested to the press that it could draw its own conclusions "by simply checking who took part in military activities in Kosovo."

Meanwhile, Minister Mihajlovic on several occasions mentioned that the freezer truck case was not the only one, that many more bodies were buried at an unspecified location near Belgrade, that the police had "firm evidence" of two more mass graves, and that some bodies were later buried under "a highway." Anonymous police sources quoted by the Belgrade B92 radio station were more precise: one such case involves the bodies of 83 men, women and children, some of the men dressed in KLA uniform, and three disembodied heads. Later, Minister Mihajlovic also said that only one person had been shot dead, while the rest were killed "in other ways," confirming that they might have been victims of a massacre.

In the veritable flood of discoveries which coincided with unsuccessful negotiations between the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and Milosevic's former partner, the Socialist People's Party of Montenegro, at the federal level on passing a bill on cooperation with the Hague International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia -- the only thing that was not disclosed was the location of the mass grave.

The Belgrade weekly Vreme reported on May 7 that the corpses were buried at a former farm collective near Zemun, in the direction of the suburb of Batajnica. A part of the farm along the old Novi Sad road is used by the Yugoslav army, whereas another section located somewhat farther away is used by the police. Located there are training grounds used by the Serbian Interior Ministry's special, anti-terrorist units. According to well-informed sources quoted by Vreme and data published by the weekly Nedeljni Telegraf, on May 30 the police discovered several bones which were identified as human. The Belgrade District Court ordered an investigation, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Belgrade formed a team for exhumation and autopsy. On June 2, crews began efforts to determine the mass grave's size. They were interrupted on June 4, officially because of heavy rain. The interruption was in fact due to the arrival of a team of Hague tribunal investigators. This can be linked to the fact that on the same day the director of the forensic institute, Dusan Dunjic, left for The Hague, and a statement by Hague court deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt of June 3 which said that the ICTY Prosecution knew about the freezer truck case "long before it became public."

This means that the ICTY Prosecution was among those who know or knew about the case. In addition, details concerning the number of victims, their condition and the manner in which they were killed show that police had the evidence all along, but for some reason chose to release it to the public gradually and not too clearly. Two details suggest the reasons for delay. The entire freezer truck case revolves around police training centers. The truck from which the corpses were removed on April 6-7, 1999, and transported to Belgrade, was destroyed on a police special forces shooting range in Petrovo Selo, near Tekija. The bodies (from the same or some other truck) were buried in another such center in the area between Zemun and Batajnica. Dozens of people must have been involved in each of these gruesome operations, of whom many are still active in the police. The caution displayed by the force in "purging its ranks and its own backyard" is therefore quite understandable, as well as are possible bargains -- on disclosing information in exchange for at least temporary protection -- with some of those who were involved in the cover-up or were aware of it. This is strongly confirmed by the clear and open resolve of police officers not involved in the case to proceed with the investigation without delay.

According to certain police sources the cases could account for a total of 900 people listed as missing in Kosovo and Metohija. Trials which are underway at the Nis Military Court have already confirmed the existence of military unit is charge of "burning and removal." The question is whether the trials will discover any special activities by these units, which otherwise exist in all armies in times of war. Finally, the key question in the freezer truck case is whether all participants in the cover-up will be brought to justice, or only the end links of the obviously long chain: Slobodan Milosevic, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, Radomir Markovic, Vlastimir Djordjevic, and "others," on the one side, and the immediate organizers, drivers, and "undertakers" on the other.

Aleksandar Ciric