This was not the first time in the wars in former Yugoslavia that civilian killings were covered up. Investigators say all the warring sides hid victims of atrocities in mass graves. Nearly a decade later, bodies are still being exhumed in Bosnia and Croatia, including those of Serbian victims.
In Kosovo, investigators and former secret police operatives say Milosevic and his advisors tried to avoid mistakes made in Bosnia, where mass graves produced crucial evidence for war crimes trials.
According to Dragan Karleusa, soon after NATO started bombing Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, a top police commander reminded Milosevic that the bodies of ethnic Albanian civilians piling up in western Kosovo could be used one day as evidence for war crimes investigations. Milosevic then summoned senior commanders to Belgrade.
"Milosevic ordered that all bodies in Kosovo that could be of interest for The Hague Tribunalthat is, that could be a problemshould be removed," Karleusa says.
But the police were overwhelmed as they dodged NATO bombs, fought ethnic Albanian guerrillas and expelled tens of thousands of civilians, so they hastily dumped bodies in shallow graves and in rivers. Two weeks into the air war, in mid-April, 1999, Slobodan Milosevic called another meeting in Belgrade. He commanded his trusted Department of State Securitythe secret policeto take over the body disposal operation, according to former police officers and a Yugoslav army intelligence officer with access to details of the meeting.
These sources say the cover-up job fell to one of the most notorious members of the Security Service's six-man executive councilFranko Simatovic. Simatovic was the notorious commander of brutal Serbian police militias that fought in Croatia and Bosnia. Simatovic's field unit, known formally as the Unit for Special Operations (JSO) but more commonly referred to as "Frenki's boys," led key combat operations and was a conduit for fighters and material, according to investigators. Dusan, the field commander interviewed for this report, says Simatovic gave direct orders to seven unit commanders in Kosovo tasked with disposing of bodies. Dusan knows this, he says, because he was one of the commanders. "Franko controlled this," Dusan says. "We reported to Franko, only Franko. Nobody else. Franko gave us the orders ... The army, the police, everyone was subordinated to the State Security."
War crimes investigators have long suspected that Franko Simatovic was a key linkperhaps the main linkbetween Slobodan Milosevic and armed Serbian groups that led ethnic cleansing operations in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
U.N. war crimes investigators have been tracking Simatovic since the mide-1990s. Recently, he and his former secret police boss, Jovica Stanisic, were named as part of a "joint criminal enterprise" in an ICTY genocide indictment against Slobodan Milosevic for crimes allegedly committed in the Bosnian war. The two men were also named in a Milosevic indictment dating back to the war in Croatia in the early 1990s. An ICTY spokesperson says that means both men are under formal investigation and could be subjects of separate indictments.
Dennis Milner, a senior ICTY investigator, says there is credible evidence that Simatovic's team also played an important role in Kosovo.
"If those units were the perpetrators of particularly significant mass killings, it would certainly be logical to assume that they would take steps to dispose of bodies," Milner says.
Serbian police and army sources say JSO forces in Kosovo were commanded by Milorad Lukovic (also known as Milorad Ulemek). His nom de guerre is "The Legion," and he served directly under Simatovic in the formal command hierarchy of Milosevic's Department of State Security. The Security Service's executive council received orders directly from Milosevic during the air war, according to investigators and former fighters.
In early 2001 Simatovic and Lukovic were relieved of their commands. Serbian police sources indicate that Simatovic continued to work for State Security in an unofficial capacity, but his present whereabouts are unknown. In June 2001 Lukovic fled to the Serbian Republic in Bosnia, according to newspaper accounts and former fighters. In Bosnia, Lukovic and an unknown number of former JSO members joined the security detail for Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who is facing an ICTY genocide indictment and is in hiding, according to former police operatives.
These details are important for war crimes investigators because they reveal the actual, or de facto, command structure of Serbian forces in Kosovo. The accounts of the fighters interviewed for this report do not prove that Milosevic personally ordered the killings of Albanian civilians. But they indicate the former Serbian leader knew about large-scale killings of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian forces from the beginning of the air war, and that he had authority and control over some of the suspected perpetrators.
From his jail cell in The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic continues to maintain his innocence. In defiant appearances before the court, Milosevic insisted he committed no crimes and that he used legitimate force to defend Serbia from ethnic Albanian rebels and NATO aggression. Milosevic's wife and supporters in Belgrade say the mass graves are a hoax and the removal of bodies in Kosovo was part of routine clean-up operations.
But for investigators like Dragan Karleusa, there is no other plausible explanation for how hundreds, possibly thousands, of bodies could have been transported under such secrecy.
"Why would they remove bodies in this way if the people had died normally," Karleusa says. "Well, they didn't die normally. It was a crime. And this is how they wanted to cover up those crimes. "
It is now the job of Serbian and U.N. prosecutors to prove that the campaign to clean up bodies in Kosovo was, in fact, a cover-up for a terrible crime.