A Calculated Risk
In mid-April, 1999, NATO released satellite photos of Izbica's graves and other suspected atrocity sites as part of the daily press briefings in Brussels. U.S. diplomats had already telegraphed the news of the photos to select correspondents. Retired General Wesley Clark, who commanded the NATO air war, said NATO took a calculated risk in releasing reconnaissance photos, because doing so would tip off Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic about war-crimes evidence that could be used to indict him.
"I knew always that Milosevic was watching CNN, and his lieutenants were also fluent in English," General Clark said. "I had to assume they watched our briefings. There was always the chance that the Serbs could have reacted in one of two ways. But they could have reacted in two ways. They could have been deterred from doing this or they could have reacted in some other way."
The world might be watching, but Slobodan Milosevic was not deterred. The killing and deportations continued. And it was about this timemid-April of 1999that Milosevic's senior generals ordered secret police units to coordinate a gruesome field operation in Kosovo. Until now, details of this operation remained a closely held secret in Serbia. But according to Serbian army and police sources interviewed for this report, the operation focused on removing corpses from massacre sites like Izbica, evidence that might implicate Slobodan Milosevic and his senior commanders.
The job of removing bodies and other war-crimes evidence fell to secret police commandos like Branko. "I think our people understood that sooner or later some of these western organizations like the Hague Tribunal might come into Kosovo," he said. "We needed a good way to destroy evidence."
A burly veteran of the Bosnian war with short-cropped hair, Branko served in an elite unit of the Serbian state security service that coordinated the removal and destruction of Albanian corpses in Kosovo. It was a job one commander called "garbage disposal." "The point was not to hide the bodies in graves but to totally destroy them. It would be as if these people never existed," Branko said.
But before long, western intelligence agencies picked up indications that the Serbs were destroying evidence by emptying graves and hiding or burning bodies. At the same time, the UN Tribunal finished the initial investigation and took the historic step of publicly indicting Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes, even as the conflict raged on. It was May 27, 1999.
Within days of Milosevic's indictment, Serbian units descended on Izbica with digging equipment, according to Albanian witnesses and human-rights groups. Soon after, satellite photos showed a long swath of bulldozed earth. To NATO general Wesley Clark, the pictures showed that the graves had been emptied. The timing was no coincidence.
"Not only had the Serbs killed civilians and were trying to hide them," General Clark said, "but there was a system behind this, where they were responding to discoveries. This was an important finding for us. It deepened the recognition that the Serb high command in some way was involved in this."
The mystery of exactly what happened to the missing bodies of Izbica and other massacre sites bedevils war-crimes investigators and haunts grieving family members. Thousands of ethnic Albanians disappeared during the war. The bodies of some were later found dumped down wells, burned in homes, and reburied in ordinary cemeteries. But many simply vanished like the Izbica victims.
Some Serbs who served in Kosovo, like Dusko, say the death toll will remain a mystery forever. "You'll never know the exact number because those bodies have been completely destroyed," he said.
Dusko and six other Serbian fighters interviewed for this report took part in the so-called "clean up" operations in Kosovo. They spoke only after we agreed not to reveal their identities and would only meet in public places like noisy cafes. The men were interviewed separately in Serbia and Montenegro. They served in different units. Their stories provide a detailed picture of how Serbian forcesunder orders from Slobodan Milosevic's senior commanderssystematically destroyed the bodies of dead Albanians to obliterate evidence of mass killings.
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