Bodies to Dust
If UN prosecutors can prove that the Serbs systemically destroyed bodies to cover up war crimes, that could be a crucial part of the Tribunal's case against Slobodan Milosevic. To check details the Serbian fighters gave us about burning corpses, we made two trips to Trepca in November, 2000.
A UN administrator showed us around the lead refinery. The UN took over Trepca last summer and shut it down because the plant was disgorging massive amounts of pollution into the air and water. Because the UN team arrived at Trepca well after the war, its members expressed no knowledge of the clandestine work done at Trepca during the conflict.
"As you can see, the activity level is quite low," said Nick Boreham, a UN project manager. "They haven't been able to get trucks and equipment. But the first thing you have to do is just clean the place up."
The lead refinery is a series of huge buildings, gantries, and ducts, capped by a soaring red and white smokestack. Rusting equipment and heaps of industrial waste give the place a derelict, menacing look. The first thing the fighters remembered was the proximity of the smokestack to the huge blast furnaces that draw out impurities from the lead ore. Nick Boreham explains that the Trepca furnaces burn at temperatures hundreds of degrees higher than crematoria.
As we toured Trepca, details of the facility's layout and operations closely matched the descriptions from the Serbian fighters, especially the conveyor system used to lift fuel and ore to the blast furnace. But as we walked along the conveyor that carries coke and ore from the loading site to the furnace, we saw several points where the tracks narrow to a width too small for a body to pass through. This was a major discrepancy. Could we be looking in the wrong place? Were the stories reliable? How could bodies get to the furnace if they could not make it through these conveyors? So, we interviewed some of the Serbs again. And, without prompting, Milan explained how they solved the problem of getting bodies up to the furnace.
"At first we tried using the tracks that lead directly to the furnace," he said. "But it didn't work. At least for the bodies that were intact. Most of those bodies were too big to ride on the conveyor. But when ore is being prepared for processing, it has to be ground up and sort of cooked, something like that. So if you put the bodies into the grinder, it's easy."
With no background in metallurgy, Milan accurately described the process that ore goes through at Trepca to become raw lead. As the UN's Nick Boreham confirmed, the ore goes through the grinder, through the sinter plant where it gets roasted, then on to the blast furnace and beyond.
The Serbs dumped waste from the blast furnace, called slag, into piles on the ground. The slag is a coarse, dull gray material. This is where investigators might look for evidence, but forensic scientists say it would be virtually impossible to find traces of biological material burned in such a furnace. So in this regard, the Serbian effort to destroy evidence probably worked. But just a few yards away from where the bodies were unloaded from the trucks, in a large pile of metal scrap, we saw discarded clothing. The debris include a shirt, a jacket, and an assortment of dress shoes, including women's shoes. This was not the kind of stuff typically found at an industrial site.
Several fighters admitted that while most of the bodies incinerated at Trepca were men, some were women, children, and the elderly. Branko said it was important to dispose of civilian casualties most thoroughly because of their importance to war-crimes investigators.
Branko said the sight of half-decomposed bodies being piled onto industrial conveyors disgusted many fighters. "There are scenes that stick with you because you can't believe it happened," he said. "Especially in such numbers. Maybe you can imagine destroying a few bodies here or there. But this was a horrible scene because there were so manylike a factory assembly linebut with bodies."
Serbian soldiersalong with Albanian and Gypsy prisonersoften worked throughout the night unloading bodies for incineration, according to the fighters. At daylight the factory returned to normal operations. Some plant managers assisted in the burning of bodies or knew of the operation, according to army and police sources.
Next page: "No One Would Dare Stop Us"