By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 25, 2005; A15
BELGRADE -- Human rights sleuth Natasa Kandic, a wisp of a woman with a boyish haircut, spent hours in the cafes of Sid, a town in northern Serbia, listening to whispered tales of Balkan war killings. Then one day, she heard about the videotape.
It showed the summary executions in 1995 of six Muslim men and boys from the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. It had been passed around as a war souvenir among members of a shadowy Serb military unit called the Scorpions. Its commander had ordered copies destroyed, but one, she was told, still existed, held by a dissident member of the unit.
Since that day in 2003, she searched until she found the video. She gave it to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is on trial, and to television stations in Serbia, where it triggered a sudden self-examination in a society that viewed itself as the prime victim of the Balkan war atrocities of the 1990s.
On the tape, burly Serbs dressed in camouflage, with cigarettes dangling from their lips, order bound prisoners into a small meadow, then shoot four of them in the back, at a time. The remaining two are ordered to carry the corpses into a wrecked white house. "You're the winners," one Scorpion barks at the body bearers, who are then also gunned down.
The broadcasts on June 2 ripped away the veil of secrecy and denial of Serbian military operations in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, particularly the massacre of as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys in and around Srebrenica. No longer was it possible to label atrocity tales as Bosnian Muslim propaganda amplified by inventive foreign correspondents, as many Serbs had done for a decade. The cold, relaxed pace of the executions undermined the common opinion that whatever happened in the Balkans was done in the chaos of war.
For Kandic, the video was a vindication. For almost 15 years, she labored to uncover atrocities committed by all sides in the Balkan wars, but most notably, crimes committed by her own people. During the 1990s, when Serbs fought wars in Croatia, Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo, newspapers and officials variously labeled her as a prostitute, spy, traitor and lunatic.
These days, she gets phone calls from strangers praising her work. Police rounded up eight Scorpion suspects a day after the video was broadcast. A ninth was later detained in Croatia. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called the executions a "brutal, callous and disgraceful crime against civilians."
Speaking last week in Washington, the chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans, Carla del Ponte, said that during her recent visit to Serbia, she "could feel the impact of this video on all elements of Serbian society."
Kandic exudes little joy. A debate in parliament over a war crimes resolution last week degenerated into a dispute over whether Serbs were the main victims of atrocities, she noted. Moreover, the broadcast of the video has yet to result in the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Serb general directly in charge of the Srebrenica operation. U.N. officials have repeatedly charged that he is hiding in Serbia.
"This government refuses to break with Milosevic's criminal state," Kandic said.
Kandic spoke on the balcony of a small Belgrade restaurant, chain-smoking and answering frequent calls on her cell phone. She travels around the city without bodyguards, though she acknowledges that someone might want to take revenge for the Scorpion arrests. Her activism is nothing new.
Before the wars, she was a sociologist. After hostilities began in 1991, she decided to research human rights abuses connected with the fighting. She founded the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, organized candlelight antiwar vigils and mounted petition drives to protest the use of Serbian troops in the conflict with Croatia. "I documented abuses against Croats and was called a traitor," she said. "Then against Muslims. The same reaction. When I documented abuses against Serbs, there was silence."
During the conflict in Kosovo in 1999, she said, she traveled by taxi to the provincial capital, Pristina. Ethnic Albanians were being expelled or fleeing in fear from towns and villages. Serbian police looted and burned their homes. At police checkpoints, Kandic convinced guards that she was on her way to rescue Serb relatives, and they let her pass.
Kandic dodged NATO bombs as she traveled from town to town. She collected testimony on expulsions and mass killings. Once, security agents detained her for eight hours on the way to the southern city of Prizren. "First, they said: 'We know who you are. You could be disappeared.' But they let me go," she recalled. "Look at me. I'm little. I'm a woman. I'm not a scary person."
Kandic, 59, considers the waning years of Milosevic's rule, which ended in 2000, the most dangerous period of her career. It was a time of assassinations and roundups of journalists, opposition activists and student protesters. "Until then, Milosevic ignored us," she said. "We were few and served one purpose. He could point to us as proof of democracy."
In 2000, Col. Svetozar Radisic, then the Yugoslav army spokesman, told reporters that Kandic "should be sentenced for what she is doing. A person who puts forth such allegations might be a psychiatric case." She remained free even as she organized legal defenses for Kosovo Albanians held in Serbian jails.
In Sid, she was looking into a mass killing during the Kosovo war when she heard about the Srebrenica tape. Originally, 20 copies were made, she said. Later the Scorpions' commander realized the images could be used against him and ordered them destroyed. However, one Scorpion, who was at odds with his comrades and was not present at the executions, made an extra copy for himself. Fearful, he hid the tape with confidants in Bosnia, Kandic said. She set out to find it.
Other Scorpions, who had learned she was looking for a copy, began to scour Sid for it and harassed anyone they thought might have it. Finally, Kandic found the tape in Bosnia. She agreed to publicize it only when the owner and other informants were out of Serbia. That was accomplished on May 20.
The Scorpion tale provides a key to proving high-level Serbian responsibility for war crimes, Kandic said. "The Scorpions just didn't wander around on their own. They were ordered from place to place. . . . They were integrated into the war machine."
The Scorpions were first dispatched to guard oil fields in Croatia and to fight. They later took part in the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. When Mladic launched an assault on Srebrenica in July 1995, he used Scorpions to evacuate and kill Bosnian prisoners, Kandic said.
The Scorpions also appeared in the Kosovo town of Podujevo on March 28, 1999, and massacred a group of 14 women and children in the walled garden of a small house. The local commander of the Scorpions unit in Podujevo, Sasa Cvjetan, stood trial in Serbia last year for the killings. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison -- a sentence imposed again last week after a retrial. Kandic was deeply involved in bringing the Podujevo case to trial and was on its trail in Sid when the story of the Srebrenica tape surfaced.
The video begins with the Scorpions taking blessings from a Serbian Orthodox priest in Sid, then traveling through the Balkan countryside and sleeping in a wood. Six bound prisoners are shown being transported in a truck. Later the Scorpions force them to lie face down on the roadside. The captors taunt them.
"Did you ever have sex?" asks one commando. "Never?"
"You're innocent?" asks another. "I'd be innocent, too."
There is discussion about whether the video camera has sufficient battery power to record the whole scene and whether the tape needs changing. When all the bodies are in the house, one Scorpion demands permission to fire three more bullets at the corpses.
The tape ends with a pig roast.
Kandic wrapped up the interview after a caller told her the Serbian government was willing to open a war crimes investigation in another case she had worked on. A Serb paramilitary commander named Nebojsa Minic, who allegedly killed numerous civilians in western Kosovo when he ran a unit called Lightning, was under arrest in Argentina. She had fingered him as a culprit.
"All these cases are important," Kandic said and rushed off.