Ten Serb policemen accused of having carried out one of the worst massacres in the Kosovo war may soon face justice.
By an investigative team in Belgrade and Pristina
In the next few days an investigation will be launched against a group of Serbian policemen suspected of having killed 57 members of an Albanian family in Kosovo in spring 1999, Balkan Insight has learned from sources close to the Serbian prosecutor's war crimes office.
The slaughter took place in the midst of NATO's air war against Serb forces in Kosovo, which forced them to withdraw from the province that summer.
The bodies of the dead men, women and children, including a baby aged seven months, from the Kosovo town of Suva Reka were buried in pits in an army base in Prizren before being secretly transported to a new mass grave in the police compound at Batajnica, near Belgrade.
While the existence of the mass grave at Batajnica was uncovered in spring 2001, after the fall of the Milosevic regime, those responsible for the murders and the transportation have never been brought to justice - owing largely to police obstruction.
But our sources have revealed that ten men will be charged in a matter of days. This follows a decision by the Serbian war crimes office to go over the heads of the police in the past two years and interview Albanian and other witnesses directly.
The witnesses include a mother whose two children were executed in front of her but who, after being taken for dead and loaded onto a lorry, managed to jump off with her son and escape.
The ten suspects are the former commander of the Kosovo police, a former police chief in one Kosovo town, a former commander of a local police station in Kosovo, this officer's assistant, and a six-member squad including two secret policemen.
With the exception of two of them, these officers are still at work in the force, some in high posts.
The launch of a war crimes investigation normally requires the detention of the suspects, so the ten men may soon find themselves behind bars.
The expected probe confirms the suspicions of many Serbs that the police were deeply implicated in terrible crimes in Kosovo, and that for years afterwards, they systematically obstructed attempts by the courts to track down the guilty and shed light on what happened in this and other incidents.
Court experts say the prosecutor's office is now finally in a position to reopen the Suva Reka affair not because the police suddenly cooperated, but because legal changes enabled them to circumvent the force.
Last year, Serbian law was changed to allow the prosecutors to examine witnesses themselves without relying on prior police work, and to use these findings in criminal proceedings.
When this investigation becomes public, it is expected to create considerable nervousness in police ranks, and possible panic when the prosecutor's office releases all the material it has collected on this and other atrocities in Kosovo.
These include the murder of 100 Albanians in the village of Meja, 70 more in Zahac, and other killings in Djakovica, Pec, Prizren and Orahovac.
Vladimir Vukcevic, head of the prosecutor's war crimes office, says the business of getting to the bottom of the crimes in Suva Reka has proceeded painfully slowly.
"Everything done so far is the fruit of the work done by this prosecutor's office," he said. "Yet we still face obstruction in tracking down the people responsible for these war crimes."
BODIES FOUND - BUT NOT THE EXECUTIONERS
The mass graves in Batajnica and two other locations in Serbia were uncovered in spring 2001, and around 1,100 bodies of Albanians were exhumed over the following 30 months.
The largest number of bodies, 980, were found in Batajnica, and this find was followed by another at special police unit headquarters in Petrovo Selo, eastern Serbia, where 77 bodies were dug up. Forty-eight more were recovered from a lake at Perusac, close to Bosnia.
In May 2001, Serbia's interior ministry said the order to remove the bodies of Albanians killed in police actions and to rebury them at secret locations in Serbia came from the office of the then president Slobodan Milosevic in March 1999.
Besides Milosevic, said the ministry, the police minister at the time, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, attended the meeting, along with the chief of public security, General Vlastimir "Rodja" Djordjevic, the then head of the Serbian secret police, Radomir Markovic, and others.
The Hague tribunal has already charged several individuals with war crimes committed in Kosovo: namely Milosevic, Djordjevic, the former head of the general staff of the Yugoslav army, Nebojsa Pavkovic, and army and police generals Vladimir Lazarevic and Sreten Lukic.
MURDER IN THE PIZZERIA
Unlike the Hague tribunal, which seeks to establish the command responsibility of the state, military and police leadership for war crimes, the Serbian courts are looking into the whole command structure, from senior commanders to those who allegedly participated in killings.
Our source in the prosecutor's war crimes office says they now have gathered enough proof against the ten suspects in Suva Reka, in spite of police obstruction and the often unwilling cooperation of Albanian witnesses.
Prosecutor Vukcevic says the examination of Albanian witnesses was the turning point. "We got to those witnesses with the help of the Hague tribunal in Pristina, while UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo] ensured our security," he said.
They have now heard around 200 witnesses, among them 50 Albanians, while the others were Serbs then serving in Kosovo as members of the regular or special police units.
"It was tough working with Albanian witnesses in Kosovo," said a source. "It took a lot of convincing to get them to speak."
This source expressed suspicion that some of the Serb witnesses went to the police prior to their examination to be briefed on what they should say.
According to statements collected by the prosecutor's war crimes office, the massacre at Suva Reka took place on March 26, 1999 as Serb forces were making a detailed search of the area, apparently looking for weapons.
Among the police were a six-man squad which broke into the homestead of the Berisha family.
These findings coincided with research by our investigative team in 2003, which included an interview with a survivor of the massacre, Vjollca Berisha. She told then journalist that she well remembered the day when the police broke into their home - she recognised three of them.
"They told my brother-in-law Bujar Berisha to go outside. Beside the house they shot Bujar, six other men and a woman," she said.
Vjollca mentioned the killers by name, though it was impossible to publish the names for legal reasons.
After the police unit executed six adult males in the courtyard, the rest of the family fled to a shopping centre in the middle of town.
The police followed them, tracking them down to the Kalabria pizza parlour, and burst in, opening fire.
Vjollca told us, "The pizzeria was very small but we kept quiet. There were so many women, men and children inside. Suddenly someone started shooting from an automatic weapon and it went on for a long time. I screamed and fell down over my son Gramosh. We were covered in blood."
The police killers, she said, then checked the bodies for signs of life, "Someone grabbed my hand, but I pretended I was dead and didn't move. They shook my son, but he also played dead. I kept my eyes shut."
Among those who were not so lucky were her two other children, her seven-month-old baby and two-year-old daughter.
The police threw all the bodies - including the living - into a lorry, which set off towards the town of Prizren, she said.
When the truck slowed down, Syhrete Berisha, one of her relatives, managed to jump out. Half an hour later, Vjollca and her son crawled out from under the pile of bodies and escaped.
Of the rest of the Berisha family, the only traces are one identity card and some bits of clothing, all found at the Yugoslav army base near Prizren.
The war crimes prosecutor's office has now established the same version of events surrounding the case of the Berisha family.
It says the family were murdered and the bodies thrown into two lorries and taken to a barracks in Prizren, where they were left for a few days and then buried in three pits in the army compound.
But two weeks later, fresh orders came from Belgrade and the Serbs were told to dig up the bodies and get them to Batajnica.
Balkan Insight's source in the prosecutor's office says they have strong evidence that Vlastimir Djordjevic, the former head of public security, now thought to be hiding from the Hague tribunal in Russia, played a key role in the transfer of the bodies.
"Djordjevic personally gave the order for the bodies in Suva Reka to be taken from pits in Prizren to Batajnica," said the source.
"He himself found the lorries and other vehicles for the job. He also removed the traces of crimes from the other places in Kosovo," the source added.
Djordjevic is thought to have been in charge of locating the new mass graves in the Serbian interior, as well as directing the police who dug the new pits and threw the bodies in.
A source close to the former DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) government in Belgrade which succeeded the Milosevic regime, says one of Djordjevic's most trusted accomplices leaked the whole story to them.
This man led them to the location of the pits in Batajnica after falling out with his police bosses over a row about accommodation. He showed them the exact spot where he dug the graves with excavators and buried the bodies.
"Djordejevic called me up and told me to go to a building firm and get hold of a digger, and that my officer would then tell me what needed to be done," recalled the man, who will probably appear as a witness in any forthcoming trial.
PERPETRATORS AND WITNESSES
Police resistance to clearing up the case of the mass graves was apparent soon after the spectacular discovery of the first pit in Batajnica.
Journalists soon noted the police's strong reserve towards answering questions, as well as their suggestion that they had now completed their side of the task.
The Belgrade district court, meanwhile, said charges could only be brought against persons cited by the police themselves in a criminal proceeding. But the police never named or charged anyone.
Matters started to change at the end of 2003, when, after the Serbian office for war crimes was set up and took over the Batajnica case, its representatives publicly warned that it might be difficult ever to find out who was behind the slaughter in Suva Reka or the mass graves.
They also made public mention of the police as potential actors, saying that "it is possible that those who perpetuated those criminal acts are to be found in the police ranks".
That the men allegedly responsible for the Suva Reka killings were policemen was evident to journalists who interviewed surviving witnesses in Kosovo.
Gordana Igric, editor of Balkan Insight, investigated the Suva Reka case over several months in 2003 and compiled a list of policemen named by locals as the men behind the crimes.
One of the key perpetrators, a state security policeman in Suva Reka, has since been transferred to the police department in Kragujevac, she was told.
When Igric tried to find out whether this person was still on the police pay roll, she says state security officials contacted her and advised her to "deal with more pleasant things and forget the whole subject". The next day she also received a series of threats.
Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, told Balkan Insight that all state security personnel in Kosovo after the summer of 1999 were moved to Serbia and incorporated into the existing state security system.
"From the start, the main problem lay in the fact that those who had issued and executed the orders were members of the Serbian police - and still are," she said.
Kandic insists that ever since 1999, police have falsified and changed documents and controlled possible witnesses with a view to concealing the crimes that had taken place.
"They are not a crime prevention force but a discovery-prevention force," she said.
One source who wanted to remain anonymous shared the same opinion, "There are people [in the police] who have been strongly interconnected as participants and witnesses. They look after each other and do everything they can to stop information leaking out."
This is the reason, some believe, why the courts never came into possession of a document called "Dossiers K and M", which is thought to be in the hands of the police. This file is believed to contain comprehensive information about the chain of command in Kosovo and a full record of events there at the time the war crimes were committed.
Asked about police obstruction in the case, chief prosecutor Vukcevic said recently, "My feeling is that there are still plenty of people in the police whose conscience is not clear when it comes to events in Kosovo. Until the police cleans up its ranks, we will always have difficulties locating the perpetrators."
The police ministry formed its own war crimes unit in 2003, which does not come under the prosecutor's war crimes office.
With only a small staff, it has achieved few results, leading some to suspect that it was never intended to be more than a decoy.
"There are far too few people employed in it for the task it's been set," commented Vukcevic.
Several independent sources have alleged that some individuals now working in the police's war crimes unit had occupied important positions in Kosovo.
The source close to the former DOS government said, "One of them was chef-de-cabinet for Djordjevic, and a second was a member of police headquarters in Pristina".
Balkan Insight asked to interview the Serbian ministry of interior on this matter, but had received no answer by the time this report went to press.
In a short telephone conversation, Vladimir Bozovic, inspector general at the department for complaints about police behaviour, said he had received no complaints from the prosecutor's war crimes office concerning police obstruction in the Suva Reka case.
Few people in Serbia are optimistic about the wind of reform blowing through the ranks of the police any time soon.
Bearing in mind how much time it has already taken to investigate the Suva Reka case, many warn that the process of identifying war crimes suspects among Serbia's unreformed police may be a prolonged one.
Milos Vasic of the Belgrade weekly Vreme cautions that the climate in Serbia is by no means supportive of the work of the war crimes prosecutor.
"Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic [former Bosnian Serb military and political chiefs] are still treated like heroes in Serbia," he said "And the present government is doing nothing to change that prevailing system of values."
He added, "When the investigation on Batajnica gets under way, it will be another big shock for the Serbian public."
This investigation was produced by the team of Balkan Insight. Balkan Insight is an online publication produced by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN. The investigation was supported by the Danish association of investigative journalism, FUJ, under its SCOOP programme.