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Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


Burning Secrets from the Balkans
Serbia still has a lot to answer for
By Robert Leonard Rope and Albinot Maloku
April 13, 2011

Months before controversial Swiss politician Dick Marty’s “groundbreaking,” unabashedly anti-Albanian report came to dominate the latest round of Balkan media frenzies, my long-term work partner and I set out to investigate one specific set of allegations from the Serbian-led genocides of the 1990s – namely, that the bodies of hundreds, perhaps thousands of ethnic Albanians were systematically burned and disposed of in industrial furnaces by Serbian forces during the waning days of Slobodan Milošević’s reign of terror in Kosovo.

(Where Are Our Missing? photo by Albinot Maloku, Pristina, 2008)
The following is our report detailing and analyzing the documentation and evidence from these macabre operations. We offer this in the hopes of igniting a rigorous and long-needed war crimes investigation. All serious war crime allegations must be investigated. All victims and their surviving loved ones, regardless of ethnicity, have the right to justice, and ultimately, the hope of closure. – RLR


Trepca’s mines will live alongside Belsen and Auschwitz in the memories of those whose loved ones met with a horrific end. War crimes investigators fear as many as 1,000 bodies of innocent victims were burnt in what has now been dubbed “Death Valley.” (1)
The point was not to hide the bodies in graves but to totally destroy them. It would be as though these people never existed… (2)

After an intensive, wide-ranging 18-month-long investigation, the intricate web of a notorious cover-up can at last be revealed. Spring 1999 was the climax of Serbia’s genocidal campaign against Kosovar Albanians. In the midst of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign, and under the ominous threat of an international war crimes investigation, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević ordered his henchmen to instigate a massive cover-up.

Suddenly, and with little formal preparation, a diverse collection of police, soldiers, paramilitaries and special service operatives was enlisted in a top-secret plan to conceal yet another round of Balkan war crimes.

Serbia’s game plan? A surreal hodgepodge of refrigerator trucks, mass graves and – most shockingly – the diabolical use of towering industrial furnaces. The industrial sites included Kosovo’s sprawling Trepca mine complex, as well as at least one factory complex in the south of Serbia proper, specifically “Mackatica.”

Like Adolf Hitler a generation ago, the arguably psychopathic Milošević ordered the widespread burning of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Albanian civilian corpses. The remains of men, women and children, of babies and the elderly, of healthy young men and the severely disabled – all going up in smoke, all turned to cinders. Burn the bodies, burn the evidence.

That was Serbia’s double-whammy: mass murder and destruction of evidence. Not just the de rigueur Balkan mass graves, although there were and still are no shortage of those particular horrors throughout former Yugoslavia, some as yet unopened. No, in this case we are talking about rushed, hastily organized transports followed by the frenetic dumping of corpses into massive industrial furnaces. All mortal remains transformed to ash, with the push of a button. All traces, even down to the DNA, gone with the wind.

As if those human beings never even existed.

As Susanne Ringgaard, who once coordinated victim identification in Kosovo for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) candidly acknowledged, "The Serbs learned their lesson from Bosnia – destroy the evidence.” (3)

Tragically, Milošević’s nefarious scheme has, until now, succeeded.

Having read about and listened in stunned awe to these chilling anecdotes over the last decade, we decided to meticulously retrace the original allegations and evidence, and determine, once and for all, the veracity of these long-running “rumors.” And what we discovered was both appalling and compelling. Not only are the original allegations based on potent evidence and extensive witness testimony, but we were gradually able to piece together yet an additional layer of falsification and subterfuge: a cover-up of the cover-up. And piece by piece, layer by layer, the whole sordid picture has gradually emerged, unfolded, like a shaky Balkan house of cards.

Even at the height of war, as early as the end of May 1999, horrifying reports began to circulate involving the systematic burning of Kosovar bodies. A report from UK FCO (Britain’s Foreign Office) cites accounts from Kosovo’s well respected daily Koha Ditore of explicit claims by a driver from Vojvodina (Serbia) that since the beginning of February, 1999, he had personally, and on a regular basis, transported the bodies of Kosovar civilians in a military refrigerated van to a foundry at an undisclosed location in Serbia.

On arrival, he reported, the bodies were cremated. (4)

A week later, on the 6th of June, 1999 London’s highly respected Observer ran an article titled “Serbs burning bodies in rush to hide war crimes evidence.”

According to prominent British journalists John Sweeney and Patrick Wintour, Serb forces allegedly burned the bodies of their victims to destroy evidence of atrocities in Kosovo, in advance of the arrival of war crimes investigators. Several witnesses independently told Sweeney and Wintour that they had seen smoke rising from the Trepca mine as Serb death squads burned hundreds of corpses:

Three separate sources identified the Trepca mine – controlled by financiers close to Slobodan Milošević – as the site where the Serbs have been burning bodies at a reported rate of at least 100 a day for the past two months. The bodies arrive in lorries, are incinerated in the smelter or a makeshift charnel house and the ashes are dumped in disused shafts.

One of the witnesses reported that 700 bodies had been burnt in the past few days. The dead – mainly men and boys regarded as being of “military age” in Serb eyes – had come from exhumed mass graves in the Drenica valley and newly killed ethnic Albanian prisoners at the Smrekovnica jail, the personal killing ground of a Serb police chief known and feared by the refugees as “Vukcina” or “Wolfman.”

Claims of attempts to destroy evidence of war crimes came amid warnings from the war crimes tribunal in the Hague that they had feared the Serbs would “start destroying evidence at crime sites as we speak.”

One source added: “This is a matter of extreme urgency. On every other occasion –Srebrenica, and elsewhere – the Serbs have wasted no time in tampering with evidence, disposing of bodies and moving mass graves. There is no reason to suppose that it will be any different this time.”

According to the article, the Serbs were reportedly anxious to keep Trepca in the zone to be controlled by Russian troops, which would mean that the Serbs would be able to keep the riches of the mine and hide all evidence of massacre:

“Faton,” a 38-year-old man who has lost 20 kilograms hiding from Serb death squads in the mountains above Trepca, said his father is still trapped inside Pristina. In late March, a few days after the first NATO strikes, he met a group of men of “killable age” who first told him the Serbs were taking the bodies of the dead to Trepca to burn and dumping the remains in mineshafts. (5)

In mid-April, the Serb deaths squads came to his village of Dumnica and Faton fled to the mountains above Trepca, where he met a constant stream of refugees from the town of Kosovska Mitrovica. These refugees, in different groups, arriving on different days, told the same story: that the bodies were being burnt in the mine. “They must have burnt thousands there,” he told The Observer.

According to Sweeney and Wintour, Faton reported that some of the dead had been prisoners at the Smrekovnica jail and were victims of a sadistic Serb police chief known to him as “Vukcina.” He described him as a huge man with an ugly scar to his right temple.

The second source was close to the command of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in Macedonia. He explained: “Last Thursday, our people saw four or five lorries arrive at the mine. We were able to watch through binoculars. We saw men take the bodies from the lorries, and then we saw the smoke come from the furnace.”

At a conservative estimate of 25 bodies to each lorry, 100 corpses a day were being burnt.

The third source was an elderly Albanian man, who was able to talk to his daughter, a refugee in Tetova (Macedonia), for three minutes via a satellite phone inside Kosovo. The man reported that some of their neighbors had been killed. “The Serbs have burnt 700 bodies in the last few days,” he told her. (6)

Four days later, Jonathan S. Landay of the prestigious Christian Science Monitor (CSM) wrote that NATO and the UN war crimes tribunal were planning to cooperate closely in “what would be the most intensive investigative effort of its kind since the end of World War 2.”

The planning for collecting war crimes evidence in Kosovo, continues Landay, was being driven by concerns that Belgrade was pursuing massive destruction of evidence:

US officials have credible reports that since Belgrade’s acceptance last week of a NATO-backed peace plan, Serbian troops have intensified the effort, unearthing mass graves and incinerating bodies at Kosovo’s Trepca mine and in central Serbia.

“There has been a real effort to clean up… over the last week and a half,” says a US official. “There is a very real issue of tampering.”

Adds Landay, “Should NATO really pursue war crimes in Kosovo, it would be a sea change from Bosnia… It would be the most intensive war crimes effort since the Nuremberg prosecutions of the Nazi German leaders. (7)

Eight days later, exactly one week after Milošević began – under extreme duress – to pull his forces out of Kosovo, an obscure article ran in the Scotland Daily Record. It was titled “1000 Bodies in Valley of Death,” by veteran writer Don Mackay:

“Yesterday,” writes Mackay, “as Foreign Secretary Robin Cook claimed 10,000 murdered Kosovars had been dumped in mass graves, photographer Mike Fresco and I visited the places where Serb death squads tried to hide the evidence of their vile crimes.”

Here, in the dead of night, lorries loaded with bodies poured through the rusting gates. The crossed-hammer emblem of Trepca – believed to be owned by Slobodan Milošević himself – could easily be mistaken for a Swastika left over from the last time fear on this scale stalked central Europe. (8)

Continues Mackay, with morbid irony, “As the Serb tyrant prevaricated over peace, his underlings drove convoys of freshly dug-up corpses to Trepca’s disused gold mines.”

The furnaces were fired up once again to burn the bodies of the men and boys the Serbs had feared would take up arms against them. Smoke billowing up from the red and white chimney stack signaled their desperate bid to escape justice for war crimes, and the ashes were dumped down the maze of mineshafts and tunnels. (9)

By then, Mackay adds, “spy-in-the-sky drones and reconnaissance planes had spotted the grisly operation.”

The second part of the article, which initially appears peripheral, offers, in hindsight, some key clues to the success of the operation’s cover-up. According to Mackay, French NATO troops, notoriously sympathetic to Serbia, had already arrived at nearby Mitrovica, but had “stopped short of entering Trepca.” Milošević’s heavily armed forces continued to rule the roost at Trepca, steadfastly refusing Mackay and his photographer entrance into the disputed site, while admitting to Mackay’s Serbian-speaking translator that “they were scared of what would happen once NATO arrived.”

The visit clearly left Mackay unsettled and disturbed, though powerless to personally investigate Trepca. He left the site severely troubled by the admonition of one local ethnic Albanian: “No one goes near Trepca. It has the smell of death. But everyone knows what went on during the nights.” (10)

Barely two weeks later, an article in the New York Times sent out shock waves. It was penned by the consistently outspoken Chris Hegdes (later let go from the Times Times for his principled opposition to the war in Iraq) and was hauntingly titled: “Acid and Smelting Vats Evoke Fear of Grisly Burials by Serbs.”

Hedges picks up Mackay’s main themes, clarifying and updating certain aspects while adding significant and disturbing detail:

“Some NATO officials and local residents,” Hedges begins, “say the mile-deep shafts, the steaming smelting vats and the tanks of hydrochloric acid at the Trepca mine here were used as a vast disposal site for the bodies of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian forces.”

Kosovar Albanians who live near the state-owned mine say bodies were brought in covered trucks escorted by Serbian jeeps and troop carriers. The first day they reported seeing the trucks was September 17, 1998, the day Serbs began one of several major attacks to wipe out the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). (11)

The trucks, they insisted, continued to enter the mine frequently until a few days before NATO troops arrived in June.

Just as in Mackay’s earlier report, the stench of burning flesh features as a prominent part of the ghoulish, Auschwitz-like landscape:

Residents on the perimeter of the mine report that an unusual pungent, bittersweet smell, which they assumed to be burning bodies, frequently wafted up day and night from the chimneys that ventilate the huge, bowl-shaped smelting vats. No such smell, they say, had ever come from the chimneys before last September (1998). (12)

One of the most revealing aspects of the Times article centers on the French NATO troops, the very same ones who “had stopped short” of entering Trepca as of June 18, 1999. Sometime between that date and the following two weeks, the French had indeed entered the mining complex, and what they witnessed left an indelible impression, offering another critical piece of the puzzle.

According to Hedges, heavily armed NATO peacekeepers from France did, in fact, search the mine when they secured the area – which had been assigned to the French forces – despite what they said were Serbian attempts to keep them out:

French soldiers reported to the Hague tribunal that they had uncovered piles of ethnic Albanian’s clothes, shoes, family photos and identity documents (seizing ethnic Albanian identification documents was standard procedure) in the smelting area and near the mine shafts, according to officers who read the report.

The French also reported that the vats had been thoroughly cleaned before Serbian troops stationed in the complex left. The cleaned vats stood in stark contrast with the filth that characterizes the other parts of the mine.
There were several large ash heaps, the French report said, and French troops found numerous empty bottles of hydrochloric acid. (13)

The French military documentation is incredibly powerful and profoundly damaging. Why would the French, typically so sympathetic to the Serbian cause, create such details from whole cloth?

Some of the French soldiers speculated that bodies may have been submerged deep in the shafts. Aziz Abrashi, an ethnic Albanian who had been Trepca’s general director in the 1980s, explained to Hedges that because the mine’s water pumps had continued to operate, the mine shafts had not flooded.

“If corpses were trucked into the mines,” added Burhan Kavaja, an ethnic Albanian who was once director of the smelting operations, “they could easily have been disposed of in the vats of hydrochloric acid or burned in the smelting plants. The living could simply have been pushed into tunnels and had the air supply cut off. “Mines,” added Buran cryptically, “are ideal places to carry out genocide.”

Halid Barani, the local representative for the Kosovo Council for The Defense of Freedom and Human Rights, kept a daily tally of the trucks that entered the mine. By the end of January, he explained, every Albanian inhabitant in the Serbian-dominated part of Mitrovica, which surrounds the mine, was expelled, and it became a great deal harder to monitor activities there:

The Serb-held part of the city became a killing zone. After January, Albanians who were taken by Serbs into this part of Mitrovica were murdered.

During these first post-war weeks, Albanian leaders implored the French to provide armed escort to visit the mine and take samples from the ash heaps in order to perform a chemical analysis. But French commanders stubbornly refused, claiming that such a visit could lead to violence in a city so bitterly split between Serbs and Albanians. “We are here to keep the peace,” claimed French officials, “not investigate war crimes.” (14)

Hedges’s valiant attempt to reach two different sites inside the mine where French troops had reported those stacks of clothing and documents was bluntly thwarted by “two nervous-looking men in track suits” brandishing AK-47 assault rifles.” (15)

Clearly, it was never the Serbs’ intention to highlight such blatantly incriminating evidence to the outside world.

Some 18 months later, American National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast a groundbreaking and intensely disturbing program by the award-winning investigative team American RadioWorks (ARW) called “Burning the Evidence.” Using extensive evidence from an exhaustive, months-long investigation, ARW journalists elaborate on the Trepca mass burning allegations, offering detailed and damning confidential witness testimony, backed up by repeated visits to the mine complex itself.

Members of the Serbian police, army and intelligence services independently admitted to ARW that they took part in a massive effort to hide war crimes evidence by digging up corpses from mass graves and burning them in a lead refinery in northern Kosovo. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation was coordinated by an elite unit of the Serbian security service, under orders from close associates of former leader Slobodan Milošević.

“The point was not to hide the bodies in graves but to totally destroy them,” commented one Serbian fighter, identified in the documentary only as Branko:

It would be as if those people never existed. I think our people understood that sooner or later some of these Western organizations like the Hague Tribunal… might come into Kosovo. We needed a good way to destroy evidence. (16)

The Serbian soldiers describe, in detail, how they transported the bodies from graves and massacre sites in refrigerated, civilian trucks to a lead refinery in northern Kosovo.

“Those furnaces burned at thousands of degrees,” added another fighter called Milan. “I was told that it was enough heat to destroy everything. Every trace of the stuff they call DNA… I didn’t even know what DNA was…” In fact, according to UN expert
Nick Boreham, the Trepca furnaces, in order to draw out impurities from the lead ore, burn at temperatures hundreds of degrees higher than crematoria. (17)

In an extensive tour of the Trepca complex by the ARW team, details of the layout and operations closely matched the descriptions from the Serbian fighters who said they helped incinerate the Albanian bodies. By this point, there were no longer visible signs of human remains outside the lead refinery’s blast furnace – the spot where the Serbian fighters reported the bodies were destroyed.

But nearby, the ARW journalists noticed discarded civilian clothing, including men’s and women’s dress shoes. In other words, less than 18 months after the end of hostilities, remnants of the Albanian civilian attire were still visible, albeit in greatly reduced numbers due to the extensive, ongoing cover-up of the intervening months.

Soon after the Kosovo war, war crimes investigators had purportedly searched Trepca’s mines amid reports that Serb forces had dumped hundreds of bodies down the facility’s deep shafts; reportedly, they found no remains. But the Serbian fighters told ARW that the investigators looked in the wrong place. (18)

Milan, for example, provided a detailed, coolly matter-of-fact description of the process, even sketching diagrams of how the bodies got hauled from the trucks to the furnace:

Here’s the tall smokestack. Here are the conveyers. Over here was the coke. Do you know what coke is? The workers at Trepca told me it was a kind of heavy, dense coal. So on the conveyor you have the coke and the ore, and it all burns at a high temperature in the furnace. That’s where we put the bodies. (19)

Yet another Serbian fighter interviewed, “Branko,” worked in a special police unit, tasked with destroying evidence. As a driver, Branko reported making more than a dozen trips to Trepca delivering truckloads of corpses.

The blast furnace was high up, maybe 15 meters high or more. As I recall, only one of the furnaces was operating. But there were one or two others they burned at extremely high heat. And that’s where the bodies got destroyed. (20)

The ARW team toured the Trepca plant twice during the autumn of 2000. As they explored the site, details of the facility’s layout and operations closely matched the descriptions of the Serbian informants. But there were discrepancies – especially with the conveyor system used to lift fuel and ore to the blast furnace. It appeared at several points that the tracks tapered to a width too narrow for a body to pass.

The skeptical journalists proceeded to re-interview some of their witnesses. And without any prompting or pause, Milan readily explained how they solved the problem of moving bodies to the furnaces:

At first we tried using tracks that lead directly to the furnace. But it didn’t work. At least for the bodies that were intact. Most of these 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. (21)

The Serbian fighters admitted that many of the bodies were those of women, children and the elderly. Branko, for example, claimed that the sight of half-decomposed bodies being piled into industrial conveyors disgusted many of his fellow fighters:

These are scenes that stick with you because you can’t believe it happened. 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 many – like a factory assembly line – but with bodies. (22)

Some 1,200 to 1,500 bodies were destroyed at Trepca, according to the Serbian fighters who worked there – and also according to a well-placed Serbian intelligence officer. That figure represents close to half the number of Albanians officially registered as missing during the war. The corpses came from gravesites and villages across Kosovo. (23)

Logistics of the operations were tricky and never without an element of risk, but the ever resourceful Serbian military did its very best, as Branko patiently describes:

It was organized using refrigerator trucks, the smaller ones used for milk and ice cream. You had to be mindful of being photographed by NATO, so we did it at night even if it meant working more slowly. (24)

The men who drove in the convoys explained that some of the trucks had the Red Cross symbol painted on top to protect them from NATO attack. Serbian army and police sources said that many of the trucks came from private firms in Kosovo and Serbia. To make sure the civilian trucks passed smoothly through military and police checkpoints, an elite, heavily armed secret-police division called Unit for Special Operations escorted the deliveries. Dusko, who took part in several of these transports, recalls:

There were checkpoints and roadblocks everywhere, but when our jeeps came along, no one would dare stop us and check what was in the trucks. That was important so we could move quickly and so ordinary Serbs, and regular soldiers, wouldn’t find out. (25)

Occasionally units from the Yugoslav army stood guard at Trepca, apparently even assisting in the unloading of bodies. But it was the Special Operations Unit that controlled most of the cleanup in the field and the destruction of bodies in the blast furnace. Explains Dusko:

You can’t expect a regular soldier 18 or 19 year old to do this kind of work. It’s a stressful thing to do. You wouldn’t want regular army guys exposed to this kind of thing.

“You didn’t want them going home after the war,” Dusko emphasizes, and blabbing to their mothers or friends about what they did in Kosovo.” (26)

Interestingly, one recurring problem mentioned by the Serbian sources was a general lack of enthusiasm. Not only was hauling and burning bodies often considered “revolting”; it wasn’t a terribly profitable business. Serbian fighters were often paid thousands of dollars in bonuses for combat operations in addition to a generous share of stolen Albanian property. Getting rid of bodies was, as one member of the Special Operation Unit admitted, a lot less lucrative than killing. (27)

Most of the Serbian fighters interviewed by ARW expressed little regret, comfortably echoing racist stereotypes of Albanians deeply steeped in Serbian culture. But Dusko remains particularly remorseless, openly wishing that he could have wreaked even more damage, and predicting the violence to come:

Had it not been for the NATO bombing, I guarantee you we would have driven out all 2 million Albanians from Kosovo… You gotta know, Albanians are stupid. They’re a dirty people. And this hatred has been around for 600 years. It will never go away. In 30 years, or whenever these NATO troops and these human rights monitors leave, we’ll start fighting again. (28)

The ARW interviewees were clearly not prepared to testify at The Hague tribunal. A senior Western official, who wished to remain anonymous, assured an investigative team from the highly respected Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) that the court had evidence incriminating Serb forces in the removal of all evidence of mass burning from the Trepca mine in Kosovo. But, he added, "those who know about it do not wish to come forward and testify." (29)

As part of the cover-up, a total of six Serbian fighters independently divulged to ARW how they burned the bodies of hundreds of ethnic Albanians in the blast furnace of the lead refinery at Kosovo’s Trepca industrial complex. The fighters each detailed how the operation was conducted at Trepca and described the unusual lengths they went to destroy all traces of the bodies.

One reservist in the same secret police unit, a man who asked to be called Petar, claims he escorted trucks to a mass grave near Belgrade and to two other sites in western Serbia. Petar says many of the victims were collected directly from villages near the Kosovo towns of Suva Reka and Prizren. He describes how the bodies were then unloaded:

The ground was already prepared. The truck backed up close to the pit and the bodies were dumped in. We would then burn them and close the pit with dynamite. These people were civilians, (but they were) stubborn people who refused to leave their homes after we ordered them out. (30)

ARW verified many details provided by Dusan, Petar, and other former fighters and secret police operatives with Serbian and western war crimes investigators. For example, the location of secret facilities operated by the security forces, the sources for some of the trucks, and dates when bodies were believed to have been removed. All of this corresponded with details gathered by investigators. Serbian investigators claimed they could not confirm reports that bodies were incinerated. But western government officials who spoke off the record said they had strong evidence that industrial facilities were used:

These sources say some of this evidence came from secret communications with Serbian informants during the 1999 NATO air war. According to the same western government sources, the Serbian informants told officials from NATO governments, including the United States, that bodies of ethnic Albanians were being trucked to industrial sites in Serbia, including the Bor copper smelter. (31)

One informant was a Serbian army reservist and truck driver who was assigned the code name "Nicholas" by western investigators. According to the ARW team, Milos Vasic, a senior journalist with the Belgrade magazine Vreme, has seen transcripts of Nicholas' testimony to war crimes investigators. In them, Nicholas said he was ordered to drive refrigerator trucks from a police base in Kosovo to eastern Serbia.
"He (Nicholas) would be given a loaded and padlocked truck in an army and police base (located in eastern Kosovo), drive it to the Bor complex, leave it at the security check on the entrance and an empty truck would be returned by a police officer," Vasic says. According to Vasic, Nicholas was not told what his truck was carrying, but soon became suspicious. With the help of friends he took a look:

When they opened the truck, they found it full of bodies. They took photographs—Polaroids—of the operation, including the license plates of the Yugoslav Army truck.

Shocked by his discovery, Nicholas managed to flee Serbia and eventually took his story and photographs to the United States embassy in Croatia, according to the transcript. Vasic says Nicholas became a protected witness for war crimes trials. (32)
Nicholas was not the only Serbian fighter disturbed by the body disposals. Several others, including Dusan, say they were disgusted with the operation and infuriated at their own commanders for ordering them to handle corpses.
"Maybe you've never seen a decomposing body," Dusan says. "I'm talking about an arm here, a leg there ... like gelatin. The smell sticks to you and you can't get rid of it for days." (33)

At about the same time the French forces first searched Trepca, a separate team of investigators from the U.N. war crimes tribunal (ICTY) inspected the industrial complex and lead refinery, but as of June 2001 the ICTY had reportedly conducted no forensic tests at the site, according to one ICTY investigator. An ICTY spokesman described the ARW report as "plausible" but difficult to confirm.

A spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Kosovo, Claire Trevena, told ARW in 2001 that the OSCE "can't say yes or no to whether or not there was burning of bodies" at the Trepca industrial complex. (34)


In Surdulica, everybody knows that, in the said factory, during NATO bombardment, corpses from Kosovo were incinerated. However, nobody dares speak about it in public because all those who took part in it are still in power. (35)

Nearly four years after the ARW report came to light, in December of 2004 the next bombshell hit, chockfull of more grisly Balkan secrets.

In the popular Serbian daily newspaper Danas, later reprinted in what was then progressive B-92 online, prominent Belgrade-based human rights advocate Natasa Kandic, head of the prestigious Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), publicly accused Serbian forces of transporting the corpses of murdered Albanians into Serbia on two specific dates in spring, 1999, and burning them, en masse, in industrial furnaces – then covering up the whole sordid affair.

In order to prevent the eyewitnesses from speaking in public, asserted the unflappable Kandic, the local chiefs of the State Security had forced them to sign special statements wherein they had allegedly declared that "they feel no psychological pressure to speak about what had happened" in the Mackatica industrial complex in May 1999:

While the eyewitnesses are in fear for the lives of their children and for their own lives, the union of those who had issued orders for, and those who had taken part in the cover-up of the crimes, is still, without hindrance, engaged in its basic activity – the plunder of Serbia and its citizens, the activity they had been engaged in even prior to the incineration of the corpses.

In every other country, Kandic pointed out, “they would have been under the scrutiny of the organs of investigation and of the courts, except for Serbia, where the criminal activities of the groups and individuals inside institutions are known as patriotism and the fight for the Serbian people.” (36)

According to information received by the HLC from a number of independent sources, the incineration of the bodies in the Mackatica factory occurred twice, on both May 16 and 24, 1999, each time after midnight. Security for the ghoulish proceedings was provided by the notorious Red Berets, who, at the time, had a base in the village of Bele Vode, near Vranje.

According to sources, Milorad Luković Legija (now imprisoned for the assassination of former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic), the then commander of the Red Berets, had personally accompanied a load of corpses and was present at the incineration. The Albanian bodies were incinerated in the "field furnaces" Nos. 4 and 5. Judging by the comments in the State Security in Surdulica there had been children among the victims.

A number of eyewitnesses, according to Kandic, were later forced to sign the "peace of mind" statements. Individuals who had learned of these actions quickly contacted the members of the police they had trust in, hoping that an energetic inquiry would illuminate the ghastly events. Instead, they were warned never to do that again. (37)

According to Amnesty International (AI), on 16 January 2005 the HLC reported that, following the publication of the Mackatica allegations, members of the police and the Serbian State Security Agency (BIA) implicated in the report had threatened a number of people with the aim of intimidating them. Customs officer, Anita Nikolić from Vladičin Han, in contact with the HLC on an unrelated matter, was repeatedly threatened by security officials who suspected her of being an informant.

On 30 December 2004, Bratislav Milenković, local head of the BIA, allegedly approached her in a café in Vladičin Han, and in the presence of witnesses, said: “I’m now identifying the enemy; I have already identified some of them. And my enemies end up three meters under the ground.”

Although Inspector-General Vladimir Božović of the Ministry for Internal Affairs subsequently announced that an investigation was underway, on 3 February, 2005 the HLC pointed out that a named senior police officer implicated in the affair had been initially suspended but then re-assigned and promoted to the position of an intelligence officer in the Gendarmarie. (38)

The impromptu decision on the use of the Mackatica factory as ad hoc crematorium was apparently prompted by the discovery of the refrigerator truck full of corpses near Kladovo, in April of 1999. Those charged with the "restoration of the terrain” then revoked the original order to bury the bodies transported from Kosovo via Bujanovac in some inaccessible locations, and introduced a new and desperate technique: destroying the evidence by fire. (39)

According to the HLC, the Mackatica plant had four large electric furnaces, designated Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5, and several smaller ones, for melting down scrap iron. The large furnaces developed temperatures of up to 1,700 degrees Celsius.
After each batch of scrap iron had been melted, the furnace would be cleaned and the dross then deposited into a dump some 50 meters away.

Though the plant was technically not in operation during the NATO bombing, its workers came every day to sign in and then returned home. Dragan Lakicević, the director of the plant at the time, set up three posts manned by watchmen on 12-hour shifts. When the bodies arrived, the shift manager on duty, Dragan Stanković, met the watchmen at the gate and told them they were not needed and to report for work the next day. According to the HLC's information, the smelting plant manager remained inside the plant.

Some workers later noticed traces of blood near the furnace but were unaware of what was going on and where the blood had come from. When the bombing concluded and the plant resumed operating, stories began circulating that bodies of Kosovo Albanians had been burned there, as well as at the Bor mining complex and the Grot mine near Vranjska Banja. (40)

Kandic’s initial revelations about Mackatica were followed up and buttressed, eight months later, with an independent investigation by the well respected International War and Peace Reportng (IWPR). In a pioneering article entitled “More Mackatica Body Burning Revelations,” IWPR published the results of its own findings, backing up and expanding on Kandic’s original allegations. The article brought forth dramatic new evidence of how police working for Slobodan Milošević burned truckloads of ethnic Albanian corpses in a factory in southern Serbia during the 1999 NATO conflict. IWPR sources present fresh testimony on the chronology of the crime, the way it unfolded and the key role played by the police in both the burnings and the cover-up that followed. According to IWPR’s first source – a shift worker in the factory – the whole affair started with the unexpected arrival at night of a number of unknown trucks:

Trucks with mysterious freight kept entering the factory with their lights off. Third-shift workers, like myself, were sent home at the factory entrance.

The source confirmed seeing the bodies arrive on two separate occasions, "at the middle and end of May" in 1999:

No one told us what was being transported and none of the workers had access to the place of burning. But I know many people who took part in it and saw some of it myself… Direct participants confirmed to me what I had seen. Bodies were brought to the factory and burned there. I was not the only one who watched it. I was not present at the very act of the burning of the bodies but I could see the trucks being unloaded. (41)

A second IWPR source confirmed the shift worker's version of events, saying he also witnessed the bodies being unloaded. He explained that the bodies were originally transported from western Kosovo, mainly from Prizren, Djakovica and Pec, and surrounding villages where massacres by Serbian forces had taken place:

When the trucks left (after the burning) so-called “cleaners” took over and checked whether any body parts or their personal belongings had fallen onto the tarmac by the entrance to the plant… For days afterwards, you could smell burned flesh in Surdulica. I know what this smell is like, as I have been on all the battlefronts in the former Yugoslavia.

This second source asserted that Mackatica was chosen as a site because it was close to Kosovo, only about 170 kilometres (105 miles) from Prizren, and was relatively anonymous – few people outside the factory even knew it had blast furnaces. (42)
According to the HLC, top police officials – some of whom were still at their posts at least as late as 2005! – organized the burnings, while other trusted Milošević officials organized the subsequent "cleansing of the terrain."
The third IWPR source was a former inspector in Milošević's secret police, active at the time of the events at Mackatica. He assured IWPR that the police possess "precise and systematized information" on how the bodies were burned there:

There is clear data on this in local police archives, marked “Strictly Confidential”… The people who participated in the whole action were staying at the Theranda Hotel in Prizren. Such a job had been prepared for a long time and could not be completed in a day or two. The local public and secret police know everything but this is being concealed also because current as well as former police officials and ordinary operatives were involved. (43)

"Everything is contained in the police documentation,” claims this source, “from the code name of the action to the list of people who stayed at the Theranda Hotel and worked on the “sanitation of the terrain” to those who loaded the trucks and drove them to the Mackatica factory, where Legija and his team took over the whole thing.”

It is also known exactly who drove and who escorted the trucks with the bodies, who was in charge of covering up the action at the factory itself and who directly handled the furnaces during the burning. The names of those who were later in charge of eliminating the traces at the factory and those whose job it was to conceal the truth from the local public are also known. Finally, there is a list of politicians who were familiar with all of this, when the action was being planned. (44)

The former police officer claimed he knew most of these names personally but was fearful of divulging them publicly. Along with all others who possessed direct knowledge of the burnings, he had encountered strong pressure to keep quiet. "All those in any way connected to the events at Mackatica in May 1999 are being exposed to threats, pressures and blackmail," he emphasized. "I fear for my safety and for that of my family. The participants in the crime in Mackatica would know it was me who revealed the secrets, which they are doing their utmost to hide." (45)

IWPR's first source, the shift worker at Mackatica, claimed that several other witnesses who saw the trucks with bodies entering the factory were still out there. "Other people know what was done, although everything was done for the operation to be carried out in the utmost secrecy," he said. They were all subject to threats and blackmail, he added, to prevent the story from becoming more public. In spite of that, this source said he was ready to testify in public. (46)

IWPR also spoke to a fourth direct source on the events at Mackatica. This source wanted neither his residence nor job divulged but insisted he was present at both burnings in May 1999:

Everything took place after midnight, but I remember there was a clear sky and moonlight. I saw, for a few minutes and from a distance of about ten meters (33 feet), bodies being unloaded from a truck and transported in a large factory push-cart to the part of the factory where the furnaces are located. (47)

This source said he "knew for sure" that some of the bodies were of women and children. He insisted he did not participate in the burning.

None of IWPR's sources were able to estimate the exact number of bodies unloaded and burned at Mackatica, though one said they had been transported in "more than ten trucks," which suggests a sizable number indeed. (48)

In her article in Danas, Kandic cited several of Milošević's most trusted associates as key figures behind the operation. She named ex-police minister Vlajko Stojiljković; a former deputy prime minister Nikola Sainović; the then-head of the public and state security Vlastimir “Rodja” Djordjević, and Radomir Marković, a former chief of secret police. (49)

On 24 May 1999, Stojiljković was charged with crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. He shot himself on the steps of Parliament in 2002.

Sainović, charged by the Hague war crimes tribunal for crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999, voluntarily surrendered to the authorities in spring 2003. On 26 February 2009, the ICTY sentenced him to 22 years in prison, following a conviction for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including deportations and forcible transfers, murders and other persecutions.

In 2008, Marković was convicted by Serbia’s Supreme Court for orchestrating a 1999 attack on Serbian opposition politician Vuk Drasković, and was sentenced to the maximum 40 years' imprisonment. (50)

Among all the names Kandic mentioned, one of the most interesting is that of Djordjević. One of several generals arrested for war crimes in Kosovo in 1999, he was born in Koznica, only miles from Mackatica.

Djordjević is known to have been a key figure in the area whose word was virtually law.

According to Kandic, he kept all the local power structures, especially the police, under his absolute control. (51)

In February, 2011, the U.N. court sentenced Police Commander Vlastimir Djordjević to 27 years in prison after pronouncing him guilty of murdering at least 724 Kosovo Albanians to crimes against humanity, specifically: committing inhumane acts, persecution and deportations.

Presiding Judge Kevin Parker ruled that Serbian forces, often police explicitly controlled by Djordjević, expelled at least 200,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo and murdered civilian women, children and the disabled. Prosecutors say about 800,000 Albanians were forcibly ejected from Kosovo during the conflict.

Serbian forces were no stranger to burning Albanians. In one massacre alone, on March 26, 1999, Serb forces herded 114 men and boys into a barn, including a disabled man whose wheelchair was used to block one of the exits, according to the judgment. The Serbs then riddled the barn with bullets from automatic weapons before pouring incendiary liquid over the bodies, then torching the barn and all those inside.

In another mass murder, 45 members of the same family were killed, including 32 women and children who hid in a cafe. "Police threw hand grenades inside the cafe and then opened fire on them," Parker said.

Parker also said Djordjević played a "key role" in trying to cover up more than 800 killings by secretly having bodies removed from Kosovo, sometimes in refrigerated trucks, and buried in mass graves in Serbia. (52)

Most of the men and women in living in Surdulica whom IWPR interviewed refused to speak with journalists about the body burnings, or stubbornly defended them. None bothered to deny that “something” had happened, but in the town itself, where the hard-line nationalist Serbian Radical Party ruled the waves, there maintained a virtual conspiracy of silence.

In a cafe in the town center, graffiti proudly proclaimed: "Serbia for the Serbs". "So what if they did burn Shiptars (a derogatory name for Albanians),” one resident indignantly declared to the IWPR journalists. "They deserved nothing better. Why don't you write about the crimes against Serbs in Kosmet (a Serb nationalist expression for Kosovo) today?" One shop saleswoman was a bit more conciliatory. "Hardly anyone dares to speak publicly about it," was all that she would say on the grim events in the nearby factory. (53)

Late in 2010, Natasa Kandic once again confirmed the Mackatica allegations: “Yes,” she declared, “I stand behind the revelations of the Mackatica body burning accusations, and the subsequent cover-up. The authorities here claimed there was no record of a power supply to the Mackatica complex at that time (May, 1999)…

I don’t believe them… I stand behind my statements.” (54) Sonia Biserko, president of the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, and one of the preeminent international human rights advocates, stands by this report in its entirety. She supports a tough and all-encompassing investigation into the body-burning charges. (55) We demand a proper and thorough investigation of both the Trepca and Mackatica atrocities and their subsequent cover-ups, which were never appropriately followed up by the Hague tribunal. In the case of Trepca, we insist that EULEX (European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo) officials open a full-fledged investigation in conjunction with relevant Serbian and Kosovar authorities.

In the case of Mackatica, we demand that present-day Serbian authorities initiate an honest and open investigation into both the crimes of Mackatica and subsequent cover-up. Furthermore, we believe that this is meaningful only within the context of full international pressure and close supervision.

In addition, we demand that all suspected mass grave sites be promptly examined and, when appropriate, exhumed. This is particularly the case at the Raska site in southern Serbia, which was publicly acknowledged in May, 2010. This is the sixth mass grave site, inside Serbia, identified since 2000.

The most stunning of such revelations occurred back in 2001, when the bodies of some 870 Kosovar Albanians – in a variety of grisly and degraded conditions – were discovered and exhumed, all in quick succession in and around Serbian police training grounds. The Raska site is reportedly based on various witness statements, together with an analysis of aerial photographs, all supplied to Serbian authorities by EULEX officials. A building and parking lot were reportedly constructed directly over the site, in order to cover up the incriminating evidence.

The day of the initial revelations, Vladimir Vukcević, Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor, dramatically declared: “This is more proof that Serbia does not shy away from its dark past and is ready to bring to justice all those who have committed crimes.” (56) Nearly one year later, the Raska site remains untouched. According to Serbian experts, nearby soil tests proved “inconclusive.”

Between ten and twelve thousand Kosovar Albanians were killed – murdered – from 1998 to 1999. Over 1,800 men, women and children remain missing from the war, among them at least 1,000 Albanians, nearly 500 Serbs, and hundreds of members of other ethnicities. All with family members who anxiously await some news of their loved ones. Repatriation of missing family members continues to be a distant dream for too many people in former Yugoslavia. A proper and respectful burial remains a fundamental guiding principle for cultures throughout the world.

Without a full and upfront examination into the myriad horrors of the past, the ongoing pretense of “peace, stability and regional progress” remains just so much empty, hollow rhetoric. Serbia, in particular, must learn to take its place as a civilized nation. It must be willing to honestly and courageously face up to its legacy of war crimes; otherwise, it will simply continue to serve as a blind haven for notorious international fugitives from justice, and the massive criminal cover-ups that keep any meaningful justice at bay.

The international community has a clear and distinct responsibility to dig up the truth, inconvenient as it might sometimes prove. “The truth is incontrovertible,” asserted Sir Winston Churchill. “Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.”


(1) 1000 Bodies in Valley of Death By Don MacKay, Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), June 18, 1999
(2) The Promise of Justice: Burning the Evidence By Michael Montgomery and Stephen Smith, American RadioWorks, October 2001
(3) Serbs Incinerated Hundreds of Albanian Bodies in Lead Refinery PR Newswire, January 24, 2001
(4) “UK FCO Report on Kosovo Atrocities,” Koha Ditore, May 29, 1999
(5) Serbs 'burning bodies' in rush to hide war crimes evidence By John Sweeney and Patrick Wintour, The Guardian (UK), June 5, 1999
(6) ibid
(7) Probing Serb War Crimes – Quickly Christian Science Monitor, Jonathan S. Landay, June 10, 1999
(8) 1000 Bodies in Valley of Death By Don MacKay, Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), June 18, 1999
(9) ibid
(10) ibid
(11) Acid and Smelting Vats Evoke Fear of Grisly Burials by Serbs By Chris Hedges, The New York Times, July 2, 1999
(12) ibid
(13) ibid
(14) ibid
(15) ibid
(16) The Promise of Justice: Burning the Evidence By Michael Montgomery and Stephen Smith, American RadioWorks, October 2001
(17) ibid
(18) ibid
(19) ibid
(20) ibid
(21) ibid
(22) ibid
(23) ibid
(24) ibid
(25) ibid
(26) ibid
(27) ibid
(28) ibid
(29) Kosovo Atrocity Cover-up Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), March2001
(30) The Kosovo Cover-up: Update American RadioWorks, October, 2001
(31) ibid
(32) ibid
(33) ibid
(34) ibid
(35) Secret Police in Kosovo Cover-Up By Natasa Kandic, B-92 Focus, December23, 2004
(36) ibid
(37) ibid
(38) Amnesty International Report, 2009
(39) Mackatica – the truth must be revealed Humanitarian Law Center, February 3, 2005
(40) ibid
(41) Investigation: Serbia – More Mackatica Body Burning Revelations, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), August, 2005
(42) ibid
(43) ibid
(44) ibid
(45) ibid
(46) ibid
(47) ibid
(48) ibid
(49) ibid
(50) Wikipedia
(51) Investigation: Serbia – More Mackatica Body Burning Revelations, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), August, 2005
(52) Former Serb police chief guilty of Kosovo crimes By Rachel Irwin, IWPR, February 25, 2011
(53) Investigation: Serbia – More Mackatica Body Burning Revelations, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), August, 2005
(54) Conversation with Natasa Kandic, December, 2010
(55) Conversation with Sonia Biserko, January, 2011
(56) New mass grave of Kosovo Albanians found in Serbia BBC News, May 10, 2010

Originally published at AlbaniaPress.com

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