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Tuesday, Jun. 19, 2001

These graves are believed to hold the bodies of ethnic Albanians slain by Serb forces in 1999. Although the Albanians were killed in Kosovo, their bodies were apparently removed from the province in a deliberate effort to conceal the extent of Serb war crimes.

Serbia's interior minister has reportedly announced that five or six mass graves have already been located around Belgrade, and that more such graves may exist.

The discovery of the gravesites may help resolve questions that have been repeatedly raised about the death toll in Kosovo. Since the conflict's end, some commentators have suggested that NATO, aided by lying refugees, deliberately exaggerated the nature and scale of Serb abuses in Kosovo, and that journalists unquestioningly disseminated NATO's wartime propaganda as truth. Forensic evidence showing that Serb forces took steps to conceal or dispose of the bodies of their victims may put to rest doubts that have been voiced as to whether certain massacres did in fact occur.

Show Us the Bodies

Because Serb abuses were the cited justification for NATO's "humanitarian" war, the ethnic Albanian death toll was almost immediately in dispute. A morbid hunt for Kosovo's dead began the minute NATO entered the province in June 1999 or, more to the point, the minute journalists and human rights researchers did.

I know this because I was one of the corpse-hounds. Having quickly mastered the social niceties involved in entering an Albanian village and saying hi, how are you, where are your dead?, I was shown human remains nearly every day.

But there were few bodies to be found at some of the largest reported massacre sites of the Kosovo conflict. In the village of Pusto Selo, for example, where 106 were said to have been killed by Serb forces in late March, the physical evidence of a massacre was extremely limited. I saw only a survivor's bullet wound, bits and pieces of clothing at the site of the killings, and a large area of what looked like freshly-plowed earth.

Survivors said that the patch of rough terrain was where they had buried the victims of the massacre, but that Serb officials had subsequently returned and exhumed the bodies. In late April, a witness explained, the Serbs dug up the site using a small tractor. He said that they took the bodies away in two trucks.

The Serb authorities had obvious reasons to tamper with the site, given the international media attention the massacre had received. On April 11, 1999, NATO had publicly disseminated aerial reconnaissance imagery that appeared to show a burial ground in Pusto Selo.

More Grave Tampering

A nearly identical situation came to light in Izbica, a small village in north central Kosovo. With roughly 150 ethnic Albanians reported killed there on March 28, 1999, Izbica was believed to be one of the largest massacres of the Kosovo conflict.

NATO released satellite imagery on April 17, 1999, taken days previously, that showed three rows of graves in a field in Izbica. In May, CNN aired video footage smuggled out of Kosovo that showed numerous bloody corpses, people said to be victims of the massacre.

But there were no corpses in Izbica by the time the NATO occupation began. Again, witnesses claimed that the Serb forces had exhumed the bodies buried there.

Questions Raised

The missing bodies did not go unnoticed. Serious doubts as to the extent of Serb atrocities were raised in October 1999 when a Spanish forensic team left Kosovo after having exhumed only 187 bodies, a much lower number than they were warned to expect. Members of the team publicly challenged NATO's estimated death toll, dismissing it as "war propaganda."

Commentators seized on the fact that no bodies had been discovered at certain notorious massacre sites. Because the photographs of the graves at Pusto Selo and Izbica were among the most compelling pieces of evidence produced by NATO during the war in support of its claims of mass killings, the absence of physical proof of the killings–that is, the missing corpses–was widely cited in critical accounts of NATO's wartime reports.

An article published by Alexander Cockburn in The Nation was typical of this trend. In it, Cockburn noted that 106 ethnic Albanians were said to have been killed by Serb forces in Pusto Selo, but that "[n]othing to buttress that charge has yet been found." (He unfortunately neglected to mention that survivors of the incident had come forward and described the massacre in compelling detail, including the subsequent exhumation of the bodies. Having myself interviewed some obviously traumatized, but very credible survivors, I found the omission significant.)

The article concluded that the NATO powers, "fortified by a chorus from the liberal intelligentsia," intentionally misled the public about Serb abuses.

To some extent, NATO and its member states invited such criticism. Although throughout the conflict NATO and U.S. spokespersons were reasonably conservative when giving specific estimates of those believed killed, they made other, more reckless statements.

At the height of the NATO bombing in May, Defense Secretary William Cohen said that up to 100,000 Kosovar Albanian men were missing and "may have been murdered." A moment later he did, however, specify that reports indicated that up to 4,600 Kosovo men had been executed. "But I suspect it's far higher than that," he added.

Earlier in the conflict, U.S. officials, following the lead of certain academics and human rights groups, had come very near to brandishing the charge of genocide. Using a phrase that they probably believed equivocal enough to be safe from rebuttal, they said that Serb actions showed "indicators of genocide."

But specific estimates of the ethnic Albanian death toll always remained in the thousands, never the tens of thousands. With the end of the conflict, the final authoritative estimate was made by British Foreign Office Minister Geoff Hoon, who stated that around 10,000 ethnic Albanians had been killed.

The Findings of the War Crimes Tribunal

The U.N. War Crimes Tribunal established an office in Kosovo immediately after NATO's entry into the province. Although the court was in no way specifically mandated to count the Kosovo dead, documenting massacres was a crucial part of the prosecution's effort to show a systematic Serb pattern of war crimes.

Tribunal teams conducted a first round of exhumations from June to October 1999, exhuming 2,108 bodies. The prosecutor stated, however, that this was only a partial count. She also explained that the tribunal had discovered evidence of grave tampering.

Exhumations continued the following year, with 1,577 bodies and 258 incomplete remains discovered. In two years, the prosecutor concluded, the tribunal teams had found "almost 4,000 bodies or parts of bodies." She added that an accurate estimate of the dead was impossible "because of deliberate attempts to burn the bodies or to conceal them in other ways."

Recent Discoveries

Mass graves were soon located around Belgrade. The exhumation of one such grave, in a police training camp in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica, was broadcast on Serbian television, in an important break from past practice of denying abuses. And Dusan Mihajlovic, Serbia's interior minister, has announced that there are indications that Milosevic ordered a systematic clean-up of evidence of war crimes in Kosovo.

There have also been recent reports of the mass burning of corpses in the furnace of a lead refinery in northern Kosovo, although they have yet to be substantiated. Interviews with Serbs who claim to have participated in transporting the bodies were broadcast in January 2001 on National Public Radio.

The End of Uncertainty

Whatever the effect of these discoveries on the debate here and in Serbia, they are certain to have a more profound impact on the ethnic Albanian families whose relatives have been missing since the war. The human remains found in the mass graves will be exhumed and, one hopes, properly identified. Some families may finally know, with certainty, the fate of their loved ones, and may finally recover their bodies.

Interviewed at Pusto Selo in June 1999, a massacre survivor expressed deep anguish at having lost the remains of his family members. "Not to know where the bodies are hidden is, for us, as if they've been killed again," he explained. For people like him, the cost of the war could never be reduced to a body count.

Joanne Mariner is a deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Her previous columns about Kosovo can be found in's archive. The views expressed in her columns are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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