- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine Serbian police investigating mass graves holding Albanian bodies.
Or the Yugoslav Army quietly punishing dozens of its soldiers for war crimes in the 1999 war against Albanian separatists in Kosovo. Or prosecutors preparing for a trial of two former Serbian police officers accused of killing 19 Albanian civilians in Kosovo, in what promises to be the first of hundreds of similar trials.
Of all the changes that have taken place here since democratic reformers took over a year ago from ex-President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial before the U.N. war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, one of the most surprising is how vigorously the new authorities are trying to uncover crimes committed by Serbs against their neighbors.
It is an effort that would have seemed unimaginable last year, when reports of Serbian atrocities against Albanians, Croats or Bosnian Muslims were dismissed as propaganda.
And it's surprising even now, given that many members of the former regime still hold their positions and many of the government newcomers hold nationalistic views. But national pride is among the motives driving the investigations and trials.
Capt. Dragan Karleusa, deputy chief of the Interior Ministry unit combating organized crime, has overseen the investigations of eight mass graves that hold hundreds of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.
"I'm a Serb and all my origins are Serbian. Every crime has to be solved because crimes were committed by individuals, not by the whole Serbian nation. So unless we can find the names of the people who did these things, there will be dirt on the name of our nation."
The police were goaded into action this year when an obscure regional newspaper reported that dozens of Albanian bodies had been discovered in a freezer truck. Capt. Karleusa said that after that article appeared, he was ordered to look into the accusations.
After dozens of interviews with witnesses, the police found the truck in the Danube in eastern Serbia, with 86 bodies inside, apparently driven into the river to hide the results of massacres in Kosovo. "The highest people in the Ministry of Interior at the time knew about it and declared it top secret," Capt. Karleusa said.
After that investigation, more and more mass graves have been discovered. So far nine have been found, containing hundreds of bodies in total.
"Our new government has ordered police to find any facts about who killed these people, how, and who is responsible for the silence of the last two years everything, from start to finish," Capt. Karleusa said.
So far, only one exhumation has been completed, at a military installation on the outskirts of Belgrade. About 40 bodies were found, many of them from a single family, the Berishas of Suva Reka, in Kosovo.
"I heard about crimes in Kosovo, but I couldn't imagine that they would bring bodies into Serbia, especially that they would bury them right in the center of Serbia," Capt. Karleusa said.
The army also has announced that it is conducting military trials of soldiers accused of war crimes, but has released little additional information.
The government appears to be acting aggressively on war crimes for state pride, to prove that it can, and without the help of international war-crimes prosecutors at The Hague.
"The intention of the government is to show every day that they are more and more serious," said Dusan Ignjatovic, executive director of the Yugoslav Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights. "This is one of the ways they want to show that they are serious."
Many in Serbia, notably Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a legal scholar, protested against the transfer earlier this year of Mr. Milosevic to The Hague, saying he should have been tried in Serbia instead.
Officials from The Hague make regular visits to Belgrade, demanding the government's help in getting other major figures from the lists of the indicted.
But while emphasizing that they want all the indicted Yugoslav citizens to be handed over, they also say they need the help of the Serbian courts. Matias Hellman, coordinator for the court's outreach program in Serbia, said that when all the investigations are finished, about 250 Serbs in all will have been indicted.
"Obviously that's a very small number in comparison with the number of people who could be indicted," Mr. Hellman said.
"The bottom line is, the Tribunal has limited resources, and it was never intended to try everyone," Mr. Hellman said. "So there's a lot of work that remains for the local judiciary, for the perpetrators who weren't that high-ranking."
The judicial system has started to act. One district prosecutor, in the southern Serbian city of Prokuplje, has initiated proceedings against two former police officers accused of killing 19 Albanians in Suva Reka.
"This is something we have to do and want to do," said Predrag Dejanovic, an assistant minister of justice. But he added the legal system needs real reforms before Serbia can seriously pursue large numbers of war-crimes cases.
Many in Serbia say that with their efforts to clean their own house, they deserve some help from The Hague and their neighbors to seek justice for war crimes committed against Serbs. The Croatian government recently announced that it has plans for trials against Croats for war crimes against Serbs.
Capt. Karleusa said that he is cooperating with U.N. police in Kosovo and hopes he will get help from them in finding hundreds of Serbs who went missing during and immediately after the war.
"Only when we solve all of this, we can go forward," he said. "It was a war, there were crimes. Now we have to look to a new future with our neighbors."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide