War Crimes in Kosovo

The Confessions of a Freezer Truck Driver

An Albanian woman in Kosovo grieves after learning that her husband was killed (Photo: AFP).
The graves were dug and then covered secretly, in the hope that they would never be found. Some were afraid and said nothing; others could not keep silent because their shame was stronger than their fear. Nikola, the protagonist of this story, could not keep silent.

He has gone by the name Nikola since May 1999, when he chose to conceal his identity out of fear of Milosevic's far reaching gun. He is about 40 years old and comes from Eastern Serbia. His story is simple and dry; he speaks only of what he himself heard or saw first hand. He is aware that in one decisive moment, he changed his entire life because there are secrets a person cannot continue living with.

Always at Night

“Because I had been a driver in the army, when I arrived I immediately got a freezer truck, empty, with the order to drive it to Kosovo, to a concentration camp east of Pristina. As soon as I arrived, a general began to interrogate me. For an hour, he asked me about my past, my political orientations, if I had ever traveled abroad and so on— was I a patriot, did I want to defend my country and things like that. Since I had already served my army term, I knew the answers to all the questions.

“As we were talking, the freezer truck was loaded and sealed somewhere—I don't know where, they never allowed me to come close—and then it was brought back. My job was only to drive, without asking any questions.

It didn't take me long to realize that I had been transporting corpses; you don't need much wisdom for that...
“I made ten of those trips. It was strange for a big truck to be traveling back and forth while fighting was going on in Kosovo—at a time when there were no people, no vehicles, no food reserves, I was driving an empty freezer truck back. It did not take me long to realize that something was not right.

“I would drive the empty truck from Bor to the military camp [in Kosovo], which was filled with army, police and various paramilitary units I did not recognize. A policeman would take over from me and drive the truck away. He would return the truck fully loaded and sealed, and on the travel documents - breaking all the rules - he would write only 'Confidential!' I always drove from Kazoo to Bor at night; I would give the truck to a policeman at the entrance of the copper works in the Bor Mining and Smelting complex, then I would wait at the entrance for the truck to be brought back.

“It didn't take long for me to realize that I had been transporting corpses; you don't need much wisdom for that…

“It was clear to me where the corpses came from, but I did not understand where they ended up once I delivered the freezer truck in Bor. I assumed that they were burned in the copper melting furnaces. Perhaps not… Perhaps they were buried somewhere near the copper mine. There were many mining surface fields around, much accumulation of mining waste, many places one can dig a mass grave.

“I don't know what happened to the corpses. The only thing I know is that I could not stand it anymore. I began to have nightmares of driving the truck and someone inside who is not dead chasing me with a gun and trying to kill me.

“I could not take it anymore. And I was also afraid that I would be killed once the job was completed—as a witness, sooner or later. It is nothing for them to kill a human being.

“When I had made my decision, I asked two of my hometown friends whom I trusted to help me. We agreed that they would wait for me at a secret place close to Bor. Because I had to report to the police at the entrance of the smelting works by a specific time, I drove faster than I usually did so I could save half an hour for us to carry out our plan and still avoid suspicion.

“Like we had agreed, my friends were waiting for me. As I was changing into civilian clothes, they opened the freezer truck. It was full of corpses, almost touching the roof. My friends photographed the inside of the freezer truck, and then I ran away. They drove the truck to a hidden place where they counted the corpses. There were 78: mostly civilians, among them one woman and three soldiers from the Yugoslavian Army. They recognized one of them—it was a kid from our town.”

Escape from Serbia

Earlier that night, Nikola had told his wife about his plan and asked her to move to Republika Srpska: he was not sure what the consequences of the opening of the freezer truck would be, but he was sure they would both be in danger. Nikola followed his wife Republika Srpska soon after. He does not want to reveal any details of his trip, but it is likely that he obtained fake Bosnian documents for himself and his wife.

Nikola either does not know or does not want to tell what happened with the freezer truck, perhaps out of a desire to protect his friends. He would not say how many photographs were taken that night, but he shared two technically successful ones which depict the feet and shoes of the corpses piled up almost to the top of the freezer truck, and the military registration numbers on the back of the truck. He did not want to reveal how many photographs he was carrying with him.

Almost three months after the decision to open the truck, in May 1999, Nikola and his wife moved from Republika Srpska to Croatia. Nikola is also silent on what happened during those three months. But since he moved to Croatia, his footsteps are more traceable.

He addressed a certain humanitarian organization of reformed Christians that helped him get in contact with a lawyer from Zagreb, known for his moral integrity and advocacy for human rights. Upon hearing Nikola's story, the lawyer proceeded cautiously. He contacted certain diplomatic missions that he presumed - or knew - to be in close cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. Due to security reasons and an understandable mistrust in the Croatian authorities and their attitude towards the Hague Tribunal, it took several days of cautious work to establish these contacts.

Around May 20, 1999, in downtown Zagreb, Nikola entered the embassy of a major diplomatic power. The talk took place in a specially protected “deaf room” of the embassy, in the presence of an armed and uniformed security guard. Nikola told his story and showed his photographs, but kept them tightly in his grip; his interlocutors asked for a few days in order to verify the authenticity of the photographs before they could give guarantees of Nikola's security and move him from Croatia into some third country. Nikola asked that they first get him and his wife out of Croatia before he would give all the details of his story, and share all the pictures he had taken. Though it took the diplomats some time accept Nikola's conditions, in the end the persuasive power of the photographs won them over. Quietly and discretely, Nikola and his wife were moved into an EU country where they live under the protection of a very efficient secret service.

Tracing Nikola's steps, Vreme confirmed the entire story and came upon some additional information. We contacted sources in the investigative section of the Hague Tribunal, who somewhat unwillingly confirmed that they are in contact with this witness and that his story is true. Following many talks with the officials of the old and new authorities in Yugoslavia and Serbia, Vreme came to the conclusion that neither Milosevic's nor the new authorities were aware of Nikola's existence, let alone his appalling story.

This is only another illustration of the sloppy, superficial and grubby tactics of Milosevic's regime with regard to these issues: from 1991 to October 5th 2000 they were incapable of carrying out war crimes “efficiently.” In 1991, at Ovcara, the regime allowed prisoners escape from an execution ground. Throughout the war they left many witnesses of the atrocities committed.

In the other cases, executioners have confessed to their crimes, and witnesses have decided to seek protection and report what they have seen. In other cases, accessories to the war crimes some lost their nerve and, in violation of their orders, left freezer trucks full of dead bodies in the Danube to disappear into the night.

Melting Point

…Nikola's story confirms that the secret burial of corpses from Kosovo began well before the conflict between Yugoslavia and NATO did. The case of the freezer truck from pulled from the Danube also supports this conclusion. On June 19, [Serbian Interior] Minister Dusan Mihajlovic announced the existence of another mass grave “in a completely different part of Serbia,” in addition to the ones already discovered in Batajnica and Petrovo Selo. How many more mass graves will be discovered?

…Nikola says that he transported tens of trucks before his escape. He was not the only one: On June 19, Belgrade's Glas Javnosti (Public Voice) published an interview with Dragan Vitomirovic, editor of Timocka Krimi Revija (the Timok Crime Review). Vitomirovic told Glas Javnosti of a case in which a retired policeman transported 1000 corpses into various mass graves around Serbia, over the course of three months in spring 1999.

Corpses do not grow on trees—someone needs to kill the living men, women, and children in order for them to become corpses...

The real questions, here, are so desperately clear that the Serbian public, as usual, has failed to ask them: “Why were these corpses secretly driven at night around Serbia and then secretly buried in police yards? Why were promises to keep this 'official secret' signed confidentially? Why is everyone so scared upon the mention of the corpses?”

The army and the police are hurling mutual recriminations at each other about the Kosovo murders. Suddenly no one knows who was subordinate to whom while these corpses were “produced,” gathered and transported. Corpses do not grow on trees — someone needs to kill the living men, women, and children in order for them to become corpses …. Either they were killed in battle, wearing a uniform and carrying a weapon, or they were killed as unarmed civilians, which is a war crime. If they were killed carrying a weapon, then customs dictate that they be publicly identified and buried where they fell, or at one of the many military cemeteries we have had in Serbia since 1912. After all, if they were killed honorably in battle, there is nothing shameful in that.

But, if these victims died as unarmed civilians, women and children—that's another issue. Gen. V.J. Vladimir Lazarevic, commander of the Pristina Army corps, has recently made public his orders regarding “the sanitation of the war fields” during the 1999 war. He has been clear about the procedures required when an officer suspects that a criminal act has been committed. In these cases, the investigation is turned over to the Serbian Ministry of Interior, which is theoretically the subordinated to Yugoslavian Army.

The issue is clear. There is ample reason to suspect that serious crimes have been committed: mass murders, the obstruction of justice, hiding of the evidence, the abuse of power to protect the guilty, forcing others to commit crimes. Sanitary and communal rules have been violated. Rules regarding the proper transport and burial of the dead have been violated. Innocent witnesses have become accessories to crimes through their silence. The list is endless…. The facts about the worst crimes and the attempt to conceal them are slowly surfacing. The problem with the dead is that they are able to scream loudly in search for their justice.