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Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Witness to Serb massacre

John Sweeney
by John Sweeney

'No corpse, no crime' was the chilling order made by Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, evidence that the very top of Serbia's police state organised the cover-up of mass killings that happened in Kosovo that year.

Today five of Milosevic's henchmen were convicted of orchestrating a joint criminal enterprise of murder, torture and deportation against ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

They have been sentenced to a total of 96 years.

Three years ago I gave evidence at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at the Hague against the President, the Deputy Prime Minister, an Army Chief of Staff, a brace of generals and a police chief. The ex-President was found not guilty but the rest were convicted.

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The man who survived the massacre at Little Krushe

The six accused were former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Šainovic, Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, Yugoslav Army generals Nebojša Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic, and Serbian police General Sreten Lukic.

They all served during Slobodan Milosevic's reign of terror in Kosovo, unleashed after Nato bombs fell on Belgrade.

Until I popped up in The Hague I had never met any of these gents.

The convictions raise big questions about the rights and wrongs of victors' justice and who, exactly, defines what is a war crime. Chechnya? Iraq? Tibet? Gaza? Issues which, frankly, are above my pay grade.


What I do know is what I saw with my own eyes.

(from top-L) general Nebojsa Pavkovic, Serbian ex-president Milan Milutinovic, Serbian general Dragoljub Ojdanic, (From bottom-L) Serbian general Sreten Lukic, former Serbian prime minister Nikola Sainovic and Serbian general Vladimir Lazarevic
The six accused of crimes against humanity during the Kosovo conflict

In the summer of 1999, immediately after Nato moved in to Kosovo, I arrived in a village called Little Krushe in the far south-western corner of Kosovo, a few miles from the border with Albania.

I was looking for a hay barn where, survivors had told me, more than 100 men and boys had been machine-gunned.

Instead, I found two holes in the ground.

The Serbs had dynamited the barn and obliterated all evidence of the dead.

To this day, just 19 bodies have turned up. It takes a lot of effort to vanish 80 dead bodies, and that conspiracy to cover up evidence of massacre was a piece in the jigsaw of the case against the six.

Three months previously an old Danish reporter friend and I were driving towards the border when our car passed a group of men hobbling along.

There was something about the way they walked, tottering like very old men, that made me stop the car.

The man with the burnt hands

These men told me that their friends and brothers had been killed in the hay barn. But one man had survived by hiding underneath the dead bodies in the barn.

The Serbs had set fire to the barn to destroy the evidence and this man had stayed underneath the dead for as long as he could bear, and then he had run for it.

They called him the man with the burned hands.

I set out to find him.

Finding one man in the middle of the worst refugee crisis since World War II was not easy.

He endured the flames for as long as possible, and then he ran for it, thinking better be shot than be burnt alive

After days of failure I thought we would never find him.

While looking we stumbled on other witnesses, not of the massacre itself, but of the selection which had immediately preceded it. Women and children that side, men and boys this side.

I will never forget Granny Batusha. She had a wonderfully evocative face and, even though we knew barely a word of English or Albanian in common, she acted out the scene of the selection and the moment when she recognised her Serb neighbour, Dimitri Nikolic, despite his balaclava mask.

She called out his name and she said that he turned his head away in shame.

Finally, as we were about to give up, we found him, the man with the burnt hands.

Mehmet told us how the Albanian men and boys were shepherded into the barn, with their hands behind their heads, forced to look down.

How he had ducked just before the machine-gun opened up, how he hid underneath the dying. He remembered them groaning in agony, and how he smelled smoke and realised that the Serbs had set fire to the barn.

He endured the flames for as long as possible, and then he ran for it, thinking better be shot than be burnt alive.

He and five others survived.

Collecting evidence

The oldest to die was 72, the youngest 13. One man was paralysed and was carried to the barn on the back of another. One 15-year-old boy was mentally handicapped and had to be led by the hand.

Former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic escorted into the UN warcrimes tribunal in the Hague in 2003
The former president voluntarily surrendered in 2003

More than 100 dead, but just 19 bodies found.

In June, the village was still virtually empty. The Serbs had vanished, but before they had gone they had burnt down the homes of their Albanian neighbours.

I was there working for Channel Four Dispatches programme.

The Serb houses were still intact, so I looted them for photographs, army passbooks, pictures of the men the Albanians identified as killers.

In a small way my evidence helped connect the killers on the ground with the generals at the top.

Taken together with other evidence, such as the note in the war diary of deputy Interior Minister Obrad Stevanovic, who noted the late President Milosevic saying in a war counsel meeting: 'no corpse, no crime', the case against all but Mr Milutinovic was found to have been proven by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Watch John Sweeney's film on Newsnight on Thursday, 26 February, 2009 at 10.50pm on BBC Two, or after the broadcast on the BBC's iPlayer.

Profiles: Kosovo trial accused
26 Feb 09 |  Europe
Flashback to Kosovo's war
10 Jul 06 |  Europe
Q&A: Kosovo's future
11 Jul 08 |  Europe

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