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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Methodically Hid Atrocities

PRIZREN, Yugoslavia -- Late one night at the end of March, Shkelzen Kruezi, an ethnic Albanian in the Yugoslav army reserves, climbed behind the wheel of a refrigerator truck at the cold-storage plant in Prizren's industrial zone. The fully loaded truck had recently been painted white with a large red cross on the roof to ward off NATO bombs.

Although a full colonel in uniform, Kruezi was taking directions from his civilian Serb passenger, Spiro Nikolic, who told him to drive to Balkan Rubber, a factory 20 kilometers away in Suva Reka. There, Kruezi said, he parked inside the compound and he and his passenger left to rest. When they returned the next morning, the truck was empty.

Gone was their cargo of frozen corpses, nearly all Albanians killed in the ethnic-cleansing campaign by Yugoslav security forces. The mayhem was launched March 20, and it accelerated when NATO's air war began March 24.

After the truck left, a cloud of black smoke hung over the shuttered factory. At least 10 times during the more than 11-week conflict, smoke rose, said Fisnik Kryezic, 21, a Kosovo Liberation Army member, who kept an eye on the otherwise inoperative plant from a nearby hill.

"It was a terrible smell, the smell of rubber burning and also a much sharper stench," said Sinan Bajraktari, whose house is next door to the complex. "Smell that smell," a Serbian woman told a close relative of Bajraktari. "These are Albanians we are burning."

Experts are investigating whether the factory was one of the sites used to destroy the evidence of the ethnic-cleansing machine that the West alleges was organized by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic who, with four close associates, was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague with murder, deportation and other crimes against humanity.

Interviews with Serbs and Albanians, with officials and victims, paint a picture of a machine that had four main components: One part was devoted to killing and robbing ethnic Albanian civilians in significant numbers, a second to burning them, their homes and businesses, a third to collecting the human remains and the last to assuring the final disposal.

Prizren, with its architectural treasures dating from rule by the Ottoman Turks, was largely spared the worst, but the Yugoslav campaign utterly devastated the surrounding region. British officials say at least 10,000 civilians were killed in all of Kosovo, but that estimate is likely to be low. Serbian forces killed 5,000 people just in the largely agricultural region surrounding Prizren, said one source, and destroyed the homes and livelihoods of the vast majority of the 200,000 people who live there.

The orders to clear and destroy came from the federal Interior Ministry and Yugoslav army general staff. The key orders were encoded and signed "Cegra" from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and "Munija," from the army general staff. They went to police chief Milan Djurisic and his deputy, Veljko Radenkovic, and to the military commander in the region, Colonel Bosidar Delic, said a source with inside knowledge. And while the content of the orders is not known, their impact was felt.

Over the police radio during the height of the cleansing, police chief Djurisic periodically barked out orders to go to a specified location and "carry out your operations." Hundreds of police and paramilitary units then moved into action, going door to door, demanding identity documents, stealing cash and gold, executing people in their beds and setting houses on fire. A few hours later, Djurisic ended the mayhem with a similar command: "Withdraw from your position. Return to your base."

The burning was done by specially trained police units, who would enter houses with canisters strapped over their backs, spray a highly flammable liquid, then ignite it from a distance with an incendiary round or flamethrower. Collecting the remains was assigned to the sanitation department in and around Prizren, mostly using the Roma people, or Gypsies, who were regular employees, supplemented by Kruezi, Nikolic and their white refrigerated truck.

When it appeared the war was going to be lost, army and police commands ordered a final cleanup to destroy as much evidence as possible. But this was far from the perfect crime, and investigators have begun examining thousands of unmarked graves and unburied remains throughout Kosovo. In Prizren's main cemetery, there are about 100 shallow graves with markers indicating only the date and "corpse number 68." Four unmarked graves in an undeveloped section of the cemetery were added in the final nights of the conflict.

Kruezi, 41, who was interviewed in Kukes, Albania, was a cog in the machine. He said he delivered corpses at least a half-dozen times to different locations, and on three occasions brought them to area industrial plants f twice to Balkan Rubber, and once to Famipa, a small foundry in Prizren that produces silverware, knives and other products. The movements of his truck were helped by the security establishment, starting with the Yugoslav army. During much of the period he was driving, from March 20 to April 9, Kruezi said the Yugoslav army closed off the Prizren cold-storage facility. "They would say they had some loading to do," the deputy manager of the plant, Ahmedan Krasniqi, said.

The body collection continued throughout the campaign.

Kruezi said he loaded corpses onto the truck only once. It was on March 24, when he and Nikolic picked up 32 frozen corpses at the Prizren cold storage. All appeared to be Albanian civilians except for one member of the Federal Interior Ministry Police. They drove to the Yugoslav Army's House of Culture, a recreation center in the heart of Prizren. Kruezi was directed to the rear, where he and Nikolic left the truck.

"When we came back, it was empty," he said. "I don't know what happened in the night."