JUSTIN HUGGLER reports on the horrific truth of Kosovo disappearances.
SUHAREKA - The last time Vjollca Berisha saw her children was when she lay in their blood in the back of a truck full of bodies.
She cannot bring herself to speak of it now. She has agreed to talk to us, but no words come. It is unbearable to meet her gaze. Her father tells her story, while she sits in the corner and quietly weeps.
Her husband and two of her children were among 50 people, mostly women and children, rounded up by Serb police at a pizzeria in Suhareka on 26 March 1999. They shot some, and killed the others with a grenade. When the police thought they were all dead, they loaded the bodies on the back of a lorry. Vjollca and her 8-year-old son were wounded but still alive. She took the young child and jumped. The retreating back of the truck was the last she saw of the rest of her family.
"I never found the bodies." It's almost the only thing I hear her say.
Vjollca's children were just two of thousands of Albanians murdered by Serb forces whose bodies disappeared in Kosovo during the 1999 Nato air strikes. The bodies would provide vital evidence that the international war crimes tribunal needs to prove its charge of crimes against humanity in Kosovo against the now-deposed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Now, for the first time, evidence is emerging that Milosevic himself was personally behind the disappearance of the bodies.
Nexhat Bytyqi slipped out of the house in Trnje where his wounded grandson was hiding, to fetch water. The bodies of 16 members of his family lay in the garden. Serb police prevented him from getting back to the house, and he was forced to go into hiding for the duration of the war. When he eventually made it home, his grandson had disappeared and has not been seen since. And the bodies were all gone. Nexhat's cousin says he saw trucks come for them, heard the bodies being loaded.
Shefqet Gashi saw his father shot dead. He saw them preparing the body for burial at the local cemetery. But when he returned at the end of the war and searched for the body, it was not there.
Some in the Western media accused these people of lying, of exaggerating the crimes committed by the Serbs against them. They accused the West of going along with the lies to justify the Nato air campaign. If there were killings, they said, where were the bodies?
But now the truth has begun to emerge. All these disappearances happened at the end of March 1999. Days before, a secret meeting had been held in Belgrade. At that meeting, Serbian police have since revealed, Milosevic ordered his Interior Minister, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, to dispose of all evidence of war crimes in Kosovo.
Within days, a macabre clean-up operation began. Not only death squads roamed Kosovo as the Nato bombs rained down. There were body-snatchers as well.
Kosovo is a land of empty graves. Investigators returned to several sites where massacres had been witnessed, and found freshly dug graves - but no bodies. Sometimes they made strange, baffling discoveries: the body of an old man dressed in the clothes of a murdered child whose body had disappeared; the body of a man wearing clothes with bullet-holes in them, though he had no bullet wounds.
New revelations have provided key evidence of what happened to the 10,000 victims of Kosovo's hidden massacres.
In early May, a Serbian diver revealed a secret that had been astonishingly well kept. On April 6, 1999 - about a week after Vjollca's family disappeared - a green Mercedes refrigerator truck had been pulled out of the River Danube, more than 100km from Kosovo. Inside were the bodies of murdered Albanians. How many bodies is not known, but one eye witness put the figure at 86.
"There were bodies of women, children and elderly people," the diver said. "Some women were dressed in salvare [traditional Muslim clothes]. Some children and elderly people were naked."
As soon as the truck emerged from the river and its contents were known, orders had come from high in the Serb Administration to disperse and conceal the evidence.
One grave digger, Nikola Dajic, was part of a team ordered to reload the bodies from the refrigerator truck into two new lorries in a secret police operation. He told the Independent: "When we arrived at the bank of the Danube, we saw a horrifying scene ... The bodies were piled up. Some were in pieces, some were intact. I saw a dead child, maybe 2 years old, women and men, some dressed, some naked."
It is not known whether Vjollca's children were among the dead, but it seems likely that they met a similar fate. One of Vjollca's relatives takes me to see the pizzeria where her family died. Investigators found a mass grave they thought contained the bodies from Suhareka. Five or six things - a child's notebook, a pair of shoes, Vjollca's sister's ID - were found there. But that is not enough to convince her. They found 48 pairs of shoes. She checked every pair. None belonged to her family.
It has become clear that the Serbs deliberately scrambled the evidence around Kosovo. It was all part of the clean-up operation to ensure that bodies cannot be produced in evidence against the former regime.
In Pec, Shefqet Gashi leads us to the spot where his father was murdered. Thunder echoes in the Accursed Mountains overhead. There is a plaque where Shefqet's father died on the doorstep to his house. It bears his dates: 25.06.1922 - 27.03.1999. He was too slow leaving when the family heard the Serbs coming. The others escaped.
The murderers left the bodies lying in the streets where they died, some 50 of them. We are taken from house to house, and shown where they lay. That night, somebody went round the streets collecting the bodies from house to house. Nobody saw them - those still in town were hiding - but in the morning the bodies were gone.
The next day, Shefqet fled to Albania. As he passed the cemetery on the way out of town he saw his dead father lying on a truck beside a newly dug grave.
When he got back after the war, investigators, guided by local people, opened 205 newly dug graves. Most were empty, but in some were bodies from villages on the other side of Kosovo.
An old man comes up. He begs us to help find his missing son. "Please help me. My wife is going mad," he says. His son was taken away by Serb forces alive. The man has heard of "private prisons" in Serbia - is his son there? It is impossible to tell him no one has ever found any private prisons, that his son is almost certainly dead. That he may never even find the body.
A Serbian military court has made public that an accused reservist was a member of "the unit for incinerating bodies."
But who were the body-snatchers? At least 1500 bodies are impossible to account for, even if you allow for known unopened mass graves. What became of them?
There are those once high up in the Serbian regime who know. When the truck had been retrieved and its contents became known, it was General Vlastimir Djordjevic, who is now retired, who ordered the site to be sealed and kept secret. He was one of the men entrusted by Milosevic's Interior Minister with getting rid of the bodies, according to Serbian police.
The current Serbian Interior Minister, Dusan Mihajolovic, says that the police have evidence of more trucks like the one in the Danube, and that the whole truth will be revealed soon. That may bring some peace at last to people such as Vjollca Berisha.