Digging up the horror

Barry Came July 12 1999

Digging up the horror

Barry Came July 12 1999

Digging up the horror

Barry Came

in Vlastica

The object in Dr. Peter Markesteyn's rubber-gloved hand looks like a chunk of burned charcoal, the colour of wood ash, about the size and shape of a walnut. After rolling it around in his fingers for a moment, the Dutch-born pathologist, who has just retired as Manitoba’s chief medical examiner, finally issues a pronouncement. “Adipocere,” he says with clinical detachment. “It’s what human fat turns into several weeks after death, maybe sooner if it’s been burned.” He lifts his eyes, nods towards the collapsed wall of a house, where a half-dozen Canadian police officers are digging into a mound of rubble. Working carefully with trowels and wire brushes, they pull from the mound

shreds of blackened clothing, fragments of white bone and more walnuts of dead fat. “It’s all that’s left of them now,” says Markesteyn, a little grimly, “13 men, women and children.”

They came from two families, named Shabani and Hyseni. And they died last April 30 on the spot where their remains lie buried, in the village of Vlastica in southeastern Kosovo, not far from the border with Yugoslavia. Two men did the killing, according to eyewitness Nehat Shabani. “One was dressed in a soldier’s uniform, the other wore soldier’s pants but a civilian shirt,” he recalled last week as he stood on a narrow dirt lane in Vlastica, quietly watching the Canadians, a nine-member team of forensic specialists drawn from police forces across Canada, dig

up the bones of his relatives and neighbours. “They gathered them all in the kitchen and then shot them,” he continued, speaking in halting but clear French. “My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt and my little cousin Fisnik, who was only 2lh. Then, others came and stole everything that was valuable inside the house before setting fire to it. Afterwards, a bulldozer came and knocked everything down.”

Nehat Shabani does not know the identity of those who murdered his family, nor, apparently, of those who came later to loot and burn and conceal the evidence of the atrocity that occurred during the height of NATO’s air war. But if the 35-year-old ethnic Albanian Kosovar someday sees a measure of justice done in the affair, it will be

largely due to the efforts of the Canadians who last week were busily working amid the ruins of his grandfather’s house. “There’s an awful lot of bones down there,” said the team’s leader, RCMP Insp. Brian Strongman, as he took a break from the painstaking job of recreating the horrific events that took place in Vlastica on April 30.

Below, Strongman’s team—composed of retired and serving police officers from the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Vancouver police department’s homicide squad, along with pathologist Markesteyn— were slowly clearing the debris from what used to be the kitchen of Shabani’s grandfather’s home. The mound con-

taining the human remains had been crisscrossed with string, arranged into a numbered and lettered grid. Beside each square in the grid was a plastic bag. “What we’re doing now is bagging the bones according to the grid,” explained Strongman. “That may help the doc identify separate individuals. Trouble is, whoever bulldozed this place mixed up all the bones.” The inspector paused to mop his brow in the 30° heat. “Those vertebrae over there, for instance,” he

continued with a gesture towards the mound, “I’ll bet they belong to the ribs in the next grid.”

It is clearly a gruesome task. But it is essential if the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague ever hopes to successfully prosecute those who have already been indicted for war crimes, including Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his four chief subordinates, as well as other suspects that the chief prosecutor, Canadian jurist Louise Arbour, has promised to indict as soon as possible. “Our job is to assemble courtroom evidence for the war crimes tribunal,” said Markesteyn. “We have to identify the victims, through analysis of bones, clothing, DNA and the like. Then, we determine what we call in the business ‘NASHU’—whether the death was caused by natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal or unknown reasons.”

The Canadians who were toiling under a gruelling sun in Vlastica last week are one small cog in a huge international effort to provide the tribunal with the kind of forensic evidence that will stand up in a court of law. Similar teams of forensic experts from other

countries are at work all across Kosovo. The largest by far is a contingent from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which arrived in Kosovo in midJune just as U.S. authorities offered a reward of up to $5 million (U.S.) to anyone providing information that aids the capture of alleged war criminals in Yugoslavia, including Milosevic. Last week, there were 56 FBI agents at work on three separate sites of suspected atrocities around the Djakovica area in western Kosovo. They brought with them 43,000 kg of equipment, including Humvee trucks, tents, communications gear and portable laboratories.

The other national contingents are much smaller. There is a five-member Dutch outfit and a seven-member Swiss group. Teams of similar size are ex-

pected to arrive this week from Germany and Denmark. North of Pristina, 20 forensic experts from Britain’s Scotland Yard are investigating several massacre sites. Farther north, outside the town of Izbitza near Mitrovica, French specialists are exploring what tribunal spokesman Paul Risley described as “something of a mystery.” Aerial photographs taken by NATO warplanes early in April uncovered what at the time seemed to be mass graves containing up to 150 bodies. “All those bodies have disappeared now,” said Risley. “Judging from the evidence the French have turned up, it looks like bodies were there at some point but somebody came and took them all away. We have no idea where they might be now.” Precisely when the various national contingents will be able to present their evidence remains an open question. But Risley expects they will continue working for several weeks, or even months. More indictments may soon be forthcoming, however, perhaps before Arbour leaves the tribunal later this summer to take up an appointment on the Supreme Court. She is tentatively

scheduled to visit Kosovo, as well as Macedonia and Albania, in mid-July.

In the meantime, Nehat Shabani watches the Canadians at work in Vlastica and waits for justice. Even without the tragedy that befell his family members on April 30, he had already experienced grievous suffering. Three weeks earlier, a Serbian soldier clubbed his three-week-old son to death. “My wife was holding the boy in her arms and he wouldn’t stop crying,” he recalled. “So the soldier hit him on the head with his rifle butt.” The boy’s name was Lirim, Albanian for liberation. Shabani’s grandfather gave the boy the name, because he had been born the day before NATO launched its air war. The grandfather would not long oudive his great-grandson. Rifat Shabani was 80 when he was shot to death in his own kitchen. CS

A Canadian forensic team in Kosovo sifts through the grisly evidence of war crimes