A mass grave was discovered in 2001 at the May 13 police training centre in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica, some 20 kilometres from the centre of the Serbian capital.
The discovery was made the year after the ousting of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, which had ruled throughout the 1990s wars, and it was seen as a first sign from the new democratic government that it was ready to face up to Serbia’s role in the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, which saw 13,000 people killed and a million expelled, most of them Kosovo Albanians.
The remains of 744 people were found at Batajnica, all of them Kosovo Albanians who were killed in spring 1999 in Kosovo by the Yugoslav Army, Serbian police and paramilitaries. Most of the victims were civilians, and included men, women, children and elderly people. Alongside their remains, forensic teams also found jewellery, pens, cigarette boxes, children’s marbles, calculators, various tickets and one piece of history homework. Although considered to be a single mass grave, Batajnica is a series of five mass graves and three related features.
Some of the bodies had been transferred from primary gravesites and some from the killing sites in Kosovo to Belgrade in trucks over the course of three months in April, May and June 1999. The cover-up operation was a joint operation by the Serbian leadership, police, army and public utility services.
As the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was ongoing at the same time as the cover-up, the police centre in Batajnica had been abandoned because it was feared that it would be attacked by the Western military alliance. Those involved in the cover-up hoped that the mass grave would remain secret, but traces of disturbed earth and the tyre-tracks of trucks were found.
The personnel involved in the covert operation had a pact of secrecy, but after the Milosevic regime was ousted, many decided to speak out because they feared prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY. At the time, the ICTY had already indicted Milosevic for war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and the charges included cover-up operations to conceal wartime crimes across the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic died before the verdict in his trial.
Two ICTY judgments found several state, army and military officials guilty of covering up crimes by transporting war victims’ bodies from Kosovo to Serbia. They included Yugoslav Army officers Nebojsa Pavkovic, Dragoljub Ojdanic and Sreten Lukic, Serbian Interior Ministry officials Sreten Lukic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, and the deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia, Nikola Sainovic.
The mass grave is still within the grounds of the police centre and is not publicly accessible. All visits need to be approved by the police and access is rarely granted. Near the mass grave, a new Serbian Orthodox Church has been built, which was seen by some as an insult to the ethnic Albanian victims. There have been calls to make Batajnica a memorial centre, but this has not happened.