Unidentified Serbian war criminals, and Albanian mass graves, exposed in new documentary

The 2015 documentary The Unidentified addresses the unexposed massacres in the Peja area, and the still-unidentified corpses of Albanian victims, which were transported to Serbia. 

Adem Ferizaj
21 August 2015

Mejrem Hamzaj lost five family members on April 1, 1999. On that day, Serbian paramilitaries attacked Lubeniq (Ljubenic in Serbian), a Kosovan village near the north-western city of Peja (Pec in Serbian). The Kosovo war was raging at the time. Mejrem remembered one of the Serbian paramilitaries entering their house – with two bombs in his hands. She remembered that she had turned her head to her husband. He had waved his hand gesturing her to go and to save the children. After she finished this sentence, she couldn’t bring herself to say any further word, and started crying.

The 2015 documentary The Unidentified, directed by Marija Ristic and Nemanja Babic, reveals the war criminals of the Lubeniq massacre and other mass murders in the Peja area during the Kosovo war. The perpetrator was the 177th Yugoslav Army Unit known as the Jackals, commanded by Nebosoja Minic, alias “Dead” (“Mrtvi” in Serbian). Furthermore, The Unidentified names Serbian officials responsible for transferring killed Kosovar-Albanians to mass graves all over Serbia. 

human rights watch fred abrahams.jpeg

Unknown graves at a cemetery in southern Kosovo in 1999. Photo: Human Rights Watch/ Fred Abrahams.

A laudable step in reconciliation between Serbia and Kosovo

The two film directors are Marija Ristic, a Serbian journalist, and Nemanja Babic, a Serbian film producer. They had the courage to spend two years critically investigating some of the worst mass killings committed by their fellow countrymen during the war in Kosovo. From a reconciliation perspective, it is very laudable that two Serbians directed such a nuanced and questioning documentary. Another notable achievement of The Unidentified is that victims and perpetrators of the same war crimes both have their say. 

From a gender perspective, the documentary reveals the usual image – only male soldiers and paramilitaries are interviewed: men are perpetrators of war, whereas women are mainly victims. Yet, Mejrem’s perseverance to continue her life – after this traumatizing war – is considerable. Also laudable are the women of Krusha, a village in the south-west of Kosovo. The war left eighty-two women of Krusha as widows – in the aftermath of the war, they reconstructed their village on their own.

Peja: a place of horror during the war

Peja and its surroundings was a region of horror during the Kosovo war. The Unidentified vividly renders its painful history, as all the massacres investigated in the documentary – Lubeniq, Qyshk (Cuska in Serbian), Pavlan (Plavljane in Serbian), Zahaq (Zahac in Serbian) – took place in that area. According to Zoran Raskovic, a former member of the Jackals, these were not the only massacres that took place: “All the villages on the right hand side of the Peja-Gjakova road were cleansed,” Raskovic, who is currently a protected witness, claims in the documentary.

The Jackals were not created in the course of the war in Kosovo; they had already committed massacres in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia during the 90s. Their leader in Kosovo was Nebosoja Minic, alias “Mrtvi”, who died, apparently of AIDS, in 2005 in Mendoza, Argentina. Yet, there is still a lack of clarity over whether he is really dead. His nickname “Dead” resulted from a report that he was killed in the war in Bosnia. After that he appeared at his own vigil, which was held in was in Peja, his hometown.

Goran Petronijevic, lawyer of the former commander of the 177th Army Unit in Peja,Toplica Miladinovic, says in The Unidentified that there was a lack of Serbian soldiers in the Kosovo war. Hence, according to him, there was no alternative to recruiting prisoners and psychologically unwell people. The directors of the documentary deserve some criticism for letting this doubtful statement pass without comment: for a totalitarian dictator like Slobodan Milosevic nothing better could happen than employing people who represent public danger in his armies.

Miracles in wartime

Ristic and Babic, however, do not repeat this mistake. Petronijevic states that it is not clear whether the massacres committed by the Jackals, in the villages around Peja, were planned or spontaneously perpetrated. Yet the two directors deliver strong evidence that the mass murders were structured and coordinated. They quote an official Serbian document, signed by the not-indicted Dragan Zivanovic, with the following sentence: “Although the army was aware of the massacre in Ljubenic, the same unit was sent to the neighbouring village of Cuska.”

After Mejrem witnessed the murder of five of her relatives, she had to flee Lubeniq: she walked with survivors of the massacre around 100 kilometres to Albania. When they reached Gjakova (Djakovica in Serbian), 35 kilometres from Peja, they were tired – they had not eaten or drunk anything during their march – and looked for a place to rest.

In the city entrance, they passed a café full of celebrating policemen and soldiers, obviously Serbs. One man wearing a police uniform told them in Albanian: “If you try to stay over tonight in Gjakova, a big massacre will be waiting for you tomorrow.” This man, maybe a Kosovo-Serbian, saved the life of Merjem and the other exiles. Even though an overwhelming majority of events in a war are horrific, miracles like that of Merjem’s nonetheless still occur. The Unidentified is mindful of such moments.

“Someone has to tell the other Albanians what happened here”

Another story, which dumbfounds the spectator, is the story of Erzen Ljushi, a villager of Qyshk. Erzen lost nine family members on May 14, 1999. He was 16 years old at the time. One of the Jackals’ paramilitaries charged the teenager with collecting money in the houses. After he finished this task, the Serbians decided not to kill Erzen. “Someone has to tell the other Albanians what happened here,” said “Dead”, as the former paramilitary Zoran Raskovic remembers in the documentary.

Mejrem Hamzaj returned with her brother to Lubeniq on June 13, one day after NATO armed forces arrived in Kosovo. Her village was unrecognizable. She went to the mosque and yelled: “is anyone alive?” And after she walked through Lubeniq, she came to understand that the Serbians did not leave a single corpse in her village.

Serbia, headed at that time by Milosevic, wanted to hide these massacres in the Peja district: instructed by the Serbian interior ministry, bodies were then brought from Kosovo to different places all over Serbia. Mustafa Radoniqi, a lawyer representing Kosovo-Albanian victims’ families, says in the documentary: “from March until May 1999 the corpses were exhumed by night loaded onto trucks and transported to secret locations in Serbia.”

The unwitting digging up of a Serbian cover-up attempt

A Serbian fisherman in the eastern Serbian village of Tekija has unwittingly dug the planned Serbian state secret up: he found a refrigerator truck, raised to the surface of the Danube. The truck, with no license plates, was full of dismembered human corpses. These failed cover-up attempts were called “Dubina 2”, “Depth I” or “Depth II”. The Unidentified reveals that “more than 1000 bodies of Kosovo-Albanians have been found in mass graves in Serbia in the following locations: the police training center ‘13. maj’ Batajnica, Rudnica Quarry, Perucac Lake, the police training centre in Petrovo Selo. 

The documentary also points clearly criminals out who are involved in the hush-up try by Serbia. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) identified Obrad Stefanovic, former assistant interior minister, as participant in the cover-up plans.  He who wrote during that period in his diary: “no body, no crime.”  Others involved in this undertaking include Dragan Ilic, former head of Serbia’s criminal investigation unit, or Petar Zekovic, a former assistant interior minister. None of them, or anybody directly involved in removing and reburying the corpses, has ever been brought to court.

The legal situation is humiliating for the victims of the war in Kosovo. Only 11 out of 150 to 200 paramilitary Jackals – plus unidentified criminals – have been indicted for the massacres, says Ranko Momic, a former member of the Yugoslav Army, in the documentary. 11 years passed before the indictments started. Momic himself is charged with war crimes in the villages around Peja. 

A documentary without tchotchke

The Unidentified is a documentary without tchotchke, based on investigated facts. But it is not a clinical film to watch: the recordings and photos during the war in Kosovo, in particular, provide an appropriate from of alternation.

In front of Prishtina’s parliament, photos of people who have been missing since 1999 are still displayed today: the war in Kosovo ended 16 years ago, but it is a war full of lingering obscurities. As a result of this, one should watch this documentary with critical eyes; the cover-up attempts by Serb officials revealed in the film are maybe not the only hush-ups. At the same time, my proposition should not hide the fact that the Ristic’ and Babic’ journalistic work is considerable, and represents a crucial step in unveiling the truths of the war in Kosovo.

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