Arms, legs, human remains emerge from the depths of the Danube along the border between Serbia and Romania. The surrounding imposing mountains are mirrored in the eerie and turbid waters of the Danube, shrouded in a dreamlike atmosphere as if it were a Böcklin painting.
A perfect noir setting is the backdrop of DEPTH TWO, the documentary film by the Serb director Ognjen Glavonic, winner of the ‘Best Feature Film’ at the last edition of the Festival dei Popoli in Florence.
A Balkan noir, we could call it, with all the elements of a breath-taking thriller, a crescendo of suspense made even more so by the complete lack of any human faces. It is not the faces, but the voices that make the invisible visible. An excellent test for the Balkan cinema world, little accustomed to the thriller-noir-investigative genre, if it were not the case that DEPTH TWO is a dramatically true story, horribly true, but shamefully ignored.
Ognjen Glavonic brings it to light through the testimonies of victims and executioners of (the umpteenth) extremely brutal crimes committed in the bloody and murderous Balkan War of the 1990s. DUBINA DVA (the original title) begins in 2001 in Kosovo, in Tekija Village on the Danube. A fisherman sees an object floating in the waters of the river.
«It was not the first time that a car had ended up in the river, probably a Mercedes.»
The off-screen voice belongs to Bole, a policeman called to the scene, an accomplice, unfortunately, to this horrible incident.
«It was difficult to get him out of the water […], the diver told me: “Bole, there are human legs sticking out from the back part.” I had also noticed two feet and an arm when the car was being pulled out […] I immediately notified the district judge, but he told me it was not in his jurisdiction and he left the scene. They sent a truck full of wooden coffins. What were we to do with 12 coffins? In the whole of our region there were not enough coffins for all those bodies. It was all too much for me. I called another district and then my superior at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, General Djordjevic. Djordjevic’s order was not to bury the bodies in the village, but to load them onto a truck and transport them to Belgrade. We pulled out all the bodies and laid them out on the sand. The others pulled them up the banks and loaded them onto the truck. Just like an assembly line. From General Djordjevic’s office, I received orders to carry out an extremely important task, a task of national importance. I had to transport all the bodies to Batajnica, on the outskirts of Belgrade. There were NATO forces in the area, we were at war, we could not let them see that truck loaded with bodies. So we covered the letters on the doors of the truck. We wrote: Prizren Slaughter House. They told me that all those bodies were the victims of NATO bombings and that they would be identified after the war.»
No body, no crime.
«The bodies were pulled out one at a time. They were counted based on the number of heads and other body parts. In total, 53 bodies plus 3 heads. There was also a child of 7 or 8 years old with a UNICEF notebook in her backpack, and a doll.»
The recovered dead, their body parts brought back from the dark depths of the Danube, belong to Albanian Kosovars. At the time of the crime, in 1999, they were Serbian citizens. Slaughtered by Serbs.
«In Belgrade, I contacted a person who told me what to do. I had to go to Skopje, there a VW Golf would be waiting. I had to follow it, without asking any questions. Once past Skopje, I drove to Janeevo, where the local police were waiting for me […]. They loaded the bodies onto a tractor, then they showed me the area to be dug up. We worked for days. Bodies were scattered about. I didn’t count them but there were a lot. The policeman told me that I had to tell no one, otherwise I would disappear, also my wife».
The slaughter house, the place where the massacres took place. The hardest and rawest part of DEPTH TWO for its images and testimonies. One of them is of a female survivor, Shyhrete Berisha. Her story, as often occurs with survivors of similar massacres, are always unbelievable in their degrees of horror, to the extent of seeming to be parts played in a film.
Right, Daddy Clinton… the reluctant interventionist. Bill Clinton against, right to the very end, sending American boys to that mess, the Balkans. Europe pushed to intervene, understanding (too late and too little) that the Balkans were something that needed to be dealt with. Finally forced to do something, the American President agrees to a military air strike in Kosovo to stop Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of Albanians.
NATO begins to change its tune – an external operation is its first post-Cold War test. NATO’s bombing lasts 9 weeks, during which Clinton never gives up reassuring the Americans that there will never be men on the ground.
As much as he was convinced, we don’t know, but there were insistent (and quite credible) rumors of the Kosovo Liberation Army being trained by the CIA. The hypothesis of a military escalation in Kosovo remains on the table of most European governments, and Milosevic must have considered it very likely, to the extent of making him wave a white flag. He gave his men one last “task” – to cancel all traces of the pogroms against the Albanian Serbs, to get rid of the bodies. Kill them two times.
More than 800 bodies were discovered in common graves dug up outside the city limits of Belgrade, in Batajnica and Bajna Basta (Amnesty International report). The bodies were exhumed and transported to Serbia in refrigerated trucks. There is evidence that many corpses were cremated in the foundry of Mačkatica. State Crimes, no one can have any doubts. Milosevic’s Serbia had the pogroms as a priority, then their concealment.
No body, no crime.
«I was a friend of Zoran’s wife, we had gone to school together, the same economics class. I knew Zoran very well. I had often seen him in Suva Reka. I knew all of them, they were not police in uniform but men in black uniforms», Shyhrete Berisha recounts «[…] On March 25, three Serbian policemen knocked at the door. We were sleeping. They were armed and shouting, dragging off my husband. They believed that there were Americans in the house. Up to a few weeks before that large house had been the headquarters of the OECD, which had arrived in Suva Reka the year before […]. Were you hoping that your Americans would now come to save you?, one of the uniformed men asked. Then he shot into the air three times, an inferno. We were mainly women and children and we fled outside afraid they would burn down the house with us still inside. All our men were killed behind the house. They made them go into the pizzeria next door, threw two bombs in through the window, then machine-gunned everything. They were all dead. They went in to check […], then a truck arrived loading the bodies on board in wheelbarrows. When they saw that I was still alive they shot me, believing to have killed me. I was full of bullets. Still today, I have the splinters in my body. I pretended to be dead. I didn’t look when they loaded our bodies onto the truck. I had two chains around my neck, they ripped them off, thinking they were valuable. For them, they were worth more than a human life. My son, Gramos, was still alive, they hadn’t realized this at the beginning because his jacket had covered him. But only for a short time, then they shot him. I jumped off, hurting my forehead.»
«When I found out about the truck in the Danube», recounts Bole, «I went immediately to the police in Belgrade. They congratulated me and told me, “from now on you are retired”. I had an apartment from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, I moved to get away from Batajnica, I only had bad memories. I couldn’t continue living in Batajnica after what I had done.»
Exhumations in Batajnica began in 2001. Two rulings of The Hague Tribunal for Crimes in the former Yugoslavia sentenced different police officers of having concealed the crime and transporting the bodies from Kosovo to Batajnica. The then head of the security department of the Ministry for Serbian Internal Affairs, Vlastimir Đorđević, was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment.
In 2001 and 2002, two communal graves were found with a total of 705 bodies of civilians killed in different places of Kosovo. For many years, the autopsies and the identifying of the victims were carried out in a tunnel along the banks of the Danube. Once identified, they were taken to Kosovo and handed over to their families.
No judicial proceedings have ever been started up to identify those responsible for the massacre and bring justice to the victims. Today, in Serbia, it is still a half-concealed secret that many are unaware of. It is also for this reason a virtual memorial, the Batajnica Memorial Initiative, has been created. A website that informs, reconstructs and recounts the terrible story of Batajnica, of its communal graves, its concealment, the conspiracy of silence surrounding this Balkan slaughter.