LADOVO, Serbia, May 29 — For two years, the people of this Danube River town kept the dark secret that has now led to the first move by Serbia's new democratic authorities to charge Slobodan Milosevic with war crimes.
It was April 6, 1999, and Yugoslavia was at war with NATO, which was bombing the country to stop Mr. Milosevic, who was then president of Yugoslavia, and his security forces from killing, torturing and expelling the Albanians of Kosovo.
The police asked Zivadin Djordjevic, 56, a professional diver with the local power station, to check on a truck submerged in the Danube. He thought it was just another traffic accident.
Nothing prepared him for the shock when they hoisted the truck ashore with a winch, and he and a police technician opened the rear doors to find dozens of bodies tumbling out on top of them.
"We barely opened the doors, maybe a foot or two, so it's hard to describe," he said. "Arms and legs almost fell out, because they were leaning against the door. In that split second, I noticed a half-naked woman, a child of 7 or 8 years old behind, and an old man. It was a mess of mangled bodies, clothing, mud and water."
The police took the bodies away, blew up the truck and told Mr. Djordjevic and others to keep quiet. Though word had already spread around town wartime constraints caused the subject to become taboo rapidly. Anti-NATO propaganda was at a height and a draconian information law was in force so that journalists lived in fear of their livelihoods and even their lives if they reported something deemed even remotely unpatriotic.
"I knew about it and the public knew about it, but no one dared to talk," said Mica Aleksic, a journalist and political activist in Kladovo for what was then the opposition to Mr. Milosevic. Residents suspected the bodies were those of civilians killed in Kosovo but a veil of secrecy fell over the case, he said. "We talked abou t it in private, but no one could say anything publicly because everyone was afraid of the Milosevic regime."
With Mr. Milosevic in jail in Belgrade since April 1, the story finally came out in the Serbian newspapers this month. It has quickly acquired enormous significance here because it has provided both the Serbian people and the authorities with the most convincing evidence to date of war crimes committed in Kosovo, and of Mr. Milosevic's involvement in covering them up.
Police officials directing the investigation said last week that they were bringing charges against Mr. Milosevic for ordering officials to "clean up" in Kosovo and remove evidence of civilian casualties that might be of interest to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
This is the first time that the authorities in Serbia, who arrested Mr. Milosevic on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power, have linked him to war crimes. The Hague tribunal indicted the former Yugoslav leader during the Kosovo war, in May 1999, for atrocities in Kosovo; an indictment for crimes allegedly committed during the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia has yet to materialize.
Police officials and Serbia's new interior minister, Dusan Mihajlovic, told a news conference last week that in a meeting in late March 1999 Mr. Milosevic ordered his interior minister, Vlajko Stojiljkovic (who was also later indicted by The Hague tribunal) to remove civilian casualties in Kosovo that could be the source for investigations by the tribunal.
Toma Fila, Mr. Milosevic's lawyer, has called the allegations ridiculous. Mr. Stojiljkovic has denied the incident but the information appears to have come from Vlastimir Djordjevic, the former head of Police Public Security, who was at the meeting. Also present was Rade Markovic, the former head of State Security, who is now in jail under investigation for murder and attempted murder of Mr. Milosevic's opponents.
The information has emerged just as the government is debati ng a law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal that would establish the procedure for Yugoslavia to transfer war-crimes suspects to the court. The bill is encountering opposition in the federal Parliament from former allies of Mr. Milosevic whose support is crucial to its passage, but the government needs to pass the law before an aid conference on June 29 if it wants to ensure American participation in the conference and raise its goal of $1 billion.
[On Wednesday, Mr. Mihajlovic, the Serbian interior minister, told a session of the Serbian Parliament that the truck had contained 86 bodies and said he would soon make public where the bodies had come from, and what had been done with them. He gave no details, but hinted strongly that more evidence would turn up against Mr. Milosevic and his security chiefs. "I would wish that this is the only such case we are facing now," Mr. Mihajlovic told Parliament, "but there are a lot of indications that there are more similar cases."]
For the people of Kladovo, there is little doubt that the deaths of people who were clearly civilians were the result of terrible deeds directed or committed by members of the Milosevic regime.
Nikola Dajic, 58, one of four workers ordered by the police to load the bodies on another truck under cover of darkness after their discovery, said there were small children among them.
He said he presumed they were from Kosovo because their injuries appeared to be from grenade explosions. "They were in pieces, destroyed. They were covered in mud and smelled very badly," he said. "They came from a battlefield," he added. When asked why he thought they came from Kosovo, he replied: "Where else do we have a war?"
Mr. Djordjevic, the diver, said the truck had no license plates but carried a sticker on the cab doors indicating it belonged to a Kosovo company named Progress, based in the town of Prizren.
The truck was discovered on April 6, 1999, but Mr. Djordjevic and Mr. Dajic said the bodies were badly decomposed and could have been in the water nearly 20 days. Local journalists have found one person who claims to have seen someone sinking a truck into the Danube farther upstream on the night of March 20.
That would mean that the bodies were dumped before NATO began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, at a time when Yugoslav forces were escalating their offensive against Albanian villages in Kosovo. Local journalists have also said a police officer at the scene told them that some of the clothing indicated the people were Kosovars.
People in Kladovo said it was good that the case was finally out in the open and being investigated, but some have called Mr. Djordjevic a traitor, and even blamed him for laying Serbia open to accusations of genocide.
A confident, barrel-chested man, he showed some lingering fear, but he said he felt relief that the crime was finally being investigated. "It is not easy to carry something inside for two years," he said.