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Documenting War Crimes

As the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo plays out with stunning brutality, the Clinton administration is signaling that Yugoslav President Milosevic could be tried as a war criminal.

Experts say now is the time to gather testimony from the victims - while the so-called crimes against humanity are still painfully vivid.

Along with the wave of refugees, there is a mountain of evidence coming out of Kosovo, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger. The stories reaching the West by email are more horrifying because they sound so familiar.

Kathy Ward of the International Justice Coalition says "Yusouf Moreno described how Serbian forces selected about 200 men from his village in Kucz and forced them to give a three-fingered Serbian salute before mowing them down with automatic weapons."

Ward heard similar stories when she documented ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. There are still no pictures from Kosovo. Since the bombing began there is only the testimony of survivors, and Ward says no government is gathering it.

"It's important to get people up and talking to these refugees as quickly as possible," she says. "Preferably people who are trained and aware of how to take information in a format that would be usable in a war-crimes trial."

International human-rights activists want governments to talk to the refugees soon, while the memories are still fresh. "Refugees can get dispersed," says Ward. "It's also important to get the memories as quickly as possible after the events have occurred. That makes it more reliable in terms of testimony."

Critics of the Clinton administration say the White House is intentionally not collecting evidence of war crimes in Kosovo because it is afraid the details would be so chilling it could be forced to escalate attacks - which could mean ground troops.

Former State Department official Paul Williams says, "If the American people know what's happening in gory detail before the administration has made up its mind about sending in ground troops, then it will come under enormous pressure to send in those troops."

The State Department has threatened to turn over any evidence of war crimes to international authorities. Spokesman James Rubin says that has always been the policy and it still is. "Any suggestion that we have been holding back information as part of some political policy is simply not correct."

That's a tough sell to human-rights activists who read the daily emails.

"There were no men in a newly arrived group of refugees between the ages of 16 and 60, and many young women were being kept behind in Kosovo," says Ward.

She and others wonder if anyone from Washington is listening to so many people with so many stories.

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