Up and down the rutted, narrow streets of this southeastern Kosovo town, a black van with darkened windows makes its bumpy way.
Ethnic Albanian children stop and wave, often flashing the two-finger sign that means either peace or victory. They yell "NATO!" and "Hello!" as they do to any clearly alien vehicle that might be carrying the soldiers, reporters, bureaucrats and relief workers who have invaded the province since the allied bombing campaign ended a month ago.
But this is an unusual vehicle. On its roof are mounted eight cameras that are constantly whirring at what goes by--25 to 50 still frames a second. Inside, amid a cramped welter of wires, boxes and computer equipment, screens show a technician what the cameras are recording: the streets and buildings of Gnjilane, captured at thousands of angles.
This van is systematically gathering the raw material for a comprehensive three-dimensional digitized portrait of a devastated Kosovo.
The German team in the van and in an advance jeep marked "UN," are under contract to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to produce what amounts to an "after" picture of the province that can be used as evidence in trials of suspected war criminals.
There are no "before" pictures, beyond what residents might have snapped in the normality of their prewar lives. "But we can assume that people were not living in demolished houses or working in gutted storefronts," said a tribunal prosecutor inspecting the van's harvest of 1 million frames from 12 hours of driving the day before.
As tribunal investigators envision it, when witnesses testify about what happened last spring, their accounts will be accompanied by high-tech visual corroboration of what they are describing--making a more convincing package of evidence for the judges at the U.N. court in The Hague.
The German high-tech imaging project is one of the ways the tribunal hopes to cope with the pressures of preserving, if only virtually, the massive "crime scene" that Kosovo represents before the rebuilding begins and the evidence disappears.
The "contamination" of hundreds of atrocity sites is a key problem for investigators. With limited staff and resources, the tribunal cannot be everywhere in Kosovo at once, and troops from the Kosovo Force (KFOR), the NATO-led peacekeeping force, cannot protect every mass grave or wrecked building while waiting for investigators to arrive.
When the team's work is done, in a couple of months, Kosovo will have one of the most sophisticated maps ever made of any place its size in the world.
Project leader Claudia Bauer-Spiegel said that in Kosovo there are few municipal maps of any kind, and seldom any street signs or street numbers, even in a town the size of Gnjilane, population 45,000.
Thus the little caravan noses its way in and out of streets, squeezing past cars or through crowds, hitting blind alleys, circling almost by instinct to be sure nothing is missed.
There is no need to take notes. The van's equipment, as well as a handheld camera the team uses to supplement its shooting, are linked to satellites that constantly pinpoint where each image was taken.
If investigators want to check an account of an event, they will need only to click on a town's name or coordinates on a computer screen and a processed, lifelike image of a street will blossom
Although Gnjilane is relatively free of the gutted, blackened structures that mark Yugoslav and Serbian forces' sacking of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian homes and businesses, the cameras do not discriminate. Other towns along the route make for more shattering imagery. Pozaranje, southwest from Gnjilane, is all but uninhabitable--the houses burned, wrecked and emptied.
The imaging project chief, Bauer-Spiegel, works for Tele-Info GmbH, a small company headquartered between Hamburg and Hanover. Its commercial specialty is creating visual imagery of every street in major German cities for use by such clients as insurance companies, banks, emergency services and law enforcement authorities. Tele-Info's CD-ROM of 12 German cities will be out later this summer.
The idea of approaching the war crimes tribunal came from Bauer-Spiegel. Early in the NATO bombing campaign in April, she saw chief prosecutor Louise Arbour on CNN lamenting that the tribunal lacked photographic records to prove systematic crimes.
"I thought: 'This is it. We have what they need,' " said Bauer-Spiegel, who quickly persuaded company president Ralf Sood to take on what she described as a "zero-loss"--that is, nonprofitable--project. Tribunal officials would not reveal the cost of the imaging effort except to say, according to one, that it was "very expensive" and "worth the money."