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Crime Scene

Kosovo Dispatch

As NATO's troops took over Kosovo last week, I took out my copy of the international war crimes tribunal's indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and four of his aides. This grisly document, issued May 24, I reasoned, would serve to orient my reporting--a kind of Baedeker guide to a shattered landscape that, according to NATO estimates, may contain 10,000 corpses in more than 100 mass graves.

My first stop was Velika Krusa, near the Albanian border on the main road north from Prizren to Djakovica. It was a potential transit point for KLA rebels coming from Albania, and it appears the Serb forces moved to depopulate the area immediately after the first NATO bombs dropped. According to the indictment, 105 men and boys were shot and then burned in a house there on or around March 26. Some colleagues and I tried driving west from the main road to that house. A German Leopard tank blocked the way as the peacekeepers, who had just found burned bodies inside, waited for investigators.

Presently, a man drove up on a small tractor. He introduced himself as Naser Mazreku and explained that he had just emerged from nearly three months in hiding and was searching for his many missing relatives. A look of dread spread across his face when he realized what was going on in the house. We offered him our list of the victims described in the indictment. The farmer's brown eyes narrowed as he quickly scanned the more than 100 names under Velika Krusa. He stopped at one, and his lip started to quiver: his brother-in-law. "Serb policemen took him from my house on March 25, and we never saw him again," he said. Then he leaned over and began to cry softly.

A short way away lies Bela Crkva, a village of 800 located east of the main road. Like Velika Krusa, it's a farming settlement surrounded by wheat fields. A villager who had just returned from hiding in a nearby town led us across a field to a row of trees a kilometer away. He stopped by a stream, its banks choked with weeds, which flowed under a railway bridge. At its edge lay a 16-meter patch of upturned earth: the mass grave. Plastic sheeting from the U.N. refugee agency lay all around. Villagers had used it to pull the bodies from the stream. The grave was shallow, and the smell of decomposing bodies filled the air. According to the indictment, 65 Kosovars were shot here.

A man in his late fifties stood nearby. His name, he said, was Zenel Popaj. He had survived the massacre and could walk us through what happened. On March 25, the Serbs had shelled Bela Crkva and moved into the village from the east. Those who could fled through the fields toward the stream. Many of them, including Popaj, hid under the railway bridge. Early the next morning, a group of twelve, including ten women and children, approached the bridge along the streambed. A Serb patrol spotted them and opened fire. The Serbs then ordered the nearly 100 villagers out from under the bridge. According to Popaj, the Serbs were wearing blue special-police uniforms. Some, he said, spoke what he presumed to be either Russian or Romanian. They separated the men from the women and children, who were ordered to leave immediately for Albania. The men, about 50 in all, were then told to strip to the waist and hand over their valuables. The town doctor attempted to intervene; a policeman shot and killed him. That's when Popaj knew they were all slated to die.

One policeman opened fire with a heavy caliber machine gun. Popaj was lucky: he stood closest to the stream and jumped in as dead or dying men piled on top of him, including his 80-year-old father. After waiting 20 minutes for the Serbs to leave, he went upstream to check on the women and children who had been shot earlier. Only a three-year-old was still alive. 

Another ten kilometers north of Bela Crkva lies the town of Djakovica, whose center was leveled when the NATO bombing commenced. Two of the listed massacres occurred here, and more are certain to be unearthed: residents say up to 500 people are newly buried in the town's cemetery. A few people were riding bicycles down the street (the Serbs stole most of the villagers' cars) when we arrived. One of them pointed us to the site of perhaps the most horrific massacre in the town: 167 Milos Gilic Street. Like most of the houses and shops on Milos Gilic, 167 was soot-stained and roofless (163 and 161, owned by Serbs, stood intact).

Standing outside, Enver Nuci, a 53-year-old economist, told us his mother and sister were among the victims. The killing, he said, started on April 3 and was led by Serbs who lived on the same street. They roamed from house to house, murdering and burning as they went. Seeking refuge, the women and children from several nearby houses huddled in the basement of a billiard hall on the corner. "The men gathered the women and children in one large group before we ran away," said Nuci. "We assumed the Serbs wouldn't dare hurt them. We were wrong." The Serbs found the group and ordered them into 167. The children were bundled into one room, the women into another. Then the Serbs gunned down the women and, according to Nuci, burned the children alive. The oldest victim was 80; the youngest was two. Other Albanians in the village were then forced to come and remove the corpses, which, Nuci says, are buried in one mass grave in the town cemetery. We showed Nuci the list of names in the indictment. He found his sister's, then his mother's. "They got her age wrong," he whispered, tears welling in his eyes. "She was seventy-seven, not seventy."

If the western plains contained the most accessible massacres, Kosovo's central spine of hills, Drenica, likely suffered the worst bloodletting. This is the area that spawned the KLA's rebellion eight years ago and produced most of its leaders. Hardly a village or building was spared when the Serbs rolled through. Witnesses say that, in the first couple of weeks, any man who was caught faced almost certain death. Probably the most notorious massacre so far happened in the town of Izbica in northern Drenica. Before the war ended, a local doctor smuggled out a videotape showing scores of executed men, which corroborated NATO satellite images of fresh graves. The Hague says 130 men were killed there. We arrived in the remote village in mid-afternoon, just as thunderclouds were rumbling in from the south.

The mass grave, which lay on a hillside next to the village, looked just as it did in NATO photos. But the bodies were no longer there, and the ground was littered with plastic surgical gloves. Arben Hadiqi, a local KLA commander, told us that Serb forces came into the town on June 2 and 3. With the help of Gypsy workers, they dug up all 130 men who had been buried there on May 31 and moved the bodies to an unknown location. Hadiqi told us he knew of a survivor, Milazim Thaci, a cousin of the KLA leader Hashim Thaci. One of his soldiers took us to the neighboring village of Broja to find him.

Sitting under a walnut tree in his garden, Milazim Thaci told us his story. Immediately after the NATO bombing started, the Yugoslav army and Serb police launched a four-pronged offensive into the region. Most of the men in neighboring villages fled into the mountains. The rest, including Milazim Thaci, along with women and children, sought refuge in Izbica, which swelled from 860 to almost 3,500 people by March 28. That's when the Serbs moved in. Everyone gathered in a field, thinking the Serbs wouldn't harm them if they were all together. The Serbs demanded money and valuables from the terrified civilians and then separated the 130 remaining men from the women and children, who were ordered to head down the road to Albania. The Serbs then divided the men into two groups and marched one up a hillside to a wooded tree line. The other group remained near the original field.

Thaci was in the first group. He said that a policeman dressed in black, apparently the commander, yelled at the troops, "You know your orders." Thaci's group was forced to kneel with their backs to the Serbs. One policeman then opened fire. Thaci, just grazed by the bullets, played dead until nightfall and then ran to another village.

Hadiqi, the KLA commander, told us that, with the village so overrun with Serb troops and armor, he and the handful of guerrillas with him had no choice but to fall back to a hiding place in the woods about a kilometer away from the field. From that vantage point, he watched helplessly as the men forced to remain there were also massacred. He said about 20 policemen shot the victims. When one policeman refused to take part, said Hadiqi, his comrades eventually disarmed him and hauled him away. Another policeman, who had just finished killing his allotment of Kosovars, turned around and gunned down the rest.

As we drove back down the road, a numbing reality started to set in: the massacre sites were only the beginning. Bodies lay everywhere in Kosovo--down wells, under bushes, in unmarked plots. Only minutes from Thaci's walnut tree we came across four men digging in a small roadside cemetery. They had just returned from hiding in the mountains that morning and had heard about fresh graves in the cemetery. "We want to find our loved ones, so we don't feel it's a sin to dig up the dead," said Osman Osmani, as thunder crackled overhead. Another of the men, Shkelzen Osmani, had just found his two dead brothers. He said they were taken away, alive, by the Yugoslav army at the beginning of the war. 

We watched them gently sift through the dirt of the third grave. A KLA soldier who had stopped to help pulled back a cloth to reveal a skull. The others recognized the clothing: it was an elderly man named Rexhep Mulaka. Another grave held a woman whose dress wasn't familiar. In the fifth grave, they recognized the jacket of Feriz Thaci, another cousin of the KLA leader. Then they crossed the street to start digging in another pile of upturned dirt. The smell of decomposing corpses overwhelmed us. The men expected to find at least ten bodies in the hole. As we were leaving and the rain started pouring down, one uncovered a rib cage. The tribunal wants to identify each specific massacre site. But what if the whole province has been turned into a mass grave?

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.