Anatomy of violence in Kosovo

Los Angeles Times - Wednesday, December 22, 1999


As the U.N. investigates whether Serbian actions this spring were genocide, survivors vividly recall death, isolation and rare acts of humanity.

DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia--The state knew her as citizen No. 0112963949971. In the small black-and-white photo that a government clerk attached to her identity card and stamped 15 years ago, she has weary eyes and looks easily frightened.
     She was born Rrushe Tale on Dec. 1, 1963, near the western Kosovo city of Pec. More than 20 years later, after taking a husband and changing her family name to Delija, she registered a new residence with police.
     The address was 85 Musa Zajmi St. in Djakovica, a small house shut off from a narrow side street by a wall and a steel gate--weak shields against the evil that would descend upon Kosovo in the spring of 1999.
     For the living, wars leave behind strange mementos--jagged hunks of NATO bomb shrapnel, spent AK-47 shell casings or the sheath of a combat knife with a muddy boot print.
     There are also scattered strands of people's lives such as Delija's identity card, picked up May 7 near a heap of license plates that Serbian border guards had ripped from cars and tractors of fleeing ethnic Albanians. The small brown permit, which opened to the faded picture, certified Delija's right to exist as a citizen of Kosovo. But might it also have been a clue to how a life was snuffed out?
     Guards at the Vrbnica border crossing with Albania who saw a reporter slip the document into his coat pocket seemed more amused than worried that it might be evidence of what the U.S. State Department called "identity cleansing."
     Some experts point to seizure and destruction of personal documents as attempts at genocide, defined by a 1951 international treaty as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
     Half a year after the Kosovo war ended, the question of genocide remains one of the most haunting: Did Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, indicted for massacres involving 340 deaths and the expulsion of more than 800,000 Kosovo Albanians, follow in the steps of the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge and Rwanda's Hutu extremists?
     That question will be answered by judges, lawyers and investigators of an international war crimes tribunal. But Rrushe Delija's pass and other threads gathered at random in early May offer a chance to determine the fate of strangers swept up by the war and then lost in its chaos. Collecting their stories of death and loss, of luck and survival--even of unexpected kindness--is a way to shed light on the complex battle over Kosovo.
     For many, it is far from over.

     NATO, Critics Differ on Effect of Air War

     The North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervened in spring to halt a decade of oppression against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. However, critics of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia argue that, however terrible the atrocities in Kosovo, the alliance exaggerated them to justify adding an air war onto an existing civil war. In doing so, they claim, the alliance escalated the conflict with no way to protect civilians caught in the middle.
     During NATO's 11-week air war to drive Serbian and Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, the Delija family was among more than 440,000 ethnic Albanians who crossed in terror into Albania. About a quarter-million more went to Macedonia, and thousands of others fled elsewhere.
     But the Delija family returned, and on a recent wintry afternoon Rrushe Delija was using a whisk broom to sweep the same front steps that Serbian police had walked up six months earlier.
     Unlike so many other buildings, her home hadn't been burned or looted in the Serbian onslaught--which at times was coldly calculated, at others wildly random.
     Delija invited visitors into her living room, where she served glasses of cola on a kitchen tray. She turned on a space heater so they would be comfortable while she explained how her pass had landed at the border crossing, to be picked up by a stranger just over an hour later.
     Around 9 p.m. on May 6, as Serbian police and paramilitaries encircled their neighborhood, Delija and her 35-year-old husband, Tomor, decided to escape Djakovica with their three sons, Arber, 16, Labinot, 13, Leonard, 11, and their 3-year-old daughter, Egzona.
     The family had been determined to hold its ground in Djakovica. But when police surrounded their district and began pounding on doors, barking threats and demanding bribes, the Delijas decided that the choice was no longer theirs. While no one had ordered them to leave, they could take a hint.
     "The police came that morning and told me, 'You can stay and wait for us to knock on your door tonight, and you'd better prepare some money for us,' " Delija's husband recalled.
     One of the police mentioned the name of Delija's cousin, Edmond Delija, who spent three months in jail last year on suspicion that he was a fighter in the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army. Tomor Delija understood that his family was at risk because of its relationship to a suspected guerrilla.
     Seven people stayed behind in the Delijas' house, including four men who preferred to hide rather than trying to talk their way through police checkpoints. All seven survived.
     "They had to keep the house dark because the police had lists of the 'most wanted people' and no one knew who was on those lists," Delija's husband said. "So they waited, with no lights on, and the windows covered with blankets."
     As the family left, Rrushe Delija frequently had to beg police to let her oldest boy pass. In the eyes of police, he looked old enough to be a KLA "terrorist." She also had to push her paralyzed 75-year-old mother-in-law, Nexhmije, through the chaos in a broken wheelchair.
     The group made it to the bus station and fought its way onto a coach. At checkpoints along the way to the border, police and soldiers matched names against their lists. Police took away one passenger, a man from the village of Prush, whose sister pleaded with them to let him go.
     "The police told her, 'If you say one more word, we will kill everyone on the bus,' " Delija said. At gunpoint, the woman climbed back on the coach, and it pulled away. No one knows what happened to the man.
     A few hundred yards from Albania, Yugoslav soldiers robbed Delija's group of its members' few remaining valuables: some gold jewelry and her oldest son's leather jacket. When she saw border guards checking identity cards and passports and apparently seizing them, Delija told the men and boys to go ahead and let her catch up with the wheelchair.
     "They wanted us to disappear, and never to return again," Delija's husband said of the Serbs.
     During those final, terrifying yards in Kosovo, Delija stuffed the pass down her mother-in-law's blouse for safekeeping. But it slipped out and landed on the road, to be picked up by a reporter that same afternoon.
     The family spent the rest of the war in a refugee camp, but when they returned to Kosovo with NATO troops five weeks later, her mother-in-law wasn't with them. She died June 10, the day the war officially ended, and now lies buried in Albania, Delija said. "Fear killed her," she said. "She was scared all the time."
     Serbian police and paramilitaries led at least three killing sprees in Djakovica. The first targeted the old town on the morning after NATO launched its airstrikes at 8 p.m. on March 24. They also attacked in the first weeks of April and May after heavy fighting in the area between Serbian forces and KLA guerrillas.
     More than 1,000 people have been reported missing in Djakovica. Many of them were slain, including 5-year-old Argjend Demjaha, whose killers stabbed him to death and then hung the body from the gate of his house.

     Estimates of Death Total Have Fluctuated

     Across Kosovo, the number of people officially reported dead before ground forces deployed in mid-June is 11,334, Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, told the United Nations Security Council on Nov. 10.
     The tribunal says it isn't in the business of counting bodies so much as determining how, and why, people were killed. War crimes prosecutors need proof that Milosevic or others under his command intended to commit genocide before they can add that charge to the list, said tribunal spokesman Paul Risley.
     Western leaders were less careful about the term genocide during the war.
     "Whether or not the formal definition of genocide has been met, there are indicators that genocide is occurring," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said in Washington six days after the NATO airstrikes began. He cited a "mixture of confirmed and unconfirmed reports."
     On May 16, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen suggested that the toll was higher than Washington's previous estimate of several thousand dead. "We've now seen about 100,000 military-aged men missing," Cohen told CBS-TV's "Face the Nation." "They may have been murdered."
     It's now clear that Cohen's worst fears were unfounded. But the number of people killed isn't known for certain and may never be. In addition, several thousand people listed as missing may still be prisoners in Serbian jails.
     The work of forensic teams has been of limited help answering the question. When, with the onset of winter, they ended almost four months of digging Oct. 31, they had uncovered 2,108 bodies at 195 grave sites, roughly one-third of the "mass graves" reported to the tribunal.
     At 16 of the sites, where the tribunal's forensics experts were told a total of almost 1,400 bodies were buried, investigators found none. Serbs also are accused of dumping or incinerating hundreds of corpses at mines or factories. The tribunal hasn't yet found evidence to support these claims, Risley said.
     Fatime Kelmendi has thought of joining the search for Kosovo's missing, but she isn't sure where to begin. The 32-year-old mother has no idea where her 18-month-old boy, Rinor, is buried. The last time she saw him, in early May, he lay dead in a farmhouse with only a white handkerchief to cover his bloodied face. He was hit by a bullet from a spray of gunfire when Serbian forces attacked the western Kosovo village of Lutogllava on May 6.
     Seven weeks later, on June 26, his mother stood dazed in the charred ruins of her home. She was recovering from two bullet wounds in her arm and shoulder.
     Kelmendi described how in May she carried her dead child to a house just down the dirt track from her own, only to watch Serbian police kill her wounded brother-in-law on the front steps. Then she had to flee again, with three other children.
     She said her husband, 37-year-old Ramadan, tried to defend the village and had been arrested. She assumed that he was long dead.
     But just a day after her return, on June 27, he came back. His wife, recalling the scene, said it was like seeing a ghost walking through the front gate. His head was shaved and his back badly injured by repeated beatings during almost two months in jail, but he was very much alive.
     When a reporter called again recently, Ramadan Kelmendi was on top of the house, hammering away to replace the roof Serbian forces had burned.
     So many homes were destroyed in the area that 30 people--half of them children--eat and sleep in the two rooms of the Kelmendi house that are properly sealed against the winter. But international aid agencies have helped out with a tent, a small metal cabin and roofing supplies.
     Kelmendi took a break to rest his back and tell of his journey back from the dead. He began at May 6, when Serbian police opened fire from a distance with Praga antiaircraft guns leveled at houses and then came over the hills in armored vehicles.
     Kelmendi said that although he wasn't a KLA fighter, he had two antitank weapons in his house, and he fired one at a pair of armored vehicles perched at the edge of the village.
     Serbian police arrested him May 8 with dozens of other men as long columns of refugees streamed out of the area. For four days and nights, Kelmendi said, he lived with about 500 prisoners packed into two rooms without enough space to sit--let alone sleep--before being transferred to a prison in Pec.
     When he was brought before a judge, the sound of NATO war planes sent everyone scrambling for cover in the basement. Kelmendi was left sitting alone and handcuffed in a small courtroom. There was nothing he could do but laugh.
     When the judge ordered him back to prison, the driver heard another jet and drove into a pole.

     Ex-Prisoner Recalls Kindness of Warden

     June 10 was a day many Kosovars will remember, for almost as many reasons. President Clinton declared an end to the air war. Rrushe Delija's mother-in-law died in Albania. Serbian police moved several thousand prisoners north into Serbia proper, including Kelmendi, who ended up in Leskovac.
     However, the guards still were Kosovo Serbs, and that's when the torture got really bad, Kelmendi said.
     Guards on the bus asked the prisoners if they were hungry, and then forced them to eat bars of soap. One inmate, Rexhep Mushaku, was beaten so badly that he fell in the bus stairwell, frothing at the mouth, with his hands cuffed behind his back.
     "A friend and I got up to help him, and the guards beat us in the head with metal bars," Kelmendi said. "I fainted."
     Soon they were moved again, to Zajecar prison in southeastern Serbia, a Milosevic stronghold. But when the guards clubbed Kelmendi and other prisoners as they got off the bus, the warden ordered them to stop.
     "He shouted at them: 'Stop that! You Kosovo Serbs are the problem,' " Kelmendi recalled. "From that day on, that place was like my home."
     When the prisoners were released, Kelmendi said, "the bus came, the guards lined up, and they told us: 'Goodbye, good luck, and we hope you find your families.' "
     "The prison warden asked me, 'Kelmendi, will you call me when you go home?' " he said. "I can't find a phone; otherwise, I would call him, because he was the best person I ever saw. Even though he's a Serb, I can't speak a bad word about him. He was a real human."
     In all, six of Fatime Kelmendi's relatives died in the war, and only one body has been recovered. Her baby Rinor is still missing--and still missed.
     "I will always remember him because, of all the children, he was the one who started to walk and talk the earliest," the child's father said.
     An Italian doctor who removed the bullet and a razor-edged fragment from Fatime Kelmendi's arm gave them to her to keep. The jagged chip, smaller than a baby's fingernail, sits at the bottom of a plastic tube sealed by a blue top.
     "They told me that when I am called to be a witness at the Hague tribunal, I should bring the bullet and the document showing I was in the hospital," Kelmendi said. She hopes that day comes soon. But the tribunal still has years of work ahead, including in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
     Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor, is asking the U.N. Security Council for help pressuring Croatia's government to stop stonewalling on an investigation into "Operation Storm," during which Croatia recaptured Serbian-held territory in 1995 and as many as 200,000 Croatian Serbs were driven from their homes.
     One of the key figures in that operation was Gen. Agim Ceku, later commander of the KLA guerrilla force and now head of its lightly armed civilian successor, the Kosovo Protection Corps.
     Ceku, a former Yugoslav army artillery captain, defected to the Croatian army in 1991. Jane's Defense Weekly reported last summer that he "was one of the key planners of the successful 'Operation Storm.' " He eventually came home to Kosovo to fight the Serbs here.
     Although Ceku and other ethnic Albanian leaders condemn attacks on Serbs and other minority groups, the assaults continue--often with military precision. About 45,000 NATO-led troops have been unable to stop attackers such as those who fired nine mortar rounds at the mainly Serbian village of Partes on Dec. 12.
     The peacekeeping force says more than 135 Serbs have been killed in Kosovo since the war ended. The Serb National Council, a group that represents Kosovo Serbs but opposes Milosevic, says the total is at least 357. The council says another 450 were kidnapped between the arrival of NATO-led troops in mid-June and the start of September.
     As the death toll rises, so does the number of Serbs and others fleeing Kosovo. The U.N. refugee agency says the total is close to 240,000. Of that number, 60% are children.
     Like most male Kosovo Serbs of fighting age, Miloje Ljusic was drafted into the Yugoslav army soon after NATO airstrikes began. Ljusic says he spent most of the war driving supply trucks, often along the same road that brought Kelmendi to jail in Pec.
     Now he lives with his family and about 150 other Kosovo Serb refugees in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. Home is a drafty, abandoned barracks with plywood walls built to house construction workers in summer. Although NATO reversed the expulsion of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, it is unclear whether the peacekeeping force will do the same for such Serbs.

     Serbian Family Finds It Must Flee Home

     As with the Delija family, no one explicitly ordered Ljusic, 39, and his family to leave Pec. But they too could take a hint.
     When Yugoslav troops and Serbian police units pulled out June 15, hundreds of KLA fighters in uniform were already entering the city. The guerrillas didn't open fire, but they were waving guns and jeering. It would have been suicide to wait, Ljusic said.
     So he put his wife, Branka, 37, and their two kids, ages 14 and 12, into a battered 1982 Lada and, along with thousands of other Serbs, they joined the new exodus from Kosovo. Ljusic was so sure they would return that he didn't even take his children's pictures off the wall.
     "When I left, I firmly believed I would be back in a week to 10 days," Ljusic said. "We lived with Albanians for decades. We thought we could live with them again."
     Half a year later, Ljusic and his family face winter in a room with a broken window, in a barracks with one communal tap, no bathrooms, and donated stoves so cheap that burning coal melts them.
     After what Serbs did in Kosovo, there is little international sympathy for them. And people in Serbia blame Kosovo Serbs for the republic's painful isolation.
     A joint report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes the United States, was frank about the failure to protect Kosovo's Serbs and other minorities.
     "Informed observers agree that there is a climate of violence and impunity, as well as widespread discrimination, harassment and intimidation directed against non-Albanians," the agencies said in a Nov. 3 report.
     Daan Everts, head of the OSCE mission in Kosovo, urged closer investigation of apparent involvement by the KLA or its successor, which is known by the Albanian acronym TMK.
     Despite their leaders' denials, "it seems clear that the extent of KLA, and now provisional TMK, involvement is of such a nature and scope that the question of explicit or tacit involvement by the leadership requires close examination by the international community," he said.
     In Serbia, few of the refugees can get jobs or anything besides international humanitarian aid.
     "We are living on hope," Ljusic said. "I don't care if my house is burned to ashes and there is nothing left. I just want to go back home."

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