Last January, more than 40 ethnic Albanian civilians were massacred in the Kosovo village of Racak. International monitors at the time said the victims were murdered by Serbian police. But a report by a European Union forensics team stopped short of calling the killings a massacre or directly blaming the Serbs. The Racak massacre was a key event, however, in strengthening NATO's resolve to end Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the province. Our correspondent in Kosovo Jolyon Naegele recently visited the village and filed this report.
Racak, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Children play noisily as they always did in the road that runs through Racak.
Villagers drive their tractors and horse-drawn wagons up into the hills to fetch firewood for the winter. Others take their few cows out to pasture in the morning and bring them home in the evening. And many of the older men still gather before dusk in the garden of the village mosque to chat.
This could be almost any Kosovar Albanian Muslim village. But Racak -- 30 km south of Pristina -- has more fatherless children than other villages of its size.
The January 15 massacre created 222 fatherless children in the village, which had a pre-war population of around 2,400. A few of these fatherless children lost their mothers in the massacre. A 12-year-old child and several elderly men were also among those killed.
Fifty-two-year-old Bilall Avdiu heads a family of seven. He was one of the survivors of the massacre. He says Serbian attackers left him for dead.
Avdiu says he was asleep that morning when he was awakened by machine gun and artillery fire from behind the village. As the shooting intensified, he says he went to his brother's house -- along with several other relatives and neighbors -- to discuss what to do. He says the few villagers who were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) shot back but that they were poorly prepared and heavily outnumbered.
Belgrade later claimed all the massacre victims were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who had been killed in battle.
Avdiu says a Serbian sniper shot his 16-year-old son, Hamdi, in the leg as Hamdi was trying to join Avdiu at his brother's house. As the shooting intensified, the crowd of villagers -- now numbering about 30 -- ran to another neighbor's house, where they thought they would be better protected from the bullets.
Avdiu says later that morning, the attackers -- dressed in various types of police and paramilitary uniforms, as well as a few in civilian clothes -- surrounded the huddled crowd. He says some wore black masks.
The attackers took all the Albanians' identity cards and ordered some of the villagers -- including Avdiu -- to hike up a nearby hill. Avdiu says when they reached the top, the realized they were walking into an ambush. Avdiu says three Albanians managed to jump a fence and escape the shooting.
"When the first of us got up there, the police stood up and started shooting rat-a-tat-tat. I tried to jump the fence but I didn't succeed and so I lay down. I saw a lot of dead bodies around me."
Next to him, Avdiu says, lay a young man who was bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. Avdiu remained lying in the young man's blood for five hours until nightfall, when he stood to look around.
"I tried to check the bodies to see if anyone else was still alive. There were 24 bodies in that place. I felt so weak so I sat down and waited for my strength to return. Then I saw three men coming, the same three who had jumped the fence."
He says they went further up the hill and found more bodies, some of them mutilated. They stayed in the mountains until the next morning, when someone from the village came and told them that William Walker -- the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- was in the village and wanted to speak with survivors and witnesses. Avdiu recalled:
"Walker told us to go to Petrova village or to the mountains. He said, 'Just don't stay here.' He was crying and said that he had heard that someone in Belgrade had ordered the dead bodies to be taken away. Walker told us we ought not be here with our women and children, and that we should leave the village."
Avdiu says they left the next day, wandering from village to village over the next few weeks, hounded by Serbian forces, going for up to three days without food. He and his family fled to Macedonia after the NATO air strikes began. Now, back in Racak, Avdiu faces the task of trying to return to a normal life:
"It is very difficult, but we should restart our lives. I have not much land and just this house. My eldest son is only 16, and we just have a few animals in the yard. That is all I have. Now we are getting some help from international humanitarian organizations."
Faik Limani is 65 years old. He lost three sons in the massacre and is now left with seven fatherless grandchildren. His four-month-old granddaughter, Salihe, never saw her father. The baby's young mother, Naxhije, could not face looking after her baby. She has moved back with her parents, leaving Salihe to be raised by Limani's other daughter-in-law, a widowed mother of six.
Limani says he is relieved to be back home and grateful the world has not forgotten about Racak. He praises Walker's bravery in standing up for Racak:
"If Walker had not come here and had not seen the bodies, it would have been just another forgotten massacre. The world would have known nothing of what had happened here and NATO would not have intervened. NATO saved us. Without NATO, we would have all been exterminated. The lives of my three sons are the price we have paid for freedom. After all, only freedom is worth what we went through."
Limani says Walker twice visited him in a refugee camp in Macedonia and offered to arrange asylum in a third country of his choice. But he says he told Walker all he wanted was to go home to Kosovo. Now back in Racak, Limani says he and the other villagers are dependent on food aid from abroad.
Another neighbor, Ram Shabani, is an activist with the Pristina-based Mother Teresa Association, which together with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), is trying to help Racak's survivors get by.
Shabani says the massacre, the war and the exodus have created a difficult situation for the survivors now that they are back in Racak:
"We are trying to help them under very hard circumstances. We have not planted, cultivated or harvested anything in this village for more than a year."
Shabani says assistance is meager: flour, sugar, beans and rice. He says what villagers need most is bedding, mattresses and kitchen implements. Shabani says only two-thirds of Racak's pre-war residents have returned so far. In comparison, 90 percent of the more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees have already returned to Kosovo. Some may never return.