Just hours after NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia last March 24, Serbian forces began a systematic ethnic cleansing of Albanian communities in Kosovo. The initial massacres of Kosovo civilians were among the worst of the 78 days of NATO bombing. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently visited two villages that were scenes of some of the worst massacres. He reports that the scars are far from healed.
Velika Krusa, Yugoslavia; 23 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Many of the victims of the massacres in the villages northwest of Prizren, Kosovo, in the first days after NATO launched its air strikes are still unaccounted for.
The Serbs carted off or burned many of the bodies and disposed of some of the remains in the nearby Beli Drim River (Albanian name: Drini i Bardhe). Nevertheless, many women continue to hope that their men are alive in prisons in Serbia.
But the few witnesses to the Serbian atrocities, such as truck driver Selman Gashi from the village of Velika Krusa (Albanian name: Krushe e Madhe), say they have given up trying to explain to survivors that their loved ones are gone for good:
"You can't just tell [survivors], 'look, I saw your father and son being killed.' This is a problem -- we can't tell anyone. We told them not to bother searching. I told them the names [of the dead], but they still hope to find more than 30 people who are still missing. But they can't find them. They are no longer alive."
To add to their burden, survivors of the massacre in the neighboring village of Mala Krusa (Albanian: Krushe e Vogel) continue to face a whisper campaign by their Albanian neighbors that they must have been Serbian spies because they lived through the massacres.
One survivor declined to grant RFE/RL an interview on the grounds that everyone thinks he is a spy. Two other survivors of the same massacre agreed to talk. Lutfi Ramadani says his son comes home from school every day crying because his classmates taunt him for being what he calls a "son of a spy."
Ramadani lost two sons, a brother and a nephew in the massacre. He says the police and military surrounded the village the morning after the NATO strikes began. The Serbs shelled the village and then started setting Albanian-owned homes on fire. The Serbs ordered the women, girls, and boys aged 13 and under to leave before putting the men in a house, where they demanded money and personal documents.
Ramadani says the actual massacre was committed by a single Serb special policeman who used a machine gun to kill the men before setting the house on fire. Ramadani says although most of the men were killed, eight managed to escape from the house and six are still alive.
Ramadani says some 30 Serbian residents of the village were present with 15 policemen during the massacre of their Albanian neighbors.
"I did not recognize the policeman with the machine gun, but the Serb villagers were in uniform and armed and were together with them (the police and soldiers) there. We were 109 [persons], all in one three-room house."
Ramadani says 103 people were killed and only six survived. He says the Serbs killed an additional 10 Albanian villagers, including a 13-year-old boy, at other sites in the village, bringing the death toll at Mala Krusa to 113. He says Serbian officials refused to explain why they joined in the massacre. The Serbs completely demolished the house where the massacre occurred in a bid to remove any remaining evidence of the crime.
Ramadani also says he knows of no Serbs from the village who were killed or harmed by Albanians before or during the war. He says there were no problems between Albanian and Serbian residents there until 1998, when fighting erupted.
Among Mala Krusa's approximately 900 residents, Albanians outnumbered Serbs more than two to one. Now, all the Serbs have fled and their homes are destroyed. The Albanians' homes were also largely gutted by fire and mortar shells, but the newer ones have been repaired sufficiently to make them livable. The older mud-brick homes are beyond repair.
The massacres in these villages are specifically cited in the indictment issued last May by the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four other senior officials.
Milain Bellanica managed to make a video recording of a massacre site at Velika Krusa before the Serbs removed the bodies. He smuggled the videocassette to Albania as the fighting and killings continued. Bellanica says he feels let down by the Hague tribunal, which he says promised him protection from reprisal but has done nothing.
Selman Gashi, the truck driver, talks about the days following the initial massacre. He says three busloads of what he thinks must have been Serbian paramilitaries from the Serbian towns of Krusevac and Pirot arrived in Velika Krusa accompanied by tanks. He says they started firing from the road toward a mosque on March 26. The villagers fled in three directions, mainly to the hills east of the village.
"So when it happened, we were in three groups. We were in a place like this one where we were executed. Over there, there was another group of police. We fled because we were afraid. They killed six people over there. Above the Nalla compound, there was another massacre. The guy standing over there had two sons who were killed, but shhhh, don't tell him."
Gashi says Serbian forces rounded up the villagers in the nearby hills, took pictures, and asked them if they liked NATO. The Serbs told the women and children to walk to Albania and later told the men -- Gashi says there were 46 -- to march to the village of Nogavac.
In Gashi's words, "We heard them say 'fire.'"
He says he survived by jumping into a ditch, but that other men were shot from behind. Forty-three from that group were killed, and three survived.
Another survivor was Velika Krusa's librarian, 58-year-old Bajram Nalli. He lost at least one son -- the other is still missing. He also lost a brother and two nephews.
He describes his brush with death as follows:
"Then we were ordered to stand and were told that whoever is older than 60 or younger than 17 had to go out. I was not 60 and I remained. But my eldest son told me, 'Dad, go ahead. The children are alone.' I had to go out. The police stopped me, but then let me go. But they took my youngest son, Blerim."
Nalli insists all those who were rounded up, robbed, beaten and executed were unarmed civilians. He rules out any chance of ever living together again with Serbs.
"On the orders of the highest-ranking politicians, Yugoslavia committed crimes against Albanian civilians in Kosovo, and after all that has happened, it is impossible to accept living within Yugoslavia or Serbia. Until today, no Serb politician has denied the crimes the Serbs committed in Kosovo."
Serbian politicians have tried -- unsuccessfully -- to pin responsibility for the deaths on NATO bombings.
In addition to the identities of the victims, what remains unclear a year after the massacres is the motive. Were the killings intended as the start of a genocide campaign? Were they retribution for the air strikes? Or was it a terrifying warning to Kosovar Albanians to leave the province immediately or risk the same fate?
With Milosevic and the four other indicted leaders indicted for their roles in these war crimes still at large, it may be some time before we learn the answers.