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Yugoslavia: A Kosovo Village Buries Its Dead

RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten has spent the past two weeks reporting from Kosovo. Earlier this week, he found himself in the western village of Celina, where proper funerals were taking place for 75 villagers killed by Serb forces in a massacre last March.

Celina, Kosovo; 23 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Celina buried its dead this week -- all 75 of them -- and the whole village of 2,500 people turned out to mourn and pay its respects.

The villagers filed past the line of 75 coffins -- on each coffin, a framed photograph and a crimson Albanian flag. Old men in their Sunday suits -- fathers, brothers and sons -- stood, weeping silently. Women -- their heads draped in white -- mostly stared into space, their tears spent many days ago.

The 75 wooden coffins were lowered into the ground as an honor guard of Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) soldiers fired a salvo of gunfire into the air.

On March 26, in a pattern repeated in village after village throughout Kosovo, soldiers of the Yugoslav Army (VJ) surrounded Celina and shelled it until not a rooftop was left. The next day, police units (MUP) were sent in. Villagers say they were chased into the hills, shot at random as they fled.

Ismail Rexhepi says he remembers that day well. The quiet farmer lost his father and three brothers to the MUP.

He says Serb policemen killed his deaf brother first. He says, softly: "They ordered him to shout Long Live Serbia! Long Live Milosevic! But you know, he couldnt hear what they were saying, so they shot him."

Driving through western Kosovo, the bucolic landscape is pocked-marked by graves and the charred ruins of farm houses. In the 300-year-old Oriental bazaar in the city of Djakovica, street after street bears testimony to the barbarity of this war.

There is nothing left to salvage -- only blackened rubble, a few burned chairs, a gutted mosque, a safe still attached to the wall of a crumbling house.

Back in Celina, I turn my head away from the coffins. Under the noonday sun, mixed in with the smell of fresh grass is the stench of death. More than just a metaphor, it is very real -- sickly sweet and, at times, overpowering.

One of the mourners tries to freshen the air with an aerosol spray can. Needless to say, he is unsuccessful.

"Ah yes, ah yes, that smell," says a photojournalist with years of experience in the Balkans. "Its everywhere. Once you get a whiff, you never forget it."

On our drive back to Pristina, the provincial capital, we pass a wedding procession. Young men hanging out of cars cheer loudly and honk their horns. Oncoming vehicles flash their headlights. The atmosphere is giddy.

Another Balkan image to file away in my memory.

I know I wont forget Celina. I hope I remember this one as well.