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Yugoslavia: Gracko Residents Blame NATO For Massacre

Like other Kosovar communities hit by massacres over the last 17 months, Gracko unwillingly finds itself in the news. Serbs say the killings of 14 Serbs last Friday reveal the inability of the international community to protect non-Albanians in the province. International officials counter by saying they are doing everything they can to protect all civilians. An RFE/RL correspondent visited the village and files this report.

Gracko, Kosovo; 27 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The rural Kosovo village of Gracko sits just off a rutted but heavily traveled two-lane highway, some 25 km south of Pristina. The houses are simple, stretching along two narrow lanes. Stray dogs wander in a nearby field. Chickens peck at the dirt.

The village is newsworthy only in that it was home to the victims of Kosovo's latest ethnic massacre. The bodies of 14 Serbian farmers were found shot to death late last Friday in a field in Gracko. It is believed to be the first such atrocity committed since NATO-led peacekeepers entered the province and Serbian forces withdrew last month.

Walking along the village's tiny streets -- patrolled by British troops -- our correspondent encountered small groups of Serbs discussing the murders. One resident -- 70-year-old Tsvetko Markovic -- recounted what he heard on the night of the massacre:

"We heard machine-gun fire. I don't know who fired. A half an hour or an hour later, KFOR came. We had called KFOR to come and see what happened, but they told us they had no car."

Markovic says he has lived in Gracko for many years and that there have been no problems in the past with local ethnic Albanians. Asked if he plans to leave Gracko, Markovic says no. He says there is nowhere else for him to go. Other residents say the same.

Thirty-two-year-old Dragan Odalovic was one of the men killed while returning from harvesting hay in a field a few kilometers from the village. Odalovic's father spoke with reporters and blamed NATO for the massacre.

Moments later, a British officer and two NATO soldiers approached and walked with the father into a nearby yard. The four talked for more than an hour as part of NATO's investigation into the killings. Residents say the father was the first person to find the bodies.

Ljubica Zivic is the mother of two of the victims -- 32-year-old Radovan and 29-year-old Jovica. She says they were the last of her sons and that she is now the grandmother of seven fatherless children.

Zivic says she has lived in Gracko since 1972. Like the father of Dragan Odalovic, she says she has never had trouble with her Albanian neighbors. And like him, she blames NATO for the 14 deaths. She says she wants federal Yugoslav soldiers back in Kosovo.

That is clearly not a sentiment shared by Kosovar Albanians. One man who lives just across the highway in Gracko -- who spoke on condition of anonymity -- said many Albanians in the area suffered greatly at the hands of Serbian police and paramilitaries. He pointed to several burned homes not far from Gracko, easily visible in the flat Pristina valley. He says they once belonged to ethnic Albanians and had been looted by Serbs a few months earlier.

Meanwhile, many prominent Kosovar Albanians have condemned the murders, including UCK political leader Hashim Thaci. So has the Kosovar Albanian newspaper Koha Ditore, which yesterday ran a large front-page headline titled "Killing the Peace." An accompanying article called the killings an act "against democracy, [against] Kosovo's people, and [against] the international community." It said the only one who will benefit from the massacre is Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

While NATO officials continue to pledge that those responsible for the deaths at Gracko will be found, they do not sound as confident as they did a few days ago. British KFOR spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Robin Hodges told our correspondent in Pristina that the investigation faces serious obstacles:

"One of the things we've lacked here is the low-level information provided by a well-established police force. Because when [Serbian Interior Ministry police] left on the arrival of KFOR, everybody went -- not just those who may have been involved in war crimes or other barbarous acts."

A spokeswoman for the UN's refugee agency, Maki Shinaharu, acknowledged at a joint NATO-KFOR briefing in Pristina yesterday that the killings represent a serious setback to peace efforts in Kosovo. But she says it is only temporary:

"We are appalled by the systematic nature of this killing and the brutality of it. [It came] at a time when we should be looking to a future where peace should prevail over the past bloodshed. This unfortunately poses a setback -- a temporary setback -- in our efforts to protect the minorities."

Shinaharu says that since the murders, nine Serbs from the district of Lipljan, which includes Gracko, have been moved at their request to safer areas. She says requests for assisted moves by 21 other Serbs in Lipljan are being considered.

It remains to be seen whether the massacre will lead to a new outflow of Serbs from Kosovo. International officials believe that around 100,000 Serbs remain, while more than 70,000 have fled since June 12. That is the day NATO troops entered the province.

Funerals were due to be held in Gracko yesterday for the 14 murdered Serbs but have now been postponed. A KFOR spokesman told our correspondent the burials have been delayed because not all of the autopsies have been completed. It is not yet clear when Gracko will be permitted to bury its dead.