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War Crimes and Cover-Up:
Publikuar më 17 nëntor, 2010 në orën 23:43 ( ) English |
Rrit madhësinë e shkronjave
A decade later, we remember and honor the victims of
Serbia’s genocidal campaign in Kosovo

by Robert Leonard Rope

Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind… with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians. (1)

In a tragic case of past as prologue, the International Commission’s 1914 report from the long-forgotten Balkan Wars uncannily describes the events in Kosovo at the end of the 20th century.

From autumn 1998 until mid-June 1999, led by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian state apparatus conducted a concentrated and aggressive campaign of intimidation, widespread terror, and ultimately forced expulsions accompanied by the mass murder of the Kosovar Albanian civilians, who made up over 90 percent of the population.

We now believe that upwards of 12,000 Albanians lost their lives during this period. Using the budding Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) inspired revolt as pretext for violent crackdown, Serb forces – beginning with the police force, then gradually broadening to encompass the infamous paramilitaries, Serbian army units, and even Special Security forces – merged together in a kind of imperfect malevolent synchronicity to spread mayhem and terror throughout Kosovo’s Albanian civilian populace.

The full-scale crackdown came gradually. As tension and violence increased in Kosovo over the course of 1998-99, there were signs that reprisal killings of ethnic Albanian males would be an essential Serb strategy in any full-scale conflict. But the outbreak of mass killings in 1998 also included a substantial number of women, elderly and even child victims. The increasing carnage against women and children was exacerbated by the naïve if understandable assumption – or hope – that such civilians would be immune from attack.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

One of the early episodes of crackdown focused on the Deliaj clan. The assault on that clan in September 1998 left the bodies of 15 women, elderly and child victims “slumped among the rocks and streams of the gorge below their village… shot in the head at close range and in some cases mutilated as they tried to escape advancing Serbian forces.”

News of the atrocities spread rapidly. Among the cases of mutilation was that of a 30-year-old woman, Lumnije Deliaj, who relatives said was seven months pregnant. Her abdomen had been slit open. Six more elderly Albanians were shot or burned to death elsewhere in the village of Gornje Obrinje . (2)

Just four months later, Milosevic’s terror struck again. More than any other event preceding the outbreak of war, the massacre of Albanian civilians at the village of Racak , on January 16, 1999, stands out as the critical turning point for the subsequent tragic chain of events to beset the Albanians of Kosovo.

What transpired there was succinctly captured by British journalists Peter Beaumont and Patrick Wintour: “As the Serb forces entered the village searching for ‘terrorists’ from KLA, they tortured, humiliated, and murdered any men they found.” (3)

The international monitors who subsequently investigated the slaughter provided the most detailed accounting of the Racak victims:

Twenty-three adult males of various ages. Many shot at extremely close range, most shot in the front, back and top of the head. Villagers reported that these victims were last seen alive when the police were arresting them…

hree adult males shot in various parts of their body, including their backs. They appear to have been shot while running away… One adult male shot outside his house with his head missing… One adult male shot in head and decapitated. All the flesh was missing from the skull. One adult female shot in the back…One boy, 12 years old, shot in the neck. One male, late teens, shot in abdomen… (4)

Ten households of the Beqa family lived in the part of Racak called Upper Mahalla on the edge of the village. According to one member of the family, whose son and husband were both killed, at approximately 7:00 a.m. thirty members of the Beqa family tried to run toward the nearby forest when they heard the police.

She later told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that more than forty policemen wearing blue uniforms and without masks began shooting at them from a distance of some twenty meters (about 65 feet) from the top of the hill. Recalled the young Albanian mother:

My son H.B. was running on my left side, maybe two meters from me. He had his trousers in his hands, we did not have time to dress properly. He was warning me to move aside and suddenly he fell down. The bullet hit him in the neck. In front of me my husband fell as well. He didn’t move any more.

Another man in the same group, aged seventy, related to HRW how he’d witnessed his twenty-two-year-old grandson shot dead, while his eighteen-year-old granddaughter and her mother were both wounded. The other members of the Beqa family ran back to a house and hid under the steps until nightfall.

Nobody dared to help the wounded, who spent two hours crawling for shelter from the police. One young woman said that the police stayed on the hill singing songs and calling her relatives by name in Albanian: “Aziz, come here to see your dead relatives!” which suggests that local policemen from Stimlje who were familiar with the residents of Racak participated in the attack. (5)

Eventually, the massacre at Racak became a story mired in controversy and innuendo, cynically transformed by Serbian nationalist apologists into a “fabricated pretext used by NATO bureaucrats to attack Yugoslavia .” That disingenuous argument – that outright lie – was used by Milosevic himself as a central theme in his defense at the Hague Tribunal, and continues to resonate in certain extremist circles.

After the commencement of the NATO bombing campaign on March 24, 1999, prominent leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian community became the next explicit targets.

“They went after the doctors, beating them senseless in midnight attacks at their homes. They targeted political leaders, shooting them point-blank in the face in front of their wives. The shops, factories and restaurants of influential businessmen were systematically burned to the ground…” (6)

Bayram Kelmendi was one of the leading human rights advocates in Kosovo, and together with his sons was singled out for “special treatment,” as Nekibe Kelmendi, the still grieving widow and mother, recently recalled to this writer:

Bayram and our two sons were taken by the police to the Hotel Herzegovina in Pristina. The police called for the executioners. They ordered my older son: “Take the gun and kill your father.” My older son responded, “No, I can’t do that.” Then they told my younger son, 16 years old: “Take the gun and kill your father.” And he said, “I can’t do that.”

Then they gave the gun to Bajram. And they told him: “Kill your son!” and he answered, “No, I cannot do that.”
This was the psychological torture. After that, the executioner took a gun and said, “Now you will see how you will be executed.” And they started with my older son – they shot him with one bullet in the heart. And then my younger son, also in the heart. Bajram was screaming loudly, looking up at the sky. And they said, “Why are you doing this?” and they cursed him, and then they shot Bajram in the head with two bullets.
Now the three of them were lying on the floor (Mrs. Kelmendi starts to break down), and they just started shooting the bodies. One of them ended up with 24 bullets in his body, the second one with 35. The third was shot with 28 bullets. When they shot my older son, they shot off his fingers…

All of these things were reported to me by a witness, an Albanian man...

Nekibe Kelmendi, who recently served as Kosovo’s justice minister, was never called to testify at Milosevic’s trial in the Hague . “We can’t call everyone to testify,” was then prosecutor Carla del Ponte’s hollow explanation. (7)

While prominent ethnic Albanian leaders were clearly marked for assassination, it was the civilians, the common people, that served as the ultimate target. Males broadly seen to be of military age, ranging from boys of 14 thru men of 60 and beyond, were specifically sought for extermination. The elimination of the able-bodied male population – what Dr. Adam Jones calls “gendercide” – was a central pillar of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing program, as previously manifested in Croatia and later, between 1992 and 1995, with greater vehemence and bloody success, throughout Bosnia. (8)

Immediately following the commencement of NATO’s first airstrikes, Milosevic unleashed a series of apparently long-planned deportations of ethnic Albanian civilians, eerily reminiscent of the forced deportations of Jews and other “undesirable elements” from Nazi-occupied territories a half-century earlier. The highly-regarded OSCE-1999 report describes one such mass deportation, from eye-witness testimony, in aching detail:

There were thousands of people at the station. The first train arrived and was loaded on the 3rd of April at 2100 hrs. The second train was loaded on the 4th of April at 0100 hrs. Each train consisted of 28 cars. The police were pushing the people into the carriages.

The Kosovars were screaming from the sheer force of the crowd. I estimate the crowd to have been 60,000 people.
While we were waiting two women gave birth in the field. Behind the station police separated men aged 15 – 50 from the women and children. The men were put on civilian trucks and driven away...

The report continues:

I got on the third train at 0515 hrs. Before I got on the train I saw a woman holding a baby. She was being pushed and was extremely frightened. She was afraid of dropping the baby in the crowd.

I held the baby for her until she had boarded the train. I then handed her the baby through an open window…

I got on the train and it soon became packed… It was so packed I and five others were forced into the toilet compartment. The glass window of the toilet compartment was painted over so I scratched off the paint to look outside. The train left the station at 0620 hrs on the 4th of April… (9)

It would be a mistake to assume that “healthy” adult males were the only targets: again and again, women, often pregnant, were
ethnically cleansed, treated to the most sadistic forms of torture and killing. In fact, all diverse elements of Albanian society were subjected to the wrath and brutality of Serb forces: young children, the elderly, even the severely disabled. Kosovo quickly become one giant killing field:

At Klina the young men… were not allowed to leave as the rest of the villagers were expelled by Serbian forces on 17 March 1999. The next day one of the villagers went back to the village to see what had happened to the boys. He saw the burned body of a boy tied up to hay; only the bones and parts of the legs were left. Eleven other boys had been shot all at the same spot, executed. They buried the young men right there.

One 17-year-old boy describes how on his way to Velika Krusa, he was stopped by police and put in a line of young men. They were forced to say “Long Live Serbia ” and give the three finger Serbian sign.

A 25-year-old mute man, since he could not say “Long Live Serbia ,” was ordered to get into a pool of water. He was shot in the back and a second time with an automatic weapon. The police then took four or five men from the group and put them in the water, one by one. They forced them to drink from the pool where the bodies were… (10)

Ethnic Albanian children, elderly and disabled people were frequently victims of atrocities. One interviewee who buried 74 bodies stated that they were mostly children and women. A five-year-old girl was killed in the school and a boy was executed there in front of his mother. Another woman was seen holding her two dead children, aged two and four, in her arms.

One pregnant woman had her body cut open with her dead baby lying next to her.

A two- or three-year-old child had been impaled on a wooden stick next to the road. The following was written on a stick:

This is Serbia . This is what we are going to do to all Albanians because I am God and NATO does not mean anything to me. (11)

For those ethnic Albanians unlucky enough to be arrested by Serbian police, no Gestapo-style torture appears to have been left untried. At the termination of NATO’s victorious air campaign, as Serbian forces hastily withdrew from their “southern province,” bits and pieces of damning evidence were inevitably left behind, documented by stunned Western journalists:

“In a residential area of Pristina,” began one particularly disturbing ABC online report from the 18th of June, 1999, “stands an unremarkable five-story building. Until they pulled out of the Kosovan capital a few days ago, this was a regional headquarters of the MUP, the Serbian Special Police. It looks like an ordinary 1960s office bloc but the scene in the damp, dark cellar below street level is like something out of the Middle Ages. Strewn around are instruments of torture: chains, machetes, baseball bats with Serbian slogans carved into them; knuckle-dusters; a bed with leather straps to hold down victims; and lying against the wall, a mattress riddled with bullet holes.

“According to ethnic Albanians who say they were rounded up and taken then on suspicion of being members of the KLA, up to 500 people would be kept in a cramped holding room at a time. One by one they would be taken into neighboring cells to be systematically tortured. Some never came out alive.” (12)

One Dutch journalist who had the unenviable opportunity of touring the facility, up close and personal, commented cryptically, “It’s not difficult to picture some of the things that went on here and why it’s called the House of Horrors…” (13)

In addition to all of the other requisite perils, an unknown number of ethnic Albanian women – hundreds, possibly thousands – were subjected to the ultimate humiliation and trauma of rape.

The majority of rape cases were reportedly committed by Serbian paramilitaries, wearing an assortment of uniforms, often decked out with bright bandanas, razor-sharp knives, long hair, and bushy beards. These paramilitary formations operated in tandem with official government forces, either the Serbian Ministry of Interior or the Yugoslav Army, throughout Kosovo.

Many of them had been let out of prison, lured by the tantalizing promise of illicit, stolen booty and adventure of the worst sort – exactly as had been the case just a few short years earlier in Bosnia .

In specific cases, victims and witnesses were able to identify the perpetrators as Serbian special police, dressed in blue or blue camouflage uniforms, or Yugoslav Army soldiers, typically donning green military uniforms. Several of the rape survivors actually reported the crimes to Yugoslav military officers, with unknown consequences.

One group of twenty-seven women in the Drenica region was forcibly held by Serb paramilitaries in a small barn. VB, a twenty-one year old ethnic Albanian woman, was seven months pregnant when she was gang raped by Serb paramilitaries. She later reported:

They put us in a small barn with hay in it. Then the four men came into the barn and slammed the door and pointed machine guns at us. They asked for gold, money, and whatever we had. We gave whatever we had. But they were still torturing us. They would take a girl, they kept her outside for half an hour, and after that they would bring one back and then they would take another...

VB’s anguished testimony continues:
Then they took me. I was pregnant. I was holding my son. They took him away from me and gave him to my mother. They told me to get up and follow them. I was crying and screaming, "Take me back to my child!"

The perpetrators dragged VB to another room where she temporarily lost consciousness. The report continues:
I can't say the words they said. They tortured me. Because I was pregnant, they asked me where my husband was... One of them said to another soldier, "Kick her and make the baby abort." They did this to me four times – they took me outside to the other place. Three men took me one by one. Then they asked me, "Are you desperate for your husband?" and said, "Here we are instead of him." (14)

To compound the rape survivors’ misery, rape is still considered particularly shameful in traditional, patriarchal Albanian society. Most of the raped Albanian women have remained silent, fearing repercussions within families, potential rejection by husbands.

After the Kosovo war, an insidious silence about war crimes held sway throughout most of Serbian society. One courageous journalist, however, was determined to break the mold and tell the truth – and for that, he nearly paid with his life. In early 2000, with Milosevic still grasping to power, several international web-based news agencies published a ground-breaking article by Miroslav Filipovic, detailing a series of interviews with Serbian officers, many deeply disturbed by their recent experiences in Kosovo.

Filipovic’s revelations set off palpable shockwaves inside an increasingly web-savvy Serbia .

One field commander admitted how he watched in horror as a soldier decapitated a three-year-old boy. Another described how tanks in his unit indiscriminately shelled Albanian villages before paramilitary police moved in and massacred the survivors.

The confessions were initially made by officers who took part in a survey commissioned by the Army Intelligence Unit in January and Feb. 2000.

The internal report offers a rare insight into the scale of the Kosovo massacres and the enormity of the crimes. Particularly disturbing are the combined testimonies of field officers, which suggest Yugoslav units were responsible for the deaths of at least 800 Albanians under the age of five. Many of the veterans claimed to have been traumatized by what they had seen in Kosovo and some had taken to heavy drinking to block out the memories.

One officer, Drazen, who took part in the Kosovo campaign, recalled: “I watched with my own eyes as a reservist lined up 30 Albanian women and children against a wall. I thought he just wanted to frighten them but he crouched down behind an anti-aircraft machine-gun and pulled the trigger. The half-inch bullets just tore their bodies apart.”

Declared Drazan, “I’m not willing to accept the collective guilt. I want to see those who committed these atrocities stand trial.”

Another officer reflected: “For the entire time I was in Kosovo, I never saw a single enemy soldier and my unit was never once involved in firing at military targets.”

“State-of-the-art tanks were sent out against defenseless Albanian villages,” he insisted.

“The tanks, which cost $2.5 million each, were used to slaughter Albanian children. I am ashamed.”

During the ethnic cleansing of one village in southeastern Kosovo, reported another officer, “a reservist nicknamed Crni (‘Blackie’) went up to an old man who was holding a child aged around three. He grabbed the toddler from the man’s arms and demanded a ransom of 20,000 German marks. The Albanian only had DM 5,000. Crni took the child by the hair, pulled out a knife and beheaded it. Soldiers were vomiting in the dust.”

“Crni was later declared insane and sent home” explained the officer. “But he is still free to walk the streets.”

One retired veteran of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia claims the Yugoslav (Serbian) army has been responsible for the deaths of countless children over the 1990s. “I was trained at the country’s top military academies and commanded a crack infantry unit. Kosovo was the third occasion the army was responsible for the deaths of children.” (15)

It is clear that war crimes were committed by all sides during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, that there were victims from all ethnicities. All victims have the right to a redress of grievances, to compensation from the offending party, or from those who have inherited their mantle.

That understanding, however, does not in any way mitigate the responsibility of the Serbian state for its genocidal actions inside Kosovo. There can be no real progress in the Balkans unless and until the pervasive and lingering denial of Serbia ’s responsibility is honestly tackled, painful as that will be. There can be no lasting peace without justice.

Next: Cover-Up – Refrigerator trucks, mass graves and industrialized burning of corpses…


(1) Report of the International Commission on the Balkan Wars, 1914
(2) “Case Study: Kosovo, 1998-99” Gendercide Watch: Kosovo, Adam Jones, July 12, 2001
(3) The Guardian, July 18, 1999
(4) The New York Times, January 22, 1999
(5) “A Week of Terror”, Human Rights Watch, January 29, 1999
(6) OSCE-1999 Kosovo/Kosova Report, As Seen, As Told, p. 241
(7) Interview with Nekibe Kelmendi, Pristina, 2008
(8) “Case Study: Kosovo, 1998-99,” Adam Jones
(9) OSCE Report, p. 158
(10) OSCE Report, p. 166
(11) OSCE Report, p. 468
(12) ABC Online Report, June 18, 1999
(13) Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 7-1-99, Gert Jan Rohmensen
(14) “Rapes in Kosovo,” Human Rights Watch, March 21, 2000
(15) “Serb Soldiers Speak of Their Shame and Nausea at Comrades’ Atrocities,” The Independent, Miroslav Filipovic, April 5, 2000. Following publication of his article, Filipovic was arrested and held in detention for the next six months. Filipovic’s health became severely compromised. He was finally released by the post-Milosevic regime, following an international outcry.

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