Bodies, Death Mark Pillaged Kosovo Villages |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 22, 1999; Page A1
DRAGACIN, Yugoslavia – After driving a tractor back from Albania, Riza Trolli, 42, returned to this village on a knoll in Kosovo overlooking verdant, wooded hills. Here he discovered that the body of his 82-year-old father, Shahin, lay at the bottom of a 75-foot-deep well, along with those of nine other elderly men.
The body of another man, Azem Shaban Trolli, 60, lay on the well's wide concrete cap, covered by a brown blanket. His was the only corpse villagers could retrieve from the well. Flies buzzed around the stink of death as Reza Trolli asked quietly when the 11 men could have a proper burial.
"My father is in that hole," said Trolli, looking down into the well that once supplied drinking water for this village outside the town of Suva Reka in south-central Kosovo. "We are waiting for help so we can put them in a decent place."
As returning ethnic Albanian refugees and NATO troops fan out into the farthest reaches of Kosovo, the catalogue of horror continues to mount. Because of the threat of land mines throughout the countryside, peacekeepers and returning refugees have been slower to enter villages than towns and cities. Each day, however, as another shattered village is reclaimed, there is more evidence of atrocities.
But the desire to dignify those who have been murdered with a grave will have to wait. "We're finding more and more bodies every day," said Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserich, a spokesman for the German NATO force in southern Kosovo, explaining his troops' inability to retrieve the dead. "Unfortunately, it's becoming routine." Moreover, Jeserich said, war crimes investigators need to visit suspected atrocity sites before evidence is lost – or buried.
On the third floor of Danil Berisha's gutted home in the village of Korenica, four miles outside the city of Djakovica in southern Kosovo, five burned bodies lay in one room, covered with white sheets. Pren Markaj, 55, a neighbor, pulled back the sheets. Four of the bodies were unrecognizable masses of blackened bones. One body, black and coated with what looked like green matting, was hunched over, a torso that was once a man on his knees shielding his face with his arms.
Beside each body were slips of paper bearing names and ages: Gjok Dedaj, 39, and his 17-year-old son, Nicol Dedaj; Muse Dedaj, 57, a cousin; Kole Berisha, 45, and his uncle, Mark Berisha, 70. Farmers all.
Down the street, the bones of Mire Palokaj, 50, lay in the front hallway of her home. Above, in an upstairs room, lay the remains of Muse, her 50-year-old husband. Across the yard, in the bedroom of Kole Palokaj, a cousin and neighbor, the floor was dusty with white human bone fragments.
In a large steel locker, Kole Palokaj's watch, keys and rosary beads sat in a battered tin box. While the majority of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians are Muslims, Korenica was a Roman Catholic village.
Serb-led forces pushed ethnic Albanians out of a cluster of nearby villages into Korenica in late March. The population of the village had swollen to 1,500 by April 27, when Serbian police and militiamen, some wearing masks and some with their faces painted, returned. They forced women and children from their homes but held back the men.
As many as 55 men were killed here. Some were buried later in trenches at the local cemetery, but some, such as the Palokaj family, were left in their homes. Mire Palokaj and her husband, Muse, were loading their trucks to flee when the Serbian gunmen arrived, according to her cousin, Marce Palokaj, 55. Their grand Italianate villa, tucked unobtrusively behind a farmhouse, is now a haunted, odorous ruin.
Mire Palokaj "had just come from helping a woman who was pregnant, and she saw them coming," said Marce Palokaj. The Palokajs "tried to get what they could but it was too late."
Marce Palokaj fears that her husband lies in the graveyard just up the road. She last saw him lying face down in the grass in front of her house as the gunmen ordered her out onto the main road. She returned after taking shelter in another village and found that her house, too, has been destroyed. Serbian graffiti – such as "We are not Iraq," "Come down from the sky," and references to President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky – were daubed in black paint on the front wall.
Dragacin village, home to an extended clan of Trolli families, was burned by Serb-led forces on April 6, forcing inhabitants to flee to the nearby woods or to try to reach Albania. On April 19, after living in the rough for nearly two weeks, a number of elderly men returned from the hills, but two days later Serbian militiamen swept through again and found them in their homes.
Ten Trollis, aged 48 to 92, and a 48-year-old resident of a nearby village were killed and dumped in the well on the evening of April 21.
"I have to get my father out of there," said Shefqet Trolli, 25, a member of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army whose father, Nazif, 58, was killed here.
"I have to do that."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company