One Witness Kept a Record of Horror |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 20, 1999; Page A1
DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia, June 19 Dr. Izet Hima's body lay out on his front porch when Faton Polloshka came to the physician's home in this city's Old Town at 5 p.m. on March 25 to collect it. It had been there for 14 hours. Behind the corpse, the Hima home was an empty, blackened ruin without a facade. Smoke still smoldered in corners, and red-brick rubble and window glass surrounded the body.
Polloshka got to work. With some Gypsies employed at the local cemetery, he loaded Hima into an unadorned small purple hearse and moved on. They would pick up three other bodies that evening: Kujtim Dula, 44, a truck driver; Qamil Zherka, 70; and his son, Nexhdet, 41, a car mechanic. All had been summarily executed and their homes burned in the early morning after NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia began.
These would become the first four names on Polloshka's list. Over the next 2½ months, as the world around him dissolved in terror, flames and the flight of hundreds of thousands, Polloshka would methodically write down the names of those who were killed.
Ordered by the Serbs to dispose of the dead because of his job as the city's director of public works, the ethnic Albanian was in an exceptional position to document the brutality as it unfolded. Polloshka took it upon himself to create what is likely to be the most complete, independent listing of victims of Djakovica's mass killings.
"I knew the city very well," said Polloshka. "I risked my life so we would have a record. That's why I didn't go away."
As the murder, looting, and burning ended here with the arrival of Italian NATO troops last weekend, his list has grown to 200.
Polloshka, 46, is a short man with flat, knowing eyes. He had worked for the city for 16 years. His most recent job made him responsible for the cemetery, where he employed eight Gypsy gravediggers.
In the early afternoon on March 25, a Serbian city worker who recently had been mobilized as a police reservist came to Polloshka's home and gave him four addresses, including Hima's.
Pick up the dead, Polloshka was told, and bury them.
Over the next three months, the police reservist would visit again and again with new addresses. The victims, many of them burned to cinders, were loaded onto the backs of open carts pulled by farm tractors and driven through the city to the cemetery for a hasty burial. Sheets of plastic covered the bodies.
Polloshka and the eight workers attempted to identify every one of the murdered before they put them into the ground.
The burial crew was among the few people able to move around the city, witnessing the extent of the burning and carnage. Their testimony may prove critical in coming months for war crimes investigators piecing together the extent and pattern of murders in Djakovica, a once-proud city that has been reduced in large part to scorched rubble.
The Serbs knew what Polloshka was doing. Even when Polloshka didn't visit a murder site, he and his workers compared notes in the evening; they bribed the Serbian reservist with 50 German marks ($27) to allow them to talk at the office.
Serbian special police raided Polloshka's house and his office three times in the last five days before they withdrew from Kosovo, removing all notes and documents that they found. By then Polloshka had gone into hiding, but he still had some handwritten notes, and with help from his employees he reconstructed what was done here: names, ages and occupations of victims, and places and dates of their killing.
It is a chronicle of barbarism, and one, Polloshka hopes, that will extract some measure of justice from its telling.
Two Spasms of Killings
Djakovica experienced two particularly intense spasms of murderous violence. The first – from March 25, the day after NATO's bombing began, to April 2 – was orchestrated by special police, anti-terrorist units and paramilitaries from Belgrade. They were assisted by local police and about 20 ethnic Albanians, who were issued special purple uniforms. The Albanians were from the Mushk Jakup family, which residents described as a family involved in organized crime that had cooperated with the Serbs for years and lived in a village just outside the city.
In that first nine-day campaign of ethnic cleansing, which saw the city's refugee-swollen population of 90,000 reduced to just a few thousand, the militias killed 107 citizens. Much of the city was torched. In a 24-hour period starting April 1, 75 people were killed. In one incident that night, at least 19 people – including a 3-month-old boy and a 90-year-old woman – were gunned down and their bodies burned. The gravediggers removed them from the massacre site by hand and with shovels, and buried them in just three graves.
By late March, there were too many bodies for the hearse. Polloshka abandoned it for the cart pulled by a tractor.
"They would come whenever they wanted and take us at gunpoint to get the bodies," said Qerim Kryeziu, 34, who drove the tractor. "It was terrible. Amputations. Burned bodies. We had no gloves, no masks. We would just carry them out with our bare hands or use our shovels. I had terrible headaches."
Soon Polloshka was no longer sleeping, and he couldn't tell his wife what he was doing. As the bodies mounted, his fear grew that the Serbs would eventually kill him because of what he knew. "I felt this turbulence in my head," he said.
The second killing spree occurred from May 7 to May 13. Local police and reservists, some wearing masks, swept through the Chabrat neighborhood after the Serbs suffered heavy losses in fighting with ethnic Albanian rebels in the hills above. In seven days, Polloshka recorded, Djakovica police murdered 58 ethnic Albanian residents in one warren of streets.
In addition, hundreds of men arrested in the sweep through Chabrat are missing and thus not on Polloshka's list. According to a former inmate in a Serbian prison in the western Kosovo city of Pec, many of them were jailed but were taken elsewhere in Serbia last Saturday. Their families fear for their lives.
Between the two periods of intense killing, Serbian forces continued to loot and burn homes, and there were sporadic killings of 35 people in their homes and on the street. After the Chabrat sweep, the killing appears to have ended, but in the five days before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull out of Kosovo, there was a final bout of looting and burning.
During the killings, intellectuals, political activists and businessmen were targeted, but the violence was just as often random.
"Terror was their purpose," said Djakovica resident Fuat Haxhibeqiri of the Council for the Defense of Human Rights in Kosovo. "And they often executed those who had a lot of money."
One man, Etem Lluani, 72, who was known to be rich because he owned a number of local businesses, was forced to bid for his life in German marks. They shot him even after he had turned over 10,000, then 20,000 and eventually 70,000 marks ($37,000).
Many of the killings were savage, according to Polloshka, residents who stayed in the city and refugees who fled to Albania. A 3-month old boy was shot and burned. A dentist was tortured for two hours, and his ears cut off, before he was shot in front of his family. An elderly paralyzed man was shot where he lay in his home. A student running home from his uncle's house to take a shower was gunned down, with five others. A number of people who clearly suffered from mental disabilities were shot without understanding what was about to happen to them.
Serbs Videotaped Killings
If war crimes investigators ever get access to Serbian records, which were removed from this city, they will find videotape and photos of 80 percent of the murders, according to Polloshka. He said that a special police photography unit, occasionally accompanied by a man in a white coat who appeared to be a doctor, visited most of the execution sites and also filmed burials. Polloshka has no idea why the Serbs chose to document their atrocities, but he said they took over a photo and video store on a street near the Old Town to develop their film.
The men who collected the bodies said there were 210 murder victims buried in the cemetery, including some from nearby villages whose identity is not yet known. Some in the cemetery were refugees killed in a NATO bomb attack on convoys on the Djakovica-Prizren road. Using an excavator, Serbian forces removed the bodies of at least 70 people, including some of the refugees, from the cemetery on May 22.
A number of residents were buried without being identified because they had been shot repeatedly in the face or burned beyond recognition. But Polloshka identified some of those who were burned because he knew the house and he talked to survivors or neighbors.
The accounting of the dead is far from complete.
At least 30 people are known to be buried in the yards of their homes in Djakovica. There may be more such graves, and there are numerous makeshift burial plots of two, four or more bodies in the hills and fields surrounding the city, many of ethnic Albanian rebels, according to city workers and ethnic Albanian human rights activists.
Residents continue to come into the public works office to tell of more people murdered, following an appeal for information on a local radio station. Shkelszen Dana, 58, came to see Polloshka in his office to record the deaths of 10 of his family members. Murdered at the same time, on the morning of May 10, were seven of Dana's next-door neighbors.
"One family," said Dana, as he sat at Polloshka's conference table, smoking cigarettes and weeping. "One family."
In the first days, Polloshka said, separate groups of Serbs marauded through the city. One particularly vicious crew, which murdered Dr. Hima, was led by a Serbian policeman who was not from Djakovica. Driving a red Lada, he led four police cars, two jeeps and an armored car through the city's 500-year-old historic district. The jeeps were used to break down the courtyard doors of family compounds.
"He was harsh, very coarse," said Polloshka. "He was drinking all the time and he stank of alcohol."
Hima was up in the early morning of March 25, watching the burning in the Old Town steadily approach his home, when the Lada pulled in. About 10 Serbian police wearing masks burst into the doctor's home, according to his brother, Xmer, 66. The doctor stood and his wife screamed, "Burn everything, but leave my family." The police gunned Hima down without asking a question. His wife, who went to Albania, and other family members were allowed to flee.
In the next six days until April 1, 31 more people were murdered – a lawyer, clerks, receptionists, factory workers. At the same time, tens of thousands were fleeing the city as refugees.
On April 1, a terrible fury was unleashed. In 24 hours, 75 people would die.
Astrit Spahiu, 25, a student of electrical engineering at the University of Pristina, went out that day to do laundry and bathe. He and his cousins, Ali, 42, and Qamil, 32, went to Astrit's parents' house.
Without being questioned, they were gunned down, with three others, on the street by local police reservists, the Spahiu family and neighbors said. The bodies were left on the street for 48 hours before they were picked up by Polloskha's men. Neighbors hiding in their basements could smell them.
Astrit's mother, Shqipe, Ali's wife, Haxhere, and Qamil's sister, Arobere, walked through the streets to the cemetery on April 4. They found their kin lying in the open in the cemetery.
"I buried him myself," said Shqipe, who keeps the shell casings that killed her boy and carries his student card in her purse. She weeps uncontrollably, and beside her, Hylki, her husband, a long-time obstetrician and gynecologist in the city who served both Serbian and ethnic Albanian patients, raises his hands in front of his eyes as if they were a curse and says, "Maybe the man who killed my son was born in my hands."
'I Couldn't Eat for a Week'
The killing on April 1 continued through the day, and about 11:15 that night two masked Serbian militia groups entered the Qerem neighborhood. Over the next six hours, in a killing spree documented in The Washington Post on April 30 through interviews with refugees in Tirana and corroborated by residents here now, they killed dozens of residents. They moved from house to house killing and burning, skipping the residences of Serbian civilians.
One militia group entered a pool hall where women and children were hiding in a basement. Bursts of gunfire followed and the building was torched. The next day, the Gypsy gravediggers shoveled out the carbonized remains of what they believed were 20 people, of whom 19 have been identified.
"I couldn't eat for a week," said Gani Petahi, 28, a cemetery worker who collected bodies and buried them in cloth shrouds or blankets. "We saw terrible things."
Petahi and the other gravediggers have only slowly emerged from their homes in the past week, fearful that they will be accused of collaboration for their work. Anti-Gypsy sentiment is growing here because ethnic Albanians have accused them of looting and charging the Albanians large amounts of money for necessities during the three months of bombing. The gravediggers said they received no payment for their work and never looted homes. Moreover, they ask, who would want to leave bodies in homes and on the street?
"We had no choice," said Petahi. "They forced us to work and we did what we had to."
From April 3 to May 6, the killing continued sporadically. Some residents in Djakovica refer to these days as the "looting period." Serbs entered houses, first stealing cars and electrical equipment, and later returning for carpets, furniture and even baby clothes.
And they continued to murder. On April 16, 12 people were killed in their homes, many in front of their families. Masar Radonici, 55, a local dentist was tortured for two hours with a knife before he was shot. His family was forced to watch as his ears were cut off, according to Polloshka, who saw his body and talked to his family afterward. Tahir Nikoliqi, who was paralyzed and house-bound, was shot on his couch and then burned. Four policemen watched as the body burned, Polloshka said. On April 23, nine men were gunned down in the street near a mosque as they ran from their homes to escape advancing Serbs.
'We're Here. No Burning'
The residents of Chabrat, a neighborhood of multi-house family compounds, felt relatively safe. The Yugoslav army had retreated from the hills to three streets in the neighborhood after being pummeled by NATO warplanes. But the army didn't kill anyone when it entered, and didn't force civilians out of their homes. "The military didn't do anything," said Ilirian Dana, 18. "The police would come in and the military would say, 'We're here. No burning.' "
But by early May, Serbian units were experiencing heavy losses in firefights with the rebels in the hills above. On May 7, the Serbs moved to clear Chabrat. Local police and reservists, some wearing masks, moved in, and the army, which didn't participate in the ensuing killing, was nonetheless powerless to stop them.
"When they came, one policeman could control the military," said Dana, who lost his 10 family members at that time. In a shed in the Dana family compound, the blood has coagulated to black on the ground.
Vjollca Kurhasani, 39, walked through the cemetery on the edge of the city Friday. Her face was drawn and her eyes were red. Fetahi had disinterred six bodies for her to look at, but none was her father, Etem Lluani. She didn't look at the corpses' faces, only their clothes. She knows what Etem was wearing when he was shot.
When her father's body was taken away, she obtained a coffin and followed the tractor to the cemetery. But Serbian police wouldn't let her enter to watch him be put into the ground. They took the coffin and told her to go home.
A lonely figure among the heaps of fresh earth, she moved from marker to marker looking for a clue.
"They say he's in here," she wept, "but no one can find him."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company