Returning Exiles Take Revenge in Serb Village |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 21, 1999; Page A14
GRACE, Yugoslavia, June 20 – The Serbs packed up and left this village in northern Kosovo Saturday evening, and this morning ethnic Albanians came here with one thing on their minds – revenge.
They went through the community's neat concrete and brick homes, loading stoves on wheelbarrows, sofas on horse-drawn wagons and roof tiles and window panes on tractor carts. And as they finished stripping each house, they set it ablaze. Finally, they struck out across a field of knee-high corn to their own ransacked and charred village just across the highway.
"We've been waiting for this more than 100 years," shouted Raif Jashari, 47, as he joined the mob of newly returned ethnic Albanian refugees who descended on this abandoned Serbian town of about 120 homes. They said they were here to reclaim possessions their Serbian neighbors looted from their homes during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
"The Serbs took everything we had sweated to earn," said Mevlude Jashari, 28, who was piling blankets, carpets and bowl-like elements from a chandelier into a teetering wheelbarrow. "This is bad. We didn't want the Serb houses to be torched. But after all this, we wanted the Serbs to feel the same thing we felt when they burned our homes."
It started Saturday afternoon, just before sunset when a Serbian man directed a long line of cars, tractor carts and horse-drawn wagons – all bulging with household goods – onto the main highway and north to Serbia proper. They joined tens of thousands of Kosovo's Serbs who have fled the province since NATO peacekeeping forces started arriving June 12. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, but before the bombing Serbs made up only a tenth of the population.
By 7:30 p.m., there wasn't a Serb left in the village, according to the ethnic Albanians of the town on the other side of the highway, Stanovci i Vlet, who watched the exodus.
"They couldn't even look us in the eye as they passed," said Shaban Kastrati, 44, an auto mechanic who, like many of his neighbors, spent the last three months hiding from Serbian paramilitary forces who arrived in their village the second day of the NATO bombing and gave them one night to vacate their homes. "Everyone in our village was waiting at the road, watching them leave so we could go torch their houses."
Minutes after the last Serbian family pulled out, Kastrati and dozens of others who began returning to their village over the last two days raced across the highway and into Grace's narrow dirt lanes.
"I came here last night at about 7:30, when the last Serb left," said Samedin Dushi, 27. "I went inside the village and quickly went house to house until I found the house with my things in it. It was easy to recognize the house. They had even taken the doors to our houses and put them on theirs."
This morning Grace appeared to be in the midst of a gruesome garage sale as the revenge fever spread. Clothes, furniture, school notebooks and potted plants were heaped in dozens of front yards. Houses were engulfed in crackling flames and belching black smoke. Squealing pigs and squawking hens ran through well tended vegetable gardens to escape the fires.
Men pushing wheelbarrows gasped in the smoky pall, heading home with their spoils. The rutted dirt road leading to the highway was jammed with tractor-pulled carts and skittish horses pulling wooden wagons, all jockeying to load stacks of lumber, bookshelves and other bulky items. Two men wrestled a large silver-colored fuel tank from a small brick outbuilding.
Nazmie Dushi, 28 and seven months pregnant, stood next to a wheelbarrow loaded with a pine cradle that she said her husband had bought before they were evicted from their home by Serbian forces three months ago. She said they reclaimed it today from the house of a Serbian man who once worked with her husband.
"I can't describe the feeling when they torched our houses," said Dushi, watching a house a few dozen yards away crumple from the heat of a roaring orange blaze. "We don't have our houses now but at least we have our things – and our lives."
Many families looted more than their own stolen possessions, but Raif Jashari would not cross that line: "I could not eat from their plates," he sneered.
By midafternoon, a French NATO patrol pulled into Grace and attempted to stop the mayhem. One overloaded wagon, attempting a getaway in advance of the troops, overturned, spilling construction materials and furniture. After he righted the overturned cart, a French soldier snapped, "Take everything and get out!"
© 1999 The Washington Post Company