In a Village, Signs of a Massacre |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 15, 1999; Page A1
KACANIK, Yugoslavia, June 14 After British NATO troops secured this city on Saturday, Melihate Shehu walked down a rocky path from the Crna Gora mountains and went straight to the cemetery. She carried a clump of roses for the grave of her brother, Reshat, who she said was killed in an April 9 attack by Yugoslav troops that turned into a massacre.
A British solidier asked Shehu why she was going there. Her answer alerted NATO troops to an alleged mass gravesite here said to contain as many as 100 bodies the first such site discovered by NATO since its forces arrived in Kosovo over the weekend.
By this afternoon, a squad of U.S. Marines was standing guard at the site to preserve any evidence for investigators from the international war crimes tribunal. The Marines said the cemetery was mined and that to walk there was to risk death.
No one in Kacanik today could say exactly how many corpses may lie beneath the cemetery's long grass, since witnesses say they watched the burials from surrounding hillsides while bullets whizzed by. But several villagers insist that about 100 people died here on April 8 and 9. The British military says 81 simple wooden stakes now mark the site, near a four-foot high mound of soil dumped by a bulldozer.
"If it is a mass grave, we obviously need to do all the necessary investigation," British Capt. Vicky Wentworth said. "It looks likely, but there is no evidence now."
Local residents said they had no doubt what investigators would find. Skender Sopa, 37, said he had been hiding in a nearby house on April 10 and saw a Yugoslav soldier driving a tractor with a wagon piled high with bodies. Another resident, Lul Raka, said, "I could see the bulldozer working" in the cemetery through binoculars from a hillside where he had fled.
The deployment of a protective cordon around the site is an exercise likely to be repeated often by NATO troops in Kosovo in coming months. A U.S. government tally last month listed 59 towns or cities in the Connecticut-size province where Yugoslav forces are said to have committed war crimes, including lootings, burnings and mass executions meant to terrorize and speed the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians.
The swift dispatch of NATO troops to guard the site indicates that alliance officials have learned from their experience in neighboring Bosnia, where a bitter ethnic conflict killed more than 200,000 people between 1992 and 1995. There, war crimes investigators were unable to gain immediate access to key atrocity sites, and NATO soldiers refused to guard mass gravesites, with many tampered with by combatants.
The inquiry into what happened in Kacanak likely will be affected by the increasing number of armed soldiers in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, who arrived here in the past two days. The local KLA commander, Xhabir Zharku, who is fluent in English and distinctive with tinted glasses and a red beret, sat behind a curving, glass-topped desk today on the second floor of the town's main police station.
He and other local officials described the April 9 incident as a massacre. But it appears to have had a violent and murky antecedent, like many of the alleged atrocities committed by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. According to five residents, a firefight had taken place the day before between KLA fighters and Yugoslav troops on New Street, in the city's center, leaving 17 dead and angering government troops.
The next day, according to witnesses, Yugoslav Interior Ministry troops drove a Praga armored vehicle, equipped with twin-barrelled, anti-aircraft cannon, through the town and toward a scenic canyon to the east, along a narrow road beside the Rakoc stream. The cannon blasted buildings, leaving pockmarked brick walls and more than 100 large shells along the road.
Many residents had already sought refuge in the canyon after a wave of vandalism by government troops on March 27 destroyed the commercial district. The town, an enclave of 28,000 ethnic Albanians, had effectively been destroyed that evening. Cosmetics, farm supplies, flour, groceries, coffee, newspapers, fabric and books were looted. Even the local video store where an Albanian language version of the movie "Braveheart" was a local favorite was emptied.
As a group of several hundred residents and KLA fighters scrambled along the stream on April 9, Interior Ministry sharpshooters appeared on ridgelines above the canyon and blocked their escape. Troops then swarmed into houses where the rebels and residents had taken refuge and began firing.
Ten bullet holes scar the wall of an upstairs bedroom of one badly burned house. A local resident, Ismail Sopa, said a 36-year-old woman, Mukadeze Lika, was shot in his brother's home before it was torched.
At least a dozen KLA fighters and three nurses Emsale Francu, Lumnije Sherif Raka and Jehona Sabit Raka who helped refugees and fighters in the canyon were among the 46 people whom villagers said died there. Lul Raka, a cousin of the two sisters who worked with them at the local hospital, showed visitors the bullet hole in a medical container that Lumnije was carrying. The others who died included a carpenter, an employee of a state-run farm irrigation company and an English teacher.
Many of those who died were identified by relatives from the scraps of clothing the troops left behind stray boots, some jackets and a few hats. Melihate Shehu said her brother, who had a degree in economics from the University of Pristina, was a KLA fighter who had just joined the rebels. He hadn't gotten his uniform.
"I cried when they told me [on April 10] that he had already been buried" by government troops. Nine weeks later, she cried again when a fighter told her the war was over and "we won."
Throughout the period, only a handful of residents remained in Kacanik. Most had pushed their way aboard a train that stopped briefly on its way to the Macedonian border, or fled on foot. A 64-year-old Bosnian woman, Esma Abrazi, who refused to leave, fingered a piece of broken glass as she explained that "they said if you come out in the open we will kill you. We didn't know where to go; we didn't have anything to eat except bread and salt and what we found in others' apartments. They stole everything."
As dozens of residents trickled back to the city this afternoon, Salih Runjeva, 30, a KLA fighter who knew most who died in the assault, said "the reason they destroyed so much is that they knew they were lost. We always knew we were more than they were. We didn't have any intention of leaving or accepting their stay."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company