Kosovo's Survivors, Up From the Ashes
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 16, 1999; Page A1
DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia, June 15 The war's survivors climbed from their cellars and homemade bunkers today to discover their 500-year-old city, once the jewel of southwestern Kosovo, turned into a graveyard.
Homes and shops are blackened skeletons along streets clotted with rubble and glass. The dead, and there are hundreds, lie in makeshift graves in family courtyards and under fresh earth in the local cemetery. The living, and there are few, are sunk in despair as they wander through the harvest of the whirlwind, their bellies empty as they scratch for food.
They point to houses where two, three, 30 people were executed, their bodies sometimes carbonized by fire.
Kosovo is a brutalized landscape. Sections of it remain untouched and can seem almost normal but turn any corner, traverse any road, approach any city and you enter a wasteland scarred by fire, fear and freshly dug graves.
The view of Kosovo became clearer today than it has been in months, since large areas of the Serbian province were blotted out by a Serb-led Yugoslav military offensive, an 11-week NATO bombing campaign and the flight of more than a million people. Now, as Yugoslav and Serbian forces withdraw from still smoldering towns, many residents are learning for the first time what the war left of their lives.
Seven Washington Post reporters, traveling across Kosovo today to assess the breadth of the destruction, found new evidence of massacres by Belgrade government security forces and a pattern of killings that suggested executions of ethnic Albanian civilians were carried out in community after community across a wide swath of the province.
The evidence and accounts of returning Kosovo residents spoke of a grim period of reckoning: In the identification of a mass grave that appears to hold scores of bodies from a slaughter at a strip mine; of abandoned human remains in deserted towns; in the execution today of a man in front of his daughter; and in a son's discovery of the fate of his father.
'Why Are You Shooting at Us?'
Skender Ibishi arrived home today to search for his father. He wanted to come sooner, but Serbian police were in control of the area until Monday.
The house is a pile of bulldozed rubble in a village of rubble. The population of this eastern Kosovo village used to be 2,100. Now it's zero. Every house has been burned. Every window has been broken. Everything has been destroyed.
And somewhere in the rubble of the home, Ibishi says, are the remains of his father and 12 other people, all of whom were shot, set afire and buried with a bulldozer in mid-April.
He reaches into his left pants pocket and pulls out a pocket watch he had found. My father's, he says.
Now he sees a scorched green-and-white striped shirt. The shirt my father was wearing, he says, and he bends down to touch it. He lifts it up, and a smell so foul suddenly fills the air that it makes him spit and almost vomit.
The bodies, he says, are somewhere under here.
He walks over to another section of the rubble, where there's an old stove. The stove has a drawer, covered by a piece of cardboard. Look, he says, removing the cardboard to show what he has put in the drawer, and there, arranged neatly, are a half-dozen pieces of blackened human bones. One is a ball-and-socket joint; another looks long enough to be part of an arm.
"Thirteen people," he says. And unable to stay in this place for another moment, at least today, he leaves and heads a few miles north to the city of Gnjilane, where ethnic Albanians are celebrating their liberation.
Ibishi ignores them. He heads to a quiet side street and goes through a blue gate. Inside is a 13-year-old girl named Vjore Shabani, who has short black hair and a beautiful face and a deep red dent in her left cheek and a left pinkie finger that is mangled and bruised.
Shabani, it turns out, was in the room where the 13 people were lined up and killed. She also was shot but survived.
It happened in her house, she says. There were two soldiers. They told her family to line up and not move. They ran out and brought in another family, and then another. There were 23 people in all, she says, and they all were told to sit in a row except for her grandfather, who was told to lie down.
"Why are you shooting at us?" she says a neighbor named Hysen Hyseni asked the soldiers, who were just inside the doorway. "We're not shooting at you," they said. At which point, she says, the shooting began.
Hyseni was shot first. Then the soldiers worked methodically down the line. Each person was shot two or three times, she says.
"In the head. All in the head. Most of them in the forehead."
She knows this, she says, because she watched, at least until the guns swung toward her mother. That's when she turned away.
She says they killed her mother, Zjavere, 38, her father, Selami, 45, and her brother, Fisnik, 2. They killed four Shabanis and seven Hysenis and one Berisha and one Ibishi, she says, and they wounded three more, while leaving six untouched. Then they swung their guns once more, toward the last person in line.
"I was hiding my head," she says. "I heard the gunshot. I felt nothing. I just saw my finger was almost severed."
This was the pinkie, which she had resting on her cheek as she tried to hide her head.
"It was just hanging," she says, "and I saw blood."
The soldiers, she says, ran off. She did too, looking for someone to help her.
"And those two soldiers saw us," she says. "We ran away to a hiding place in the house, and then the two soldiers came back and set our barn on fire."
Then they burned the house that held the bodies.
Later came the bulldozer, but she didn't see that part. The last she saw of her house was the flames, and she hasn't been back since. She has been here, in Gnjilane, where flags are flying and horns are honking today because the troops and police had gone at last.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company