Kosovo's Survivors, page two
He, too, finds some bones. He, too, suddenly wants to be away from here. He stops looking. He starts crying. He retreats to the skinny road winding through this dead village. "It's horrifying," he says.
'We Had to Start Singing Again'
Rifat Billali, a chemistry teacher, moved reluctantly to the edge of a large nickel and iron strip mine here in this town in Kosovo's central Drenica region today, covering his nose to fight back the stench. Then he pointed to the place where he said the bodies of about 80 ethnic Albanian men had been dropped after Yugoslav troops machine-gunned them on May 1.
Billali, who had been beaten and shot by the soldiers, said his captors told him to watch the executions. "This will happen to you later," one soldier said. He said another soldier warned that "I would soon be sent to the ovens" of the nearby Feronikal foundry.
"In those moments, I couldn't cry," Billali said. "We were not sure that we were going to survive."
Shaban Veliqu, another man who was arrested and taken to witness the execution, said he too became convinced that "it was going to happen to me." Both men were spared for reasons that were never clear to them. They were told only to sing "Kosovo is Serbia," a hymn to Serbian determination to hold on to Kosovo in the face of an independence drive by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
Billali and Veliqu survived five weeks of detention at a nearby prison, where they were forced to dig trenches and construct bunkers to protect tanks and troops from NATO airstrikes. When the last of the security forces withdrew from this area at 9 a.m. today, the two men were released. Stopped along the road, they were eager to recount what they had seen.
But they knew only a part of what had happened, according to the accounts of others. Several weeks after the massacre, Yugoslav troops returned to the scene and pulled the bodies from the mine, lending credence to Western concerns that Yugoslav authorities may have attempted to hide evidence of atrocities in Kosovo from war crimes investigators.
Lavdim Morina, 18, said he witnessed the operation from a hill overlooking the site. "They pulled the bodies out and put them in a truck." He did not see where the bodies were taken, but other residents in the area said that a few weeks ago, several tractors pulled into a vacant lot across the street from a police station in Cikatova and deposited bodies in shallow graves.
There are 66 mounds of earth at the site, including many that are large enough to hold more than a single body. The rubber heel of a shoe pokes out of one pile; a fragment of human bone sticks out from another.
Adem Hoxha, 20, and Muftar Dervishe, 32, both said they saw ethnic Albanian prisoners dig the holes while more than 20 Yugoslav army troops watched. Dervishe said he could not count the bodies but remembers that they were naked above the waist.
Billali's odyssey began on April 30 in the town of Strutica, where a government assault killed 18 people, according to Billali and Veliqu. Billali was shot repeatedly and still has bullet fragments in his back, right arm, neck and heavily bandaged hand. The shirt he wore today is full of of holes where the bullets passed through.
At a juncture in the gravel road along the edge of the strip mine, according to both Billali and Velliqu, the first two truckloads of men disembarked and were marched in three lines toward the pit. "Go farther, go farther," the soldiers shouted at the men, Velliqu recalled.
The truck in which they were riding was driven 50 yards farther down the road, past a curve where they could look back at the mine. "Put your head up and look at them; this is going to happen to each of you," said the soldiers, who were all wearing arm bands and black, fingerless gloves. They "sprayed them with bullets," Billali said. "Then we had to start singing again."
One man survived the massacre, but his whereabouts are unknown, the two men said. All that can be seen today at the edge of the mine are track marks where a bulldozer pushed dirt and brush onto a ledge where the bodies fell. Flies cover the pile, and a portion of a cow's head juts from beneath some broken branches.
Billali says he is not sure why he was not killed, but he recalls that most of the men in his truck had wounds or were elderly, while those in the first two trucks were younger and thus more likely to be suspected by government troops of membership in the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army. "Everyone involved with the KLA will be executed," one soldier said. "The others can live."
Afterwards, he and Velliqu were taken to the Glogovac police station, which was occupied today by KLA members and had an Albanian flag flying outside. At the rear of the building, Billali pointed to the bare cement room where he said he and many others were beaten with wooden sticks.
"They beat us until we fainted. Then they threw water on us so they could beat us some more," he said. "One prisoner couldn't take it, and he fell on the stairs, so they executed him. They took one man of 79 years and one of 13 years from the room. He was my pupil, Lulzim Gllareva. We never saw either of them again."
'I Couldn't Do This to Someone'
Ethnic Albanians from a neighboring town came to this deserted hillside village in southern Kosovo today to claim two bodies one shot in the head, the other with a pitchfork in the gut and a missing leg. They were carrying them home for burial.
Dobrodeljane has been a virtual ghost town since March 25, the day after the NATO airstrikes began. Beginning Monday and continuing today, a trickle of perhaps a half-dozen families returned to find every one of the town's 170 houses destroyed or heavily damaged. There is no electricity, water or food. The shops are empty, and stockpiles of food were burned.
Serbian police and Yugoslav army units had occupied the town for the last three months, and some buildings were damaged during firefights between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels, who had three bases in the area.
But most homes were simply trashed by police and soldiers who used them, then looted them, then set them ablaze. Their red tile roofs collapsed around charred timbers. Windows were smashed. Walls are pocked with bullet holes.
Sadri Sikaqi, 65, and his wife Mihrie, 62, picked over the ruins of their walled two-building compound, which they had rebuilt after their first house was destroyed in a battle between Serbian militiamen and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in August. Now, the family of 10 lives in a small guestroom near the front gate.
"Only people who aren't human could do this," Sikaqi said, standing at the living room window with a view of this ruined town, the concrete walls burned black, the rugs and furniture a jumble of ashes strewn about the floor. "I couldn't do this to someone."
'I Will Not Leave This Place'
Here it was the children who dug the mass grave. It was a pit in a field, and they laid the five bodies alongside each other, covering the grave with branches.
"It was all we could do," said Shehide Berisha's son, Jakup, a waiter. "We would like to have given them a proper funeral, but it was impossible. And in any case we don't have enough money for one."
The village of Siqeva is just 20 minutes' drive from Pristina, the Kosovo capital, at the end of a dirt road that follows a valley leading up into green hills. It is home to the tightly knit Berisha clan. Everybody in the village bears the same surname. By ancient custom, when a young woman marries, she must leave the village and go to live with her husband. No one but Berishas are permitted to live in Siqeva.
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