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  • Landmarks of Stolen Lives Lead to Ali Selimi

    By David Finkel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, June 20, 1999; Page A1

    VLASTICA, Yugoslavia The mission to find Ali Selimi begins in the center of the village, when several men go into the burned-out mosque and emerge with a tapered board that is slightly less than six feet long and wide enough to support the shoulders of a man.

    They walk up the rocks and dirt that make up the street, past one ruined house after another. For two months, the place has been abandoned. A few days ago, the first villagers started coming back to see the destruction. There aren't many people here, not yet, but anyone who sees the procession leaves what he is doing and joins in.

    They pass the house of Miliam Hyseni, who is taking pictures of the remains "so my descendants will always know what kind of people the Serbs are," and joins the procession along with three friends.

    They pass the house of Rifat Shabani, who was shot in the forehead, burned and bulldozed, and whose body is somewhere under a pile of rubble along with 12 other people who suffered the same fate. The rubble is being guarded by 11 U.S. Marines who have just arrived in Vlastica, and when they hear of Ali Selimi they join the procession, too.

    There are now 23 villagers and 11 Marines. They reach the last burned house, the last broken window, the last pile of rubble marking the end of the small village and they keep going along a steepening dirt path that parallels a stream and heads up into the trees. For a moment they stop at a piece of wire stretched across the path a trip wire maybe, perhaps to trigger a mine but the wire is attached to nothing other than tree branches and the procession keeps going.

    Now, on the left, comes the first piece of clothing. It is a shoe, a boy's shoe, black, the laces still tied, with dirt and a dead bug inside.

    Now, on the right, comes the first burned car. It is rusty on the outside, blackened on the inside, and facing in the direction that the villagers and Marines are walking.

    They pass a dog. It had collapsed onto its right side before dying. Eyes now gone. Most of the fur fallen away and surrounding the body, which might be a piece of leather sunken in the mud except for the legs and paws and snout and teeth and collar.

    And now comes the first sheet of plastic, stretched over a frame of sticks. A tent, off in the trees. Followed, soon after, by a second tent. Followed, a few steps later, by the sight of dozens more, all abandoned, most torn and apparently ransacked, because what was once in those tents is now everywhere.

    There are clothes in the mud. There are pots and pans. There are piles of shoes. There are empty purses. There are packages of medicine. There are photographs. There are passports. There are identification cards. There are school bags. All muddied, ripped, collapsed, flattened and scattered in a manner so chaotic that it suggests moments of unimaginable panic caused this.

    And yet none of this is commanding anyone's attention because everyone is gathered around a dirt hump with a wooden marker at one end. A grave.

    But not the only one, because now a Marine is saying of a spot he just discovered, "That other little hooch over there ain't smelling too good, and I got a cold."

    "This is just the beginning, fellas," says another Marine.

    There are three humps. No, five. No, seven. The Marines count them and then peel back toward the village while the villagers keep going. They go past the passport of a girl named Vjosa Hajdari who was born Dec. 18, 1990; past the report card of Evere Hajdari who was in first grade; past the passport of Qamile Hajdari who was born Nov. 1, 1991. One of the villagers begins crying and saying that Vjosa and Evere and Qamile were part of his family, and that they all slept here in one of the tents.

    He says his name is Hasan Hajdari. He points to a plastic sheet and says that's where they slept, 23 people in all, for 17 days beginning March 27, when the Serbs began shelling Vlastica and the 2,100 villagers scattered along the dirt paths into the hills. He says half of the village went up one path, which took them to the other side of the hill, and half came here, staying until April 13 when Serb soldiers and paramilitaries came to the tents.

    He says they forced everyone to line up and put their hands on their heads. He says his hands were tied. He says he asked if he could lower his hands because he was an old man and they said yes, and then they made him carry a Serbian flag, and then they told him to cross himself, and then, when he refused, they took a beer can one of them had been drinking from and placed it on top of his head.

    "And they shot at the can," he says, and now he starts laughing, and explains why. "I am wondering why I am alive," he says, and he laughs some more as he stands with a tear-streaked face next to a tree, its branches holding his family's shoes, on ground covered with their clothing.

    And now, just ahead, come the sounds of many men scrambling down a steep hillside toward the stream.

    Ali Selimi. Next to the water. Under a canopy of leaves in the mud. On his back. Shoes off and placed by his feet, which are splayed and still in their socks.

    Corduroy pants. Green sweater. Brown zippered sweater over that. Navy blue sports jacket over that, unbuttoned, with a set of dentures resting on the left breast pocket.

    The body is decapitated. Next to it, in the water, is his skull.

    For a moment, everyone looks, just looks, trying to connect everything, the skull to the body, the body to the place, this place now to the place it was April 13 when half of the village's men and women and children were running in panic. It is made even more surreal by the soothing sounds of the stream and of some nearby birds. And now the sound of something being lifted from the water and placed on a board, a sound so soft it suggests there's hardly anything left of Ali Selimi at all.

    Three people lift him, one by the arms, one by the feet, one under the knees. One other person lifts the skull and places it where the head ought to be. Next a white sheet is placed over the body and tied at both ends, and next the board is handed along a line of men up the steep hill until it can be placed on the path, on top of old clothes, passports, photographs, jars of makeup and a fat, black, hard-shelled beetle, while the men decide what to do.

    We should bury him in the village, one man says. No. We should bury him here, another says. We should bury him in the middle where the two streams meet, another man says.

    And then they all look at another man who has been following all of this in silence, who turns out to be Emrush Selimi, Ali Selimi's 33-year-old son. Who, until yesterday, was in Macedonia, unsure of what had happened to his father because on April 13 his wife was laundering the clothing of his 3-week-old son, his sister was preparing a tub to wash the baby, his mother was cooking over a fire, his father was in the tent, and he was walking up a stairway he had carved into the dirt because it looked like they were going to be living there for a long while.

    And then came gunshots, and everyone ran, and he and his family became separated, and he was caught by the Serbs and put on a tractor and taken to the border and told to walk across. He has been trying to get back since. He says his father was "an honest man," "a family man," "a religious man" and was born in 1937, and had six children, and loved his wife, and "he had a mustache," and "his eyes were the color of mine."

    He says, "We should start digging." But where? Off he goes, down the hill, by himself, toward the village, to choose a burial site. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Fifteen.

    The other men pick up the board and make their way past the graves, the plastic tents, the leathered dog, past the burned car, the black shoe. They take turns holding the board until, almost at the edge of the village, they see Emrush standing at the place he has chosen.

    It is on the other side of the stream, partway up a hill, in a stretch of tall grass and wildflowers. It is perhaps the only pretty spot in this whole wretched place, and Emrush seems almost serene as the others bring the body to him, grab a pick and shovels and start shaping a grave.

    Because the ground is hard the digging is difficult. And the breeze becomes a wind. The sky turns dark gray. Now comes thunder and lightning.

    The rain comes so hard it stings, followed by hail that stings even more, followed by the laying of Ali Selimi's body in the grave, followed by a son's final gesture toward his father that is so loving and senseless it stings most of all.

    Because into the grave goes Emrush Selimi with a clot of dirt and grass, which he puts under the part of the white sheet where the skull is, as if placing a pillow.

    "Rest in peace," he says, and then, the trip to find his father over, he climbs out of the grave, picks up a dead man's teeth and shoes, and walks back to a dead village and what's left of his life.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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