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Balkans Special Report

  'If I Could Not Talk, Nobody Would Know'

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page A1

TIRANA, Albania In an empty farm shed in the southern Kosovo village of Velika Krusa, Selami Elshani asked one of the Serbian paramilitaries standing in front of him and 14 other ethnic Albanian men if he had children.

"Yes," the Serb replied.

"Please think about our children," pleaded Elshani.

The paramilitary, carrying an automatic rifle and wearing a light green uniform with white epaulets and "Policija" written in white letters on his back, shook his head and said, "It doesn't interest me."

Another paramilitary said, "Let's start."

Within moments, 14 of the 15 men were dead, all except Elshani. The Serbs threw straw on the pile of bullet-riddled corpses, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire.

Three weeks later, in Tirana's Central University Hospital, Elshani eased himself into a sitting position using his elbows to avoid leaning on his heavily bandaged hands. When unbandaged, his face, once angular and bronzed, appeared destroyed: lips reduced to pus and scabs; bloody sores bubbling from his singed hair to under his chin; cheeks dried white and black; bandages, streaked red by blood and yellow by iodine, wrapping his forehead.

Elshani grimaced as he rose from the bed. But he was determined. He had a story to tell: how 14 men were executed in cold blood. How their blood trickled down his face as he dared not breathe. How he smelled the gasoline when a paramilitary brought it into the room. How he burned.

And how he survived.

"God saved me to come out and tell," said Elshani, 37.

In a bed where seepage from his wounds streaked the sheets with blood, in a cinder-block hospital where the pink and green walls were rotting and peeling, in a city of refugees and garbage and dust, Elshani was perhaps the most fortunate and the most cursed of the displaced.

"If I could not talk, nobody would know," he said. "Those men. Nobody would know."

On March 25, the day after NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, about 50 people from the same extended family gathered in the house of Elshani's uncle. Elshani, his wife, his parents and his two boys, ages 4 and 8, had been living in Velika Krusa since the previous July when they were burned out of their home village of Reti, near the town of Rakovica, during a summer offensive by Yugoslav forces.

There were 10 fighting-age men in the house the night after the bombs began to fall, and they decided to flee to a nearby riverbank, fearing that any Serbian assault on the village would target them.

"We had to leave," said Elshani, "because we knew the Serbs wanted the men."

When the 10 men reached the river about 10 p.m. they found about 200 other men hiding there as well as dozens of women and children.

It was cold and the children were crying. No one had brought any food.

By 3:30 a.m., the villagers were surrounded by Yugoslav forces, silhouetted in the distance. Through the night, random gunfire pierced the darkness.

In the morning light, the villagers were ordered to emerge with their hands above their heads. The women were taken to the village mosque, and the men were lined up in six rows on either side of a road running through Velika Krusa. One by one, they were searched and stripped of money, identity papers and car keys.

When the search was over, the 200 men were ordered into an open area beside a farmhouse. They lay on the ground, face down, with their hands behind their heads. Out on the street, the men had been searched by Interior Ministry troops or special police forces, but in the courtyard they were guarded by about 20 Serbian paramilitaries.

"The normal police were calm," said Elshani, "but the paramilitaries were screaming. They said we were terrorists." Elshani said he recognized one of the Serbs as a civilian from the village of Velika Hoca, near Elshani's home.

For five hours, the paramilitaries moved among the ethnic Albanians, hitting them with wood. Elshani's right hand was broken. Five or six men were taken away individually, but Elshani said he never heard gunshots or screaming.

"I don't know what happened to them," he said. "We never saw them again."

After five hours, the men were ordered to stand and were asked who was not from Velika Krusa. Fifteen men, including Elshani, stepped forward. "I thought they would know I was from Reti," he said.

They were marched 50 yards to a shed that had housed farm animals but was empty except for straw and muck. They were forced into a corner. Elshani knew four of the 14 others: Ylber Thaci, 36; his brother, Isa, 35; and Gezim Berisha, 36, were all from Reti. Fatmir Kabashi, 43, from the village of Zociste, was married to Elshani's cousin.

Pressed into the corner, the men begged for their lives.

"We asked them to set us free," said Elshani, who was standing at the front of the men. "We said, 'We have done nothing.' I said, 'Mister, is there any possibility to let us go. We are not terrorists.'

"In the end, they said, 'Go ask Bill Clinton,'" said Elshani. "That's when we knew we would die."

Five men lined up in front of them with Kalashnikov automatic rifles. They fired a couple of rounds and Elshani fell to the ground. He wasn't hit. He just fell. A burst of gunfire erupted and bodies fell on top of him. Blood from the victims streamed down Elshani's face. He lay face up, his eyes closed, with one of the victims lying almost completely on top of him.

"I felt his blood trickle on my face," he said.

The paramilitaries continued to fire into the corpses and Elshani was lightly grazed on the shoulder. The Serbs then covered the bodies with straw, soaked it in gasoline and lit it.

"I was mad with fear," said Elshani. The body on top protected him some, but the heat became intense. Elshani didn't know, however, if the Serbs were still around, and if crawling out meant certain death.

"I had to come out of the fire or die burned alive," he said. "It felt like an hour in the flames even though it was a very short time. It was horror for me.

"I pushed the body aside and opened the straw with my hands and that's when my face and hands were burned."

Elshani rolled out screaming, oblivious now to his fear of the Serbs. His clothes were on fire. He pulled them off, stripping flesh from his hands. He ran screaming from the room and out into the yard where he found some water. "That helped me find my senses," he said.

Out on the street, he said, there were about 20 corpses. He recognized two of his cousins, Ramadan Ramadani, 36, and his brother, Afrim, 35. He didn't know the others.

"I looked at them carefully," he said. "I saw some people with half of their heads gone away." Elshani ran to his uncle's house, where he found his father, uncle and two other relatives, all elderly men. They started in fright, and no one seemed to recognize him.

"I said, 'It's me, it's me,'" said Elshani, "and they started to cry." From March 26 to April 1, the men hid Elshani in the basement, treating his burns with yogurt.

"I was conscious. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't move my hands. Terrible pain," he said.

On April 1, an ethnic Albanian came to the house and said everyone was leaving. Elshani was hidden under blankets on the back of a tractor carrying elderly men. They made it across the border without being searched.

At an Albanian military hospital in Kukes, doctors cleaned Elshani's hands and face but told him he had to get to Tirana for treatment. There was no ambulance to take him, so one of Elshani's relatives paid a local taxi driver his last 300 marks to take the two of them to the Albanian capital.

Here, Elshani has had three skin grafts, and two more surgeries are planned. But doctors said they cannot offer him plastic reconstructive surgery, which they believe he will need.

After nearly a week at the hospital, Elshani saw his wife walk through the door. The relative who brought Elshani to Tirana found her and Elshani's sons at a refugee camp in the southern Albanian city of Fier. The family had fled into the hills for four days on March 26 and then joined a convoy of refugees going to Albania.

"They told me he was a little burned," said Mahije Elshani, 33, who now lives in her husband's hospital room, tending his bandages and delicately spooning food into his mouth. "I asked him, 'Do you hear me?' He said, 'Yes.' And I fainted."

She fainted twice more that day.

A stream of visitors, mostly relatives, comes to see Elshani every day. And this week, officials from the war crimes tribunal at The Hague also came by to take a statement from Elshani. They refused to discuss the case, but Elshani said they told him they hope to bring those who killed the 14 men to justice.

Two people have not come to see Elshani his sons, Leotrim, 8, and Nderim, 4, who are being sheltered by an Albanian family.

"I can't have the kids see me," said Elshani. "They can't see me."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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