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.
There are thousands of people in the streets, many out for the first time in months. Long lines of cars parade in every direction, with honking horns and flashing headlights and people hanging out the windows waving flags.
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.
"It's a day of freedom for me," she says, sounding as joyless as a 13-year-old can, and now, back in Vlastica, a cousin of Vjore's named Nehat Shabani has made his own pilgrimage to see what the rubble contains.
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.
After their arrest, Billali and Veliqu were taken to a mosque in the village of Cirez, where 176 men rounded up from the surrounding area were briefly detained. "They beat us with plastic truncheons and executed two people there," Billali said. Then they put 30 to 40 people in each of four army trucks and drove them to the mine. On the way, they were instructed to hold their hands behind their heads. Soldiers beat them repeatedly.
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.
When the Yugoslav military launched its offensive in this area at the end of April, torching and looting homes believed to belong to Kosovo Liberation Army sympathizers, all but the oldest people in Siqeva fled into the surrounding hills.
The elderly felt they were safe from army and police brutality. When the government forces pulled back, the rest of the population came down from the hills.
A second offensive followed in the middle of May. Since half the houses in the village had been destroyed, the older people gathered in the home of 85-year-old Sulejman Berisha at the edge of the village. Sulejman and a 90-year-old male relative, Jahir Berisha, slept in a room to the right of the porch. Sulejman's wife, Vahide, 66, and a female relative, Shehide, 77, slept in a room on the left.
"I pleaded with them not to stay. I said, `It's better for you to flee because they will come to kill you," recalled Sulejman's son, Hajdim. "But my father said, `They came before and did not kill us. I will not leave this place.' "
Having fled to the hills above the village for a second time, the younger members of the Berisha clan could see Serbian militiamen move into Siqeva. They carried away everything that could be carried away -- stoves, refrigerators, television sets, furniture, video equipment, loading their booty onto trucks. They recognized men from the neighboring Serbian village of Brnica among the looters.
It was six days later -- May 20 -- that the younger villagers dared return to Siqeva. When they went into Sulejman's house, they found the corpses of the two old women stretched out on their beds. The floor was littered with a dozen bullet casings from an automatic rife. Across the hallway, in the room the men had been using, lay the body of Jahir. A hole in the floor suggested that someone had thrown a hand grenade into the room.
The younger men found Sulejman's body in a stream at the bottom of his garden, covered by a bloodstained leather coat. His hands were manacled behind his back and his corpse bore signs of the explosion that had killed Jahir. They concluded that Sulejman had been handcuffed and dragged back into his room for execution by hand grenade.
"My father was beaten badly," Hajdim said. "I could see the marks on his face."
Another body was found nearby -- that of a young man in his late teens. It lay in a pool of blood and bore signs of a beating. Evidently the man was an ethnic Albanian refugee who had come down out of the hills in search of food and had been captured by the militiamen surrounding Sulejman's house.
'When Is NATO Coming?'
As Serbian and Yugoslav forces departed today, the killing continued.
At 9 a.m. 13-year old Adile Koliqi witnessed the execution of her father Kadri in the middle of a road that passes through the heart of the Kosovo's Drenica region.
Kadri was a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been fighting for the province's independence from Serbia for more than a year. To escape the military assault that engulfed Drenica from March 20 until last week, he had spent much of the past two months hiding in the nearby Berisha Mountains.
Today, he made a fateful miscalculation that the arrival of NATO troops in Kosovo meant he and his five children could return safely to their home in the village of Obrinje. He set out with them, carrying a pistol in a holster and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. As he passed in front of a house that had seemed empty, several Yugoslav troops called out to him in Serbian, and the family froze.
A brief but tense conversation ensued. Adile said she did not know what was said because she speaks only Albanian -- since ethnic Albanians withdrew from public schools in 1989 to protest government repression, almost no children here have learned to speak Serbian.
Adile said the Yugoslav soldiers walked over to her father and took away his guns. Then he started walking faster. "He was trying to get away because they knew they were going to shoot him," Adile said. They shot him then, from the roadside and from a balcony of the house where they were keeping watch.
Later, tears streaming down her face, Adile said she saw his blood run across the highway. His last words had been in Serbian. She didn't understand them.
Hours after the killing, only a dozen or so people had ventured onto the road, because government troops remained in the area, and NATO forces were still nowhere in sight. Every home within miles appeared to have lost its roof, windows and doors to fire and looting by government troops; their walls were scorched and pockmarked by shelling. Artillery fire echoed in the distance, from beyond a green hill covered by wild flowers and weeds, and a few columns of smoke rose to the west.
One young refugee returning home along the road, 10-year old Agron Shaqiri, said his family had spent the past month hiding in the mountains and asked a reporter: "When is NATO coming?"
IN SUVA REKA
'Now, We Have a Place We Can Rest'
One day in early April, a backhoe showed up at the town cemetery here and dug 34 graves. Today, no one is certain who is buried here, where they came from or how they died. Thirty of the graves are marked by stakes, some with a number painted in aquamarine, some with no notation at all. Four have names on them.
"We think they're all local -- including an engineering professor who paid 50,000 marks to government troops but was killed anyway," said Nexhat Palushi, 26, who lives in a village near Suva Reka, a town of 20,000 in southern Kosovo. "A lot of them we think were dead in their homes for about a week after the start of the war, and the Serbs then buried all of them at the same time."
Suva Reka and its surrounding communities were at heart of a campaign of expulsions by Yugoslav and Serbian forces who pushed most of the residents out of the region. Today, the town has been demolished. It is nearly deserted, save for a large contingent of Kosovo Liberation Army members patrolling the streets.
Toward the center of town, Mihrije Berisha, 25, was returning home with her year-old daughter and 3-week-old son after hiding in the forest since the beginning of the war, unsure what she would find but expecting the worst. She was accidentally separated from her husband and the rest of her family during the exodus and now is uncertain where they are.
The gates of neighboring houses were all ajar, revealing burned-out hovels. Berisha moaned and caught her breath as she entered her own property. Serbs and Gypsies had ransacked the main house, a neighbor said. Clothing and other personal belongings were scattered everywhere, and there was a foul smell. Everything of value had been taken.
In a second dwelling on the property, the Toyota in the garage had been set afire, and the blaze had spread to the other rooms. But in truth, the structure was salvageable.
"It's okay. I'm happy. We have all these things. We have something," she said. "Now, we have a place we can rest our heads."
'It Is Hard to Trust That We Are Safe'
Before NATO's air campaign began, there were nearly 90,000 people in Djakovica. By this morning, a few thousand at most remained. They had spent the last 80 days or so hiding in basements by day and moving like shadows by night to avoid the next burning rampage by Serbian militiamen.
"I see the NATO tanks," said Korab Shasinvari, whose 71-year-old grandfather was assassinated by Serb-led forces. "But it is hard to trust that we are safe. NATO is here, but they have liberated an empty land."
Mahmut Dautaga and Adem Koshi are bicycling through Djakovica, looking for their sons. On May 10, Serbian militiamen kicked in the doors of both their homes and forced their families to march to an intersection in the city center. All men between the ages of 15 and 66 were taken away on trucks, and the rest were sent home. And now Dautaga and Koshi, having hidden for weeks in basements, ride together through different neighborhoods. They stop, again and again, to ask if anyone has news of their boys.
No one has. They move on with sad glances and few words.
"We know nothing," said Koshi, 67, his eyes sunken as he offers a half-hearted smile to a foreign visitor. "We are just pushing ourselves forward with dreams."
Some ethnic Albanian rebels and their supporters streamed through this city today, honking their car horns and punching the air with their fists. It sounded like laughter at a funeral and, except for the children playing in the open for the first time in a long while, drew only weary looks. There are no stores open and little food available. The survivors' only sustenance is relief that they are alive. And today, people meeting for the first time in months held each other in lingering embrace, thankful that another had made it through the nightmare.
Like many residents here, the Abrashi family moved from house to house almost every night to avoid new police roundups. They considered joining the refugee exodus to Albania but feared that the women and children would be separated from the men, leaving Farije Abrashi, the 75-year-old matriarch, with no one to help her. Fear, paralysis and defiance held thousands here.
"My boys stayed with me," said Farije Abrashi this morning. "God bless them."
The militiamen came to the Abrashi's house on May 7 at 4:30 in the afternoon. Ezren Abrashi and his brother pushed the women and children onto the roof of the two-story house and then heaved their paralyzed mother up. They jumped from roof to roof, scaled down a sloping roof onto a shed and then made their way to a river bank -- carrying Farije Abrashi all the way before they waded across the river and found shelter for the family in a neighbor's basement.
Farije Abrashi spoke in a house adjacent to her own. A photo of her and her husband, taken 40 years ago, is the only thing she salvaged from the family home. She can see her ruined house through the window from the couch where she spends her day. There is no back wall. The stairs have collapsed. Melted pieces of furniture are visible. The stink of rotting food is in the air.
"They burned our past," she said. "Everything else you can buy. But they burned our past."
Timea Rexha has built a small wooden marker on the left side of her courtyard. Behind it, weeds are already growing over the grave of her husband, Urim, and two neighbors. On March 26 at 2 p.m. Serbian militiamen entered her home. They were looking for her husband, a lawyer who had defended Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas and was president of the local chapter of a moderate ethnic Albanian political party.
The militiamen ordered the family to come up from the basement. Only Urim emerged, telling his family to stay quiet. The family heard nothing more but was too terrified to investigate. At 6 a.m., they found the bodies lying in the courtyard. Urim had been shot once in the head.
"We didn't wash the bodies," said Timea Rexha, referring to the local custom. "We put them in the ground as they were. We want the war crimes people to dig them up and find the truth. I am waiting, and I am strong. I want justice."
Only the eldest of Timea's four children, an 11-year-old girl, knows her father is dead.
Courtyard graves, like Urim Rexha's, dot the city. Those who were killed in the streets or abandoned houses were picked up by the local Department of Public Works and buried by Gypsy grave diggers. Two weeks ago, about 80 bodies were removed from the local cemetery, and the freshly dug dirt was bulldozed flat there, according to residents. A couple of hundred dead from the last two months remain in the cemetery.
The wounded often lay for days before they died or were secreted to the local hospital by relatives. According to Valdet Spahia, a surgeon at Djakovica hospital, local Serbian authorities repeatedly refused to allow the facility's ambulance to pick up wounded ethnic Albanians.
"We asked, and they said, `No,' " said Spahia. "And if we went out, they turned us back. People died because we couldn't get to them."
Residents often took remarkable steps to survive. Angel Brovina, 44, dug a bunker into the foundation of his home under the tile floor of his kitchen. Four feet high and seven feet long, he stocked it with food and an automatic rifle. A funnel was connected to a tube, which emptied out into the garden, so he could urinate. Brovina spent his days there with his brother, and three times Serbian gunmen stood over him as they looted his home, cursing the wealth of the people who owned the house.
Brovina, a woodworker, emerged at night to booby-trap his house with homemade devices, such as pieces of metal attached to fishing wire, which were triggered by the opening of doors. He rigged a homemade bomb to the starter in his car.
"I left open the doors in the day so they could take what they wanted," he said, "but whoever was coming at night to make the fire would die."
Brovina emerged from his home for the first time today, his bravado quieted by the destruction.
"I was a happy man once, but this has changed me," he said. "When I look at this, I realize how beautiful was our city. It was a gem. Now it is a corpse."
Correspondents Daniel Williams, John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore contributed to this report.
CAPTION: In the Kosovo village of Siqeva, where Albanian elders chose to stay and face the Serbs, little remains other than charred homes, above, and makeshift graves where villagers like Myrvette Berisha, left, struggle with their grief.
CAPTION: An ethnic Albanian woman walks with her children past destroyed houses in the war-ravaged town of Djakovica in southern Kosovo. The town, jewel of the region before the war, was subjected to some of NATO's heaviest strikes.
CAPTION: Mihrije Berisha, holding her 1-year-old daughter Elsa, returns to her home in Suva Reka after living in forest for three months to find her house a charred shell.
CAPTION: Elderly ethnic Albanian men stroll past a shop in downtown Urosevac in southern Kosovo.
CAPTION: As British paratroops patrol their Pristina neighborhoods, ethnic Albanians for the first time in months feel safe enough to chat outside. Many hid in their houses for weeks.
CAPTION: American soldiers attached to the NATO peacekeeping force search cars and their passengers along a road leading to Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital.
CAPTION: A Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla displays remains found in what are believed to be two mass graves containing the bodies of at least 10 people in the village of Ruckhat, nine miles from the town of Pec in southwestern Kosovo.
CAPTION: Scuffle breaks out in city of Gnjilane, as a Serb with pistol kicks ethnic Albanian while another Serb pins him down. Violence came as Serb-led forces continued to leave Kosovo.