For six months, Florie and Besa Gashi have trailed U.N. war crimes investigators as they visited the grave sites that dot Kosovo's battered landscape. Their father, Isuf, 54, brother, Burim, 20, and cousin, Qimal, 14, were arrested by Serbian forces just before the NATO bombing began last March. They still don't know what happened to them.
"They took them away and we never saw them again," said Florie, 27, who runs a hairdressing shop that looks out on the headquarters of French peacekeeping forces in this city in central Kosovo.
Since NATO forces entered Kosovo, the two women have visited scores of grave sites and walked along the lines of hundreds of exhumed bodies, faces covered by cloth, to examine the clothing. They have pored over the list of 2,000 ethnic Albanians held in prisons in Serbia. They have studied photographs of the dead compiled by human rights organizations and local mosques.
They have found nothing.
"I hate them," Florie says of the Serbs. "I hate them."
Kosovo is filled with families like the Gashis. Seven months after the war ended, a final accounting of the dead has yet to be made.
Last spring, a military campaign by 40,000 Serb-led Yugoslav army troops, special Serbian police forces and uniformed militiamen sought to change the ethnic landscape of this province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. More than 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees were forced out of Kosovo, leaving behind a brutalized landscape of murdered civilians and looted and destroyed homes. In all, 65 percent of the province's civilian housing was damaged or ruined beyond repair.
While nearly all the refugees have returned, and reconstruction of towns and villages has begun, the exact number of civilians killed during the conflict is still unclear.
By the time winter set in in November and hardened the ground, investigators with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia had examined 195 grave sites and recorded the deaths of 2,108 people, the overwhelming majority of them ethnic Albanians. Given the claims of mass murder, even genocide, during the war, it seemed--for all its horror--like a remarkably low figure, and it has since raised questions about the extent and brutality of the Serbian campaign of terror in Kosovo.
During NATO's 78-day air offensive, the Pentagon and State Department said that 100,000 ethnic Albanian men were unaccounted for--assertions that raised the specter of, at least, mass murder. Ethnic Albanians also claimed that hundreds of bodies had been incinerated at the Trepca mine in northwestern Kosovo, but an investigation there turned up no evidence of such an event. And a number of alleged mass graves that were said to contain hundreds of bodies were found to contain either a handful of corpses or none, leading some European pathologists to dismiss the received history of the conflict as willful lies.
Similarly, Western accusations that there were Serb-run rape camps in the cities of Djakovica and Pec, and poorly sourced allegations in some publications that the Serbs were engaging in the mutilation of the living and the dead--including castration and decapitation--all proved to be false.
There are, however, 529 sites where civilians are believed to have been killed. They are places infused with a wretched and enduring grief, places where graves still dominate the landscape.
The tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has said that the 2,108 figure is an interim accounting of Kosovo's dead. The State Department, noting that 334 grave sites have yet to be examined, insists the final death toll could reach 10,000, most of them civilians and not members of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army.
"In many cases, the victims' bodies were burned near where they died. In other cases, the burning, destruction or reburial occurred on a wholesale scale, with bodies being shipped by truck," said David J. Scheffer, the State Department's chief war crimes investigator. "All this tells us that we will never know the full extent of [Kosovo] Albanian victims of ethnic cleansing." The terror, Scheffer argued, is a historic fact, even if its dimensions are still unfolding with every new exhumation.
In the southern Kosovo village of Goden, a dappling of 20 houses in the foothills of the snow-capped mountains that lead into Albania just three miles away, memories of that terror die hard.
Goden was first blood. On the morning of March 25, the first full day of NATO bombing, Serbian forces swept into the village and set house after house alight. The villagers were assembled by the small schoolhouse, stripped of their cash and jewelry, and ordered to march to Albania, the very first ragged group of refugees in what would become a massive wave of expulsions.
Twenty men were held back, however. And as the remaining 174 residents fled, automatic gunfire rang out.
Today, a solitary plot, a rounded mound of clay fenced in with chicken wire, is Goden's dark heart. The 20 men of Goden lie in it, a collection of burned bone fragments sealed in plastic and committed to the ground together.
Forensic experts working for the war crimes tribunal visited the village in July. They recorded the testimony of survivors, sifted through burned bones left in homes reduced to rubble, noted the names of the dead. And they left with a statistic: one site, 20 casualties.
It has done little to ease Goden's grief.
"Everything is so sad and silent now," said Rokmane Feraj, 33, casting her eyes across to the whitewashed wall where her husband Nezhat stole his last glance at his family.
Only four families, nearly all women and children, returned to Goden; most of the rest of the survivors abandoned the sacked village for the nearby cities of Djakovica and Prizren.
Feraj, her anger spent, lives with a dull, throbbing grief. She says she has no desire for revenge. "I hate what Serbia did," she said, "but I don't want any innocent Serbs killed. I try to stay busy so I can forget, but whenever I rest, I remember."
There was a wedding in Goden last month, the first of a villager since the refugees' return last July. It was a joyless affair, no music and no dancing. The men sat upstairs, the women downstairs. Pleasantries and glances were exchanged. Conversation bubbled up and died, the past intruding.
"There is no happiness," said Raza Osmanaj, 50, whose 20-year-old son, Faik, lies beside Nezhat Feraj in the collective grave 100 yards from the wedding house.
When the villagers returned from Albania last summer, some men who had gone ahead told them there were burned bones in two houses. The women, on their knees, picked through the remains.
Osmanaj found a piece of Faik's coat, which she keeps in Djakovica, where she is staying with relatives until she can rebuild her home here next spring. But the ragged, burned piece of cloth is not her only relic.
Her house, though gutted, seems as if it were once warm and roomy; her husband built an extension 13 years ago, Osmanaj said, stepping into that part of the building. Faik was 7 then, and he ran across the wet concrete, impish, laughing. His slender, boyish footprints are still visible. Osmanaj leaned down and touched the outline of her son's foot, a caress.
CAPTION: Tauland Osmanaj closes the gate to the grave that holds remains of his grandfather and 19 other ethnic Albanians massacred in the Kosovo war.
CAPTION: Rokmane Feraj talks about the death of her husband at the hands of Serbian troops.