WORLD

HOW IT HAPPENED

The 'cleansing' of Kosovo was carefully planned

BRUCE WALLACE April 19 1999
WORLD

HOW IT HAPPENED

The 'cleansing' of Kosovo was carefully planned

BRUCE WALLACE April 19 1999

HOW IT HAPPENED

WORLD

BRUCE WALLACE

Ducking under the Puma helicopter’s thumping blades, the French navigator closes the chopper door on the miserable scene of refugees around him, gives a thumbs-up to the pilot, and sits back as they swiftly lift away from this camp of the damned. The French crew has just dropped off a few dozen boxes of food, a thimbleful of mercy, in a squalid field of mud just inside Albania’s northern border that is the first stop in exile for so many thousands of Kosovo’s Albanians. The Puma leaves the suffering behind, surging south through the deep canyons of Albania’s mountains and over medieval scenes of red-roofed houses impossibly balanced on rocky ledges. The flight to the capital, Tirana, and a more normal world takes the French 25 minutes.

It wifi take the Kosovar refugees more than a day through some of Albania’s most dangerous bandit country to reach the same destination. For the continuing parade of refugees, the trek away from war is an arduous hitch in the back of trucks or crowded buses, a creep along narrow mountainside roads where the cracked pavement seems to tremble underfoot and the drop off the edge is too high to contemplate. Many of these people have been on the move since shortly after NATO bombs began to fall. Their plight is one of the nastiest twists in the Kosovo conflict civilians, herded together and forcibly marched in one direction or another, used by the Serbs as a grisly tactic. “It was well planned and organized,” said Canadian Gen. Michel Maisonneuve, who heads the international observer mission in Albania. “And it is plausible that the Serbs regard these people as a weapon of war.”

Certainly the Kosovars were an effective tool for destabilizing the region and threatening the West with a wider war. Pushing tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians into neighbouring states rattled the Balkans’ precarious ethnic balance. Then, the Serbs began closing and opening Kosovo’s borders at wifi, stranding thousands of Kosovars in the war zone and raising fears they might be used as human shields against NATO attacks. “This is a vast logistical effort, choreographed ad infinitum,” said James Ron, an American investigator with Human Rights Watch, which concluded there was a pattern to the expulsions after interviewing more than 500 refugees in Albania. “Clearly,” he said, “there is a traffic director here.”

International observers say it will take months to put together a complete picture of how the Serbs conducted their weeklong blitzkrieg of deportations. Panic and flight can sow confusion, not clarity, among witnesses. Reports of atrocities and massacres often turn on stories heard and repeated rather than seen. But a broad range of refugees interviewed by Maclean’s agree that one day—Sunday, March 28—marked an extraordinary, massive escalation in the cleansing of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo’s cities. Serbian shelling of Kosovar neighbourhoods started on March 27, three days after NATO’s air attack began; the forced marches began a day later. “It was March 28, I’ll never forget that date,” said Kumrie Nikqi, a bone-thin 34-year-old mother of five from the northwest city of Pec. It is a refrain uttered by compatriots from across Kosovo.

The cleansing was carried out by a multitude of Serb forces, involv-

The 'cleansing' of Kosovo was carefully planned

ing more than the military already deployed in Kosovo to fight the lightly armed guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA Refugees say that with the army providing heavy weapons cover, the roughly 10,000 interior ministry police known as MUPs did the dirty job of driving them out of their homes and into collection points for the mass move out of Kosovo. They were assisted by special units called the PJP, which international monitors believe are responsible for several murders during this civil war and whose white Land Rovers are capable of provoking terror simply by driving slowly through a village.

Fear was essential to the Serbs’ success. “They build on fear,” said Maisonneuve, who notes the Serbs were developing a climate of terror even before his monitors left Kosovo on March 20. Central to this tactic were two large paramilitary organizations from Serbia, identifiable by their black uniforms and masks. These special units—one of them the notorious Tigers led by indicted war criminal Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known as Arkan—were preceded by their reputation for extreme and random violence. In many cases, suggestions from soldiers that the Tigers were on their way was enough to convince people to get moving. “They said, We are just soldiers, but if you don’t leave others are coming,’ ” recalled a young woman, who gave her name only as Lumnije, as she sat in Tirana’s central gymnasium waiting to be told where she would be housed.

It is also believed the paramilitaries are unpaid, remunerated by what they can pillage. “That is why you hear refugees saying,

‘Money saved my life,’ ” said Bekim Beka, a 26-year-old Christian relief worker from the Kosovo capital, Pristina. A former student leader, Beka was an early member of the Muslim-based KLA who quit in 1994, he says, when he became an evangelical Christian. “I told my family they should keep lots of cash around in case things blew up,” he said. Many Kosovars have worked in Western Europe and had large stashes of German marks. Qamil Behra says he paid thousands of German marks for a piece of paper guaranteeing his family’s safety. “They said, You can stay here,’ ” he recalled from his cot in a damp Tirana warehouse far from his home in the southern Kosovo town of Nagovc. “But it was a trap.”

Refugees say the Serbs had one plan for the cities, another for smaller towns. Urban residents were terrorized into leaving, but the aim was evidently to empty the cities rather than raze them. “The villages are Albanian, the cities are mixed,” said Veli Kryzeu, a 40-year-old plumber from the southern city of Prizren. That, he says, is why villages were burned while larger centres were simply drained of Albanians.

In the cities, refugees say the Serbian police in their blue and grey uniforms moved from house to house, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, giving people just a few minutes to leave their homes and

A Kosovar father and son in a camp in Korce, Albania (top); a refugee grandmother and child: fear was essential to the Serbs’ success

gather in the city centres. In southern cities like Prizren near the Albanian border, people were then told to walk or drive themselves to the crossing. Farther north, in Pec, buses were waiting to drive the refugees out. “Serbs in masks came and told us to get out of our homes,” said Nikqi, safe now in the Mullet refugee camp just south of Tirana. “There were Serb buses and drivers waiting for us.” The fact that so many people from Pec crossed into Albania rather than through much closer Montenegran border points is evidence of a

forcible eviction, says Beka. “If people were just running because they were afraid of the war, they wouldn’t have gone so far south to escape,” he said.

Many of the urban refugees describe a terrifying flight out, though their accounts suggest most of the violence they encountered along the way was related to robberies by armed thugs. The Serbian military « lined the roads, keeping the H columns moving. “Soldiers were g on the road, shooting into the z air,” recalled a wan-looking Lull mire Tahiri. “They were yelling, z WeTe going to kill you,’ and the S children were crying.” In Pristina, people spent four days waiting in the main stadium before buses took roughly half to the Albanian border crossing at Kukes, and the rest were put onto trains and taken south to be dumped at Macedonia’s doorstep.

Most of the accounts of massacres and atrocities come from the villages: Big Krushe, Little Krushe, Pirane, Celine. “I’ve seen the heads of men, I’ve seen £ bodies burned,” said a stunned I Xhemali Beqiri, a field worker § from Big Krusha. Monitors I heard stories of babies being ÍS crushed under police car o wheels. It is from the villages E that most young men are missing, many believed to be hiding in the hills. “My brother and my cousins decided to stay together and they went into the mountains to hide,” said Nazim Berisha, 17. Kosovars who worked for international organizations were targeted. The town of Jakova, an intellectual centre where the police chief was a noted Serbian hardliner, was hit more brutally than most. Refugees told of gypsies being given permission by the Serbs to loot and burn once the residents were gone.

Last week’s change in Serbian tactics added to the emotional burden. Those Kosovars who did not get out were turned around to an unknown fate, while on Albania’s snaky mountain road, those who escaped Kosovo’s madness continued their journey south. A KLA checkpoint along the way suggested a crude conscription may be taking place. Faces along the road were blank, exhausted. It was a scene to crush the spirit. Miles and miles of people and not a smile. At a rest stop near one clearing, two old women steadied each other as they tried to drink from a stream, and a man led a crying boy back to a truck, his hand on his shoulder, trying to tell him everything would be all right. □