WORLD

Kosovo: a massacre revealed

Witnesses report a bloody slaughter of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces

GUY DINMORE August 17 1998
WORLD

Kosovo: a massacre revealed

Witnesses report a bloody slaughter of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces

GUY DINMORE August 17 1998

Kosovo: a massacre revealed

WORLD

YUGOSLAVIA

Witnesses report a bloody slaughter of ethnic Albanians by Serb forces

In the small Kosovo town of Orahovac, there is a leafy religious sanctuary known as the tekke. Ethnic Albanian followers of an old Muslim dervish sect have long gathered there to worship in a courtyard shaded by vines and a large apple tree. With its crystal clear ancient spring, which local people say has never dried up, the tekke provides a welcome haven from the heat and dust of Serbia’s troubled southern province. But last month— according to survivors who spoke to Maclean ’s—the tekke was the scene of a bloody massacre carried out by Serbian police forces in their fight against Kosovo’s Albanian separatists. Just what happened is still shrouded in controversy, but accounts of more than 200 dead, including women, children and the elderly, coincided with reports last week of mass graves in the town.

Many of those who escaped the killing are too terrified to speak. Survivors scattered in all directions, joining an exodus of refugees fleeing a major government offensive across Serbia’s poorest province against rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. But witnesses described to Maclean’s a bloodletting that could qualify as the worst atrocity in the Balkans since Bosnian Serb forces killed several thousand Muslims after capturing the town of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. Just as the massacre there finally provoked the United States and its European allies into launching air strikes against Serbian targets to end the Bosnian war, Western politicians say the bloodshed in Orahovac—if confirmed by their investigators—could end several months of indecision and lead to intervention by NATO in Kosovo.

It was on the evening of July 17 that fighting broke out in Orahovac. Emboldened by recent successes in expanding their control over rural areas, the KLA rebels had decided for the first time to take over an urban centre. Fighting raged over the weekend of July 18 and 19 as the KLA held the outskirts of Orahovac. The town’s 20,000 or so people—an ethnic mix of Albanians, Turks, Muslim Slavs and Serbs— sheltered in their basements from heavy shelling. “On July 20, we ran from our houses and took shelter in the tekke’’ recounted one Albanian man too frightened of reprisals to give his name. “There were 800 to 1,000 of us, mostly women and children.” The local leader of the town’s minority Shia Muslim sect—the Halved dervish order that spread throughout the Balkans in the 17th century—was Sheh Muhedin, a cleric in his 80s revered as a saint. Baba (Father) Sheh, as he was known, was not a KLA supporter and had tried to preserve the peace in Orahovac by negotiating with the town’s Serbian mayor. Baba Sheh told the terrified throng of people that police had threatened to enter the tekke if they did not leave. His grandson, Fatmir, agreed to lead them out. As the crowd began moving towards a mosque used by mainstream Sunni Muslims in the centre of town, two police armored personnel carriers appeared. “Fatmir went first with another man, their hands raised in the air, and asked them not to shoot,” the survivor said. “But one policeman started to shoot in the air and the crowd turned and fled.

Killings occurred across the town, in gardens and homes

The firing went on and at least 15 people were killed at that moment. There were only 50 to 60 men in the crowd and the police targeted them.”

The crowd divided. One group ran back towards the tekke, several hundred turned right. The second group reached a factory called Spektri H on the edge of town where more police opened fire. “I don’t know how many people were killed,” said the witness. “I saw a bunch fall and recognized one woman.

An 18-year-old girl and several elderly women were wounded. We kept running and got to a field called Rimnik. I saw our group getting smaller and smaller.” Finally, they reached the village of Drenoc and were joined by other survivors, about 250 in all. From there they melted into the woods and hills.

A second witness, who also asked to remain anonymous, gave the same account of how police initially opened fire on the crowd. He fled towards the tekke but later had to change direction again. “I heard the screaming of women and children,” he said. “A lot of bullets flew overhead.” He hid in a house and finally escaped. A third man who spoke to Maclean’s described finding the body of the revered cleric after returning to the tekke the next day in search of relatives. “I went to the main building,” he said. “There was a large man lying on his stomach. I turned him over—it was Baba Sheh. In one hand he held several keys. He was shot in the back. I closed his eyes and covered him with a jacket.”

Grandson Fatmir said he heard the shots that killed Baba Sheh. He was told by other witnesses that police demanded the cleric open the main building where he held religious audiences, and when he turned to do so one man dressed in black shot him dead with a pistol. “My grandfather was a great optimist,” said Fatmir. “He didn’t think that these things would ever happen.” The body of Baba Sheh now lies in a coffin in a mausoleum at the back of the tekke, draped in prayer beads and towels that symbolize spiritual cleansing. Nearby in the complex are the ashes of several houses burnt to the ground. Another witness told Maclean’s six people were shot dead there and their bodies burnt.

How many people died over the three days has not been confirmed. Killings occurred across the town, in gardens and homes. Fatmir told journalists that over 200 people died. A source close to Western investigators said the Muslim community has a list of 215 names but it has not been made public. A Kosovo Albanian human rights group has 55 names, including children and women, among them Fatime Bugari who was 22 and pregnant. The imam, or prayer leader, of the Sunni mosque, Shani Sylka, was wounded.

Residents say that on July 21 police and local people cleared the streets of bodies, loading them onto trailers for burial. About a dozen were sent to the nearby town of Prizren. The next day, Serbian authorities took foreign journalists on an escorted tour of Orahovac. One Dutch reporter who managed to stay behind came across three bodies still lying in gardens, uncollected.

Rumors spread of the massacre and of mass graves. Diplomats were initially skeptical, playing down sketchy reports that could not be substantiated. At the same time, Western governments were turning a blind eye to the widening Serbian offensive that was destroying the KLA and its dream, unpopular in Western capitals, of independence for the Kosovo Albanians.

By early August, reporters found the first evidence of a mass grave—what looked like a garbage dump heavy with the stench of death on the edge of the town’s Muslim cemetery. Strangely, about 30 wooden sticks, some with names, some with numbers, were stuck in the mix of dirt and garbage, a bulldozer standing nearby. On Aug. 5, the German newspaper Tageszeitung quoted an unnamed Gypsy gravedigger as saying he had taken part in separate burials and had counted 567 bodies—an improbably high number. The Serbian authorities erupted in anger. The next day, another escorted tour of Orahovac took place.

Police spokesman Col. Bozidar Filie insisted that a total of 58 Albanians had been killed in Orahovac and that all were “terrorists” who had died in combat. Of them, he said, 40 had been buried individually and properly in the presence of a judge, next to the Muslim cemetery. “The rumors about mass graves are a product of Albanian terrorist leaders to distract attention from their heavy defeats,” Filie maintained. Yet one of the sticks bore the name of Sabrija Mulabazi. Contrary to official claims that all the victims were rebels, residents maintained Mulabazi was a 90-year-old woman killed in her garden.

Diplomats have demanded that forensic experts be allowed to dig up the grave by the cemetery. U.S. investigators are believed to be in possession of the testimony of survivors and to have a list of known dead. Ironically, during the escorted convoy to Orahovac, journalists were taken through the small town of Malisevo, a rebel stronghold that police took without a fight in late July. As they drove by, the main market area was in flames. Journalists there earlier in the day saw police pouring gasoline into soft drink cans.

Reacting to the mounting reports of atrocities, the wanton destruction of villages and the flight of an estimated 200,000 refugees over the past five months, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke warned last week that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic “had increased dramatically the likelihood or possibility of active Western intervention of a military sort.” British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook also spoke forcefully about the reports of mass graves. “If there is any truth in these horrifying accounts,” he said, “we must have a firm and united international response.” On the ground, however, the Serbian onslaught has proved viciously effective, and the KLA is in deep disarray. As a warning to Milosevic, NATO scheduled exercises near the Kosovo border in neighboring Albania and Macedonia for coming weeks. But those measures still give the Serbs time to complete their devastating operation, and they come far too late to help the victims of Orahovac.

GUY DINMORE in Orahovac

GUY DINMORE