Refugees say NATO can't be to blame

Survivors' accounts of attack conflict in crucial details

Convoy fleeing Kosovo

War In Yugoslavia

April 16, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KUKES, Albania -- A fierce roar split the sky and awakened her from an uneasy sleep.

Before Ymer Qela knew what was happening, she heard an explosion and tried desperately to protect herself, covering her head with her hands and folding herself into the cab of the crowded tractor on which she had been riding since Serbian troops emptied her village six hours before.

Suddenly the tiny 54-year-old woman was swallowed by black smoke. Her hands and head felt like they had been licked by fire.

She looked for her husband, Faze, but he was already dead.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Valentina, had been hit in the head and back by jagged pieces of shrapnel. Her son, Nezdet, 15, was bleeding from angry cuts on his head and face.

"We were just trying to escape Kosovo, and save our lives," Ymer Qela said, still numb and heavily bandaged a day after the bombing of a column of refugees on tractors along the road from Dakovica to Prizren in southwestern Kosovo.

The farmer's wife and two dozen other refugees who were forced from their homes at gunpoint by Serbian officials were interviewed in four different groups yesterday.

The refugees spoke of being bombed Wednesday as they formed a miles-long convoy fleeing Kosovo toward Albania.

But, with a welter of conflicting accounts from NATO, Washington, Serbia and the refugees, it was not clear by whom, Serbs or NATO.

On Wednesday morning, all of them were still living in their homes throughout Kosovo. One group that came across the border Wednesday night described the terror of being rounded up by Serbian authorities and forced to leave their homes in a half-hour early that day, only to come under attack again as they fled on the main road toward Albania.

Weary and empty-eyed refugees in two other groups composed mostly of women who came across the border early yesterday afternoon described being forced off their tractors and used as human shields to protect Serbian police who feared they might be bombed.

Another group from a northern city who were herded on buses and forced to leave Kosovo said, as they entered Albania late in the afternoon, that Serbian police forced them to stand beside the burning remains of the tractors while they were taunted with: "You wanted NATO, and this is what you got."

Puzzling inconsistencies

Although a number of details offered by the refugees confirm the accounts given by NATO officials who have accepted responsibility for bombing, calling it an accident, there are puzzling inconsistencies.

Some refugees said they saw two jets, not one. Some saw only one and said it was dark colored.

Some said the attack occurred near a bridge on the highway somewhere near the town of Krushne e Medje, roughly halfway between Dakovica and Prizren. Others said they were heading toward Dakovica when the bombs fell.

And some said the jet circled over the column at least twice, swooped down low, dropped two bombs and then circled again, dropping two more, the last hitting the lead tractor.

This is not the normal pattern a NATO attack jet would follow in a daylight raid.

But there were also points on which every one of the refugees agreed.

The attack occurred about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. The first bombs dropped did not hit anything. And they all said that while armored vehicles occasionally passed the convoy, no tanks were close enough to the column to have led to confusing the tractors with military vehicles.

The border crossing near Kukes has been the scene of almost unimaginable misery since Yugoslav paramilitary units began driving Albanians out of Kosovo. But few refugees have been so hollowed out by the experience as those, like Qela, who saw their diaspora turn into yet another nightmare, perhaps caused by the same people who were to have been their saviors.

`It was the Serbs'

"NATO tried to save us, so NATO can't bomb us," she said. "It was the Serbs who did it."

People all through the dangerously overcrowded refugee camps around this city were saying the same thing.

Those who were still streaming over the border crossing from Kosovo into Albania yesterday afternoon said over and over that NATO allies could not have dropped bombs on civilians riding on tractors, killing and wounding an as yet undetermined number of refugees.

Even after NATO commanders acknowledged that an American F-16 pilot had mistakenly sent a missile thundering into what he believed was a military truck, there was disbelief.

"We don't believe NATO could bomb us," said Ajmon Ademja, 62, as the tractor-pulled cart she was sitting in started to roll across the border into Albania yesterday. Her face had been ripped by shrapnel fragments and her ears were covered in blood.

"We could see it very big in the sky. NATO planes fly very high. This one was not high at all."

NATO commanders confirmed that the F-16 was flying at 15,000 feet and would not have been visible from the ground, as many refugees said yesterday.

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