Unearthing a buried atrocity

Cemetery may reveal evidence of massacre by Serbs in Kosovo

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 15, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KACANIK, Yugoslavia -- The graves lie in a cemetery behind a gasoline station, mounds of dirt marked with 81 plain wooden stakes.

Nobody really knows how many people were buried in this place, or how they died, or who they all were. But in the abandoned landscape that is Kosovo, where rumor mixes with fact, the area marks what could be the first massacre burial site uncovered by international peacekeeping forces in this Serbian province.

The world's news media descended upon this place yesterday, trying to document what allegedly occurred April 9, when Yugoslav military forces and Serbian police swept through this region that was a stronghold for the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Villagers say more than 90 Kosovar Albanians were killed by Yugoslav and Serbian forces and may be buried in the graveyard and at two other sites. More than two months after the killings, it is difficult to unravel the stories and to separate fact from fiction. A difficult investigation awaits war crimes investigators.

Yet something truly awful certainly occurred in this town where nearly every house is destroyed and every shop is gutted along a main street strewn with debris.

British soldiers reportedly discovered the site Sunday when they noticed local people placing flowers at the graves.

Asked if this was a mass grave, British Capt. Vicki Wentworth said: "It looks likely, but there is absolutely no evidence."

According to villagers, a paroxysm of violence tore through the town and up a gorge.

Residents said the massacre began with sniping in the town center early on the morning of April 9. The shooting ignited a panic, sending civilians with bags of clothes and six KLA fighters into the hills that surround this verdant place.

A winding dirt road along the Rakoc gorge became a trail of death, littered with bodies and blood.

All that remains are scores of spent shell casings from double-barreled anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, tattered clothing and signs of mayhem where people died.

According to Skender Sopa, who witnessed some of the shooting while hiding in his house, seven Kosovar Albanians were killed while they hid in a home with a shamrock painted on the side. Two others were killed in an empty farmhouse up the road. More are believed to have died when they reached a plateau and were gunned down by police on a ridge.

Sopa said 46 people were killed in the gorge. Others said 25 were killed along New Street.

"It started at 9 in the morning and ended at 8 at night, when they [Serbian security forces] brought out a red tractor with a wagon full of bodies," Sopa said of the attack in the gorge.

"All those killed were shot from a short distance," he said. "It was police and military together. Some with black masks."

"They killed old women, children and a 16-year-old girl in front of her parents," he said.

Lulzim Caku, a 23-year-old KLA fighter, claimed to have seen Serbs bulldozing bodies.

"They just grabbed them and threw them in the hole," he said.

The forces apparently missed three bodies, a 38-year-old woman named Mukadeze Lika, and two men, Tefik Nalbani, 45, and Xhxli Recha, who was over 60. Sopa and others buried them in shallow graves behind a shed overlooking a bubbling brook.

Also killed in the massacre was a 22-year-old nurse named Jehona Raka, who was supposedly tending to injured KLA rebels in the hills, and another nurse and a medical student, locals said.

Dr. Lul Raka, who is not related to the nurse, displayed a first-aid kit that might have been carried by one of the nurses. The kit was scarred by two bullet holes that had ripped through the bandages and syringes inside.

Standing in the gorge and looking at the mountains in the distance, it is hard to believe that such violence could occur in such a beautiful place.

But Kacanik was an ethnic Albanian rebel stronghold and a threat to Serbian security forces trying to protect their flanks near the Macedonian border.

The spiral of violence began when the town's pharmacist and three others were killed March 28, four days after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia. The pharmacist was reportedly singled out for providing housing to a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"It all started here," said Fatmire Shehu, pointing at the burned-out shell of the pharmacy.

Then it apparently exploded into the massacre.

Now that international peacekeepers have arrived, the town is attempting to get back to normal.

But this remains a frightening, shattered place, with white tape marking where mines may have been placed, and broken glass and spent shell casings littering the road.

The KLA is out in force, its local commander holding forth in the former police station.

Sitting behind an enormous glass-topped desk with a satellite telephone hooked to a car battery, Xhabir Zhanku said: "We're trying to build a civilian authority here. We have no computers. No copiers. Everything is destroyed."

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