On night of massacre, terror at hands of Serbian police

Among 65 dead, males lined up along stream, systematically killed

June 18, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

BELA CRKVA, Yugoslavia -- The case against Slobodan Milosevic hinges, in the end, on the particulars. That's why it is important that Zenel Popaj was wearing only his pajamas in the early morning of March 25.

Serb troops that night had rounded up as many residents of this village as they could find and lined the men up along the bank of a stream. Then the soldiers had shot them all with automatics. Forty-eight died. Before dawn broke, 15 people were killed elsewhere in the village. Two died later from their wounds.

The massacre led to one of seven counts in the indictment of Milosevic and four other top Serbian officials by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Testimony will come from the few survivors. Among them: the 58-year-old Popaj.

In the ruins of what used to be his house here, he described yesterday what it had been like during that night of confusion and terror.

He talked about standing in the dark alongside his 80-year-old father and not far from his 12-year-old nephew, both of whom died from the Serbs' bullets. He talked about his escape, crawling low through the bloody stream. And he talked about the bodies.

This weekend, forensic investigators from the war crimes tribunal will begin fanning out, to Bela Crkva and throughout Kosovo, to collect evidence of crimes like the one committed here.

"There is a very long list of sites we are interested in," Paul Risley, a spokesman for the tribunal, said yesterday. NATO troops and others, he said, have found evidence of so many apparent war crimes in Kosovo that what was planned as a seven-day forensic program will inevitably last much longer.

In addition to murder, he said, the potential crimes include illegal detention, torture, deportation and military attacks on civilian villages. But murder is the easiest to ascertain, particularly when the bodies are still in place.

One place the investigators will be sure to look is Bela Crkva.

Villagers buried their dead after the Serbs left, but the graves are only a few yards from where the little stream curves under a railroad bridge, at a place called Ura Belajes.

Bela Crkva (the name is Serbian, and it means White Church) was an entirely Albanian farming village when the Serb police came in March. It lies on flat land in the west, within sight of hulking Mount Pashtrik, beyond which lies Albania.

About 3,000 people lived here, and they had had trouble with police before. On July 18 and Sept. 2, police had descended on the village and given everyone a scare. On another occasion, officers shot up a car driving down a farm lane nearby, killing three of the four occupants.

Villagers begin to flee

On March 22, the possibility of a NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia had become very real, and people began to flee Bela Crkva when police set up a post outside town. More people fled the next day and the next, but some of them began to drift back when they saw that police were leaving the village alone.

That's why no one knows quite how many people were in Bela Crkva when the Serbian forces struck.

Popaj thinks there were about 300. He was one of them. He had gone to bed, in his pajamas, when the NATO bombardment began in the early morning of March 25.

"They came to the village at 3 o'clock in the morning," he said.

Among them were Yugoslav soldiers, paramilitaries and special police units, according to Teki Zhuniqi, another villager who was there that night but avoided the massacre scene.

The townspeople fled into the fields southwest of Bela Crkva, but after a half-hour some, including Popaj, headed back to their homes.

"That's when they started setting fire to the houses, and the tanks began approaching from the hills," he said.

At this point everyone headed back into the fields, toward the bridge at Ura Belajes.

"Then someone looked back and saw the police coming," he said.

They kept walking, trying not to panic, but they saw more police coming from both sides.

Assailants wore masks

They came upon two families -- 13 people -- one family from Bela Crkva, the other family refugees who had moved to the village. The villagers moved past them and a short while later heard shots.

They reached the railroad tracks about a half-mile south of the village, and split into two groups. One tried to head toward the village of Zrze, and the other moved up the stream toward the village of Rugova.

"But there were snipers, and we didn't dare continue," Popaj said. "We came back, and they surrounded us. One of them, who spoke Albanian, said, `Come and surrender. We are for peace.' We raised our hands, and they collected us all together."

Police, according to Popaj, Zhuniqi and other villagers who were there, then separated the women and children from the men and told them to head for Zrze.

An Islamic pilgrim, Biljal Zhuniqi, and another elder, Hysni Fatoshi, told police that they would vouch that the village men were not members of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. The police commander told them, this time in Serbian, to form a line.

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