Truths of war remain elusive

Kosovo struggles to answer questions Serbs left behind

June 21, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- As Yugoslav forces completed their withdrawal from Kosovo yesterday, as the last Serb soldiers pulled over the border, they left in their wake an untold number of unresolved questions.

Will the Serbian residents of Mitrovica, for instance, continue to stand defiant at the bridge over the Ibar River, carving out for themselves an enclave in the city?

Will anyone ever know what happened to those men who survived the massacre at Studima, but have since vanished?

And what is to become of the lead and zinc mine at Stari Trg? Has it been sabotaged? Are bodies at the bottom of the shafts?

In Kosovo, smashed and torn apart by war, some things are knowable, and others perhaps not. The hostilities, in theory, are over; now it is time for the people here to begin piecing and patching together some sort of new framework for their lives. It's not going to be easy or straightforward, because of the hatred, death and destruction that have visited the region.

A drive through northern Kosovo turned up nothing in the way of answers yesterday.

At Mitrovica, three dozen angry Serbian civilians were blocking the bridge that connects the two halves of the city. They were refusing to allow any Kosovar Albanians to enter the neighborhood on the left bank of the Ibar, though many have always lived there.

Serb residents of the right bank were fleeing across the bridge, in what may be first steps toward a divided, partitioned city. One man toted a television and a vacuum cleaner.

French soldiers, who had arrested a Serb and two Albanians for firing guns earlier in the day, stood on either end of the bridge, while their officers tried to negotiate with the Serbs or somehow defuse the situation.

A young Serb who gave his name asDalibor said the incident was a provocation by the Kosovo Liberation Army, deliberately sending Kosovar Albanians from nearby villages across the bridge to try to seize apartments vacated by Serbs.

`It is impossible'

Elbasanda Sediu, an Albanian who had been waiting four hours to get past the Serbs, heatedly denied this, saying she was on her way home, where her paralyzed mother depended on her.

She wanted to know why the French weren't doing something to help her. The soldiers were able to cross the Serbs' line freely. A French soldier told her simply, "It is impossible."

Everyone was jittery because of the gunfire earlier in the afternoon. The Serbs, saying they were determined to make a stand and not flee Kosovo, jeered in the afternoon heat, looking like a group of segregationists in the Deep South of the United States a generation ago.

Massacre of convoy

A few miles away, in the little village of Studima, all was serene, especially at the graveyard. Bahri Gaguri was showing some visitors the spot where he had helped to bury the 108 men and women whose bodies had been pulled from a nearby stream. Gaguri said he had been with them the night they were shot by Serbian police, all part of a 2-mile-long convoy of refugees fleeing the surrounding villages.

What happened to those who were killed the night of May 2 is not a mystery. Starting from the rear of the convoy, police picked out men -- and a few women -- seemingly at random and shot them in the head. But at some point the police switched tactics, and began separating the men from the rest of the convoy. They let the women and children move on; most apparently ended up in Albania.

Helped with burial

A Serb who was an acquaintance of Gaguri -- a former police officer -- recognized him and let him go. He returned to Studima. Four days after the shootings, he helped take the bodies from the stream and give them a proper burial, in 17 rows, head to foot, near a cornfield. The graves are marked by wooden stakes, with the name of the deceased carved or burned into the stake.

But what happened to the other men is not so clear. They were taken to the prison at Smrekovnica. Here the grounds feature beautiful roses and neatly clipped privet hedges. The cells -- about 25 feet by 15 feet -- each held 400 men, according to Isak Uka, an Albanian who had a maintenance job at the prison and says he was providing information to the KLA.

The cells were so crowded that everyone in them had to stand all night, Uka said.

About a month ago, most of the prisoners were shipped to Albania; they came across in bad health complaining of beatings. But about 150 prisoners, apparently suspected of being in the KLA, were taken elsewhere in Serbia, Uka said, and among them were some from the convoy at Studima. The whereabouts of another 500 prisoners is unknown.

After the massacre, Gaguri became one of the few residents of the village who stayed. He doesn't know where his wife and children are, though he assumes they are in Albania. This spring he has tilled his fields; the Serbs never came back to Studima.

Serbs flee mine

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