Villagers marched by Serbs for weeks of random terror

Women and children of Podujevo aren't spared, survivors say

June 23, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PODUJEVO, Yugoslavia -- Badgered, taunted and half-starved, thousands of refugees in northern Kosovo were rounded up by Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries, marched from place to place for three weeks, and then herded into a cluster of villages where they remained captives for two months.

Many of the Kosovar Albanians were apparently shot along the way -- including pregnant women and young children -- picked out of the line of marchers and left for dead by the roadside.

Returning to their burned-out homes yesterday, survivors were still trying to make sense of the random and pointless nature of their experience at the hands of the Serbs.

They claim that 60,000 or more Kosovar Albanians were involved, and the representative of one Western aid agency who is familiar with Podujevo thinks that may be about right.

Ahmed Musliu, who lives in Podujevo, said he believes between 200 and 300 people were killed before the convoy was herded into the closed-off villages April 19. Most, he said, were young men. He and others said they had seen pregnant women shot to death and children beheaded.

The people of Podujevo and the surrounding district made up one of the largest groups of displaced persons within Kosovo during the war -- probably between 100,000 and 200,000 people. At least half evaded the Serbs by heading deep into the mountains southwest of town.

But those who fell into the hands of the Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces went through a singularly nightmarish three months.

Yesterday the first convoy of flour and mattresses from the United Nations arrived in Podujevo, to be distributed to people who are hungrier and more destitute than just about anyone in Kosovo. British tanks lined the street where the goods were unloaded, to avoid a repetition of the near riots that greeted food aid in Prizren last week. But thepeople of Podujevo are so listless that it is hard to imagine them mounting a disturbance.

Paramilitaries swept through Podujevo the night the NATO bombing began, March 24-25, ousting what was apparently almost the entire population of the town -- about 40,000 people. In the following days they emptied the villages in the surrounding countryside as well.

An illusory safety

Those who fled east across the main north-south highway at first thought they had escaped the Serbs. They reached a place called Sfecla, but three days later police approached and the group, swollen by now to its full size, climbed southeast into the hills, carrying with them flour, oil, potatoes and beans.

They spread out through the villages of Duz, Kolic and Turicica, where, according to several survivors, they were able to stay a short while.

Again, they thought they had eluded the Serbs.

"But it was raining all the time, it was so cold, and we had no shelter," said Mehmet Jupolli, 83, who lives in the village of Sajkovac.

In any case, a tank column came up from Pristina, surrounded the villages on three sides and began firing shots into them, the refugees said. Seven were reportedly killed in Turicica. The refugees said they saw many fresh graves when they passed through Kolic.

At this point, according to one survivor who gave his name only as Kemel, about 20 Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers were among them. The Podujevo area was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, and this undoubtedly contributed to the treatment of the refugees.

But the KLA soldiers had only automatics, and, unable to do anything against the Serbian tanks, they slipped away into the forest.

The refugees had no choice and were compelled to come back down out of the hills.

They said the Serbian police gathered them on the main road and began marching them south to Pristina, the regional capital about 17 miles away. This was when the killing began in earnest.

The paramilitaries would stand by the side of the road, beckoning to young men as they came abreast, said Nezir Lutoli, 65, who lives in Llapashtica. They would demand German marks from them and then, as often as not, shoot them in front of their families.

Avdullah Jupolli, 42, who is Mehmet Jupolli's son, said a soldier demanded 700 German marks (about $400) from a neighbor or he would shoot the neighbor's child. The money was handed over, but the next soldier along the line demanded 100 marks. The neighbor pleaded with the second soldier to spare his son and kill him instead. The soldier killed the son.

The third soldier they came to demanded 200 marks or he would kill the neighbor's other son. But when the man made the same plea as before, the soldier killed the father instead.

Jupolli said he saw a 15-year-old dragged out of a trailer being towed by a tractor and beheaded with a heavy knife.

When the Kosovo Albanians reached Pristina, they were told they couldn't enter Kosovo's capital and would have to go back. The refugees endured the same treatment, with people being killed and soldiers stealing money, jewelry, gold and food from the column.

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