Grim villagers recall night of Black Hand

Returning Kosovars describe massacre by Serb marauders

June 24, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MEJA, Yugoslavia -- On April 29, by the side of a dusty mountain road in Albania, a bewildered and devastated Traslije Sokolaj sat on a rock and told how her three sons had been shot in front of her by Serbian paramilitaries two days before, by the green gate to their farm in Kosovo. Then she told how she was forced to move on while their bodies lay still in the lane.

It was little more than a passing moment in the great flood of grieving and terrified refugees from Kosovo, who were to flow across for weeks and weeks. Hers was just one story in thousands. Now, with the tide turned, there is another dramatic surge of people, going home, this time expectant and hopeful.

But at Sokolaj's house here in western Kosovo, all was quiet yesterday. Though lace curtains still hung in the second-floor windows, the two-story, white-stucco house was burned out. The orchard of plum trees along one side of the property beckoned deceptively in the sunny afternoon breeze. A chicken scratched in the drive. There was no sign at the green gate of the murders that had taken place there.

Hardly anyone lives in Meja now. Nearly all the homes are burned. Mines are likely to be everywhere -- in the plum orchard, among other places. And a terrible memory will haunt this village for generations -- the memory of a Serbian gang called the Black Hand.

"I don't know where the Sokolajs all are," said Zef Pnisi, 62, who returned Monday from Albania. "But I know most of them are dead."

The Black Hand killed with abandon the night of April 27, according to refugees interviewed in Albania shortly afterward and witnesses who had returned to the village yesterday. The gang killed men from Meja and from surrounding villages who had come to Meja.

They lined men up and shot them down. Some were buried and others apparently burned. But not all. A leg with a foot attached lies in an open field. Bodies litter the bushes where the first killings took place. What appear to be human bones lie near the site of the second bout of shooting.

"It was like hell," said Jetishi Bardme, 57, who returned Tuesday.

Meja, a village of ethnic Albanian Roman Catholics a few miles west of Dakovica, lies almost at the bottom of the slopes of Mount Pastrik. Farmers grew what farmers grow throughout Kosovo: plums, pigs, chickens, cattle, wheat, corn. Dakovica, which provided a ready market for their produce, is now reduced to rubble.

The seven brothers in the older generation of the Sokolaj family had prospered, here and as laborers in Germany, where they had saved their money so they could build comfortable big houses for their families back home. Life here was solid and without want. There was one problem, really -- and that was the Serbs.

When the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia began on the night of March 24-25, Meja was more or less left alone. But by the middle of April, Serbian paramilitary groups had begun raiding nearby villages, setting houses afire and herding the residents from place to place. Finally, they ended up in Meja, camped in a wheat field north of the village.

A house that sits on a rise overlooking the village was occupied by a Serb from Montenegro, Bardme said, who promised to do all he could to protect the Albanian villagers.

Black Hand's revenge

But on April 24, soldiers from the Kosovo Liberation Army ambushed a car full of Black Hand paramilitaries passing through Meja, killing five. Blerim Islami, an 18-year-old KLA fighter, said his group was with the refugees in the wheat field. But the KLA, he said, decided to withdraw from Meja after concluding that their presence would only endanger the civilians.

When the Black Hand rolled into town April 27 to take revenge, it didn't appear to matter what the KLA chose to do.

The Serb from Montenegro fled from his house, and the Serbs took it over as their headquarters.

They gathered all the refugees and villagers -- perhaps about 10,000 people by this time -- into two large groups. People who didn't come out of their houses were killed and left inside.

"Two men were killed in that house, three in that one, one in that one over there," said Bardme as he walked down the main street yesterday.

Evening was coming on, and many of the Albanian men were able to hide in village fields and hedgerows. But the Serbs gathered a large group at their makeshift headquarters. Men who looked as if they were between the ages of 15 and 50 were separated from the group. Women, children and the elderly were told to leave for Albania.

Bardme, who was watching from a field, said a large group of men was led up a muddy lane toward the Catholic cemetery. Pnisi was in his house near the center of the village, somehow having gone undiscovered. Peering out the window, he said, he counted more than 100 men. Other accounts, given by refugees in Albania, put the number at about half that many.

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