Nightmare takes root in Kosovo farm village

Serbian troops held young women during war, then killed them

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 27, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QIREZ, Yugoslavia -- Sunday was market day here.

People would come in from all over the countryside to sell their produce in stalls along the one street. Elsadet Gemajli, working in his father's blacksmith shop, four buildings up from the new school, would make sure to have plenty of horseshoes for sale. Ilmi Dobra would dish out small cups of thick coffee in his cafe, where the farmers and the townsfolk stopped to rest their feet and swap the news.

It was a snug, provincial, conservative life.

Today weeds poke up through the street. The shops are rubble. The schoolyard holds three burned-out cars and four dead horses.

Qirez, a little village of 2,000 deep in the Drenica Valley, could be a symbol for all that has happened to Kosovo in the past year. Through 1998 it saw the Serbs come and go, chasing the residents out, letting them back in, smashing and burning a little before moving on.

To the people who lived here, much of what the Serbs did seemed to have no explanation, as if they were simply trying to sow confusion and anxiety among them.

Two weeks before the NATO bombing began in March, the Serbs were back again, saying one thing, doing another, killing a few. With the onset of war, Serbian forces moved in to stay.

The people of Qirez and smaller villages around it fled to the mountains, to towns elsewhere in Kosovo, to Albania. They spent months shifting from place to place, suffering from cold and hunger -- but none would have traded places with the few young women who were forced by police to stay behind, penned into two neighboring houses.

It is these women, anonymous today, who will brand Qirez into the memory of Kosovar Albanians. What happened here while they were alive might never be certain, but their fate during the Serbs' last spasm of defiant violence before pulling out is dreadfully clear.

They were slaughtered.

The Drenica Valley is a stronghold of ethnic Albanian villages. Only a handful of Serbs live in the region, clustered in the larger towns. Qirez has always been exclusively Albanian. Shaqir Nebihi says that his family has lived here for generations, that the village predates the Turkish conquest in the 14th century.

The Drenica was a stronghold, as well, of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and this explains why the Serbian forces devoted so much attention to it.

Isolated amid wildflowers

A visitor to Qirez must drive a half-hour along a winding dirt road, between fallow fields that seem to glow with purple and white wildflowers. Rows of luxuriant trees mark the streambeds. Low hills hide one settlement from the next.

The first glimpse of the village now is what remains of the mosque, its silvery domes crushed and minaret toppled. A dead cow lies impaled on barbed wire.

Farther on, in the center, the few dozen men who have returned tend to gather, to smoke and wait for the daily British army patrol. A few vendors have set up little stands, where they display flour, sugar, yeast, tea and cigarettes, but no one is buying.

The Nebihi farmstead lies out past the village on the other side, on about 14 acres where Shaqir Nebihi and his two brothers once grew wheat and corn, tended to their plum and apple trees, raised chickens and kept eight cows.

He also once commuted by bus to his job as a stenographer at a ferro-nickel plant in the town of Glogovac. But the bus no longer runs, and NATO bombs reduced the plant to a crumpled ruin.

Nebihi is embarrassed to let visitors see the ruins of his house. His niece, Jehona Fazliu, is baking bread with cheese in it in the wood-burning oven they have set up under a gaping hole in the roof. The cheese is homemade, with milk from the one remaining cow on the farm. The flour is from the first shipment of humanitarian food aid, which arrived last week.

The story of the Nebihi family's treatment at the hands of the Serbs is like thousands of others in Kosovo, distinguished only by the particulars. And it begins long before NATO sent its missiles and bombers over Yugoslavia.

The first time the 15 members of the household were forced to flee was in March 1998, a year before the air war began, when Serbian police began sweeping through Drenica. They returned when it was safe, planted their fields, led a quiet summer.

In September the Serbian police were back.

The women and children of the village were herded to a place called Kozhica, while the men fled to Mount Cycavica, an hour's walk away. For two nights, Nebihi says, the refugees camped at Kozhica, with the police occasionally pulling people away and killing them.

"After that, they told them to go back to their houses. `The offensive is over.' But when they got back, they found everything burned and stolen," Nebihi says. "They burned all the corn and grain we had stored. They burned my car."

They also burned one of the two houses on the farm.

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