Village forced to face losses


Massacre: For women in Kosovo, testimony in Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial means the end of hope that 102 men and boys would return.

August 31, 2002|By Richard Mertens | Richard Mertens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KRUSHE E VOGEL, Kosovo --- For three years, Shemsije Batusha, 32, clung to the hope that her husband would come back.

She cleaned, cooked meals, chopped wood, looked after her son, Mevlan, and tended to her 77-year-old mother-in-law. She earned money when she could. But all the while she told herself that her hardships would end when her missing husband, Milain, returned and took his place in the family again.

All over Krushe e Vogel, a small, hillside farming village in southern Kosovo, women tried to lighten their grief with the hope that their absent husbands and sons would return. It took the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which resumed in The Hague last week, for them to face the truth: Their men were dead.

"When I realized they were all dead, at that moment I felt sorry for myself and for this old woman," says Batusha, sitting with her mother-in-law, Hanumsha Batusha, in the shade of a cherry tree.

"I was afraid that when she learned the whole truth, she would get sick again. I thought my life is getting worse and worse. I realized that the old woman would leave me someday, and then what would I do? I have an 8-year-old boy and no income. What could I do?"

No place in Kosovo likely suffered more than Krushe e Vogel during the civil war that ended with NATO's intervention in 1999. On March 26 of that year, Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces, unsuccessful in their fight against the province's ethnic Albanian guerrillas and angry at NATO's bombing, rounded up ethnic Albanian villagers.

They drove the women and children south, toward the high peaks of the Accursed Mountains that mark the Albanian border.

Then they herded the men and older boys into a stable, gunned them down with automatic weapons, and set the building on fire. One hundred and two died.

Then the Serbs looted and burned much of the village, which is known by Serbs as Mala Krusha. Milosevic is charged with the massacre in Krushe e Vogel, as well as with other war crimes in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

In the three years since the killings, the survivors have struggled to put the disaster behind them. The war gave the province's ethnic Albanian majority autonomy from Serbia but left it with huge economic, social and political problems that it is only beginning to confront.

International relief organizations have helped rebuild the village, often to a higher standard than what was destroyed.

In many places, houses of block and concrete rise above ruins of sun-dried mud brick. The village has also acquired a day care center, a women's center and a small processing plant that turns locally grown peppers into powder. A primary school will open this fall.

Rebuilding lives has been harder. In a village of only about 800 inhabitants, almost every family has lost one and often several members. The massacre left 82 widows and 140 children without fathers.

"When we came back, we talked about the war and our losses all the time," says Shpresa Shehu, a 32-year-old schoolteacher whose extended family lost 38 men.

"There were days we didn't eat anything because our minds were so much on what we lost. We can't say our sorrow is gone now. But we've gotten used to it. We have everyday problems. We have to live. We have to take care of the children and the houses. ... Somehow these things take our minds away from what happened," Shehu says.

The Milosevic trial was a turning point. On June 11, two survivors of the massacre in Krushe e Vogel testified in The Hague about what they saw. Their testimony was broadcast throughout the province, and almost everyone in Krushe e Vogel was watching.

Some had resisted the truth, in part because the bodies had never been found. After the massacre, the Serbs destroyed the stable, excavated the remains and dumped them, villagers say, in a nearby river.

"Somehow we hoped they were missing and would come back," Shemsije Batusha says. "But when we heard the witnesses in The Hague that day tell how [the men] were killed and burned, and how only six survived, from that moment on we realized that they were not alive anymore, that they were dead and not going to be back."

The realization brought a painful clarity to the women's futures. In the weeks since, Batusha and other widows have been filing death certificates with the local municipality to be eligible for pensions. Some had taken steps toward independence, going to the women's center to learn to drive, to sew, to plant crops, to use a computer.

The massacre has jolted many women out of the traditional roles of mothers and housewives assigned them in this patriarchal and conservative society. With so many men gone, the women have been forced to shoulder responsibilities they never expected to take on.

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