Liberation of Kosovo: Massacre site - Returning to the village of 100 orphans

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HEAVY OVERNIGHT rain had given way to sunshine by the time a foot patrol of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment passed through Racak yesterday, their boots crunching on a thick layer of mud and gravel.

How many of these men, I wondered, knew that what happened in this village had brought them to Kosovo?

Racak is where it all began: the failed Rambouillet peace talks between Serbs and Albanians; the two-and-a-half-month deluge of Nato bombs on Yugoslavia; the slaughter of possibly 10,000 Kosovo Albanians by Serbian forces and the forced expulsion of a million more; the build-up of K-For by the West; the capitulation by Slobodan Milosevic that allowed these British squaddies to enter Kosovo.

In the warmth of a Balkan summer, there are few clues to the events of five months ago. But up a track between two farm buildings is the hilltop where 45 civilians, including three women, a 12-year-old boy and many men over 60, were shot and hacked to death on 15 January by Serbian Interior Ministry police and paramilitaries. Nobody goes there now, because the hilltop is mined, but back in January I had looked down on a frozen, deserted hamlet in which the only sound came from abandoned dogs and farm animals. Everyone still alive had fled.

What took place in Racak was to be repeated all across Kosovo within weeks, but nobody knew that then.

The massacre made plain, however, that Belgrade had no intention of honouring the ceasefire it had agreed the previous October, and that unarmed monitors were never going to make President Milosevic comply.

In intercepted telephone conversations, one of his deputy prime ministers, Nikola Sainovic, was heard ordering the security forces to "go in hard", and later discussed how to deflect the international outrage the killings had caused.

Forty of the bodies had been laid out in the village mosque, where yesterday traces of blood could still be discerned. Two days after the massacre, the police seized the evidence, carrying the corpses away to a morgue in Pristina. It was not until February that the victims of Racak could be buried.

Five months ago I knocked on the door of a shuttered house where frozen washing hung on the line, thinking the occupants might be hiding inside. "No, we were all far away by then," Sami Syla said yesterday as we sat down in his front room. At 40, he is now the senior man of the family. His father, Shyqeri, 65, and one younger brother, Sheremet, 36, died in the massacre. Also in the room was their mother, Sherife, 61, who told the story of that January day. "From dawn there was so much shooting that we decided to escape, but when we reached the hilltop my husband turned back, " she said. "Two of us were wounded as we ran. The next day I came back and looked at every corpse on the hill. My husband's throat had been cut so deeply that his head was nearly off. Then I found my second son. His head and body had been hacked with an axe." At this Sheremet's widow, a pale, round-faced young woman, began crying soundlessly.

Mr Syla went to a glass cabinet and brought out a razor-sharp flick knife with an eight-inch blade. "This was found near my father's body," he said. "It may have been used on him."

In the international wrangle over the dead of Racak he was powerless to help his family, but his mother was among the relatives who went to Pristina in one fruitless attempt to get the bodies back. "On the day of the funeral I hid in the woods above the village in my KLA uniform and watched," he said. "Two weeks later I came back to see if everything was all right, and was shot at four times.

In all, 11 members of the Syla clan were massacred, among them her brother, and in January I had given her a lift to the Pristina morgue. Then she was thin and sallow, worn out from crying; though still touched by sadness, the woman who greeted me was healthier and tanned.

For if hundreds of thousands of Kosovars spent the weeks of the Nato campaign in the countryside, some people from Racak had been hiding in the open twice as long. "We came back nine days ago, the same day your forces entered Kosovo," said Mr Syla. "It has taken until now to clean this house up. Everything was stolen or smashed. This was the richest village in the local commune, and the Serbs wanted to make an example of us."

Bedrije had brought her seven-year-old daughter, Donika, who wore a bullet on a string round her neck. "A KLA commander gave it to her," said her mother. "I hate it, but she says she will only take it off when she feels safe."

This is the legacy of Racak: while the village is rapidly being repaired, the adults insist that the trauma will remain with them always. Their only hope is for their children. "But there are 100 orphans here," said one man. "Who is going to look after them?"

At the burial ground one grave remains open, for the body of an old woman which had disappeared by the time the Serbs withdrew from the village. "We could not bury bodies where we wanted to, and now it is full of mines," said Mr Syla. "One day we will move them, and put up a memorial."

There are mass graves all over Kosovo now, but in the years to come Racak is sure to retain a special significance. "This is going to be a holy place," said a man from a neighbouring village who had come with his two young sons. "Their blood will never be forgotten."

Given sentiments like that, the Royal Irish or their successors are likely still to be present when a memorial is erected, however long it takes.