Liberation of Kosovo: The student hostel that became a torturers' den

THERE WERE children playing in the sun at Cacak Street yesterday, something they had not done for a long time. Their families stood in huddles at the corner, another sign of normal life returning to Pristina. But the grey building to which they were pointing was a dark, forbidding reminder of the cruelty and barbarity which Kosovo had sunk into.

Down the cold concrete steps that led beneath the former student hostel taken over by the Serb special police, lay the tools of the torturers.

There were knuckle-dusters, clubs, a long evil-looking knife and a baseball bat with an inscription in Cyrillic reading "mouth shutter". All were items used by the Ministry of Interior Police (MUP) to force from their victims whatever supposed secrets they were withholding. The only comparison was with a medieval dungeon.

Elsewhere there was more horror; a bed with twisted leather straps was used to tie down and rape women prisoners - there were gashes in the stained orange mattress, apparently made by screwdrivers and bayonets; there was a rusty hacksaw, the blade of which was stained with what may, or may not, have been blood.

It was not hard to imagine what horror took place in this concrete cellar but if there was any doubt, the local people were quick to add detail. They said that the four-storey building in the centre of Pristina used to be a hostel for high school students. Then the MUP took it over and it became a place of fear which the people in the neighbourhood tried to avoid passing.

They would see van loads of men and women, sometimes teenagers, being taken in. Soon the screaming would start, and at times bodies would be taken out. Very few arrested and taken to Cacak Street came out to tell what went on, and those lucky enough not to visit the place learnt not to ask too many questions.

As investigators for International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague yesterday began to examine evidence inside the building, taken over by Nato, staggering figures of casualties throughout Kosovo began to emerge. British Foreign Office Minister Geoff Hoon stated that more than 10,000 Kosovar Albanians may have been killed in 100 massacres. He said these estimates had been based on reports from refugees and local people, and that the final figure could be far higher.

At Cacak Street, inside the dank, dirty building, there was a clear glimpse of what the men of the MUP had been up to and the horrors their victims had suffered.

Some of the evidence had already been destroyed by the Serbs, as they hurriedly left before handing over the headquarters to Nato - the MUP commander reportedly in jovial mood.

Piles of ashes still smouldered outside yesterday afternoon.

It took the Nato forces 48 hours to ensure the building was free of of booby traps. Only then were the discoveries made. And despite the Serb bonfire there was ample evidence left behind.

The paraphernalia of torture and brutality was scattered throughout the building. The bed was found on the first floor where the MUP men used to sleep in a filthy dormitory strewn with empty bottles of vodka, cigarette packets and packets of condoms. There were hundreds of packets of contraceptives, not just there but seemingly piled up in every room.

Then there were the drugs and the pornography, left lying around at the entrance hall, the offices used for administration, the dormitories and in the cellar. The drugs ranged from cannabis to atropine - medically used for heart conditions but also favoured as a relaxing agent for interrogation in some totalitarian states. Needles were stacked up beside bottles of these. The pornography was a collection of magazines and videos, in garish, tattered packing, much of it devoted to sexual violence towards women, including bondage. In many cases characters were dressed up as the Devil.

Beneath these rooms the steps led to a place of echoing menace.

This was where much of the interrogation was done in low rooms of cracked walls, lit by dull yellow lights. Here there were the piles of clothes of men and women who had been stripped before the abuse began. Here was the barred iron door, the sword and the knuckle-dusters, and bales of cotton wool beside bottles of unlabelled medication.

No one knows how many people died in Cacak Street. It was not meant to be a place of execution, and what killings took place are believed to have been due to the over-zealousness of the torturers rather than anything pre-planned.

According to relations of some of the prisoners, most were taken off to jails in Serbia.

Chillingly, the inmates of this ghastly place - almost 500 went through here - are recorded in piles and piles of documents falling from the desks down to the floor.

In the mug shots some of them look no more than boys, fearful of what is to lie ahead. And there are photos of families, laughing parents holding out babies and children, as well as some which appeared to have been taken during surveillance.

One wonders about the fate of these people. What for instance happened to Zes Shala, a worker for the Mother Theresa Centre, looking serious and straightfaced to the camera; or the wide-eyed young Selin Bashi, a student at Pristina University? Or Malina Berashi, an exceptionally pretty young woman?

One room was filled with the number plates of cars belonging to Kosovar Albanians leaving the province to ensure that they would have great difficulty getting back. Also there were stacks of identity cards, taken for the same purpose.

Neighbours of the MUP headquarters yesterday spoke about things they had seen but had been afraid to talk about. Sadil Rexha, a 42-year-old with three children said: "We know people were killed there. I don't know how many, but there were certainly quite a few. We could hear shouting followed by screaming. You could hear people crying. I told my family not even to look at this place, I thought it was cursed."

A young woman, Blerina Klokoqi, added: "We used to see relations of the prisoners turn up asking for news. It was so sad because you could see them going away not knowing what had happened.

"Sometimes men from entire streets were taken there. We were all afraid of what was going on."

The perpetrators of what went on here have gone. Some as part of the exodus of Yugoslav forces from the southern sector of Kosovo which was completed the midnight before last, but others, it is suspected, have slipped back into the Serbian civilian community. Dozens of blue uniforms of the MUP lay on the floor.

Apart from their taste for violence, the Serbs have left behind taped up calendars of semi-naked women on the walls along with posters of Serbian saints. There are a few crude drawings and a few torn books.

Lieutenant Dave Blakeley, of No. 1 Parachute Regiment played a part in negotiating the handover of the building to Nato. Walking through the rooms he said: "You know, I met the commandant of this place, he was trying to come over as a jovial, fellow-soldier type. We now feel very frustrated that he and his men could get away with what they have done.

"We feel angry. We are paratroopers and it takes a lot to shock us. But this is terrible. I am not being dramatic, this is truly evil."

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