Liberation of Kosovo: The victims - Mass graves found in defiant capital defiance

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The Independent Online
THE GRAVES were new, hastily dug mounds of brown earth running into each other, about 30 of them. They were on the edge of an old cemetery. But the bodies lying in the fresh ones had not received any religious sanctification. They were buried very early one morning by the Serbian soldiers who had killed them.

The graveyard beside the railway line is just one of the grim discoveries that war crimes investigators will make when they arrive at Podujevo. This city, for so long the symbol of Kosovo Albanian resistance to the Serbs, had paid a high price in human misery.

Early yesterday morning, British troops and tanks from Nato's K-For entered the city to a tumultuous welcome, with roses being thrown at them, as has become a norm in liberated areas. As the Yugoslav forces began their grudging withdrawal from the blasted and burnt homes lining the roads, the people of Podujevo emerged to tell of their experience of war, of relations killed, injured or lost, of brutality and looting.

Veton Bekteshi yesterday afternoon led me to the cemetery, out in the countryside in an area where there were still pockets of Yugoslav soldiers huddled around in little groups.

There, under a sky of dark thunder clouds lit by flashes of lightning, two local men, Zeqir Jusufi and Ahmet Vesil, talked about those killed and buried there. "That one there is Idris Tahiri, and the one over there is his son Selim," Mr Jusufi said. "People who saw the buryings pointed the graves out to us. Selim and Idris were my next-door neighbours. The Chetniks [Serbian forces] went into their homes and shot them. They were good men. Idris was about 70, why would anyone want to kill an old man like him?"

Mr Vesil said that most of the burials took place just over two months ago, but there had been a few more recently. "The killings really began after the Nato bombing started, the Serbs seemed to go mad. "I saw the first lot of bodies being brought here one morning, when it was still dark. Serbian soldiers brought them and buried them. I could not see everything very clearly, I don't know whether they were all men, or women and children too."

Amira Bashi believes that her husband, Ibrahim, and his brother Sadil are among the those at the railway cemetery. But she is not sure; all she does know in her mind is that they are dead.

"A Serbian soldier told me that, about a week after they were taken away," she said. Sitting on some steps off the main street of Podujevo, where she had arrived to meet her cousin, Mrs Bashi described the last time she saw Ibrahim and Sadil. It was as they were being led away from her home at a village near Dyz.

"They came in four cars and asked for money. We gave them about 120 Deutschmark, but they wanted more. They started to beat up Sadil, and when my husband tried to stop them they beat him up too. Then they took them away. I was crying and so was my little daughter, she's only seven and she was very scared."

Hugging her knees, staring at the ground, Mrs Bashi continued: "I went to see the army and the police and at first they said they did not know anything about Ibrahim and Sadil. Then I was told one day that they were dead. I have heard they are at the cemetery beside the railway, but I don't know..." Her voice faded away.

Death never seems to have been very far away from Podujevo, and there are still bodies lying out in the hills, the locals say.

"Some have been killed by the Serbs, but there are also natural deaths, many of children, who couldn't cope with the lack of food. Their mothers have sometimes simply left the bodies there, they were too tired," said Vatan Bekteshi, who himself had been hiding in the hills for three months.

A former local official of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, he wants to start a record of abuses for human rights and war crimes investigators.

Mr Bekteshi said: "There are plenty of graves of people murdered. The one at the railway is just one of them. This area has been one of the worst when it came to killings. The Kosovo Liberation Army has been active here, so there has been a lot of fighting as well as murders by the Serbs."

In Podujevo, no family appears to be entirely unaffected by the violence. In a monotone, an old woman recited a list: "Three of the Shalafa family, 10 of the Bogujevci, the Duriqis lost seven... "

Listening to her, Nezir Jaha described how he found the body of a stranger in his house. Mr Jaha, a farmer, fled with his family from their home in Obranq to the hills four months ago. He returned to check whether the house was still standing on Thursday. "There was a body there, in almost a sitting position, he had been carbonised. I couldn't make out if it was a man or a woman. There was a horrible smell, it wasn't just a dead body. They had slaughtered all the cattle as well."

As the Serbians prepared to withdraw there was a last burst of violence, shootings and burnings, the locals say. Houses still smouldered around the city even as Nato troops were taking over the streets.

Some of the victims appeared to have been shot gratuitously. Vehti Ahmeti was shot by a sniper as he walked down the main street in Podujevo.

"It happened three days ago. I had left my wife and two sons at home and come into the city to meet some people. I was shot not just once but twice. One bullet hit me on the chest and then came out again through my chest and the other one hit me on the chest, came out and then went through my arm. It was about 4.30 in the afternoon and the streets were very crowded. There were lots of children around and they could have been killed," Mr Ahmeti said.

"I was taken to an UCK [Kosovo Liberation Army] centre by some people, and that's what saved me," he added.

Syed Akhbari was at his home at Koliq when a group of Serbian soldiers burst in five days ago. He said: "They wanted money, but I had none. They started breaking things and then one of them beat me with his rifle butt. One of the officers tried to stop the man. They all went out but then this man came back again and shot me in the leg. I am very thankful that I am alive. These are terrible times."

In his 86 years Selman Ismajli, too, has never seen "so much badness and misery around". He said: "I have been through three wars, first when the Germans came, then with the partisans and now this one. And this one is the worst. Men became savages, I don't know what possessed them.

"I am an old man and I'll have to bury 18 people myself."