Now Kosovo cannot even bury its dead

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The Independent Online
A BLUE refrigerated police truck stood outside the morgue at Pristina hospital yesterday, its rear doors backed up against the building to prevent anyone looking inside. The vehicle was being watched by a Land Cruiser full of monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and an armed Serbian policeman, who told us to clear off as soon as we arrived.

It was easy to see why the relatives of the 45 ethnic Albanians killed in the Racak massacre three weeks ago had chosen to wait in a smoke- filled office in Stimlje, 18 miles away, for news of what was happening to the remains. The story they had to tell demonstrated not only the hostility and indifference of the Serbian authorities to Kosovo's Albanian majority, but the gulf that will have to be bridged at the peace talks due to start tomorrow in France.

Mahmut Mahmuti, the 75-year-old hoxha (imam) of the mosque at Racak, a short distance from the town, said he had been summoned twice on Wednesday to see the police commander at Stimlje. The previous day villagers had gone up to Pristina in an unsuccessful attempt to confront the authorities and get back the 40 bodies taken away shortly after the massacre; now, said the commander, 29 of them had been brought to Stimlje in a police truck, ready for burial.

"I objected," said Mr Mahmuti, twisting his hands, with two fingers missing from the left, on his walking stick. "I said we didn't want to bury the victims separately, but all at the same time and place."

Sylejman Halili, 67, a village head man, said the Serbian judge in the case, Danica Marinkovic, had told them that relatives would have to identify the dead at Stimlje police station. This was contrary to the agreement that the OSCE thought it had brokered the previous day, that identification would be done in Pristina as part of an "orderly and dignified" procedure for disposal of the remains.

"The judge said that if we didn't turn up at the police station at 10am to identify the bodies, the authorities would bury them as they chose," said Mr Halili. "We don't want anything to do with the police at Stimlje - they were the people who killed our relatives.

"They said the rest of the people were terrorists from outside the village, but I told them we had a list of 41 people, with their names, addresses, dates of birth, everything."

The families contacted Michael Pedersen, the OSCE official leading mediation efforts, and yesterday morning the truck returned to the provincial capital with its grisly cargo still inside - in Stimlje it is rumoured that 12 of the bodies are so mutilated that identification is impossible.

Late yesterday the OSCE said talks were still going on, but it is likely to be several more days before the victims of the massacre at Racak are finally buried.

"It takes time to dig 40 graves, and we haven't even settled yet on where exactly they will be," said Mr Mahmuti, who lost his own home in the attack.

Few have dared to return to the village, and it is difficult for the fearful Albanian community to stay in touch with the widely dispersed families as the wrangling goes on.

"This is harassment of the living as well as the dead," said one grieving relative, and they all exclaimed in agreement.