War In The Balkans: Serb border mine slaughters family

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The Independent Online
ON ORTHODOX Good Friday, we watched Yugoslav border guards drilling holes in the tarmac leading from Serbia to Albania, and slotting in anti-tank mines, leaving perhaps half a lane and a muddy verge clear for the constant, dreadful, despairing stream of refugee traffic. Yesterday, we saw the hideous results of their workmanship.

At 2.40am, Ibush Berisha drove the family's white car across the border and over a mine. There was an explosion that threw the car in the air, killing his wife and three of his children instantly and critically wounding his mother and middle son. Relatives travelling in a tractor trailer behind the car watched in horror, then attempted to rescue the victims.

"The moment the mine exploded the children and their mother were thrown far away," said Ibush, who was exhausted from his journey and in shock at its horrific end.

"The people still in the car were badly injured, having difficulty breathing and I tried to give them heart massage. The others were scattered around, one on this side, one on the other side, 10 metres or 15 metres away from the car. I don't know where my boy is."

Back at the border, Mustafa Berisha, his brother, waited for news of the family's dead. We said that Besnik, 11, had been rushed to an Italian Red Cross field hospital 12 miles away with facial injuries. It later emerged he also had severe trauma to his head.

"He is alive?" Mustafa asked, starting to weep. We did not know, but we drove him to the camp, where Italian doctors told us that Besnik - until then known only as "Unidentified Patient, aged about 14" - had been evacuated by helicopter to Tirana. The prognosis was not good.

Ibush's mother, Nasmije, died in an ambulance on the way to Kukes hospital, her son, at her side.

He had already lost his wife Hajrie, 34, his only daughter Lavdie, 15 - her name means glory in Albanian - his eldest son Flamur, 13, who was handicapped, and his son, Dritan, 10.

"I didn't see the moment the car exploded, I just heard the noise," said Mustafa, who was in the trailer.

He was left yesterday trying to recover the bodies of his nephews and niece - the Serbs, not content with killing the family, were refusing to let the survivors recover the children's corpses.

"My daughter and two sons have been left on the other side of the border," said Ibush. "We carried the first three out, but when we went back to take the others, the Serbian police forbade us to do so on the pretext that the area was mined."

Hajrie's mutilated body lay in a medical tent at the border yesterday, covered in a grey blanket.

Since the Albanian border police could not, or would not help, Mustafa courageously walked back, against the flow of terrified, exhausted refugees, to the Serbian side to demand the return of the children's bodies.

We watched him walk alone, fearful yet hopeful that the Serbs would do the right thing. But when he returned a few minutes later, he brought a grim message: there was really only one body left - the others were in pieces, as Ibush feared - and it had been taken to the morgue in Prizren. Mustafa could collect it - if he could find a car to take him back.

By then, however, he was too frightened to return 20km into Serbian territory. Instead he waited in the rain for an ambulance to collect Hajrie's body. "I know that in war there are victims, but it is so hard when it happens to you," he said. "Lavdie was such a good girl, she did all the chores without ever complaining, and she was good at school too," he continued, refusing an offer of food, despite having spent two days on the road without eating or sleeping.

"Besnik was riding on the tractor at first, but we picked up so many people along the road that the trailer filled up and I sent him to travel in the car, saying he would be better there. He refused to go at first," Mustafa said, tears welling. "I met so many people in a critical state and I couldn't leave them there, so I put them in the trailer."

It was a typical Kosovan gesture. These people have shown the very best side of human nature, despite being forced from their homes at gunpoint, robbed, beaten and, in the case of many of the women, raped

On Saturday, journalists attended the simple, sombre funeral of a woman tortured by the Serbs because her son was believed to be a Kosovan rebel. She was found by other Kosovars, her wrists broken, and brought to Albania, where she died. She was buried by her compatriots, though they did not know her name.

"I was so afraid, when we reached the border, that the Serbs might split up the family, separate the men from the women, that was the only fear I had, I didn't think about a mine in the road," Mustafa said. "Before the mine exploded, four or five Serb policemen stopped us and searched us for money and documents - they wanted 200 deutschmarks to let us go."

After the explosion: "The Serbs came to us immediately, and said `Why did you drive over the mine? You must go now and you are lucky, because it could have been worse'."

The answer comes from Ibush. "There was no warning on the road to tell us this zone was mined, and no one said this to us," he explained.

The Berishas' story is not so different from those of thousands of compatriots murdered, brutalised, humiliated and expelled by President Slobodan Milosevic's forces. "We left on Friday at 6pm. An hour before the Serbs came with guns and ordered us to leave," Mustafa explained.

Hitting the mine, that added tragedy, is all that distinguishes them from the 296,456 other Kosovars who have crossed the Morini border post in the past three weeks.

All we can hope is that one day the Serbian people, in whose names these many crimes are being committed, will understand and accept the evil done by Mr Milosevic. And that the people of Kosovo will somehow see justice and their right to live in peace, in their own land, prevail over tyranny. But, of course, it will all come too late for the Berisha family.