War in the Balkans: The day the men of Bela Crkva died

Anatomy Of A Massacre

THIS IS the story of how a village was destroyed. This is what that antiseptic phrase "ethnic cleansing" means when it is applied to real people, in this case a small village on Kosovo's western border.

A handful escaped to Kukes in Albania to tell their tale to Human Rights Watch and a French journalist. Their experience may have been repeated in thousands of villages of which we know nothing yet.

If there are any doubts that the liquidation of the Albanian population of Kosovo was not planned well in advance of Nato's air campaign, the story of Bela Crkva nails that lie; for the Serbs' response to the first bomb was immediate, co-ordinated and absolutely thorough, and showed no sign whatever of improvisation.

Bela Crkva - which means white church - was a small, wholly Albanian settlement of a few hundred souls on the banks of the Bellaj river until the morning of 25 March, when its life was terminated.

At 3am, hours after Nato dropped the first missile on Yugoslav territory, the army began shelling and burning villages on the Albanian border. Bela Crkva was one of many obscure hamlets that just happened to lie in the belt of border territory which the Serbs had earmarked for the first phase of ethnic cleansing to create a cordon sanitaire between Kosovo and Albania.

Still in darkness, the villagers fled to the river bank. Most of them hid under the railway bridge that crossed the Bellaj. A smaller group gathered 50 yards away along the bank. The Serb soldiers found them there at dawn, isolated and unarmed. This soggy huddle of humanity shivering under the bridge, then, was a good example of the "terrorist menace" that Serbia's smooth and television-friendly representatives have spoken of.

The families of Clirim Zhuniqi and Xhemal Spahiu, in the smaller group, were dispatched first, 12 of them.

The village doctor, Nesim Popaj, pleaded for the lives of the main group with the commander, a man the survivors recalled as being about 35 and having a "scrunched-up mouth". The villagers were simple people, the doctor said. They had no connection with the guerrilla fighters of the KLA.

The commander replied by stepping with his boot on to the prone figure of the doctor's teenage nephew, and, after deliberating for a moment, blasting the boy's brains out.

"You are terrorists," he said, "and Nato will have to save you." He then pointed his gun at Dr Popaj and shot him dead, too. Now began the separation of the sexes of which so many Kosovo refugees have spoken, a practice the Serbs honed in the killing fields of Bosnia and applied with infamous attention to detail in the town of Srebrenica.

There, the Serbs, under the command of General Ratko Mladic, divided the sexes after over-running the Muslim town in July 1995, sparing the women but executing all the men and burying them in mass graves. There, too, the category of "men" included boys of 10.

The practice goes back further than Srebrenica. In the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, which the Yugoslav army captured in November 1991, the commander, Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin, divided the sexes. The women were told to walk to the nearest town in Croatia. But the Serbs took the men, including more than 200 wounded patients in Vukovar hospital, to a sheep farm at the nearby village of Ovcara, gunned them down and buried the bodies in a pit.

There is a meticulously observed pattern to Serb ethnic cleansing, consisting of four distinct stages: concentration - surrounding and shelling an area in order to drive the population from their homes into a small controllable area; decapitation - the murder of the community spokesmen, such as priests, teachers, lawyers and politicians; separation - the division of the sexes; and liquidation - the execution of men of fighting age. Bela Crkva, then, is no accident. This is how the Serbs wage war.

The women and men of this village were divided into two groups, "men" including anyone aged 12 and above. The men were ordered to undress until they were naked and hand over whatever money and documents they had on them, including their wedding rings. The Serb soldiers told the women to get out, by walking along the railroad track to the nearest village at Zrze, a mile away.

But the men were not taken to Zrze and what we know of their fate beside the banks of the Bellaj we know only from the accounts of the women who heard the sound ofmachine-guns opening fire, and from a few male survivors, who lay hidden in the river among the corpses of their neighbours and relatives. Two survivors were interviewed in Kukes, in northern Albania, by Human Rights Watch. Another was interviewed separately by a French journalist.

One of them said: "I was lucky. I was in front of the group. I was shot in the shoulder and flew into the stream, where I pretended to be dead. About 20 dead bodies fell on top of me. They then shot into the pile of bodies to be sure they were dead. They shot people one by one, but I didn't get shot because they didn't see me." His companions gave a similar account.

Nathaniel Herzberg of Le Monde spoke to a third survivor. He also told of how the men from the village were ordered to strip naked and hand over their valuables, and of how the Serbs then opened fire with machine-guns. And he also survived by falling into the stream and bobbing, apparently lifelessly, among the corpses for several minutes until the Serbs had left.

He thought about 40 had been killed but he probably under-estimated the death toll. Human Rights Watch has compiled a list of 62 men from Bela Crkva who were killed on 25 March. The organisation said several women later went back from Zrze to the bank of the river to look for survivors. Two days after the massacre the women returned again to bury their men. They had to work two nights in a row to bury all the bodies.

The full report on the massacre at Bela Crkva can be found on www.hrw.org.

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