The forgotten story of rape and murder in Kosovo, American-style

The bombers had departed, the burning of villages had ceased, the peacemakers had moved in. But Kosovo had one more horror in store. The rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl by an American soldier was described as the worst incident since Vietnam. Ten months later, the crimes of the 82nd Airborne Division have been exposed. But what has happened to the victim's family?
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On a cold and sunny morning last January, an 11-year-old girl called Merita Shabiu was playing in the snow outside her family home in the Kosovan town of Vitina when a smiling man in uniform offered her some chocolates. Having gained her trust, he led her to the block of flats standing opposite. There, in a dank basement, he sodomised her before crushing her neck on the concrete floor with his steel-capped boot.

On a cold and sunny morning last January, an 11-year-old girl called Merita Shabiu was playing in the snow outside her family home in the Kosovan town of Vitina when a smiling man in uniform offered her some chocolates. Having gained her trust, he led her to the block of flats standing opposite. There, in a dank basement, he sodomised her before crushing her neck on the concrete floor with his steel-capped boot.

It was a savage death, but then Kosovo has in recent years been a savage country. What made the murder of Merita different, however, was that it took place after Nato's "liberation" of the former Yugoslav province, rather than during the murderous chaos that preceded it. And Merita's killer was not Serb or Albanian, but a Nato "peace keeper": Frank J Ronghi, a staff sergeant with the élite 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army.

It didn't take long for Ronghi to be arrested. Other children had seen Merita entering the building with the soldier that day - and noted that she did not return. At first, however, the Americans would not allow the UN Police to investigate the case. But enquiries by their own military police soon uncovered damning evidence.

Astonishingly, Ronghi had been boasting to fellow soldiers of his fetish for young girls - and had described how he had raped three, including two young sisters, while on another mission in Haiti. In Kosovo, he related with relish, there were endless opportunities, not just for rapes but murders, too. The secret was to dress in civilian clothing, so that local Serbs would get the blame.

Ronghi, squad leader of the Alpha company of the 3rd battalion, even took his men to a wooded spot ideal, he said, for hiding a body. It was here that Merita's body was found a month later, stuffed in a plastic bag. Charged with rape and pre-meditated murder, Ronghi was convicted in August at a court martial in Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The incident, not surprisingly, made sensational headline news in America, and the 1,000 page report into the killing, published in September, was one of the most scathing indictments of the behaviour of US soldiers since Vietnam. But 10 months after Merita's death, her family seem to have been forgotten. What is their story? Last week, I travelled to Kosovo to find out.

The Shabius have left their cottage in Vitina, and now live in an isolated hamlet in the mountains, accessible only by trekking through wooded hills. Here, they are facing up to the coming winter with no running water and intermittent power. What food they get comes from aid agencies, and the jobs promised to the sons of the family by the Americans have not materialised. Despite their daughter's death, no officials have come to see them in months.

However, Merita's father, Hamdi, who is 41, and her 37-year-old mother, Remzije, are unfailingly courteous and hospitable, making tea and, ignoring the shortages, offering to share their meals. They are surprised to discover that people from outside Kosovo have taken enough interest to find them through the woods.

Merita's blue school duffel bag still hangs on the wall and her parents are eager to show me pictures of her, a pretty, smiling girl with fair hair. A toy Humvee and a plastic Stars and Stripes flag - gifts from the US Army after her murder - lies in one corner of the room. In another, Merita's grandmother, Djemile, sits on the floor, wiping her eyes at the mention of her name.

The brother closest in age to Merita, 10-year-old Sami, has taken his sister's death particularly badly. "He has nightmares where he says he can see her face," says Remzije, shaking her head. "Sometimes when he wakes up, he rushes out of the room screaming. I can't sleep much either. I think of her all the time. The way she would run up when I returned home. The way she would be full of chatter about what she had been doing with friends..." With this, her voice fades away.

The family tell me how they were kicked out of their home by the Serbs during the Nato bombing in May 1999. All of them, including Merita, were forced to make their way through ice and forest to find refuge in neighbouring Macedonia. Hamdi is still partially handicapped by a beating he took at the hands of Serbian soldiers.

"Looking back, it is strange that having survived the enemy, my daughter got killed by someone who was supposed to be a friend, who was supposed to protect us," he reflects. "But maybe that is fate, maybe that is what God has willed."

How does he feel now about the Americans?

"We do not hate them," he replies. "How can you hate a people for the act of one person? He was a bad man, he did very bad things to our daughter. He took her soul. Afterwards a lot of American Army people came to see us. They gave us money, and to others in the area. We used that to pay for the funeral. Hundreds of people came to the funeral, including people from the American Army. We were happy to see them there."

And now?

"At the time they said they would give our son a job at the camp. But nothing came of that. Perhaps they tried and there were no jobs available. They also said they would pay some compensation for my daughter's life. But we have not seen anyone from there for a long time, so I don't think that will be happening."

Hamdi has not seen a copy of the report published after the inquiry ordered by the US Army's chief of staff, General Eric Shineski, into the activities of Staff Sergeant Frank Ronghi's unit in Kosovo. If he had, he would have learnt that the unit, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, prided itself on its motto: "Shoot 'em in the face" - and that none was prouder of the men's toughness than its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Ellerbe.

The role of the US Forces at that time was clear: to keep the peace between the Albanian population and what was left of Kosovo's Serb community, and to provide assistance to the civil powers. Instead, the report concluded, the soldiers had been running riot, violating even "basic standards of conduct of human decency" and resorting to "intimidation, abuse and beating of Albanians".

The US troops had undergone intense training for fighting in Kosovo. But instead they endured the monotony of endless patrols and checkpoints. Any time off was spent at the barracks at Camp Bondsteel, a little slice of the Mid-West with its own McDonald's and Burger King, bowling alleys and cinemas. A place, in short, uncontaminated by locals or local products.

There, the bored young soldiers, many from poor neighbourhoods, would kick their heels and swap war stories. The talk soon turned to their contempt for local "gooks" and "schiptars", and to what a hellhole Kosovo was. The veterans, naturally, would hold court. But even in this testosterone-fuelled company, Staff Sergeant Ronghi's tales were always memorably dark. One of his fantasies, it was reported, was to find a little girl with a single mother - so he could rape and kill both and leave no witnesses.

It was in this poisonous atmosphere that Lt Col Ellerbe instructed his unit to "identify and neutralise" splinter Albanian groups - an order that was to prove fatal, and which the report found was responsible for "creating the condition to step over the line into... criminal misconduct".

The scale of the abuse in the town and its environs, a beautiful area of hills and meandering rivers, depended on the whim of the US soldiers. At night, the report revealed, they would shine torches in civilian faces - but only after fixing the torches to their M4 carbines, so victims would be looking down the barrel of a gun. Scaring locals was fun. One of the officers recommended for court martial by the report, Lt John Serafini, held a gun to the head of an Albanian during questioning and threatened to blow his brains out.

Night raids would take place - purportedly in the search for weapons, but often as an excuse to trash Albanian property. Household documents, so necessary in a place trying to organise a new structure like Kosovo, would be torn up. Beatings were routine and ranged in scale.

The report concluded that the battalion and company commanders knew, or should have known, what was going on, and recommended that Lt Col Ellerbe should face disciplinary action, along with a number of more junior officers.

But Marita's family did not get visits from any senior Kosovo politicians, those who fought last weekend's election and seek to lead an independent Kosovo. There was no Ibrahim Rugova, the would-be President, and no Hashim Thaci, the former KLA leader who is likely to lead the opposition. For in Kosovo, there is a general feeling that independence is very much a gift of the American-led West, and in this context the adverse publicity surrounding the death of a little girl is rather embarrassing.

And now, in a final twist, it is reported that, in spite of everything, Lt Col Ellerbe was recently selected for an assignment with the Army War College, putting him on a fast-track for promotion to General.

When we met last week, the Shabius had not heard the news about Lt Col Ellerbe's career progress. "I am shocked, how can they do that?" Hamdi asked, before reflecting on what is probably the reality of the situation: "But there is nothing we can do, we are not important people."