Victims of massacre laid to rest

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THEY BURIED them on a north-facing slope in a field of wild herbs, overlooking the site of the massacre. There were 64 in total and the graves, piled high with brown soil, were laid out in a grid. The youngest was that of a four-year-old child.

These were the dead of Bela Crkva, the victims of what British investigators have said represents one of Kosovo's darkest episodes and one of the places cited in the war crimes indictment against President Slobodan Milosevic.

The massacre took place on 25 March after Nato bombed the village police station. Within hours police had rounded up the fleeing villagers. "The Serbs took the men to the river and made them undress. Then they sprayed them with machine- guns," said one survivor at yesterday's mass funeral. "Some survived the first burst but the Serbs just waited to see who got up and then shot them again. I hid under the bridge where they did not see me."

One young woman watched as her husband was dragged off by police and shot in front of her. "I was only 50 yards away," said 19-year-old Lendita Zhuniqi, clutching the arm of a relative for support. Yet another mourner told how a mother, breast-feeding her child, saved its life by shielding it with her body as she was shot. Hours later villagers found the baby alive and well and sleeping under its mother's corpse.

Yesterday was not the first time these people had been buried. After the massacres, the Serbs pushed the bodies into hastily dug graves in the woods and hills surrounding the village. They were later exhumed by officials from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral, where an imam said prayers and a unit of KLA fighters fired a volley over the graves, while an officer spoke of Kosovo's future. But while the hillside was full of people it was more a time for private grief than a public occasion.

One man, Jaja Spahiu, had just buried his wife, his parents, his sister and his four children, aged six, nine, ten and twelve. "I cannot bear to talk to you about it," he said. "I find it hard enough to be here, I cannot even think about it."

When it was over the hundreds walked back down the hill towards the village. As they left one lone figure remained at the graves. "I have lost four friends I knew from childhood," said Fadil Shala. "Everyone says it is not good to talk of revenge but how can we forget this?"