`We saw, what they did here. And now we'll tell' : LIBERATION OF KOSOVO
The Men Who Stayed
Thursday 24 June 1999
"I am not ashamed," said Faton Polloshka, Djakovica's director of public works. "During the war I did my job for the sake of my people. It was terrible to see all those bodies, but someone had to bury them."
Dr Rruka, 39, is tall, fluent in English, and elegantly dressed. Mr Polloshka, 46, is short and round, unshaven and matter-of-fact. But they have two things in common: both are Albanians and both remained at their posts while hundreds of thousands from their community fled, hid or were killed during the two and a half months of Serbian terror in Kosovo.
Djakovica, once a pretty town with stone bridges, a picturesque old quarter and a 500-year-old Ottoman mosque, was never a place where Albanians could be totally excluded from senior public posts, as they were almost everywhere else in the Serbian province.
Fewer Serbs lived there - only 1 per cent of the pre-1990 population of 70,000 - than in any other urban area in Kosovo. If the Serbian authorities wanted Djakovica to keep running, they had to rely on people such as Dr Rruka and Mr Polloshka, even while they were trying to purge the province of other ethnic Albanians.
Dr Rruka, who trained as a psychiatrist in Sarajevo with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal - "a disgrace to our profession" - never left the town's main hospital for more than a few minutes at a time during the war.
Since psychiatric work was rarely possible, he dealt with emergencies as well as helping his wife, Merita, an obstetrician and gynaecologist. Mr Polloshka, by contrast, was almost the only Albanian able to move around Djakovica with impunity: as the man whose municipal responsibilities included the graveyard, he was ordered by the Serbs to pick up the bodies of their victims.
The first of these was a distinguished colleague of Dr Rruka's, a physician called Izet Hima. On 25 March, the morning after the start of Nato's bombing campaign, Mr Polloshka was given a slip of paper with Dr Hima's address. He found the physician's body in front of his smouldering home, 14 hours after a Serbian death squad had shot him and set the house ablaze. Over the next two and half months he would collect some 200 Albanian bodies - businessmen, labourers, mothers, babies - who had been shot, beaten to death or burnt alive. He kept a list of all of them, with as many personal details as he could. "The war crimes investigators are coming to see me next week, and I will give them everything I have," he said.
Dr Rruka knew almost immediately about the Nato bombing - the hospital stood next to Djakovica's military barracks, one of the largest in western Kosovo, which was hit on the first night and on 14 other occasions during the campaign. "Nato was incredibly accurate," he said. "Not once was there serious collateral damage."
Most of the patients were Serb civilians. Uniformed casualties were supposed to go to the military hospital, although some were brought to the civilian facility, and few Albanian men of fighting age dared to seek medical treatment at a Serb-run institution. Throughout the war Dr Rruka was delivering Serb babies and treating Serb victims of road accidents, as well as dealing with the Serb policemen or soldiers. "I was helping one paramilitary with a broken femur, and I remember wondering whether he had killed any of my people," he said. "But medical ethics governed me.
"It couldn't help but affect your work, however. If you decided you had to amputate, you would make sure the Serbian medical director was consulted, so that the man's comrades couldn't accuse you of trying to mutilate him."
On another occasion, while Dr Rruka was treating an injured Serbian child, he was threatened by a policeman. "He told me: `Take care what happens to this child. If anything goes wrong, you are all dead'. But I didn't hold it against him."
The paths of the doctor and the chief gravedigger crossed only once, when an 82-year-old Albanian man was brought to the hospital. "He had been beaten so badly with his own walking stick that he was in a coma for three days," said Dr Rruka. "Somebody called Polloshka's men. But when they came they found signs of life, and we kept the old man in hospital. He died a day or two later, though."
Mr Polloshka had plenty of other work. In the first week of Nato bombing, his crew collected more than 100 bodies from homes, shops and the streets, many of them killed by a drunken Serb policeman who led a convoy of killers. Random murders kept the gravediggers busy until the second week of May. By this time the Serbs were suffering heavy casualties in fighting with Kosovo Liberation Army forces from nearby Albania, and Dr Rruka was seeing cases of battle fatigue and self-wounding by Serbian soldiers who wanted to escape combat. Serbian policemen and reservists took their revenge on the prosperous Chabat district of Djakovica, killing 58 people, according to Mr Polloshka's reckoning. Among them were three members of Merita Rruka's family, burnt to death in their home.
By the final week of the war the municipal official had gone into hiding, fearing that the Serbs might kill him to stop him telling what he knew. Medical records were taken away to Serbia; his home was raided three times and his papers confiscated. From the hospital, as the town waited for the arrival of Italian troops from Nato, Dr Rruka counted 15 giant conflagrations as the Serbs went on a final orgy of burning and looting. "I feared for my family, but they stopped just short of us."
Now Djakovica is at peace, and both the doctor and the official are reacting according to type. "There is a new Albanian administration, and if we get enough money from the European Union and America we can get everything working again in about a year," said the ever-practical Mr Polloshka. "People cannot yet come to terms with their trauma," said Dr Rruka. "As a psychiatrist, my work is only just beginning."
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