Liberation of Kosovo: The terrible secret Serbs hoped would stay buried

James Dalrymple,Kosovo
Monday 14 June 1999 23:02

THE NEAT rectangle of freshly dug graves lies in an overgrown cemetery in a silent and deserted town that was once home to more than 10,000 people. There are no names on the flimsy wooden sticks that mark each grave, just a series of numbers that runs to 81. All of them bear a second number, 99, presumably marking the year of their death. The graves lie in two lines, running parallel. And at the end of the lines there is a deep, unfinished pit containing the outline of two coffins buried under inches of dust.

It is as if the gravediggers had intended to bury the last two bodies in line with the rest. But they almost certainly ran out of time. And whoever arranged this puzzling and macabre little tableau had not been long gone, because yesterday morning we could clearly smell the high, sharp stench of decomposing flesh in the hot morning wind.

The town is Kacanik, lying in a superb natural valley just north of the spectacular gorge that separates Macedonia and Kosovo. There is an alpine look to it. Large, expensive, white-walled and red-roofed houses cling to thickly wooded hills. Once Serbs and Kosovo Albanians lived here, separated by walls and culture, but comfortably enough.

The prosperous Serbs were on the western hillside in their smart villas, the Albanians ran the shops and cafes in the town centre, and a few smallholdings in a series of steep, narrow ravines that run up in the hills on the eastern side.

It was to this small gem of pastoral life that the madmen of the Serbian gendarmerie and the freelances killers came on 8 April supported by the Yugoslav army, a southern spearhead of the "ethnic cleansing" drive. We may never find out the exact sequences of events that took place on the nights of 8 and 9 April.

But these strange graves contain the end result of at least three nights of particular bestiality, even by Kosovo standards, and soon hundreds of the world's best forensic specialists will be digging them up - and beginning the process of unravelling the massacre of the Kacanik Valley.

They will quickly establish that the 81 people, ranging in age from three months old to over 80, did not all die in the same place.

They were the victim of not just one massacre, but several in the same series. Witnesses will testify that shortly before the Nato bombing campaign reached its height, Serb trucks brought them to the Muslim cemetery and began preparing a particularly crude fraud.

Nato officials believe they intended to claim all of these people had died durding American bombing, but that they simply ran out of time and left the unfinished graves.

This raises hopes of the War Crimes Tribunal officials that such was the panic among Serb commanders at the sudden end of the war that many other crimes may be swiftly detected.

"There is no way they could have gotten away with this," said a Nato spokesman yesterday, "because the injuries will show that they died by small-arms fire. But it is just as well we got here before they had finished, because we believe they were using a type of powder that would turn bodies to mush very quickly."

So what did happen on those terrible nights? With the help of KLA units occupying the former MUP (Interior Ministry police) headquarters in the town, we pieced together the havoc that destroyed this valley as the marauding Serbs - many of them drunk, as always - laid waste to Kosovo Albanian villages over a 20-mile swath, driving out thousands of inhabitants and killing those who refused to run before them. The hamlets of Stagova, Rumjev, Kotlina, where houses lay blasted and torched and silent, have practically ceased to exist. Nobody knows exactly how many died under shellfire, or in the murderous assaults of the MUP machine-guns, but the figure could be as high as several hundred.

In these villages and in Kacanik itself many fled, heading down the road to the border. Perhaps 40,000 people from the entire region made it to safely.

But it was when Fehmi Dulovi, a local KLA commander, took us to the last place on the list, the gorge that leads up to the hamlet of Proni Rakocit, that we knew we were bearing witness to a unique kind of horror. Because it was here that 35 people, almost the entire population of the village, were driven up over 1,000 feet and killed, one by one, or in family groups, as they became too exhausted to run.

We followed the little KLA man up the gorge, almost like a ladder in landscape terms, because after every two or three hundred feet of climb, the ground levels off and it is here that houses and smallholdings had been built. Then it climbs steeply again. Up and up, until the face of hill becomes almost vertical, and there is literally nowhere to go.

We counted 28 houses on the way up. Almost all had been severely damaged by gunfire and torching. Some had been obliterated by calibre heavy machine- guns mounted on small armoured tracked vehicles, a favourite assault vehicle of the MUP, capable of climbing the steepest slopes. Every wall we saw was riddled with the hugeholes this weapon makes.

A dozen or more burnt-out cars, pushed into the small stream, had also been raked by the same fire. On the red, dusty track we saw thousands and thousands of cartridge cases. The firepower must have been withering as the Serb column moved higher and higher, supported by troops using Kalashnikovs, and snipers moving through the trees.

"They just fired and fired and fired, bursting into houses and killing whoever was too weak or slow," said Mr Dulovi. "They were like madmen, enjoying it. And as the people fled further and further up the valley, they spread out, driving them on, firing at them non-stop."

He had a carefully handwritten list of all the victims, giving their ages, from over 80 to the youngest. There are too many names to list here, but all will be handed to investigators, who are expected within days. Two of the names on the list were Jehone and Lumnija Raka, cousins, and both nurses in a local Albanian clinic. They had led the survivors upwards, said mr Dulovi, helping to stem the wounds of the injured and supporting some of the old ones.

Finally, at the very top of the valley the final small massacre took place. And the last of the villagers of Proni Rakocit died. People who had witnessed the slaughter in hiding places across the valley said the bodies were tossed on to tractors, or dragged by ropes behind the assault vehicles. They were never seen again.

But in the darkness they missed three of their victims, and some weeks later a KLA unit, led by the smell, found the bodies of three people, a woman, Mukadeze Muhaxheri, and two men, Tefik Nalbani, 45, and Ejili Regja, 70. We were shown their temporary graves at the top of the valley, a bare and forbidding place.

Then, in a kind of nightmarish finale, he took us a few feet farther up this ladder of death and showed us a pile of clothing and personal effects, soaked and fungus- ridden, which had been gathered up after the killings for the War Crimes Tribunal investigators.

There were coats and trousers and women's skirts and underwear, all showing bullet entry holes. And lying at the centre of this pathetic pile was the familiar medical apparatus for taking blood pressure, with its little pump, tube and canvas cuff - the property of one of the nurses.

The courageous cousins had finally died too, beside the people they had tried to lead to safety. But their bodies, and the other 32 unaccounted for, have not been found. Almost certainly they are lying in that curious little rectangle of graves among the poppies in the silent valley far below, their bullet-ridden bodies waiting to become mute witnesses against Serbian violence.

As we left this lovely little valley, I asked one of the KLA men what had become of the Serb population, many thousands strong and many of them wealthy. He just laughed. "Gone," he said, "like rats in a fire." It seem that just weeks ago the entire Serbian population had fled north, stripping their houses of everything of value and following the retreating Serbs, knowing that the war was soon to end, and fearing the revenge of the KLA units hiding the hills.

Now the ghost town waits for the returning Albanians. Thousands of them are due home in the next few days and weeks from the Macedonian camps. Some of them, we were told, were already there, being cared for by KLA welfare workers, as they wait for their houses to be made habitable. And what happens then? Will they take the fine Serbian houses as a kind of blood payment? Who is to stop them?

It may well be that Kacanik could become a kind of template of what will happen all across Kosovo. Only this time it could be the aggressors who lose everything, a kind of "ethnic cleansing" in reverse.

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