Survivors of Serb massacre refuse to bury their dead

Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 10 March 1998 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

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SURVIVING relatives of Albanian families decimated by Serbian paramilitary police in the village of Prekaz, in Kosovo, caught their first glimpse yesterday of the charred and shell-battered bodies of their loved ones as more than 40 corpses, including several women and young children, were transported back to the combat zone for burial.

The bodies, which had been under guard in the main morgue in Pristina, the provincial capital, were taken under cover of darkness on Sunday to Srbice, the town nearest Prekaz, which bore the brunt of fighting and is now a smouldering wreck. Pictures smuggled by reporters for the newspaper Koha Ditore showed men, women and children charred and disfigured by the shelling and fire-bombing the security forces rained on Prekaz for three days. One picture showed a child no older than five; the oldest victim was said to be a 92-year-old man.

The bodies were numbered and lined up in a shed in Srbice. Albanian sources said police were pressing the families to bury their dead quickly, on pain of having them tossed into a communal grave. But the families, supported by rights organisations and political parties, said they wanted international forensic experts to examine the bodies first and collect evidence for any future criminal proceedings against the Serbian authorities.

"The signs all point to a massacre. We have clear and undeniable evidence," said Veton Suroj, Koha Ditore's editor and a prominent Kosovo Albanian rights campaigner. He put the number of bodies counted so far at 52, but said the toll could rise above 70 because there were still corpses in woods that relatives were unable to collect for fear of snipers. Last night villagers were still negotiating the recovery of the other bodies, some of which they said had been attacked by wild dogs.

From the pictures it was impossible to count the women and children. Several bodies were charred beyond recognition. But it was clear the official death-toll of 26 put out by the Serbs fell far short. The Serbs described the dead as "terrorists", barring one or two women caught in the crossfire and a child whom they said had been shot by the rebel commander, Adem Jashari, because he did not want anyone in his village to surrender without a fight. That story was hard to believe, looking at the traumatised features of a dead toddler wrapped in a woollen blanket and laid out on the floor of the shed.

With the six-nation Contact Group considering punitive measures against Serbia at its meeting in London, the authorities in Kosovo were showing an uncharacteristically low profile - allowing one of the biggest demonstrations of the Albanian population to go ahead in the centre of Pristina without any attempt at breaking up the crowds by force.

More than 100,000 people swamped the town, holding their fingers in V for victory positions and chanting "Drenica! Drenica!" after the area where last week's attacks took place.

Placards urged an end to "Serbian terror" and "ethnic cleansing"; there were appeals to the international community and even the occasional US flag on display.

For the first time in living memory in Kosovo, the Serbian police hung back, allowing the protest to run its course for 45 minutes. They were a little more muscular at protests held in other towns around Kosovo, forcing marchers to change their route and, in some cases, thumping small groups on the fringes with their sticks. But there was nothing to compare with the brutality of the water-cannon, tear-gas and baton-charges with which they met similar protests a week ago.

The main Albanian party, the LDK, was not about to crow victory. "It's just a game the Serb regime is playing," said party spokesman Hilmi Zogjani. "They know there is a lot of international pressure, so they are pretending to be good guys for once. You only have to look at what they've done in Drenica to see through them."

The demonstration was marred by the presence of plainclothes police who stared at the noisiest protesters and threatened to track them down once the international television crews had switched off their equipment. As the demonstrators dispersed, Chris Wenner, a cameraman for ITN and Channel 4, was hauled through a doorway along Pristina's main street, robbed off his cameras and beaten. When he emerged, he had a large, swollen cut above one eye and blood streaming down the left-hand side of his face.

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