Ethnic Albanian Tells of Kosovo Expulsion

Witness says Serb police and military units forced her and others to leave their village in western Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanian Tells of Kosovo Expulsion

Witness says Serb police and military units forced her and others to leave their village in western Kosovo.

Tuesday, 21 July, 2009
A Kosovo Albanian woman whose husband has been missing since the 1998-99 conflict gave evidence to the Hague war crimes tribunal this week about the expulsion of Albanians from the village of Beleg in western Kosovo.

She was giving evidence in the trial of the former Serb police chief, Vlastimir Djordjevic, who is charged at the tribunal for his part in what prosecutors say was a “systematic campaign” by forces from Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, in 1999 that led to the murder and deportation of around 800,000 Albanians from Kosovo.

The witness - who was testifying via video link from Pristina and under the pseudonym K058 in order to protect her identity - told the court that her husband was one of a large number of men whose bodies have not been recovered since the attack on the village at the end of March 1999.

“There were 66 men from the village. They are still missing and we do not know where their graves are and we don’t have their bodies to bury them properly,” she told the court.

The witness described how she and around 100 other Albanian civilians, including women and children, had been hiding out in a single room of a Beleg house during the Serb shelling of the village when Serb police arrived and forced them out.

“The police ... entered the house at about nine o’clock in the morning and they forced all of us to leave the house and go outside in the yard,” she said. “And they started shooting and killing us.”

The witness described how one man was shot in the cheek and another fell to the ground as soon as they had stepped outside.

The Serb police then took them to the basement of another house where around 20 other Albanians had already been detained, the witness said.

According to the prosecutor, a written statement given by K058 told how the detained villagers were then searched for money and other belongings and during their night in the basement the Serb forces took young girls out of the room and the witness heard a young girl telling her mother that she had been raped.

“They took us from that house to that basement,” the witness continued. “After that they took us out to a meadow. We were together in the meadow; men, women and children. Then they started to separate men from women.”

According to the indictment, forces of the FRY and Serbia surrounded and attacked Beleg and nearby villages and went from house to house forcing villagers to leave. On or about March 29, 1999, “men were separated from women and children and taken to the basement of a building”, the charge sheet reads, adding that three women were sexually assaulted during the night.

“The next day, forces of the FRY and Serbia told the villagers to leave the village in trucks and tractors and go to Albania,” prosecutors allege.

Prosecutor Silvia D'Ascoli asked K058 whether she handed over any identity documents to Serb forces in the basement of the house where they were held.

“I did not have my ID on me. It was burnt when my house was set on fire,” she said. “Those that had theirs were deprived of them.”

She told the court that there was a piece of white cloth on the floor of the basement on which there were around 20 identity cards as well as money and jewellery belonging to her fellow villagers. However, the witness later told one of Djordjevic’s defence lawyers, Marie O’Leary, that she had voluntarily handed over her belongings because she was afraid of being searched.

The witness said Serb forces came to the house the following morning and told them to go to Albania. Asked by the prosecutor who exactly comprised the Serb force that told them to leave, the witness replied, “The police. The police and military. They were mixed. They came in the morning and told us to go to Albania.”

“There were about 200 or 300 people [from the village going to Albania]. I could not count them,” she added.

D'Ascoli sought to establish the role of the police in the alleged mistreatment of Albanian villagers and asked if Serb paramilitaries were operating alongside the policemen.

“Yes, yes, together. All the time they were working together,” the witness replied.

In its cross-examination of the witness, Djordjevic’s defence sought to establish whether it was Serb police who conducted the operations described by the witness or if Serb paramilitaries were responsible.

“The Serb police and military forces were the ones that forced us to leave the village,” the witness said.

The witness did not appear to distinguish between the involvement of military forces and the paramilitaries she referred to previously.

“They were wearing regular police uniforms and they had ‘police’ written on their arms,” she added.

The witness said that the police insignia was written on their sleeve in Cyrillic script, prompting O’Leary to question her understanding of the text after the witness admitted she could not read it well.

Under further questioning, the witness told O’Leary that it was paramilitaries who had ordered the detainees to leave the basement of the house where they were detained.

"They were paramilitaries because they had green camouflaged uniforms. I assumed they were paramilitaries. I don’t know what else they could be." the witness said.

The defence also sought to advance its argument that the shelling of the town was part of the conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and the Serb forces, rather than being aimed at Kosovo Albanian civilians.

“I don’t know,” replied the witness. “I only know there was a lot of shelling ... shelling came from all sides.”

O’Leary also put it to the witness that the Serb police were targeting members of the KLA rather than Albanian civilians and that this had led her not to give information to the Serb police about her husband in case he was treated as a member of the KLA. However, the witness denied that the Serb police were searching for KLA members.

“There was no reason to do that because there were no KLA there [in Beleg],” she said.

The prosecution this week also called the Ottoman heritage expert Andras Riedlmayer to testify about the destruction of Kosovo Albanian religious sites during the war.

The indictment alleges that during the conflict FRY and Serb forces “systematically damaged and destroyed cultural monuments and Muslim sacred sites” and that “mosques were shelled, burned and dynamited throughout the province”.

Riedlmayer commented on a number of photographs presented in his expert report on the destruction of cultural sites in Kosovo during 1998 and 1999. Riedlmayer conducted a survey in October 1999 in which he classified all such buildings on a scale that ranged from “lightly damaged” to “completely destroyed”. According to his report - based on sources in the Islamic community but also confirmed by other independent sources where possible - 225 mosques were destroyed across Kosovo during 1998 and 1999.

“Islamic monuments suffered the greatest damage during the war,” he told the court.

No Serb Orthodox heritage sites were damaged before June 1999, he said, at which point there was a wave of attacks as Albanian refugees returned to Kosovo. Riedlmayer also pointed to a Muslim population in the southern tip of Kosovo who were not Albanian and had good relations with Belgrade and hence did not suffer any damage to their mosques during the war.

Riedlmayer identified in court a number of mosques and other Islamic buildings such as libraries and schools in towns such as Suva Reka, Rogovo and Djakovica, which had been damaged.

Examining a photograph of building remains in the southern town of Celina, Riedlmayer described the extent of some of the damage.

“It’s a little hard looking at the post destruction photograph to tell that it even was [once] a mosque,” he told the court.

The prosecution will continue to present its case against Djordjevic next week.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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