Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Ghost Village

By Gordana Igric, in Racak (Published on February 1, 1999)
By IWPR

They encourage each other by agreeing that the time for dying has come anyway, and that it is better to die on one’s door step than in refuge. In this ghost village, they feed their cattle and guard their house. For days they have not tried to set out to the mosque or the village fountain. Serb police snipers are lurking from the hill, they assure us. Nearly reconciled with the possibility that they might be hit by a bullet in the courtyard, they nevertheless ask: Are the police still down there, at the cross-roads, in the nearby town of Stimlje?

This is Racak, one week after the police action that left in its wake 45 dead, including three women, one child and nine soldiers of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In August, 2,000 people lived here. The Serbian offensive then left the majority of them without homes. The village was shelled, the majority of houses were plundered and then burnt. By January, only around 300 people remained. In the early morning of January 15, Serbian police surrounded the village. (Many people believe the action was for revenge: only several days earlier the KLA had shot three Serbian policeman in a well-prepared ambush.) Now it is down to the three elderly men and scattered others.

At the deserted cross-roads in Stimlje, a group of armed Serbian policemen watch vigilantly to see if anyone turns from the main road towards Racak. “It is not true that the killed are civilians,” one of them, a dark and tall man, says. “I should know, I was there.” So goes the story by which the events at Racak were not an extrajudicial execution of civilians. “Only terrorists were killed, so the KLA changed them into civilian clothes during the night. Why otherwise would they prevent us from taking the bodies for full two days?” He displays three bullet holes in a police vehicle. He explains how his children cannot go to school, how, as he stand there, he expects someone to start shooting from behind a window.

But behind darkened Kosovo windows, thoughts seemed elsewhere. E.B., a 40-year-old woman, sits on the floor near a stove, hidden in a house, and does not know what to do with her life. Her 12-year-old son Halim was killed next to her, as they ran together through a courtyard towards a nearby forest. Her husband, Ryza, and her relative, Zejnel, were also killed. “There were over 40 of them, in blue police uniforms,” she recounts. “They stood in a group on the hill above our house, shouted something at us and waived. They fired as soon as we got out of the hideout into the courtyard. Halim shouted for me to get away. Then he fell. The bullet hit him in the neck. We did not have time that morning even to dress when they surrounded us, and he was still barefoot, holding his trousers in his hands.” She cries inconsolably.

Most of the inhabitants of the village of Racak who did not manage to escape beyond the encirclement of police decided to stay together in cellars and stables. More than 20 women and children were hiding in the cellar of the teacher Sadik Dzemo. Thirty men and four boys closed themselves off in his stable. Most of these men are now dead, as is Dzemo. Twenty-three bodies were found early the next morning on the slope of the hill Kodrie Bebushit, outside the village. They had bullet wounds shot through, and traces of torture.

One12-year old boy was hiding with his father and other relatives in that stable when a policeman with a black mask on his face opened the door and fired a barrage over their heads. “We were lying on the floor and that was lucky,” he says. “We were shouting that we were civilians. They took all of us out into the courtyard and separated us children. They took long wooden planks prepared for making a fire and began to beat the men, who screamed.”

The boy then joined the women in the cellar of a house. The screams from the courtyard could be heard for half an hour longer. Then there was silence. “All of us in the cellar were convinced that the men were arrested by the police and taken to Stimlje or Urosevac,” he continues. “When we got out of the cellar we told this to the verifiers.” But the next morning, the bodies were found on the hill, the body of my father, and the bodies of Sadik, and Jashar and Raif, and Shukrija and Sali and Fatmir and Nexhat.”

During the night the locals who survived got out of hideouts that the police had not reached and began to search for the wounded and the dead with torch-lights. “It was four o’clock in the morning when we came across the body of Bajrushi, Nusret's son,” a visibly distressed 50-year-old S.A. recalls. “Then, one after another, there lay all my relatives. I wanted to cover the dead in accordance with our custom, but someone decided that we should not touch anything until the verifiers have arrived. So we did not touch. We only stood there next to them, waiting for the morning.”

Political games will be played over the autopsies of the bodies in Pristina, and the results will contradict or support the conclusion of chief international monitor William Walker that the killed are ordinary peasants. But the witnesses remain spread out in various villages, hidden behind tall walls and dark windows, downcast. The relatives of the killed devour TV news every evening, hoping to find out when the bodies will be returned. One old man says that even worse than his son’s death is the inability to lay the body properly in the ground to rest.

Gordana Igric is a researcher for Human Rights Watch. HRW’s just-released report on Racak is available at: http://www.hrw.org/hrw/press/1999/jan/yugo-prs.htm.

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