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KLA Trial Hears of Massacre

Protected witness tells of his terrifying escape and later return to the site where his fellow prisoners died.
By Michael Farquhar

Hague prosecutors laying out the case against three former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army have called a key witness to speak of how he survived a massacre of some ten detainees from a prison camp run by the accused.


Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala are charged with a series of beatings and murders in the camp, allegedly set up in a family compound in Lapusnik to deal with Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators between May and July 1998.


The most serious incident listed in the indictment is said to have occurred on July 26 that year, when the facility was abandoned in the face of a Serb offensive. Prosecutors claim that Bala and another guard led some 20 prisoners up into nearby mountains, where some were released and the rest were lined up and shot, allegedly on Limaj’s orders.


The three-day testimony of this week’s witness – who appeared in court hidden from the public gallery by screens and was identified only as L96 – constantly dipped in and out of private session, a measure designed to keep names and identifying details out of the public domain.


But the disjointed pieces of testimony came together to tell a detailed story. Besides giving evidence which appeared to place all three accused in and around the Lapusnik prison, the witness also described the horrific beatings he saw and experienced there, and spoke at length about what happened on the last day.


The witness, who said he was detained by the KLA as a result of his efforts to find a “missing person close to him”, said that at the Lapusnik camp he watched a guard known as “Shala” – Bala’s alleged nickname during the war – beat one old man with a metre-long stick until “you couldn’t tell whether he was alive or dead”.


The following day, he said, Musliu came into the room in which he was being kept with two other soldiers. He was made to stand against a wall and Musliu ordered one of the other guards to chain up his hands before landing him a hard karate-style blow which knocked him to the floor. After that Musliu apparently kicked him repeatedly, at one point even knocking him unconscious.


The witness said he was then dragged down some stairs and into a room elsewhere in the compound, which already contained around six other prisoners. This room, he said, was like a stable, with hay and blood on the concrete floor and a plastic bucket to be used as a toilet.


It was the middle of summer at the time, the witness told judges, and “the temperature and the smell can’t be described”.


He was able to identify by name other detainees, some of whom are listed in the indictment amongst those allegedly murdered in or around Lapusnik.


Even at that stage, he told judges, “The physical condition of the prisoners in the room was bad. Two of them... looked traumatised, they never uttered a word. We couldn’t tell whether they were sleeping or awake.” He reported seeing another man urinating blood.


After four days and nights in that room, the witness said, Shala ordered them out. He and another guard known as “Murrizi” then marched them up into nearby forested mountains, where they met with a KLA commander – identified by the prosecution as Limaj.


The witness said the commander spoke with Shala before letting the group go on their way with an extra armed man.


They eventually stopped to rest in a meadow, where there was a spring and a cherry tree. Shala apparently ate lunch – while the witness and other prisoners, who hadn’t had any food for days, watched – before dividing the group in two and leading the other half away. Prosecutors claim they were released with notes saying they had been let go on the authority of “Celiku” – Limaj’s nomme de guerre.


The witness said Shala returned after forty minutes or so and, with Murrizi and the unidentified soldier, took the remaining prisoners away. They eventually arrived in another clearing in the woods.


“Shala said we should stop there,” the witness told judges. “As we were lined up, he ordered us to sit.” He apparently then spoke to the other soldiers before announcing, “This is your death penalty”.


“I saw him load his Kalashnikov,” the witness said. “At that moment, I just screamed ‘No’... I was running, I was just falling down and [getting] up.”


Eventually he stopped running, “I could no longer hear any bursts of fire, any screams, any sounds, nothing.”


The witness said years later he took his uncle and younger brother to see the site of the prison in Lapusnik and then together they searched the mountainside.


“It took some time to find the place where they were killed,” he told the court. “Eventually I found [it]... They had covered [the bodies], but animals had passed and there had been snow... and some of the bones showed.”


The witness said the first people he had spoken to after escaping the massacre were the Serbian police. But having now found the remains, he led the international investigators to the site.


During cross-examination, Michael Mansfield – who represents Limaj – questioned the witness about apparent discrepancies between his testimony in court and reports of his early conversations with Serbian police. The witness replied that such inconsistencies in the Serbian-language reports could have resulted from translation problems.


He also dismissed the fact that he hadn’t mentioned the name “Celiku” in earlier interviews, saying, “I didn’t care who the commander was, who gave the order. I was interested only in the killer.”


Gregor Guy-Smith, representing Bala, pressed the point that the guard known as “Shala” appeared to be a strong man, capable of beating a man with a large stick for a full half an hour and dragging a 60-kilogramme prisoner across the floor. Bala’s defence team claim their client was assigned non-combat duties elsewhere in Kosovo in May 1998 because of serious heart problems.


But the witness was firm. “His eyes are the same,” he said.


“His eyes are those that I saw in Lapusnik. This is the person and there’s no need for us to discuss this matter.”


Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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