Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kosovo Children Testify
When a group of Albanian children who survived a massacre in Kosovo came to Belgrade last week along with their father and uncle to testify in the trial a former special police man alleged to have taken part in the killings, the Serbian public might have had an opportunity to hear a first-hand account of war crimes that were committed in their name.
Unfortunately, due to the need to protect the interest of the children, the hearing was conducted behind closed doors and media was barred, so the public did not get to hear the harrowing testimony. However, based on reports from representatives of Serbian and international non-governmental organisations, IWPR was able to piece together much of what went on in the extraordinary case.
The man on trial, Sasa Cvjetan, was a member the Serbian interior ministry special anti-terrorist police unit known as the Scorpions. He was initially indicted in May 1999 along with another member of the Scorpions, Dejan Demirovic, for taking part in the killing of 19 Albanian civilians on March 28, 1999 in the town of Podujevo in northern Kosovo.
Demirovic, however, fled the country and settled in Canada with his parents and, thus far, the Canadian authorities have refused to extradite him back to Serbia, so Cvjetan is standing trial alone.
Initially, the proceedings against him took place in Prokuplije. But after the local population began harassing the judge, the media and representatives of non-governmental organisations monitoring the trial, the Serbian supreme court ordered that the case be transferred to Belgrade.
Since the trial began in October 2002, most witnesses were fellow policemen and none of them claimed to have witnessed the horrific events on March 28. However, last week, four children from the Bogujevci family – all massacre survivors – as well as their father and uncle came to Belgrade from their home in England to testify. Among them were three children, Fatos, Jehona and Safet, teenage Saranda, their father, Seljatin, and his brother, and their uncle, also named Safet.
The day before the hearing, Saranda, who was only 13 at the time of the massacre and sustained multiple gunshot wounds, and another of the children, were taken to the Belgrade prison. They were presented with a line-up of five men, and asked if any of them were present in Podujevo at the time of the massacre. Saranda identified Cvjetan. The other child, however, was unsure.
During her testimony, Saranda said that she and her family, thinking it would be safest to stick together, moved into her uncle’s house, which had a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. A group of soldiers wearing green camouflage uniforms came in, ordered them to leave all of their possessions and walk out of the house with their hands up.
Next, she said, they were ordered to pass through the neighbour's yard, where Serbian troops forced them to empty their pockets and demanded that older women take off their headscarves. The group was then forced down the street to the police station while soldiers shouted, laughed and swore at them.
Initially, Saranda said, the group went into the station, but was then forced into the yard. The men were shouting at the children in Serbian, and Saranda said her aunt told the police that they did not understand the language. At that point, one of the soldiers pushed her aunt and fired at her.
“My relatives started crying, and then they opened fire at aunt Sefkate again,” Saranda said.
Next, she said, the same soldier who shot her aunt began shooting at the rest of the group.
Several members of her family were killed, but she and the other children who survived were taken to Pristina hospital for treatment. Saranda and her sister Jahona tried to find out what had become of the rest of their family, but even though their brothers Fatos and Genc were in the same hospital, they did not know about each other’s fate.
At the time of the massacre, Saranda’s father, Seljatim and her uncle, Safet, were hiding in a meadow about 300 metres from the house.
“We waited in the meadow for our family to come, but no one came. We looked for them, asked around from village to village, from dusk until dawn, we searched for them each and every day,” said Seljatim. It was not until April 14 that he learned that his daughters were alive and in hospital.
Safet hoped that he too might find his family in the hospital. He was, however, not so lucky. His mother, Sehida, wife Salja and two sons, Spend and Spetim, were all killed in the police courtyard.
When NATO peacekeepers entered Kosovo months later, Safet’s family was exhumed from a mass grave. “When they exhumed my son, there was no head on the body. They had shot him in the head, and his scull was crushed,” Safet said.
Cvjetan's lawyers repeatedly expressed their regrets over the suffering of the Bogujevci family and as did Cvjetan, who has repeatedly denied that he was involved in the crime.
Speaking through his lawyer, Demirovic has also denied any responsibility for the killings.
Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.