Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Kosovo Albanian witness in the war crimes trial of former Serbian police chief Vlastimir Djordjevic told this week how he survived the massacre of two dozen women and children including his mother and sisters in the Kosovo town of Djakovica.
Dren Caka, the only survivor of the attack which happened when he was 10 years old, told judges about the night of April 1, 1999, during which he said he saw Serb policemen shoot at the civilians, before setting fire to the house they were in.
Among those killed were his mother and three sisters – one of whom was a baby at the time, he said.
Djordjevic is on trial at the Hague tribunal, accused of taking part in a “systematic campaign” against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population which led to the murder and deportation of about 800,000 ethnic Albanians from the province between around January 1 and June 20, 1999.
The massacre at 157 Milos Gilic Street is included in the indictment against Djordjevic, who at the time covered by the charges was the chief of the public security department of the Serbian ministry of international affairs.
According to the indictment, “On or about the late evening of 1 April 1999 and continuing through the early morning hours of 2 April, 1999, forces of the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia launched an operation against the Qerim district of Djakovica/Gjakove.
“In a house located at 157 Milos Gilic Street ... forces of the FRY and Serbia shot the occupants and then set the house on fire. As a result of the shootings and the fires set by the forces of the FRY and Serbia at this single location, 20 Kosovo Albanians were killed, of whom 19 were women and children,” the indictment continues.
Caka testified about the same event in August 2006, at the Hague tribunal trial of six Serb officials charged with war crimes in Kosovo, including former president of Serbia Milan Milutinovic. In a February 2009 judgement, Milutinovic was acquitted on all charges, while his co-accused were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from 15 to 22 years.
After the transcript of his testimony from the Milutinovic trial had been entered into evidence this week, the witness again told judges that on the night in question, he had hidden with women and children from several families in the basement of a house in Djakovica.
“We were in the basement, as we were told that that was the safest place to hide,” he said, without saying who had told them this.
The witness continued, saying that during the night, "my mother woke me up and told me that the police were there”.
“The police told us we should go out straight away. They told us we were KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] members, and accused us of hiding men. We tried telling them that we were civilians," he said.
After that, the witness said, "We were taken to the home of Lulim Vejza at 157 Milos Gilic Street.
"Once we entered the basement, we sat on a sofa. Then the policemen came in and started shooting from automatic rifles. I recognised one of them. I think it was the policeman who lived on our street. They all wore blue uniforms. I had seen that policeman in uniform many times. I think it was him," he said.
"The first one to be murdered was 15-year-old Flaka, who stood up to make tea, and was shot by a policeman in the back. Her mother was killed straight afterwards, as she ran for the door, and then everyone else who was in the room," Caka said.
The prosecutor asked Caka if he knew how the fire had been started.
"Yes, the fire started when one of the policemen started firing into a wardrobe that then caught fire, as it was full of clothes, " he replied.
The witness said he survived the massacre by hiding behind the body of one of the murdered women, named Dusi. He said she protected him with her body, so that during the shooting, only his arm was injured.
"She was a large woman, and I survived thanks to the bullets hitting her before they hit me. There was a lot of smoke, so I couldn't see well, and I tried hiding in order not to be shot at."
Then he added, "They did shoot at me, but none of the bullets hit me."
"After 15 minutes, when I regained conscience, I left the house and saw two policemen outside, so then I came back and hid behind a beer trunk."
"Once the policemen fled, I jumped over the wall and ran home," said the witness.
Prosecutor Daniela Kravetz asked the witness if his youngest sister had been killed by gunfire during the attack.
The witness replied, "No, my sister was alive. My mother was changing her diapers as she was shot in the back, and she fell over my sister who was still a baby."
Kravetz then asked the witness, if "something happened that led you to conclude that she was still alive when you left”?
Caka answered, "I know that she was alive because I heard her crying. I tried to rescue her but I couldn't do it. My mother was a heavy person and I was just a small child, and only one of my arms was healthy and that arm was rather useless.
"I tried and tried, but at one moment there was so much smoke that had I remained there, I would have suffocated."
When he reached home, he saw his aunt, he said.
"She asked me what had happened. I replied that they were all dead. She told me it had all just been an ugly dream. When we came into the house, my grandfather tore off my shirt and saw that I was covered in blood," he said.
The prosecutor asked, "Did you receive medical aid during the night you spent with your aunt?"
The witness said that early the following morning, his grandfather had taken him on his bike to the hospital.
"We were stopped by policemen, who asked where we were going and what had happened. My grandpa told them I had been playing and had been injured, and that he was taking me to the hospital," the witness said.
When he got to hospital, Caka said that a soldier there asked him what had happened to him, and that his grandfather had told the soldier what had taken place.
"He said he couldn't believe what he heard. He immediately gave me medical assistance," the witness said.
Caka then told judges that after his treatment, he returned to his aunt's home where he and his relatives stayed for a few days.
"One night, we thought the police were coming as we heard a noise, and so we started running downhill toward the other house. We were walking in the dark, and my aunt fell and broke her leg. In the morning, we decided to leave," he continued.
Caka said that he and the remaining members of the family set off towards Albania in his uncle's car.
The border police took away their passports and all other identity documents, he said.
"In order to make sure we couldn't come back, they wrote down our car's licence plate number," he said.
At the beginning of his cross-examination of the witness, defence attorney Veljko Djurdjic expressed his condolences to Caka for having lost his mother and sisters. He stated that the accused Djordjevic "condemned the event and partook in the witness's pain".
Djurdjic then tried to determine the identity of one of the policemen who the witness said had taken part in the crime.
"Do you perhaps know the name and surname of that policeman?" the defence attorney asked.
Caka replied that he did not, "I only know he had a son called Nikola."
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
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