Motive Of Gracko Killers Questioned

The motive behind the massacre of 14 Serbs as they peacefully gathered in the harvest from a field outside the village of Gracko on July 23 has been questioned. So too is KFOR's ability to prevent such violence.

Motive Of Gracko Killers Questioned

The motive behind the massacre of 14 Serbs as they peacefully gathered in the harvest from a field outside the village of Gracko on July 23 has been questioned. So too is KFOR's ability to prevent such violence.

Wednesday, 28 July, 1999

Early Saturday morning reports that 14 Serbs had been massacred in Lipljan, 25 kilometres south of Pristina, spread quickly through the capital and settled heavily like a dank cloud over the Spaghetteria café, a favourite Pristina hangout for local journalists.

Patrons quizzed the reporters as they came in for a quick coffee. "Who did it?" Nobody had any facts. Agim Ceku, Supreme Commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and Hashim Thaci, Prime Minster of the Kosovo Provisional Government, condemned the killings at a 10.00am press conference.

Baton Haxhiu, editor in chief of the largest Albanian daily, Koha Ditore, said the killers aimed to "ensure the return of the Serb police". Belgrade has been demanding just this ever since their withdrawal triggered a wave of reprisal attacks across Kosovo that the NATO led force in Kosovo (KFOR) has been powerless to stop.

KFOR estimated Tuesday that there have been 122 murders, and around 500 lootings and 341 arson attacks in Kosovo since it moved in and the Serbian forces moved out - or statistically, at least one Serb murdered every 24 hours. But KFOR says the trend is downwards and that there is no evidence of systematic killings.

But judging from the way the 14 bodies were found, near the village of Gracko, just outside Lipljan, most people assumed that these killings at least were well organised. One victim had obviously tried to make a run for it and had been shot in the back. The rest were summarily executed with a bullet to the head.

The identity and motive of the killers was much discussed. One theory blamed a rogue KLA squad carrying out a little private ethnic cleansing of their own. Others thought that the murders might be part of a traditional Albanian family blood feud.

Some even accuse the Serbian secret police of carrying out the attack to buttress Belgrade's demands that its police be allowed to return to Kosovo, citing Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic's habit of triggering conflict to strengthen his hand at home and abroad.

KFOR said the village had been home to about 80 Serb and two Albanian families, who had lived together peacefully during the conflict.

Most ordinary citizens feared a wave of tit-for-tat sectarian killings.

"This is bad," said a 60-year-old house painter. "This is bad. Belgrade has its operatives here. If they don't get their way, they will retaliate. What have got they got to lose?

"Most Albanians know that over 80 percent of the Serbs left. In most cases those that left did so because they participated in the burning, looting of Albanian homes and in some cases in the actual killing. In most cases those who stayed behind did not take part in such actions.

"These killings make no sense. Whoever was behind them is looking to destabilise this fragile peace." Most questioned, even those who lost family members during the fighting, agreed, as did the local media, which quickly called for the culprits to the caught and tried immediately.

But the killings have highlighted KFOR's limited ability to stop such attacks, and raised concern at the snail-like pace of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in setting up a local police force. Meanwhile attacks continue and Serb homes are still being torched.

The German KFOR soldiers are almost routinely serving as an ad hoc fire brigade, while in the French controlled zone around Mitrovice, the French have had to provide separate entrances to their compound for Serbs and Albanians. They will not guarantee the safety of those Albanians who do dare to cross into the Serb populated sector, where bat-wielding vigilantes await them.

KFOR commander in Kosovo, General Mike Jackson said that progress is being made in tackling the problem. "I am not trying to detract from the horror of (the July 23 massacre)," he told the BBC, "but in the round we are making, without doubt, substantial progress.

"Reconciliation is not at the top of some people's agendas," he added. "It is our job to do the very best we can to minimise any incidents of revenge."

His force's ability to do this remains in doubt, however. Ironically, the week before Gracko farmers had asked for NATO military protection from feared Albanian reprisals.

Conscious that they would be easy targets while they were out gathering the harvest, locally based British troops had agreed to organise special protection. The patrols were scheduled to begin on Saturday, but the killers struck the day before.

Fron Nazi is IWPR Kosovo Project Director.

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