Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
REPORT: Milosevic Challenged by Racak Survivors
Opening his defence at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic showed an extended German documentary denying that the killing of approximately 45 Albanians at the Kosovo village of Racak was a crime. Taking up after the film, he intoned dramatically, "Just an atom of truth . . . amid the ocean of lies [used] as a means of war" against Yugoslavia.
In the Kosovo case, Racak is the only crime outside the period of NATO bombing for which Milosevic has been indicted. Racak, according to his opening address at the tribunal, was a key reason for the Kosovo campaign itself. If he is right, and the West fabricated the story of a massacre, then I am part of the lie. For I was there - in my capacity as a human rights researcher and IWPR journalist - and spoke to the survivors.
'IT'S HAPPENED AGAIN'. It was early 1999, and only three months before, NATO bombing in response to atrocities by Serb forces in the province had been averted at the last minute. A deal brokered with Milosevic by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke in late 1998 had led to the deployment of civilian monitors and a momentary lull in the crisis.
On January 16, a friend rang to tell me about a new atrocity that had taken place the day before. I was travelling on a bus back from Pristina to Belgrade and longing to get home.
Working as a researcher for Human Rights Watch, I had spent two weeks walking through the mud, sleeping in cold rooms in forgotten villages, trying to overcome Albanian suspicions since I am a Serb. My task was to investigate systematic destruction and looting of Albanian houses during the Serbian forces' summer offensive.
"Go back," the voice on my mobile phone said. "It's happened again, another crime." My heart sank. If the reports were true, NATO bombing was inevitable. I hopped on the next Kosovo-bound bus.
Pristina was charged. Albanian colleagues described with horror the bodies they had seen.
But Serb journalists at the Grand Hotel, none of whom had been to Racak village, told me that allegations of a terrible crime in the village had been invented by Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, rebels.
They were parroting the official claim by Belgrade that approximately 23 men found dead in a gully on the outskirts of Racak were KLA soldiers killed in battle. Serb authorities said their uniforms had been removed and the bodies had been left in a gully to provoke international outrage. An alternative version suggested that the bodies in the gully were civilians caught in crossfire; that the West was presenting it as a massacre in order to justify intervention.
The KLA was well known for ambushing Serbian policemen to provoke revenge attacks, as happened in Ljubenic near Decani in May 1998, when everything that moved was killed. Predictably, the West would respond with condemnation and survivors would rush to join the rebels.
"I would kill my own family for a free Kosovo," a 20-year-old KLA member from Prizren had boasted to me once. "The more victims the better. The West will have to react in the end." Racak could have been part of this strategy.
So, already multiple versions and an important omission - no one then mentioned or even to this day seems to remember the many other dead bodies that were found in yards, streets and houses, such as those of a 12-year-old boy, an unknown number of elderly people and at least two women.
Confusion had reigned since monitors with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, visiting the village in the late afternoon of January 15, some hours after the shooting, had not discovered the bodies in the gully. Survivors told them that men had been arrested and taken to Urosevac prison or the regional police station at Stimlje. At that point nobody thought they had been murdered.
Only the next morning did William Walker, the mission's chief, come upon the dead - invited to the gully, probably by the KLA. He found around 45 corpses, with 21 bodies found elsewhere in the village in addition to those in the gully.
Visibly shocked, Walker called it a civilian massacre, and then hurried back to Pristina. The bodies were moved to the mosque, in expectation that the villagers would conduct funerals and burials in the traditional manner.
Adding to the complications, however, Serbian police stepped in after he left and forcibly removed the corpses from the mosque. The authorities took them to a Serbian controlled mortuary in Pristina, insisting on conducting their own investigation. Albanians were deeply suspicious.
On January 18, the Yugoslav authorities refused to allow then-chief war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour to enter Kosovo to investigate. Ultimately, an independent Finnish team of pathologists, led by Helena Ranta, was allowed to participate in the autopsy. But the wrangling meant precious time was lost and physical evidence disturbed so that many questions could not be answered, as Ranta acknowledged at the time.
FINDING WITNESSES. My mission was to find witnesses, people who had been in the village who could tell me exactly what they had seen.
Travel was difficult. My usual taxi driver and translator in Pristina told me it was crazy to journey along empty roads. It would be easy to fall victim to nervous Serbian police, or the even more edgy KLA guerrilla fighters. They refused to accompany me.
I rented a car and set off alone.
Racak itself was all but deserted, an eerie empty landscape, strangely silent, in contrast to the deafening debate growing around it. Afraid that Serbian police would kill them to prevent them from giving evidence, the witnesses were in hiding - in surrounding forests, in villages and in suburbs of Stimlje and Urosevac.
Needing assistance, and translation, I hoped Ruzdi Jasari, a human rights activist in Stimlje, would help me. I had been warned that he had become an Albanian extremist, with a high rank in the KLA, and would refuse to help me. But I had to start somewhere.
It subsequently emerged that Jasari was hiding at least two survivors from the gully. But he saw me only as a Serb, and tried to block my work.
Detained overnight in the KLA command post in the mountain village of Petrovo, near Racak, I was given some food, and guarded by a young woman in black KLA fatigues. From time to time, Jasari treated me to fiery lectures explaining that all Serbs were fascists and killers.
Released the next morning, I was ultimately able to find 16 witnesses (including Serbian policemen) over the next week. Avoiding the town centre in Stimlje, and the heavy presence of Serbian police, I located old men, women and children who had survived.
The Albanians I contacted initially were hugely suspicious, convinced I was a Serbian agent. But a human rights activist from Stimlje, the director of a school in the village of Dramjak, near Stimlje, and staff from the Urosevac office of Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo understood what I was trying to do, and eventually helped me gain access to eye-witnesses.
It wasn't easy to locate, nor to get them to speak to a Serb. Once I had talked at length to several, however, the network opened up, in some cases within a family, and more and more witnesses came forward.
WHAT THE VILLAGERS SAW. From their hideouts, one by one, the witnesses told me what they had seen. A young boy, mournful women, frightened men, they all told the same story.
According to their statements, on the eve of the January 15 attack only 300 out of around 2,000 inhabitants remained in the village. Many houses had been burned down during an offensive by the Serbian army and police in August. The KLA command was based in the neighbouring village of Petrovo, but the rebels also had a base at Racak, and villagers knew what that was likely to bring.
Those left were men tending their cattle, those who had no relatives in other villages and poor people with no means of moving elsewhere.
Indeed, the KLA may well have provoked the attack: they had killed three policemen and wounded one near the village of Dulje on January 8. Two days later a policeman was ambushed and killed in Slivovo, near Stimlje. Over the next four days, increased army and police movements were spotted on the roads.
The attack on Racak started at 6:30 in the morning. There was confusion within the KLA, as one of their soldiers in the Petrovo headquarters told me later. At first, they mistook the increased army and police movements as the beginnings of a withdrawal from the area. Then suddenly, the Serbian forces had the village surrounded. A small number of KLA soldiers found themselves trapped.
A Serbian policeman in Stimlje told me later that it took a couple of hours to break KLA resistance and enter the village. The guerrillas withdrew to their command centre in neighbouring Petrovo, leaving civilians who did not manage to run away to the forest to pay the price.
The first civilian victims were the Beqa family (spelled "Beqiri" in the Hague indictment). Their family compound was on the outskirts of the village; none of them, according to witnesses, were members of the KLA.
Sitting on the floor of a darkened house on the outskirts of Stimlje, I found E, 40, weeping inconsolably. She had lost her 12-year-old son, Halim.
According to her account, early that morning a group of 40 Serbian policemen with blue uniforms appeared at the top of the hill, without masks. They started shooting at their yard, so members of the family ran, trying to reach the woods.
"Halim was on my left side," his mother said, as recorded in the reporter's notebook I still have. "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."
In front of her, her husband Ryza fell, and another relative, Zejnel, was also killed. Father and son are both named as victims in Milosevic's war crimes indictment.
Her sister-in-law, 32, also from the Beqa family, said that during the morning, the police, shooting from the top of the hill, could be heard from time to time singing.
"Zyhra and her daughter Fetije were both wounded, and crawled towards us for two hours. Nobody dared come out and help them," she recalled. Both of these women survived.
As a 70-year-old family elder remembered, "They shouted from the hill, 'Aziz Beqa, come and see your dead'. That's how I knew these policemen were from Stimlje. They knew us."
After leaving the Beqas, I was stopped at a crossroads in Stimlje by three Serb policemen. Terrified that they would search me and find my diary with the names and statements of the witnesses, I provoked an argument.
"Why did you kill all those people in Racak?" I asked.
"They are not people, they are terrorists," he spat. "And you are a traitor."
"A 12-year-old terrorist?" I taunted them.
"There were no children there. I was there, I took part in the action," he said. He showed me bullet holes in his police vehicle, not connected with Racak but to indicate that the police were constantly under attack from "terrorists". "No children got killed," he insisted.
Say that to Halim's mother, I thought to myself. Angered and distracted, the police let me pass.
In Urosevac, local activists helped me locate another villager, Shefcet Aliu, 50. He said the police "came from all directions. They conducted house to house searches. They were shooting."
While the police searched his neighbour's house, Aliu hid with his wife and five of his cousins' children behind the wall in a stable.
"Then I heard a policeman shout: 'You mustn't touch those under 15 and you know what to do with older ones'. They communicated by walkie-talkie," he said.
"Then they came into the house of Nazmi Nuhe Imeri, an old man who lived on his own in the neighbouring house. I heard his cry. In the night I found and dragged his body to my cousin's house. His head was blown to pieces."
SADIK'S COWSHED. But real drama took place at Sadik Dzemo's. Most villagers who failed to escape to the forest gathered there. They agreed that women and children (accounts varied, putting the number between 13 and 20), as well as three men, would hide in the cellar of the house. The rest of the men (again accounts vary, putting this number at between 26 and 30) would hide in the cowshed in the same yard.
Most of these men were to be found dead in the gully on the morning of January 16.
One of them was Bajrush Shabani, 22, whose name is also listed as a victim in Milosevic's indictment. A few days after his death, I found Lebiba and Miradija Shabani, sisters-in-law, in Urosevac in relative's house. According to Albanian custom, Bajrush's birth mother, Lebiba, had given him to his adoptive mother, Miradija, who, unable to bear children herself, raised him as her own.
So Bajrush was grieved equally by two mothers.
"The tanks were already near the mosque," said Lebiba, who had been with others in the basement. "Half an hour passed before the police reached the yard. They found the men hiding in the cowshed and we heard them being thrown out by police, who were swearing.
"I will never forget their cries, calling: 'Oh, my mother!' They were being beaten. We heard a machine gun, and the windows in the hall above us shattered."
According to Lebiba, a policeman with a helmet and mask then found them in the cellar. He ordered the three men to come out and join the others in the yard, while a few boys found in the stable were told go to the cellar. Lebiba peaked for a moment through the open cellar doors, and saw the men lying in the yard yelling as they were beaten.
Then there was silence.
The women in hiding concluded that the men had been arrested and taken away to Urosevac.
Lebiba told me that her son Rama said to her the police took the men to the outskirts of the village with their hands on their heads. He heard a group of policemen who stayed behind informing the other group over a walkie-talkie that the men were on their way.
When they approached the hill, Rama saw police with guns. He started to run towards the village of Rance, and then he heard shots. He never looked back, and made it to safety.
Further evidence was given to me by a 12-year-old boy who was hiding with his father and other men in the cowshed. With the help of a local Albanian journalist, we arranged that I meet him, accompanied by his uncle, in Urosevac. Told at first that I was a German journalist, he became uneasy when he discovered I was a Serb.
According to the boy, the police entered Sadik's yard around midday. A tall policeman with a black mask and helmet kicked the door open and started shooting. He didn't kill anyone, as the men were lying on the floor. "Don't shoot, we're civilians," the people screamed.
The men were then led out into the yard. The four boys, amongst them my young witness, were pulled aside as they were under 15 years of age. Burim Osmani, himself 15, was kept with the group of men, but was later released to join the women in the cellar.
My witness watched as three policemen beat the men with wooden polls. "One of them was kicking them in the face. The other policemen just watched. Men were screaming, they were bleeding. When I was put in the cellar with the women, I could still hear their cries."
The column of captured men, accompanied by police, was directed away from the village. They passed the wall where Shefcet Aliu was hiding. "Although I heard the gunshots later, none of us from the village knew they were killed," he said.
FINDING THE DEAD. Throughout the night, Aliu and other old men searched for the missing and the wounded.
"It was around four o'clock in the morning when we went with torches to the hill Kodra e Bebushit and came across the body of Bajrushi, Nusret's son," Aliu told me. They found other bodies laying nearby.
"I wanted to cover the dead in accordance with our custom, but someone decided that we should not touch anything until the [OSCE] verifiers arrived. So we did not touch. We only stood there next to them, waiting for the morning."
In a sense, they are still waiting, waiting for the truth to be confirmed in law before the war crimes tribunal. At least four men survived the shooting, and have given statements to OSCE mission. It is expected that Rama Shabani, Lebiba's son who was at the gully, will testify.
Milosevic may call other testimony. On January 25, Slavisa Dobricanin, head of the Institute for Pathology in Pristina, announced that the autopsy carried out on 21 bodies showed no signs of a "massacre".
The term was ripe for confusion - and exploitation - since in Serbian it means mutilate. A mass killing, as at Racak, could thus take place without, in this sense, being a massacre, depending on the treatment of the bodies.
The Finnish team introduced still further linguistic complexity, stating on March 17 that the killing of Albanians in Racak was a "crime against humanity" (and that "most likely the victims were unarmed civilians") but left it to lawyers to determine if it was a "massacre".
This caused Albanian indignation. The Serbs, however, seized upon it as proof there was no crime in Racak. Their attitude has not changed since, and indeed a Serbian-produced documentary also shown by Milosevic at the trial quoted Ranta.
Vojislav Kostunica, now the Yugoslav president, referred to Racak as a false pretext for the NATO bombardment. A Belgrade acquaintance asked me, "Did you hear how the West set us up in Racak?"
Yes, I said, I had heard that. But I had also been to Racak itself, and had heard the testimony of those who were there.
Gordana Igric, IWPR associate editor and manager of its Balkan programme, is a former researcher for Human Rights Watch. Her original article on Racak, published in the first edition of IWPR's Balkan Crisis Report, is available at: http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/bcr/bcr_19990201_3_eng.txt. The original statement by Human Rights Watch based on her research can be found at: http://www.hrw.org/press/1999/jan/yugo-prs.htm.
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.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight