Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The former head of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, told the trial of six top Serbian officials this week that the rebel force operated under a strict chain of command.
Bislim Zyrapi, the ex chief of staff of the KLA, said that from November 1998 to April 1999 when he was in charge, it was a well-organised group, which punished any breaches of discipline.
Zyrapi was giving evidence at the trial of ex-Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav army, VJ, chief of staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, and police and VJ officials Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic.
The six face war crimes charges over the alleged actions of Serb forces during the Kosovo conflict of 1999.
The indictment against them describes the way in which the KLA, which emerged in the mid Nineties, embarked on “campaign of armed insurgency and violent resistance to the Serbian authorities”.
Serb forces clamped down and “engaged in a campaign against the KLA in the course of which they applied excessive and indiscriminate force against Kosovo Albanian citizens”, the indictment says. As a result, many Kosovo Albanians were displaced within Kosovo or fled the province, it concludes.
All six deny responsibility for crimes, including the murder of hundreds of Kosovo Albanians, persecution on political, racial or religious grounds and the deportation of about 800,000 citizens.
A former officer in the old Yugoslav army, JNA, and in the Bosnian military, ABiH, Zyrapi joined the KLA in May 1998 and was promoted to chief of staff six months later.
He described how the KLA grew from a small, guerrilla group into a larger, more organised force throughout 1998, and by March 1999 numbered approximately 17,000-18,000.
Zyrapi, who previously testified at the trial of former KLA commander Fatmir Limaj in November last year, also outlined the command structure and organisation of the KLA.
Troops were meant to take orders from the group’s military headquarters, which was based on the Berisa mountain in the village of Divjak.
In reality, however, local commanders gave orders on the ground, he said.
There was a military court in the army’s headquarters to discipline soldiers and officers who did not adhere to the force’s military rules or the Geneva conventions, and breaches of these rules were investigated by military police.
Zyrapi told the trial chamber that he ordered local commanders to take tough measures against those officers and soldiers who abused power.
“I was never informed about crimes committed by members of the KLA, but I heard rumours about crimes and killings of Albanian civilians who collaborated with Serbian forces,” he said.
KLA forces laid ambushes for Serbian police, he said, and would also attack police checkpoints throughout Kosovo, but only when they were moving location and needed to pass through.
When asked by the prosecutor how the group was funded, the witness said the KLA received donations from charities, as well as support from a fund called Fatherland Calling, which operated from abroad.
“Neither I nor the other soldiers received salaries, because the KLA was a voluntary organisation,” he said.
During cross-examination, the defence tried to prove that the KLA launched regular attacks on Serbian police throughout 1998 and during the first three months of 1999.
To support this claim, they produced reports from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s, OSCE, Kosovo mission, which gave details of KLA ambushes against Serb police.
But Zyrapi claimed to remember none of those incidents.
Norman Sepenuk, the lawyer for Ojdanic, tried to show that civilians were not driven from their homes by Serb forces, but ordered to abandon their villages by the KLA.
Zyrapi acknowledged that this sometimes happened.
One such occasion was in March 1999, when the KLA ordered the inhabitants of the village of Belanica to leave their houses and go with KLA soldiers to the Berisa mountain.
“We evacuated that village because of security reasons,” said Zyrapi, explaining that Serb forces had launched an offensive in the area following the launch of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia.
But in spite of that order, large numbers of civilians decided to stay in the village, he said.
Sefcet Zogaj, a Kosovo Albanian journalist from in Belanica, testified earlier this week that on April 1, 1999, he and other residents were deported from the village by Serb forces, who killed 150 people. However, he admitted that he did not witness the alleged killings himself.
The trial continues next week.
Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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