Witness Describes Massacre of Ethnic Albanian Civilians

Survivor of killing in Kosovo village said he believes Serbian soldiers and police were behind attack.

Witness Describes Massacre of Ethnic Albanian Civilians

Survivor of killing in Kosovo village said he believes Serbian soldiers and police were behind attack.

Wednesday, 27 May, 2009
A Kosovo Albanian witness in the war crimes trial of former Serbian police general Vlastimir Djordjevic testified this week that more than 40 civilians were killed during an early-morning offensive by Serbian forces against his village.

Hazir Berisha, one of three men who survived the 1999 massacre in Cuska, a village close to the city of Pec/Peja, was testifying in the Hague tribunal trial of Djordjevic, former assistant minister of the Serbian ministry of internal affairs, MUP, and chief of its public security department, RJB.

Djordjevic was indicted in October 2003 for his alleged role in a Serbian crackdown on separatist guerrillas in 1998 and 1999 that resulted in the expulsion of almost a million ethnic Albanians from what was then Serbia’s southern province.

An estimated 10,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Albanians, died in the conflict, which prompted NATO to launch 11 weeks of airstrikes against Serbia and resulted in the United Nations administering Kosovo for nine years until it declared independence last February.

Djordjevic stands accused of taking part in a “widespread or systematic campaign of terror and violence that included deportations, murders, forcible transfers and persecutions directed at the Kosovo Albanian population” between approximately January 1, 1999 and June 20, 1999. It is alleged that this campaign was aimed at “the modification of the ethnic balance in Kosovo in order to ensure the continued Serbian control over the province”.

To demonstrate the “widespread or systematic” nature of the alleged crimes, the indictment chronicles numerous instances of violence against Kosovo Albanian civilians.

Before Berisha testified this week, prosecutors read a summary of the witness’s statement previously given to the Office of the Prosecution, OTP, in which he identified members of the “Serbian army and police” as being behind the attack on his village.

Berisha then told judges that on May 14, 1999, at around 7 am he was drinking coffee in the yard of his house with other villagers when he heard gun shots being fired in the village by those he believed to be Serbian police and army personnel.

“My mother begged me to leave the house … because she feared I might get killed since I was an able-bodied man, and in [the] eyes [of Serbian police and soldiers] a possible member of the Kosovo Liberation Army,” said Berisha. “That is why I decided to leave.”

Making his way towards the centre of Cuska, Berisha said he joined a group of approximately 250 others who were also fleeing the town. About 7 to 10 minutes later, the villagers found themselves surrounded, he said.

“[Serbian police and soldiers] came from all sides and ordered us to come out to the road passing by the graveyard.”

According to him, the villagers were told to empty their pockets of all valuables, including money, gold, jewellery, and any documents or ID cards. The men were then separated from the women and children, who were ordered into the courtyard of a house across from where Berisha was standing, he said.

“The house was [set] on fire,” said Berisha, “and [the women and children] were screaming because they were scared.”

The witness said that the men were divided into three groups of 12 to15 and led into separate houses. Berisha’s group was escorted into the house of Sadiq Gashi, he said.

“Along the way [Serbian police and soldiers] were firing all the time. They were cursing us, [and] saying, ‘Where is NATO now?’ ‘Where is Tony Blair?’” he said.

Once inside Gashi’s house, Berisha was ordered into a small room where he and those with him were directed to sit on two sofas, he told judges.

“I sat in the corner,” said Berisha. “The first bullets were fired in my direction. It was uninterrupted fire… I was hit the first time on [my] left leg and the second time on my right knee.

“There was a brief pause. You could hear the cries of the men who had been shot. And then I heard them fire one bullet at each of the men. They started on my left side and continued until [they were] one or two persons [away] from me. I don’t know the reason they stopped, maybe they ran out of bullets.”

As the Serbian forces left the house, one of them threw a canister of gas into the room to set the house on fire, said the witness.

“The fire caught my face, and at that time I didn’t know where I was, whether on the ground or floating… I tried to stand up, [so as] not to survive [my] execution, but to be killed by a bullet and not be burned alive,” he said.

Holding his broken right leg, Berisha said he used his left leg to crawl out of a window and away from the burning house.

“I was injured on both my legs… my right leg was broken in seven or eight places, only the skin held the pieces together,” Berisha told the courtroom.

Once outside, he said he heard orders being given in Serbian to set things on fire.

The witness concluded that 41 men were killed during the incident.

In cross-examination, Dragoljub Djordjevic, lead counsel for the defence, attempted to discredit Berisha’s account by calling into question the nature of his first meeting with Hague tribunal investigators.

“Did you offer to give a statement, or did they approach you first?” he asked.

He also challenged Berisha’s ability to identify and distinguish between the uniforms worn by Serbian soldiers and police.

Djordjevic was in hiding for more than three years until he was arrested in the Montenegrin coastal city of Budva in June 2007. He had grown a beard and was working in construction.

His trial, which started on January 27, 2009, continues next week.

Andrew W Maki is an IWPR contributor.
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