Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Witness Details Kosovo Expulsions

Muslim cleric says Prilepnica villagers were twice forced out by Serbs.
By Caroline Tosh
A Muslim cleric from a village in Kosovo last week told judges in The Hague that Serbian forces twice expelled villagers from their homes in early 1999.

Adylhaqim Shaqiri, an imam or prayer leader from the mosque in Prilepnica, said that he and “at least 3,000 inhabitants” were forced out twice in the same month – first on April 6 and then again on April 13.

Shaqiri was appearing for the prosecution in the trial of six senior military and civilian officials accused of responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo seven years ago. They are former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, former deputy Yugoslav prime minister Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav army chief of staff Dragoljub Ojdanic, and three police and army officers: Sreten Lukic, Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that the forcible expulsions and massacres committed against ethnic Albanians by forces allegedly under the control of the accused were a “widespread and systematic attack”.

The indictment says that on April 13, 1999, Prilepnica residents in the Gnjilane municipality “were expelled and forced to leave in a convoy” and “made to travel under police escort to Macedonia”. It goes on to say that at the border, “forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbia confiscated their identification papers”.

Shaqiri claims that the villagers were first ordered by Serbian officers to leave Prilepnica on April 6, because soldiers “were going to lay mines in the village and they were going to mine the dam as well”.

The convoy of villagers headed towards the town of Gnjilane, passing through checkpoints manned by Serbian military and police. At one post, they were told by police to go back home, where “no harm” would come to them.

They returned to find their houses had been looted and raided.

Shaqiri went on to say that a week later, on April 13, the army surrounded the village and ordered residents to leave. When they demanded to know why, the soldiers said that on April 6 they had been expelled by “paramilitaries”, while this time the operation was being conducted by “regular soldiers who just obey orders and don’t ask questions”.

One soldier said these orders had come from the “supreme staff in Belgrade”, Shaqiri testified.

He said the convoy was joined by people from other villages as it passed through a number of checkpoints, and that at one he was beaten by a soldier. “He hit me in the stomach with his weapon, and I lost consciousness,” he said.

A scene of devastation met the villagers when they returned home on June 25, said Shaqiri. “We found our village burnt to the ground, destroyed and looted. The mosque was burnt as well,” he said.

Questioning Shaqiri about his version of events, Pavkovic’s lawyer John Ackerman highlighted discrepancies between this testimony and previous statements to the Hague prosecutor in April 1999 and June 2001. Specifically, he said the evidence concerning an officer who said his orders came from Belgrade was not present in the statement Shaqiri gave in April 1999.

Shaqiri replied that the Hague prosecution interviewer had failed to ask him about it.

In a separate development, the trial chamber upheld an objection from defence lawyers who opposed the admission of two reports into evidence.

“Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told” and “Under Orders, War Crimes in Kosovo” were produced by the OSCE and Human Rights Watch, respectively. The two reports contain statements from about 3,000 Albanian refugees from camps in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro in 1999, following their alleged expulsion from Kosovo.

However, the statements in these reports are largely anonymous, and the chamber pointed out it is unclear who took them. According to the tribunal’s rules, witness statements must “possess the necessary indicia [signs] of reliability”.

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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