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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Terrified Refugees Tell of Atrocities

April 04, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUKES, Albania — From the morning after the first NATO airstrike last month until as recently as two days ago, Serbian forces in Kosovo have been carrying out a series of massacres against ethnic Albanians in a triangle of territory in the southern part of the province, according to refugees who say they witnessed the violence.

In one incident, 70 men reportedly were lined up next to a river and mowed down with machine guns into the water. In another, about 25 men, women and children were herded into a basement and shot and slashed to death.

These and other reports of mass murder are coming out of Kosovo along with the flood of refugees flowing into Albania. The stories cannot be independently confirmed but have been partially corroborated by the injuries of the survivors, and by a videotape smuggled out by a Kosovo man that he hid in the chassis of his tractor.

Despite such evidence, however, Yugoslav authorities have denied that they are engaged in atrocities and say that the more than 600,000 Kosovo Albanians on the move in recent days actually have been fleeing from the NATO bombardments that began March 24.

The refugees paint a different picture. They say they have been expelled against their will, usually with no warning. During their exodus from Kosovo, they say, they have been hounded, beaten and robbed.

Piecing Together Evidence of Massacres

With no international organizations and few foreign journalists in Kosovo, it is only in the last few days that it has become possible to piece together evidence of the reported massacres taking place alongside the deportations.

What follows is an account of calculated terror and mass murder that has been reported taking place against unarmed civilians in four places north and west of Prizren, the province's second-largest city: Bellacerk, Krusa e Madhe, Negovac and Djakovo.

Salim Popaj marched with his walking stick across the border bridge at Morine on Saturday, one more figure in a wretched tide of thousands. As soon as he was approached by a reporter, the words came tumbling out. With eyes red and a voice that was breaking, he said: "Five of my sons have been killed."

It was 8 a.m. Thursday, March 25, in Bellacerk, a small village outside Rajovac, 12 hours after the first NATO airstrike designed to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to sign a peace deal with the Kosovo Albanians.

About a dozen Serbian police arrived with tanks and gathered all of the villagers together outdoors. Then they pulled out dozens of men who looked of military age. They lined them up next to a river. About half the police opened fire with automatic rifles as the rest stood guard. Some of the bodies toppled into the river, and afterward the others were pushed in, Popaj said.

"I have seen it with my own eyes," said Popaj, 68. "I was 20 steps away from them." Besides his five sons, ages 44, 32, 22, 18 and 13, the dead included Popaj's two brothers and three nephews and about 10 more-distant relatives, he said. He estimated the total number killed as more than 70.

That night, after the police had gone, the villagers took the bodies out of the river.

"We made graves," Popaj said. "If you want, you can find them there."

Another Bellacerk man, who gave only his first name, Janu, said he witnessed the same killings from where he was hiding in a ditch 100 yards away.

"I thank God that I am saved now and I am still alive," he said.

Villagers Rounded Up and Then Executed

A few miles from Bellacerk and on the same day, Milaim Bellanica, 31, saw a contingent of Yugoslav police with armored cars and truck-mounted antiaircraft guns approaching his village of Krusa e Madhe and hid in a wood on the outskirts of town. According to the account Bellanica gave Saturday in Albania, he stayed concealed as the people of the town were rounded up and sent to Negovac, a small town that the Serbs were turning into a concentration center for the area's ethnic Albanians.

During the roundup, a number of the men of the village tried to escape but were spotted by the Serbs, who then sealed off the area. In the hours that followed, they captured all of the men and summarily executed them, Bellanica said.

Unlike other refugees reporting atrocities, Bellanica has offered documentary proof: a videotape that he made of the bodies and then smuggled out of Kosovo.

Bellanica said he returned to the largely emptied town the day after the killings and discovered the corpses. His first reaction was to return to his house to collect his video camera, in order to document what he had seen. But on the way, he was spotted by a Serbian civilian and was forced to hide in his basement. On the day he returned to town, Serbs found three elderly ethnic Albanians still there and executed them. Additional killings occurred the next day.

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