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The Death Of Belanica

A single day of Serbian fury leaves a pastoral village--and the lives of its people--in ruins. A refugee family and its neighbors bear witnes to one piece of Kosovo's vast agony.

April 25, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spread out by a gurgling river, surrounded by mountains and green fields, the village of Belanica is described by those who dwelt there as a place where orchards flourished, the earth was rich, and time passed unhurried among neighbors who had known each other all their lives.

It existed that way for centuries. And then, in a day, it was gone.

Over the course of 24 terrifying hours, up to 500 Serbian soldiers and police invaded, sacked and laid waste their placid farm community in south-central Kosovo.

Even before they swooped in on April 1, the Yugoslav army had shelled dozens of nearby towns and villages, systematically herding an estimated 80,000 ethnic Albanians into the center of Belanica. Trapped there with their cars, tractors, wagons and few remaining possessions, they became defenseless prey for a pitiless gang that was as intent on robbery and humiliation as it was on obliterating centuries of ethnic Albanian history in the province.

This account of the life and death of Belanica has, until now, been lost in the general mayhem and brutality of the "ethnic cleansing" sweeping Kosovo. The story of one extended family--Idriz Zogaj, his son, daughters, nephews and grandchildren--adds detail on the sad and cynical displacement of most of the province's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians and the destruction of more than 400 Albanian towns and villages. The tales of killings, robberies, rapes and burning in one small village provides a clue to the scale of the crimes that have been committed, and continue to be committed, across Kosovo.

On the bridge at Morine, a remote Albanian border post, one can see what Belanica has become: another part of the overwhelming tide of human suffering that has been pouring out of Kosovo during the past month.

Watching the refugees arrive, disheveled, dirty, unshaven, rumpled and red-eyed, children clinging to mothers or staring blankly ahead, people lying in piles of pathetic mattresses and soiled blankets, coats and sweaters, is disturbing--not only for what it shows about the capacity for human cruelty. It is also disturbing because of what it does not show: who these people really are, where they came from, what they have endured and what they have lost.

Belanica is not unique, and people like the Zogajs have no special claim on the world's conscience. But if an entire people can be stripped of their possessions, if individuals can be murdered with impunity, raped at will and tossed away to satisfy someone else's vision of history, then it appears that the lessons of this century have not yet been learned.

Belanica, whose name means "little white nest," was a small slice of paradise on Earth, according to homesick villagers. The community of 300 families and 3,000 people in the Podrime region of Kosovo had vineyards and wheat fields, shops and cafes, wide streets and a post office. It was bordered on three sides by mountains and situated by a small river, the Lumi Mirusha, where the children played.

Solid, stuccoed brick houses--paid for with the hard currency that Belanica's sons earned in Germany, Switzerland or Australia--were built around a large grassy field, 20 acres in size and enclosed by a high stone-and-brick wall. This field, crisscrossed by roads and footpaths, was empty except for a new and an old school, a clinic and an ancient oak tree.

There is an interesting story about this field: Centuries ago, four brothers came to the valley and built homesteads--one on each side of the field. They made a pact that no one would build inside the wall. It would be a common grazing area.

Idriz Zogaj, for one, remembers tending sheep there as a boy in the 1930s. "In spring, when the lambs were new," he said, "there were so many that it looked like the field was covered with snow."

This field was the beginning of Belanica. Each brother founded a clan, and those four clans--Zogaj, Hoxha, Kafexhollaj and Sertollaj--continued living in Belanica until this year. There was even a quaint ceremony every May 6, the unofficial first day of spring, in which the old men of the village would meet and walk the circumference of the field, just to make sure that no one had infringed upon it.

The ritual will not be observed this year, for that meadow has now been violated. On April 1, villagers say, it became a place of murder, plunder and rape.

Idriz Zogaj, one of the expelled elders of Belanica, appeared in the collection center for Kosovo Albanian refugees in Kukes, northern Albania, that is known to journalists as "the junkyard."

Amid the derelict bus barns and garages, burned out shells of vehicles, refugees camping by their tractors and living in the trunks and back seats of rusting cars, there was something arresting about Idriz Zogaj.

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