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THE PATH TO PEACE

Grim Evidence Reveals Road as Trail of Tears

Kosovo: Human remains, stench of death are stark reminders of violence along stretch of highway.

July 05, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAKOVAC, Yugoslavia — Call it the highway of hell.

At first glance, the stunning pastoral scenery just outside Kosovo's capital, Pristina, disguises the tragedy that took place along a few miles of this road, known as the Road to Leskovac, in April.

But look closer and the gruesome evidence is everywhere. And as ethnic Albanian refugees return home along this same two-lane country road, they're reliving the horrors they witnessed as they fled.

Today, this road that runs from Kosovo's northeast border with Serbia proper toward Pristina reeks of the stench of death. The smell is everywhere, emanating from numerous homes, at least three mass grave sites and fallow fields overgrown with wildflowers.

In each house, the refugees find evidence that is impossible to ignore. There is a living room dominated by a pile of ashes in the shape of a body, marking the spot where a man was rolled in blankets, doused with gasoline and burned alive. There is a wall riddled with bullet holes; Serbian police are said to have executed men there who were kneeling.

There is a house the Serbs apparently used as a chamber of rape. The refugees who returned to this home a few days ago found dozens of buttons ripped from clothes alongside bloodied blankets and women's underwear.

There are about three dozen cows--some sprayed with machine-gun fire, some with bullets through their heads--lying dead amid a breathtakingly beautiful field of red poppies and lavender.

There is a still-ticking black quartz watch next to a sleeve sticking out of a mass grave. Witnesses say the watch was once on a hand that has been eaten by animals.

The first villagers who trickled back to their homes from makeshift camps in the surrounding hills reported some of these atrocities to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeeping troops who rolled in to occupy besieged Kosovo province three weeks ago.

All the soldiers could do was mark two of the mass grave sites with a single strip of red masking tape and note the locations where farmers, struck down by bullets, lay beside their tractors. The information was then passed along to an international war crimes tribunal already inundated with hundreds of reports of atrocities.

"Could you smell the road?" asked British Cpl. Dion Dracon, one of the soldiers who saw several corpses--as well as the then-intact hand with the wristwatch.

The evidence keeps mounting as more refugees return from camps in Macedonia and Albania to find grisly remains in what is left of their homes. Many houses were burned, and virtually every one was looted: Serbs were looking for the cash Kosovo Albanians hide in their houses because Serbs control the banks.

But the gruesome findings aren't likely to remain intact for long: Villagers are burying bodies and trying to rinse away the horror by scrubbing, over and over.

Shyqri Krasniqi is trying to keep the remains of his father, aunt and uncle--burned alive--in a plastic bag buried with logs atop it to keep the dogs away. He wants to preserve the evidence in case investigators arrive to examine the charred remains of his father's house.

While at a Macedonian refugee camp, Krasniqi and others from these villages gathered the names of 116 people known to have been killed from April 19 to May 1. These 116 were only the beginning, he said.

Residents of the northeastern part of Kosovo had been fleeing for weeks, finding temporary refuge near Pristina with members of extended families such as the Krasniqis who fed and sheltered them.

But by mid-April, word had it that the Serbs were on a rampage of burning and looting, and refugees poured out in the thousands. By April 21, the population of five villages along a three-mile stretch around Makovac had swollen from 7,000 to a quarter of a million.

Extortion Followed by Sound of Gunfire

Hamit Zhujani will never forget the day the terror reached him. "It was a tragedy," he said as he walked around a mass grave site searching for clues to what happened to his brother and brother-in-law.

His tractor, filled with his six children, was No. 80 in line along the road when he came upon a Serbian checkpoint in Makovac. The soldiers demanded money. Over the next mile and a half, he said, he handed over 7,000 marks, about $3,500. He was stopped, robbed or harassed by soldiers about 20 times along that stretch.

When he ran out of money, the soldiers held a gun to his head. They were about to pull him from the column when his sister handed over 500 marks to spare him, he said.

"They just randomly selected men and took them. All the time we heard gunfire," Zhujani said.

"I saw 23 men separated from the column," said Ilmi Berisha, 65, who was hiding in the hills near his house in the village. At a farmhouse, "they made them sit, stand, sit, stand, then they killed them."

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