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Mourners Rebury 68 Ethnic Albanians

July 22, 1999

CELINE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Red-eyed and wailing, thousands of mourners reburied 68 ethnic Albanian villagers eulogized Wednesday as martyrs for the dream of a free Kosovo.

This village of farmers and Kosovo Liberation Army sympathizers in southwestern Kosovo was one of the first targeted for destruction by Serbian forces after NATO launched its air campaign against Yugoslavia on March 24.

More than a century separated the birth dates of the dead _ Hasan Sinani was born in 1893 and Alma Zeqiri was born in 1997. All were slain March 25-28 in an alleged massacre being investigated by the international war crimes tribunal.

``As tragic as it is, it is also great. If there is a beautiful death, it is to die for your homeland,″ said Rame Buja, a minister in the self-declared government of Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci.

Throughout the ceremony, military and political leaders pledged to keep alive the goal of an independent Kosovo in the victims’ memory.

``The KLA ... will stay alive until the aspirations of our people are fulfilled.″ said Bajram Bekteshi, a local commander for the rebel force, which has forfeited its status as an army in a demilitarization agreement with NATO.

He thanked the villagers for providing fighters with food, water and refuge during their guerrilla war against Serbian forces.

The mass burial was held under blazing sun on a slope overlooking houses that were burned and looted in a purge of ethnic Albanians during NATO’s air campaign, intended to force Yugoslavia to end its crackdown in Kosovo.

For hours, mourners filed past the 68 caskets, which were covered partly by small, red Albanian flags. A photograph of each victim rested on each coffin.

Women wearing head scarves grew inconsolable as pallbearers lifted the coffins one by one to rows of open graves. Wives, aunts and mothers swooned from heat and grief. One young girl, wearing a T-shirt, grabbed the photograph of her father from the top of his coffin and refused to release it, sobbing.

Villagers said as many as 105 people were killed in the three-day massacre, many from neighboring villages who will be or have been buried separately. The remains of seven victims from Celine have not been found, and simple wooden markers were placed atop their empty graves.

According to a war crimes indictment against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top aides, Yugoslav forces surrounded and shelled the village the morning of March 25 before systematically looting houses. Most of the villagers fled into the mountains but were forced into the open March 28 by Serb police.

``After marching the civilians to a nearby village, the men were separated from the women and were beaten, robbed and had all of their identity documents taken from them,″ the indictment said, describing a scenario that is becoming grimly familiar across the province.

Even as villagers buried their dead, war crimes investigators continued their work in a tent just below the site of the graves in the village, 35 miles southeast of the provincial capital, Pristina.

As Celine’s survivors searched for some sense of normalcy, international aid and finance officials toured Kosovo to assess the costs of rebuilding the ravaged province.

The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday at least $333 million is needed this year, and the head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, estimated early reconstruction costs at roughly $50 million.

The agency also said at least one-quarter of Kosovo’s buildings have been destroyed. There is no police force, fire brigade, functioning school system or organized garbage collection.

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