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Kosovo Refugees Count Their Dead

April 6, 1999

FIER, Albania (AP) _ While their women and children slept sprawled out on a theater stage, Kosovo Albanian men were adding names Tuesday morning to a list of villagers they say were killed by Serb forces.

``Forty-four, plus Remzie Kabashi and her two daughters. Make it 47,″ said Skender Kabashi, 54, a relative of the victims, all killed in ethnic Albanian villages near the Kosovo town of Orahovac between March 25-27.

Human rights groups are trying to compile as much detail as possible on mass killings and other alleged atrocities to present before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

But the refugees’ lists are primarily for themselves, so that relatives separated from loved ones can find out what happened in the terrible hours after the Serbs launched their campaign against the villages.

The refugees here say Serb police attacked the village of Brestovac on March 25, about 10 hours after NATO launched its first barrage of cruise missiles at military targets throughout Yugoslavia.

According to their accounts, six tanks started moving toward the village at 7 a.m., then pounded the settlement with cannon fire. Villagers said they fled.

``When we reached the top of the hill, so did the Serb infantry coming from the other side,″ said Shefki Berisha, 49. ``And when they came face-to-face with us, they started shooting us in cold blood. They killed many people.″

Kabashi offered his own recollection of what happened next.

``Agron Krasniqi was next to me when he was shot and killed,″ he said. ``He was 18. His mother, Hatixhe, was shot and wounded as she was trying to pull his body to a safe place.″

The lucky ones escaped in the confusion and sought shelter in a mountain cave, survivors said. But Serb police closed in on them. Two men volunteered to make a break from the others, hoping to distract the police.

``When the policemen saw the two men, they went after them, and we heard gunfire,″ said Berisha. ``Ten hours later, we went out and saw the two men, Ragip Elshami and Arben Elshami, lying dead.″

After spending the night in the mountains, the group made their way back to their village, which had been abandoned by police. Along the way, they found the bodies of 11 men, piled on top of one another, in what they said looked like a mass execution.

They recognized the faces. Seven were from the Elshami family, four from the Berisha clan. Each name was carefully logged on the list to be presented to human rights workers.

After sundown, the group from Brestovac moved on to the nearby village of Nagafc. They found about 15,000 ethnic Albanians who had taken refuge from attacks on other communities in the Orahovac area.

``I had about 200 people in my house alone, some sleeping inside, some outside in their cars,″ said Rahman Elshami, 44. That night was Bajram, a major Muslim feast. But there was little to celebrate.

At about 2 a.m. they heard the sound of aircraft overhead. Before they could flee, several bombs fell, killing dozens of people. The villagers were convinced the aircraft were Yugoslav.

``We buried only six of the victims. We had to leave before the planes returned,″ Kabashi said. ``Many others remained under the roof and the rubble.″

He said he helped his friend, Sinan Krasniqi, bury his 4-year-old son.

``I wanted to bury also my aunt, but couldn’t pull her out of the rubble,″ he said.

In the morning, the crowd set off for the Albanian border. The last thing the local history teacher, Hajrullah Kabashi, remembers from the trip out were the white crosses painted on the doors of Serb houses.

``The crosses were there to tell Serb police and army that those houses belonged to Serbs and shouldn’t be attacked,″ he said.

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