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Kosovo Mourns Refugees Killed

October 23, 1998

GRCINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ They were so close, just one more hill to climb on the rugged mountain path from Albania to home. Five adults carried some of the 11 children, with older kids helping the younger ones in the pre-dawn darkness.

After a month in exile, they could return to their Kosovo village because last week’s political agreement would halt Serb attacks _ or so they thought.

Then came the gunfire, killing one man, his two young sons and his niece. On Friday came the grief, with sobbing villagers burying the four in a hillside cemetery.

``Why didn’t you take your uncle with you?″ Xhafer Sylmetaj moaned into the ear of his dead 2-year-old nephew, Mazlummi, lying in a tiny wood coffin with a gaping bullet wound in his left cheek.

Caressing the stiffened hands and arms, he softly said, ``We loved you. You loved us.″

The deaths Thursday in the mountainous border region between Kosovo and Albania showed the enormous gulf between last week’s agreement by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which averted NATO airstrikes on his forces, and the reality of daily life in the war-torn Serbian province.

Despite the agreement’s provision for the safe return of refugees from the more than seven-month Serb and Yugoslav offensive, continuing violence _ including attacks by ethnic Albanian guerrillas on Serb forces _ and intimidation by Serb police hinders progress.

``We thought it would be better now with Holbrooke,″ said Hamez Sylmetaj, 73, the father and grandfather of three of the dead, referring to U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke’s agreement with Milosevic. ``If we are not helped by America and Europe, then the Serbs will continue to do this.″

A Yugoslav army statement issued in Pristina described the killings as a shootout between border guards and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, who were using women and children as shields for smuggling weapons.

The army said the alleged smugglers fired first after being warned to stop, and that four people were killed and two wounded, all of them Albanians.

Survivors related a far different story.

Fadil Sylmetaj, his eyes swollen from weeping, said no warning was issued as he and his brother led their wives and six children, along with their sister-in-law and her five children on the final steps of an eight-hour journey from Albania.

``They didn’t even say ‘stop,’ or ‘do this or that.’ They just started shooting,″ he said. ``I couldn’t protect the children. It was so awful.″

In a room of moaning, wailing women wearing the white scarves of grief, Lindita Sylmetaj, 15, also described the shooting as sudden. She had a small cut under her left eye and stitches on her left ear from a bullet graze, and her hands nervously tied and untied her scarf as she spoke.

``We didn’t see anybody, they just started shooting at us,″ she said above the grieving din. ``The children were screaming and my uncle yelled, ‘Stop firing, stop shooting us!’ While I was getting up to help my cousin, another shot hit me. They were shooting again.″

When it stopped, Ramiz Sylmetaj, 27, and his sons Muharremi, 6, and Mazlummi were dead. His wife Ashja, 23, was seriously wounded. Lindita’s sister, Leonora, 12, also was critically wounded and died soon after the shootings.

``We carried her, but ... she died,″ Lindita said.

Mourners packed another room where the bodies lay, Leonora’s ashen face cradled by her mother and grandmother. When little Mazlummi’s coffin was opened, several women screamed and some were carried out, convulsed in grief.

``I’m 75 years old,″ muttered Fetah Thaci, wearing the traditional white dome cap of an Albanian elder. ``I remember World War II. Milosevic is worse than Stalin or Hitler, to massacre women and children.″

The Sylmetaj brothers took their families to Albania on Sept. 20, fearing attack in a Serb police and Yugoslav army offensive in the area south of Jakovica in southwestern Kosovo, relatives said.

After the Oct. 12 agreement between Holbrooke and Milosevic, they decided to return, even though more police and soldiers were seen in the region.

``After we crossed the border, I felt like I was home,″ Lindita said. ``I wasn’t afraid of anything.″

Until the shots began.

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