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Details Needed for War Crimes Case

June 1, 1999

CEGRANE, Macedonia (AP) _ Inside a sweltering canvas tent near the camp entrance, an Irishman named Eamonn Smyth gently guides refugees through a list of painful questions.

Why did you leave Kosovo? Were you driven out? Were you arrested? Did you see anyone killed?

The answers spill into the margins and onto the backs of the white forms on Smyth’s clipboard. Then his final question: Are you willing to give a statement to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague?

Firsthand refugee accounts of atrocities are crucial to the tribunal’s case against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, indicted six days ago with four top aides for crimes against humanity.

Louise Arbour, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, said in announcing the indictments that the continuing flow of witness accounts was pivotal and could lead to additional charges against Milosevic, as well as the prosecution of others directly responsible for massacres, rapes and destruction of civilian property.

The investigators’ task is to mesh thousands of accounts from stricken refugees, to match precise dates, names, places and descriptions that will prove the horrific stories being told in the Macedonian and Albanian camps.

Every refugee has a story to tell, and determining credibility is grueling. Traumatized by war, refugees rooted in the oral traditions of ethnic Albanians often merge their own experiences with stories they’ve heard from others. Human rights workers like Smyth use calendars and maps and ask refugees to draw their own maps, floor plans and village layouts _ anything to keep them focused on what they actually saw.

In the Cegrane camp, Macedonia’s biggest, 32,000 refugees struggle with chaos every day. They wait in lines for food, for showers, for medicine.

Just outside the camp border, Smyth tried to make his tent an oasis of calm, interviewing just one refugee at a time or a few family members in the white plastic chairs around a small table. But frequently, confused and anxious refugees burst in, asking Smyth where to find relatives or how to get evacuated.

Interviews can take hours. Workers often talk to only two or three refugees a day in sessions that seem like therapy, says Claudia Moser of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a group of 54 nations that monitors international human rights issues.

``For some, it’s like a film in their heads. They remember it all,″ she says. ``Others are completely lost.″

Slowly, the awful pieces emerge; Smyth and the other OSCE workers write them down. Serb police gouged out the eyes of a young woman and left her writhing in front of her family for two hours before shooting her, says one account. Another tells of an elderly woman who couldn’t remove her wedding ring, so Serb police cut off her finger.

``The killing is so plentiful, and the forms of torture _ it’s indescribable,″ Smyth says. ``There’s a sadism about this that’s unbelievable.″

When refugees consent, the OSCE workers pass along their information to investigators for the war crimes tribunal. They, in turn, choose refugees for additional interviews, hoping to gather more evidence of mass expulsions, the destruction of property and the random killing and organized massacre of Kosovar Albanians.

Investigators talk to potential witnesses outside the camps to ensure confidentiality, says Paul Risley, a tribunal spokesman. He refuses to identify refugees contacted by tribunal investigators or to let journalists speak with the investigators themselves. But OSCE confirms interviews with Fahrije Jakupi and her 12-year-old son, Halim. Her husband was one of 52 people killed in the village of Racak in January. The massacre is cited in the indictment against Milosevic.

Three weeks ago, a woman from the Hague whom the Jakupis described only as a foreigner came to the Jakupi tent. With an Albanian translator, she took Fahrije and her son to a office in the Cegrane town hall for an interview that lasted five hours.

Sitting cross-legged and barefoot in his tent, Halim repeats for an Associated Press reporter what he told the Hague representatives, his eyes darting shyly from the floor to his mother.

How the Serbs came at 6 a.m. and started shooting.

How he and his father ran into the street with other village males to see what was happening.

How police tied the men’s hands behind their heads and made them lie on the ground, then beat them with clubs studded with nails.

``They teased me around my neck with the end of knife,″ Halim says. He could see his father in the line of men, a Serb machine gun pointed at his head.

Halim was wearing a watch. He noted the beatings started at 10 a.m. At noon, police dragged him and the other boys to a cellar where the women were hiding.

Outside, screams lasted for two hours.

The women and children spent the night in the cellar. At dawn, Halim crawled through a small window and ran through a dusting of snow to a hill.

There he found the bodies. One of his father’s eyes had been cut out. An arm had been pulled from its socket.

When they first come to the camp, refugees often are too stunned to remember all they’ve experienced. Others cannot recall the kind of detail necessary for a credible account, Moser says. A girl might describe seeing her mother killed, but she can’t describe what badge the killer wore on his uniform.

Interviewed by OSCE on Monday, Xhemail Metolli draws a diagram of where he saw Serb paramilitary police kill four refugees. Two men were shot in the back. Two others were told to stand back to back, then were killed with a single bullet. The police wore black masks, armbands emblazoned with a tiger’s face, camouflage and tennis shoes.

At the bottom of the form, Metolli signs his name and marks that he wants to talk to war crimes investigators.

But not everyone is willing.

Back at Eamonn Smyth’s tent, an elderly man repeatedly presses his hand to his eyes. After the interview, Smyth says the man ``is terrified″ his statement might endanger his family.

Spreading his hands in a gesture of sad helplessness, Smyth says, ``We may just have to tear up his form.″

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