Grim Evidence Reveals Road as Trail of Tears

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

A trough in a garage next to the farmhouse was ankle deep with blood, he recalled. It is empty now, although old clothes and shoes are strewn around the garage floor, along with several bloodstains the size of watermelons.

Adem Vitia, 39, held up a padded black winter jacket: It was slashed, and the hood appeared to be soaked with old blood. "They took my brother's son," he said. "He was wearing a jacket like this. I'm afraid it was him."

Faton Krasniqi, 25, who also hid in the hills, said he saw Gypsies, who often handle sanitation tasks in the villages, taking four trailer-loads of bodies from the garage to three mass grave sites.

Krasniqi took a reporter on a tour. Small cemeteries showed relatively fresh mounds of dirt, now covered with wildflowers and weeds, with old shoes and tattered clothes strewn about. He pointed to the watch. A shoulder of a jacket stuck out of the dirt nearby.

Insects teemed in the earth, and the fetid smell of death hung everywhere. Krasniqi said at least 80 bodies were dumped at this one site in Lukare, one of three similar mass graves in the space of a few miles.

Berisha, the man who saw the executions, took a reporter to the house with a few inches of ashes in the center of the floor in the shape of a human body. The floor was scorched.

The charred remains of the body were there too, until the previous day, when Berisha and others buried the man, whom they didn't know. But they saw him being pulled from the column. "I saw him. I heard his screams. I can still hear his screams," Berisha said.

A Man Repairs a Wall Pierced by Bullets

In a house just across from where the man was burned, Jusuf Berisha, 54, his hands covered with drywall material, was repairing a wall sprayed with bullets.

When police came to his brother's house, his nephew tried to escape. They shot him dead in the yard, along with the nephew's friend, he said. Four others, including Jusuf Berisha, escaped to the hills, where they hid for more than six weeks. He pointed to a brown spot amid the deep green of the mountainside behind his home. When Serbian soldiers apparently spotted him and others in the hills, the troops fired a cannon at that spot.

"Even now when we hear birds singing," Berisha said, "we are afraid."

When Gani Krasniqi, 42, came home last weekend, he found women's panties amid bloodstained clothes and blankets. Most striking were the different used buttons that littered the floor in one room with three couches.

"It's impossible not to know what happened here," Krasniqi said. His house is on a hilltop, a good vantage point for the Serbian soldiers who apparently stayed there. In addition to the bloody blankets--which are being saved in case of an investigation--there were liquor bottles and cigarettes.

Krasniqi's wife, Zarife, who has been scrubbing for days, said she has no choice but to somehow make peace with the tragedy that occurred in her house.

"What can I do?" she said sadly. "I'm cleaning all day long. We don't have anything else we can do but come back."

*

Arianit Shehu in Pristina contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°