Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



Buildup to Yugoslavia's campaign in Kosovo began as early as December

By Jeffrey Fleishman and Lori Montgomery
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
April 9, 1999

SKOPJE, Macedonia. More than three months before NATO launched airstrikes against Serbian targets, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was readying a fresh offensive against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

As early as December, Serb special police and sinister paramilitary units quietly began to infiltrate Serbia's southern province. Ignoring an October deal for peace, Milosevic massed Interior Ministry police and Yugoslav army troops in Kosovo and along its northern border in numbers far beyond those allowed by the cease-fire plan.

By mid-March, Serb forces had wired tunnels and bridges on the main southern highway with dynamite, and Serbian civilians had armed themselves to the teeth.

The long buildup to Yugoslavia's ferocious campaign in Kosovo puts the lie to both Milosevic's claim that the NATO attack spurred the ethnic Albanians' exodus and to NATO claims of surprise at how quickly Yugoslav forces have moved.

Still, few guessed that Milosevic would engineer the expulsion of nearly a million people - the largest forced exodus of a civilian population in Europe since World War II. Now, questions are swirling about reports of atrocities in Kosovo, and whether NATO airstrikes may have quickened the pace of horror.

In the third week of the NATO air war against the Serbian military, Milosevic's strategy in Kosovo is coming more clearly into view, said a senior Clinton administration official.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there's widespread belief in the administration that Milosevic had two aims before the airstrikes: destroy the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army and drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

But the airstrikes changed the nature of the war on the ground, the official said.

"It definitely accelerated what the Serbs did to the Kosovars," the official said. "It had the effect of really angering the Serb army and the special police, and you got people who went further in carrying out (military) operations than they would have before. There's no way you can argue the airstrikes didn't influence the ethnic cleansing. And I also think there's no way you can argue that Milosevic wasn't going in there with a big hammer anyway."

Today, few can say exactly what happened in Kosovo. Many of those who could are dead, or scattered in refugee camps. Most eyewitnesses saw only what happened in their own cities or villages, and perhaps in a few others on the way to the border and safety. Foreign journalists, humanitarian organizations and human rights workers were all expelled shortly after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia more than two weeks ago. To date, the terrible stories collected from refugees cannot be independently confirmed.

However, interviews with dozens of refugees in Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania and with international monitors, human rights workers and war crimes investigators leave little doubt that war crimes were committed in Kosovo. Eyewitness accounts paint a portrait of a tightly orchestrated campaign that used a sinister mix of Yugoslav soldiers and special forces, Interior Ministry police, brutal paramilitary units and armed Serb civilians to terrorize ethnic Albanian families across Kosovo, run hundreds of thousands out of their homes and destroy their villages in hopes they will never return.

At the same time, the interviews suggest the Serbs did not commit wholesale slaughter. Instead Serb forces seemed to target their victims, choosing mainly intellectuals and young men in strongholds of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. Unlike Bosnia, where men were routinely separated from their families and executed en masse, the pattern in Kosovo suggests that systematic ethnic cleansing and destruction of rebel forces - not mass murder - was the Serbs' primary aim.

In mid-December, said William Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe verifier mission to Kosovo, "we saw a very disturbing trend, which was an increasing arrogance by the troops, by the army, by the MUP (the Serbian Interior Ministry). They would shell villages, they would loot, they would torch villages. They would routinely beat people in the villages, and do so in front of our verifiers, in front of the media - apparently with no shame as to what they were doing.

"In mid-December, we counted up to five to six times more combat units out and about than the agreements called for. You might remember in the agreements they were allowed to keep three companies of combat troops out and about in Kosovo at any given times. We found they were up to 15, 16, even more, out and about, without again telling us.

"In mid-December, we saw them prepare for demolition tunnels and bridges that would have been exit routes for us getting out or entry routes for anyone coming in, such as NATO. We saw by mid-December increasing evidence of civilian quote, unquote `home guards' being armed by the security forces, weapons being handed out."

In December, international monitors also picked up the scent of Arkan's Tigers, a notorious paramilitary group in Kosovo, at a base just northwest of Mitrovica. And units of an even more brutal group known as Frankie's Boys established bases at a prison near Pec and at a Yugoslav Interior Ministry barracks used for training anti-terrorism police just south of Pristina.

Arkan, whose real name is Zeljko Raznjatovic, is a Serb nationalist who perpetrated some of the most gruesome atrocities of the Bosnian war. Arkan's 1997 indictment for war crimes was unsealed last month.

Frankie's Boys are known as a band of multilingual mercenaries from Russia, Ukraine, Romania - even Germany. Led by Franja "Frankie" Stomatovic, the gang also was active in Bosnia. Its members drive big black Jeeps with no tags and sport tiny tattoos behind their right ears.

After their arrival, it didn't take long for things to spin out of control. International monitors believe Frankie's Boys were responsible for the Jan. 15 massacre at Racak, where 45 unarmed ethnic Albanian civilians were executed in a gully. Witnesses heard the killers communicating in a weird stew of Slavic languages. After two months of relative calm, Racak shocked the world and spurred U.S. and European leaders to begin peace talks between the Yugoslav government and Kosovo Albanians in Rambouillet, France.

A few weeks later, Frankie's dark Jeeps were spotted in Cirez, where the Serbs launched their first major assault on the KLA in February 1998. Once a KLA stronghold, Cirez lies on the eastern edge of Drenica, the heartland of the ethnic Albanian rebel movement.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in Kosovo grew increasingly tense. In Pec, Decane and Prizren, ethnic Albanian political leaders were detained by police, told to cease their political activities and warned that Albanians would soon be driven out of Kosovo. International organizations - particularly their ethnic Albanian employees - were also targeted.

In late February, two ethnic Albanians driving a clearly marked OXFAM car belonging to the relief agency were stopped by Serb police near the Pristina airport and then rammed by an army truck full of drunken soldiers and paramilitaries. A handful jumped out of the truck and leered in the OXFAM car's window.

"Oh," they said, "you're still alive."

Any doubt that Kosovo was on the verge of erupting was dispelled in February, when the Yugoslav army began to mass as many as 15,000 troops on Kosovo's provincial border. The sense of foreboding intensified in early March, when the Yugoslav army began to move giant T-72 tanks - the most destructive weapons yet seen in the conflict - into Kosovo by rail, shipping them straight to Srbica, in the heart of rebel territory.

"The thing that really made our hair stand on end was that this was so blatantly in violation of the October cease-fire agreement," said a Western military observer.

"We knew at that point there was something planned," said a senior official with the Western observer mission in Kosovo. "Initial intelligence suggested that they were gearing up for a spring offensive against UCK (the Kosovo Liberation Army). Now it appears they planned to do both" - attack the KLA and unleash a vast campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo's Albanian majority.

Some argue that the concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing began in early March near the southern village of Kacanik. Terrorized by Serb artillery on the wooded slopes of the Sar Planina Mountains, the first wave of refugees spilled out of Kosovo as KLA guerrillas clashed with Yugoslav forces deploying near Kosovo's border with Macedonia, where NATO troops were gathering.

Others say the campaign began near Podujevo, 70 miles to the north. Throughout mid-March, fighting flared in the northern region as Serb forces moved to reclaim a key strategic route linking Kosovo with the main Belgrade highway. Again, thousands of people were driven from their homes and pushed south. But military observers believe the Serbs' primary goal in Podujevo was to open a clear road and rail supply route into Kosovo from Serbia.

"By the morning of March 16, it was evident that we were all witnessing a rapid slide into outright war," said Nancy Lingborg, vice president of Mercy Corps International, a small assistance program that has been in Kosovo since 1993. "The tanks prowled the roads in great numbers, slinking off precipitously into the fields and hills, leaving tracks in the mud and snow, heading off to do damage to more remote hamlets. Mortar shelling could be heard during the day, even in Pristina. An increasing number of killings of Kosovar civilians were reported from all sites."

By March 19, Lingborg said, there were estimates of 66,000 newly displaced Kosovars. During that week, she saw "tanks moving at 50 kilometers per hour on the main roads, APCs (armored personnel carriers) rumbling in towns and villages, parked at numerous checkpoints and all main roads, large groupings of heavily armed soldiers and police at most corners. Little attempt was made to camouflage the artillery batteries; a sense of jeopardy prevailed in all activities. Local people did not go out after 6 p.m. It was dangerous for young men to be out in public at all during this period."

On Saturday, March 20, two days after the Albanians signed the Rambouillet peace agreement and as the threat of NATO bombardment increased, 1,380 OSCE verifiers - the independent eyes and ears of the world - pulled out of Kosovo. And as the OSCE's candy-orange Humvees queued up in the cold dawn outside mission headquarters in downtown Pristina - the real terror began.

Just 15 miles away, the town of Srbica, the heart of the KLA's Drenica stronghold, was the first major target of the Serb campaign. Tanks positioned on hilltops rained mortar shells on nearby villages, sending up thick plumes of black smoke. Interior Ministry police flooded Srbica, knocking on doors, ordering ethnic Albanian families to get out of town and burning their homes. Thousands of people fled south toward Glogvac or into the hills near the Montenegrin border.

More than 200 ethnic Albanian men were arrested and interrogated about their affiliation with the rebels. Dozens of army special forces believed to answer directly to Milosevic swarmed through the streets dressed in white jumpsuits and black balaclava masks. Terrified eyewitnesses described the execution of 10 men - many of whom reportedly displayed some connection to KLA. Eight of them were marched into the woods and shot, including a father and his four sons.

The next day, all the bodies were gone, dragged away by the men in white or by Serb officials wearing surgical gloves.

Later, KLA sources reported seeing more than 100 men delivered to an ammunition factory just outside town - the local headquarters of Serb police and paramilitary forces. Western observers said they believe the factory will figure prominently when war crimes investigators begin to tally Kosovo's dead.

On Wednesday, March 24, with the death toll mounting, NATO launched its first cruise missiles against Yugoslavia. They struck Belgrade about 8:40 p.m., flashing orange on the horizon to the north, west and south.

Until that moment, many Western observers believed Milosevic was prosecuting a limited campaign in Kosovo. Perhaps he was trying to cripple the KLA in its heartland. Perhaps he was trying to ethnically cleanse Kosovo's northeast territory - home to the important Obilic electric power plant; the rich Trepca lead and zinc mine; the Kosovo Polje battlefield, sacred to the Serbs since they lost a key battle there to the Ottoman Empire in 1389; and a medieval Serb Orthodox monastery at Gracanica. That way, the Serbs could claim the area in the event of a NATO partition of Kosovo.

But when bombs fell, that illusion was shattered.

As dawn broke Thursday, March 25, Serb troops began to evacuate neighborhoods near military bases in Pristina and Pec. The goal: to claim the houses as hiding places for troops, weapons and other likely targets of NATO bombs.

At the same time, the army and police moved against a broad swath of remote villages in the shadow of the Cursed Mountains, far to the southwest of previous fighting. Within days, tens of thousands of villagers were pouring out of the province into Albania, with tales of slaughter and horror.

Virtually everywhere, refugees tell the same story. First, a town is attacked or threatened by army forces. Then police, paramilitary units, armed civilians and sometimes regular Yugoslav soldiers pour into the streets, bang on doors, steal jewelry and cash and give people minutes to pack up their lives and get out.

Executions are common, but for the most part not random. Those killed generally have been men who have committed some sin in Serb eyes: They are part of the ethnic Albanian intelligentsia, Kosovo patriots, rebel supporters or merely unlucky men who ran into Serbs who bore them personal grudges.

In the village of Goden, soldiers brandishing long knives burst into homes and flushed 170 residents into the streets. They burned the houses with lighted gasoline bottles and reportedly executed 20 men - kneeling, hands clasped behind their heads - against a burning wall.

In Djakovica, police instituted a curfew, cut the phone lines and shot anyone who ventured into the streets. Tanks surrounded the village as police and civilians wearing masks entered in police cars. There was gunfire, and a handful of selected victims - mostly the intelligentsia and doctors - were rounded up and shot.

"There was a shopping list of people they wanted to eliminate," said Owen O'Sullivan, a Kukes-based official with OSCE.

On Saturday, March 27, the same thing began happening a few miles north in Pec, Kosovo's second-largest city. After hiding for three days in their basements while Serb troops shelled their neighborhoods and paramilitary forces looted shops downtown, ethnic Albanians emerged to find half the city in flames and bodies lying in the streets and in the Bistrica River.

Paramilitary units "with masks and uniforms we had never seen before" moved in small groups, according to one witness, banging on doors and giving residents minutes to get out. A local human right official believes Pec was visited by Frankie's Boys. Here and there, they took one or two people from their families and shot them. Thousands of men were beaten and women were raped, witnesses said.

Hundreds more were pulled from cars and arrested, leaving their bereft families to haunt the bus station in the sanctuary town across the Kosovo border in Montenegro, waiting for news.

Meanwhile, 25 miles east across the broad hills of central Kosovo, the Serb army offensive pushed south from Srbica into Malisevo, a KLA stronghold that had once been the capital of Kosovo's "liberated territory." Smashed by the Serbs last summer, people finally had started to move back to Malisevo. But that Saturday, Serb forces reportedly executed 50 men and set the town ablaze.

As the fighting moved south, a wave of refugees was pressed ahead of it. By the weekend of March 27-28, as many as 60,000 displaced people had collected in the green and winding Pagarusa Valley just south of Malisevo. From the surrounding hilltops, Serb artillery shelled the refugees, according to KLA sources. In Pagarusa and elsewhere, low-flying Yugoslav MiG fighters reportedly dropped bombs on the masses of huddled refugees. According to KLA sources, most later escaped and were led to safety in the hills.

By Sunday, March 28, a fresh wave of terror had sprung up in south-central Kosovo, in the rocky hills and canyons near Suva Reka. There, Serb forces reportedly killed 350 ethnic Albanians, burning some alive in their homes. With Serb forces circling the town, the ethnic Albanian population was forced out.

The Serbs seemed to save Pristina, the capital, for last.

Much of the city was trashed in the first days after the bombing, including the American Embassy's Kosovo outpost and homes leased to foreigners. Phone lines were cut and the electricity was shut off at nightfall, blacking out the place until dawn. Serb stores remained open, but Albanian stores were destroyed. Two days after the bombing began, Serb police shut down the last Albanian bakery operating, confiscating all its fresh bread in front of a long line of waiting customers.

Every night, Serbs rushed to the air raid shelters, terrified of NATO bombs. Ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, stayed in their dark apartments, listening to German radio reports. They judged the NATO strikes far less threatening than what might happen in the shelter with the Serbs. News reports said many ethnic Albanian leaders and prominent journalists had been assassinated, but few of these reports were true.

Soon, Serb police, soldiers and paramilitary groups began to clear out Pristina's Albanian neighborhoods. Near the hospital, they threw grenades to frighten people away. They hid troops in the hospital and posted snipers on the roof. Tanks and heavy armor peeked out from every alley and courtyard.

At first, people displaced from one neighborhood simply moved elsewhere in the city. But by Monday, March 29, the Serbs began to order the ethnic Albanians out of town. The lucky ones were able to drive their own cars, where they formed lines up to 18 miles long at the Macedonian border - easy pickings for Serb paramilitaries, who came after dark to take money and young, pretty girls.

The unlucky ones were marched in vast silent waves, heads down, to the train station with jewelry hidden in diapers, diplomas and passports stuffed in baby blankets. One family brought a razor so they could cut the umbilical cords when the wife gave birth to twins.

At the train station, the people were packed tightly into a train, 6,000 people in 20 or 30 cars. Little kids were stuffed into the baggage racks; old people were twisted, trying hard to breathe. The trains went south to Macedonia, but first they went west, passing slowly through the town of Kosovo Polje, which had been badly terrorized by paramilitary units.

"When we arrived in Kosovo Polje, I saw a dead man near the railway, burned from the groin up. Dogs were eating his legs," said Ardian Zogu, 26, a medical student from Pristina who was forced onto a train Friday, April 2. "They slowed the train so everybody could see that man. People were horrified. Young children covered their eyes."

As the trains left, Pristina grew silent as the grave. Milosevic declared a unilateral cease-fire and sealed the borders, forcing thousands of refugees to return home. Relatives and employers in Skopje who spoke to the returnees said the paramilitaries were gone and that the streets of Pristina were empty and calm.

But in Drenica, the fighting continued.

(Montgomery reported from Macedonia and Fleishman from Albania. John Donnelly in Washington contributed to this article.)


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