By Ellen Knickmeyer
Associated Press Writer
June 22, 1999
IZBICA, Yugoslavia (AP) -- Turn down the wrong road in Kosovo looking for a mass grave of 35 ethnic Albanians, and the men there say, no, that's the next village -- but we'll show where we buried seven of our fathers and uncles together.
Ask someone for directions to a field holding the corpses of 142 people who were executed and he says, after that, if you want, I'll show you a grave holding six members of a single family.
Mass graves are everywhere in Kosovo: more than outsiders can track down in their first days back in the province; enough to keep war crimes prosecutors busy for years, if they choose.
Apparently fearing just such prosecution, Serb soldiers, paramilitary, police and civilians cremated many of their ethnic Albanian victims, or returned to exhume corpses for burning or reburial in single graves, survivors say.
But while the 2 1/2-month war was time enough for killing untold thousands, it wasn't enough time for cleaning up afterward. The signs of slaughter abound:
- A Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla with a bandana tied over his nose pulls on a rope snaking from the ground, lifting out the head of one of 10 people buried there. The cord that strangled the victims is still around the neck.
- Outside Djakovica, an Italian soldier points his foot at a human ribcage in a gravel pit that villagers say holds the bodies of 86 people massacred in the southwestern city. "A boy," the soldier guesses.
- A woman's skull rests among the charred bones of 26 people who were shot and then had their house burned around them in the village of Cara Luka, 22 miles southwest of the capital, Pristina. Hair intact, head tilted back, her mouth is wide open. "As if she's still screaming," people studying the scene tell each other.
In some cases, as at Cara Luka, residents are waiting for investigators from the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, to come before they properly bury the dead. FBI investigators are to aid U.N. war-crimes prosecutors in examining the sites, NATO says.
At least one investigator with the war crimes tribunal is touring mass graves by helicopter, flying into one site for a quick initial survey and pictures, then flying on to the next one.
On the ground, villagers are scrupulous in telling the stories of the massacres, even -- or especially -- if traces of the killing are few. They tally the dead, providing estimates on the number of bodies buried hastily under the mounds of earth.
"The world will know about these," said Sadik Xhemajli, a KLA officer in the village of Izbica near the northwest city of Mitrovica.
Xhemajli has painstakingly written, and laboriously reads, an account of Serb killings of 142 people at his village from March 28 to May 10.
The dead include 119 people executed at once, and an 88-year-old woman and a mentally ill, paralyzed man shot because they were unable to walk to the Serb-guarded convoy that was to deport them to Albania, the ledger says.
In all, seven of the victims were women. Two were children. Ninety-eight were men older than 50, up to the age of 102, Xhemajli recites.
Villagers buried the bodies in a field. Serbs came back from June 1 to June 3 with a backhoe, digging up the corpses and carting them off in a truck -- villagers suspect for burning at a factory in Mitrovica.
Spy cameras flying overhead caught the sight, and the Pentagon cited it June 9 as a sign of ongoing Serb atrocities in Kosovo.
Serbs took away the bodies "just to lose the evidence," Xhemajli said. "To escape The Hague."
Xhemajli, at a village a long, bumpy ride down a mud road, somehow has gotten word to authorities of the killings. He awaits The Hague.
See also Acknowledged and Unacknowledged Kosovo Albanian Graves (June 1999)
See alsoOn the question of deaths in Kosovo due to war