KOSOVO REFUGEES DESCRIBE
"NIGHTS OF FEAR" IN BELANICE VILLAGE
April 8, 1999
HUMAN RIGHT WATCH -- KOSOVO FLASH #24
Refugees fleeing into northern Albania described an atmosphere of utter terror in the Kosovo village of Belanice, which was used by Yugoslav forces as a gathering point for ethnic Albanians living in the Malishevo district. Dozens of witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they were robbed, threatened with death, suffered physical deprivation, and that refugees were occasionally murdered. On April 1, their ordeal in Belanice came to an abrupt end, when they were forcibly expelled from the village toward the Albanian border.
According to refugees, Serbian police and Yugoslav Army soldiers forced some 50,000 villagers in the Malishevo and Suva Reka region of south-west Kosovo to gather in Belanice village beginning on or about March 26. The Yugoslav authorities forced the dispersed rural inhabitants into Belanice by shelling their homes or sending raiding parties into their villages. Villagers were instructed by the authorities to flee towards Belanice, one of the few villages in the area that had not been shelled. After spending several days and nights in the central square of Belanice village, the authorities drove the bulk of the refugees southwards towards the Albanian border, telling them that they were no longer welcome in Kosovo. After traveling in a slow-moving refugee column for up to three days, many of the Belanice survivors reached Kukes, a northern Albanian border down, on or about April 4, where they were interviewed by a representative from Human Rights Watch.
Refugees -- the bulk of whom were women, children and older men -- said they were forced to gather in the Belanice central square, where they were surrounded by Yugoslav security forces who repeatedly and persistently ordered them to hand over their money. Several witnesses recalled that Qemal Bytyci, a bus driver from the village of Semetisht, was repeatedly ordered by Yugoslav soldiers to search his passengers for money, which he then turned over the to the surrounding troops. The bus was parked in Belanice's central square for several days along with hundreds of tractors and cars brought by the refugees. "After they had forced him to search the passengers on three separate. occasions," recalled eighteen-year-old Shukrie Bytyci, "he could no longer find any money in the bus. So they took him away and beat him so badly that you could see the marks all over." Despairing of saving his vehicle, the bus driver abandoned the bus to the police, who then "drove all around the village, singing and shouting that they had captured the bus," the witness recalled.
Other witnesses said that soldiers repeatedly and persistently threatened them with death if they refused to hand over their money. "The nights were full of terror," one elderly woman recalled, "with the Serbs roaming around the square shooting in the air and pulling out their knives to threaten you with death if you didn't pay. We gave them everything, even the earrings in our ears and the rings off our fingers." In many cases, refugees were beaten and cut with knives if they refused to comply with demands for money.
On occasion, the Serb forces also killed refugees in Belanice. On April 1, for example, all refugees gathered in the town were ordered to leave for Albania. Batisha Hoxha, seventy-two years old, told Human Rights Watch that her husband, seventy-five-year old Izet Hoxha, was shot dead on the afternoon of April 1 after failing to join the mass flight. "He tried at first to leave when they ordered us to clear out," she recalled, "but he then said he was too old and tired to leave." After returning home, the elderly couple was attacked by four security force personnel who broke in through the front door. "My husband couldn't see who they were at first," Mrs. Hoxha recalled, "and offered them cigarettes. One of the soldiers knocked the pack from his hand, and then shot him twice. The first bullet hit him in the arm; the second hit him in the chest and killed him." Batisha Hoxha was then ordered to join the other refugees in the central square, who were making preparations to leave for Albania.
Dozens of witnesses who arrived in the northern Albanian town of Kukes after traveling from Malishevo district to Albania through Rahovec, Suva Reka, and Prizren said that most of the villages and towns in south-western Kosovo had been burned down and are empty of ethnic Albanian inhabitants. "Everywhere you go, you only see burnt homes and Serbian police or army," one refugee said. "All of Kosovo is empty of its people."
For further information contact:
Fred Abrahams: 1-917-293-3090
Holly Cartner (New York): 1-212-216-1277
Jean-Paul Marthoz (Brussels): 322-736-7838