Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



Massacre of Over Sixty Villagers Near Bela Crkva
Five witnesses describe killings to Human Rights Watch
April 17, 1999


Five witnesses, interviewed separately, have described in detail how Serbian security forces executed more than sixty ethnic Albanian men in the village of Bela Crkva (Bellacerka in Albanian) just hours after NATO bombing began in Yugoslavia on March 24.

Human Rights Watch researchers in Kukes, Albania, interviewed the five witnesses yesterday. The refugees' detailed accounts were consistent with one another and matched the testimony of a sixth witness given to a journalist from the French newspaper Le Monde.

According to the witnesses, the killings took place on the morning of March 25, some twelve hours after NATO began bombing targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The witnesses described in consistent detail how residents of the village of Bela Crkva were forced to flee their homes at approximately 4 a.m., an hour after Serb forces started burning the village. The villagers fled into the fields toward Rogovo, hiding themselves by the banks of the Bellaj (in Albanian), a stream flowing from Bela Crkva to Rogovo.

In the early morning of March 25, Serb forces found the ethnic Albanians hiding near a bridge where the railroad tracks crossed the stream. The families of Clirim Zhuniqi and Xhemal Spahiu, who were approximately fifty meters away from the main group of villagers, were the first to be discovered. Twelve members of the two families were summarily executed with automatic weapon fire, witnesses said. There was one survivor: a two-year-old boy whose mother had protected him with her body.

Nesim Popaj, an Albanian doctor from Bela Crkva, reportedly tried to negotiate with the Serb commander, pleading with him to spare the lives of the hundreds of villagers. He explained that they were not members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The commander responded by saying: "You're terrorists, and NATO will have to save you."

During this discussion, the commander was stepping down on the neck of Shendet Popaj, the doctor's seventeen-year-old nephew, who was lying prone on the ground. Abruptly ending the discussion, the commander -- described by one witnesses as a medium-height man, around thirty-five years old, in a green camouflage uniform with three stars on his shoulders -- mowed down Nesim with an automatic weapon in front of Nesim's wife and three children, after which he killed Shndet. The witness noted specifically that the commander, believed by the witness to be a captain, had a distinguishing feature: a recognizably scrunched up mouth.

The Serb forces then separated men and boys as young as twelve from the rest of the villagers. The men were told to undress, in an apparent attempt to humiliate them in front of their wives and children. The Serb forces, described by witnesses as "special police forces," then proceeded to search the mens' clothes and strip them of money, jewelry, and documents. One witness reported that the men had to hand over their wedding rings. The women and children were then told to walk along the railroad track towards Zrze (Xerxe in Albanian), a village on the Dakovica-Prizren road about a mile southwest of Bela Crkva.

Robbed of their possessions, the men were told to dress again, and then to go to the nearby stream. At that point, Serb forces opened fire with automatic weapons. The female villagers who were walking along the railroad tracks told Human Rights Watch that they heard a burst of gunfire, lasting for several minutes without interruption.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with one man, who did not wish to be identified, who claimed that he was shot with the group of men near the stream, and survived. When interviewed in Kukes he had bandages on his right shoulder, right arm and head from wounds he said he had sustained during the shooting (to his right shoulder), as well as some shrapnel wounds he had sustained later while trying to escape Kosovo (to his head and arm).

In a detailed testimony that was highly consistent with the other witnesses, the man told Human Rights Watch that a bullet had struck him in the right shoulder, forcing him back onto the bank of the stream. He was then covered by the bodies of several dead men, he said, which hid him from the Serb forces who were examining the bodies for signs of life. He told Human Rights Watch:

"I was lucky. I was in front of the group. I was shot in the shoulder and flew into the stream, where I pretended to be dead. About twenty dead bodies fell on top of me. They then shot into the pile of bodies to be sure they were dead... They shot people one by one, but I didn't get shot because they didn't see me."

Roughly ten minutes later, still hiding under the pile of bodies, the witness heard another round of automatic weapons fire nearby. Some thirty minutes after that, when the witness realized that the Serb forces had moved on, he stood up and saw the dead bodies of seven elderly people from his village, as well as two persons unknown to him, lying in a field about a hundred meters away from the stream. He then proceeded to walk towards Zrze, where he told the women from Bela Crkva who had arrived around 10:00 a.m. what had happened.

The witness' account closely matched the testimony of another apparent survivor given to French journalist Nathaniel Herzberg (see "The Refugees of Kosovo Witness Executions by Serb Forces," by Nathaniel Herzberg, Le Monde, April 14, 1999). This witness told Herzberg that the men were forced to undress and then dress again before being marched to the stream bed, where they were shot. He said:

"It was then that they opened fire. I was thrown into the water, and others fell on top of me. And then nothing. Five minutes later, I heard another burst of machine-gun firing, far away. After about 20 minutes, I moved. There were six survivors, but four were wounded. I didn't have anything [I wasn't hurt.] I think there were between thirty-five and forty dead, of which four were my cousins."

According to other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who also wished to remain anonymous, a man and several women near Zrze went back to the stream by tractor to see if there were any other survivors. They told Human Rights Watch that they found five or six men who were wounded near the stream and brought them to Zrze. Two of the men later died of their wounds, and it is unknown what happened to the others. Two days later, on the Muslim holiday of Bajram, a group of villagers buried the bodies in a field near the river. A participant in the burial told Human Rights Watch that the villagers had to work two nights in a row to bury all the bodies.

The massacre in Bela Crkva reveals a pattern of mass killings along a seven-mile stretch of villages on the Djakovica-Prizren road between March 25 and March 27. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least forty ethnic Albanian males were killed in the town of Velika Krusa (Krusha e Madhe in Albanian) on March 26 (see Human Rights Flash # 18, April 4). There are highly credible reports from individual witnesses of mass killings in the nearby villages of Mala Krusa, Celina, and Pirane.

One possible explanation for the spate of mass killings in this specific area may be revenge for the past activity of the KLA, which at times controlled territory to the northeast of Velika Krusa in the direction of Orahovac. It is also possible that these killings can be attributed to one particularly brutal group of soldiers or police, although this is speculation.

List of Those killed in Bela Crkva on March 25:

1. Hajrullah Begaj (village imam), 29

2. Murat Berisha, 62

3. Adem Berisha, 33

4. Hysni Fetoshi, 50

5. Halim Fetoshi, 70

6. Fatmir Fetoshi, 30

7. Ardian Fetoshi, 16

8. Fadil Gashi, 47

9. Musat Morina, 60

10. Zyraje Morina (wife of Musat), 55

11. Nesim Popaj (doctor), 36

12. Shendet Popaj, 17 (nephew of doctor)

13. Etihem Popaj, 40

14. Krashnik Popaj (son of Etihem), 48

15. Isuf Popaj, 65

16. Mehmet Popaj (son of Isuf), 46

17. Vehap Popaj, 60

18. Bedrush Popaj, 50

19. Avdullah Popaj (son of Bedrush), 16

20. Sedat Popaj, 50

21. Ifan Popaj, 40

22. Rrustem Popaj, 63

23. Mersel Popaj, 50

24. Sahit Popaj, 42

25. Behlul Popaj, 14

26. Nazmija Popaj, 45

27. Albani Popaj, 20

28. Agon Popaj, 14

29. Hysni Popaj, 38

30. Lendrit Popaj, 17

31.-37. Xhemajl Spahiu, 70 (from village of Apturush, he and 6 family members were killed together with Clirim Zhuniqi in first group of 12)

38. Eshref Zhuniqi, age 60

39. Fatos Zhuniqi, 42

40. Labinot Zhunici, age 17

41. Mahamet Zhuniqi, 65

42. Reshit Zhuniqi (son of Muhamet), 25

43. Qamil Zhuniqi, 72

44. Ibrahim Zhuniqi, 70

45. Abedin Zhuniqi, 36

46. Bajram Zhuniqi, 50

47. Qemajl Zhuniqi, 57

48. Hysni Zhuniqi, 62

49. Kasim Zhuniqi, 30

50. Mehdi Zhuniqi, 60

51. Ahmed Zhuniqi

52. Agim Zhuniqi, 55

53. Destal Zhuniqi, 65

54. Bilal Zhuniqi, 75

55. Shemsi Zhuniqi (son of Bilal), 52

56. Muharem Zhuniqi (son of Shemsi), 28

57. Qlirim Zhuniqi (killed in first group of 12), 40

58. Lumnije Zhuniqi, 39

59. Dhurata Zhuniqi, 10

60. Dardana Zhuniqi, 8

61. Dardan Zhuniqi, 5

62. Hysen Zhuniqi, 22

For further information contact:

Fred Abrahams (212) 216-1270 Holly Cartner (212) 216-1277 Jean-Paul Marthoz (322) 736-7838

For further information about violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Kosovo, see the Human Rights Watch website at on the "Crisis in Kosovo" page.

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