Serb preparations for Kosovo attack started long before bombing
by Lori Montgomery, Jeffrey Fleishman and John Donnelly
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Published in The Seattle Times
April 12, 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 both to Milosevic's claim that the NATO attack spurred the ethnic Albanians' exodus and to NATO claims of surprise at how quickly Milosevic moved to expel more than half 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.
Interviews with scores of refugees, international monitors, U.S. government officials and human-rights workers paint a chilling portrait of a tightly orchestrated campaign that began at least five days before the first NATO bombs fell, employing a deadly mix of Yugoslav soldiers and special forces, interior-ministry police, paramilitary units and armed Serb civilians.
From the start, that campaign seemed to have twin aims: to crush the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and to terrorize ethnic Albanian families, torch their villages and save Kosovo for Serbia. Serbs seem to have targeted their victims, choosing Albanian intellectuals and young men in rebel strongholds - precisely the people likely to carry on the independence movement when the bombing ends.
Airstrikes clearly changed the nature of the Serb campaign, triggering a far more widespread and vicious assault on the civilian population than had been evident in the days before the bombardment began on March 24.
"It had the effect of really angering the Serb army and the special police," said a senior Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"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."
William Walker, head of the Kosovo verifier mission led by the Organization for Security and Operation in Europe (OSCE), agreed that the bombardment "might have accelerated" the atrocities, spinning Serb anger into a "full-scale, brutal ethnic cleansing, of killing, expulsion of people."
Beginning in mid-December, "we saw a very disturbing trend, which was an increasing arrogance by the troops, by the army, by the MUP (the Serbian Interior Ministry)," Walker told the Helsinki Commission last week in Washington. "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," Walker said.
`Tigers' move in
At the same time, international monitors began to pick up the scent of Arkan's Tigers, a notorious paramilitary group, at a base just northwest of Mitrovica. Units of an even more brutal group known as Frankie's Boys established bases at a prison near Pec and an 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 multilingual band of mercenaries from Russia, Ukraine, Romania - even Germany. Led by Franja "Frankie" Stomatovic, the gang also was active in Bosnia.
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. 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.
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.
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.
"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 Albanian acronym for the KLA). 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 about this time, 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 and into Macedonia as KLA guerrillas clashed with Yugoslav forces deploying near the Macedonian border, where NATO troops were gathering.
Others say the ethnic cleansing campaign began near Podujevo, 70 miles to the north. 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.
Whatever came before, most agree that the real terror began on Saturday, March 20, two days after the Albanians signed the Rambouillet peace agreement. As the threat of NATO bombardment increased, 1,380 OSCE verifiers - the independent eyes and ears of the world - pulled out of Kosovo.
As the OSCE's candy-orange Humvees queued up in the cold dawn outside mission headquarters in downtown Pristina - the Serbs struck the town of Srbica, the heart of the KLA's Drenica stronghold, just 15 miles away as the crow flies across the Cicavica Mountains.
Serb tanks positioned on hilltops rained mortar shells on nearby villages, sending up thick plumes of black smoke. Thousands of people fled south toward Glogvac or into the hills near the Montenegrin border.
At the same time, dozens of army special forces believed to answer directly to Milosevic were spotted for the first time, swarming through the streets in white jumpsuits and black balaclava masks. Terrified eyewitnesses described the execution of 10 men - many of whom reportedly displayed some connection to KLA.
On Wednesday, March 24, with the death toll mounting, NATO launched its first cruise missiles against Yugoslavia.
Until that moment, many Western observers believed Milosevic had been 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 on Thursday, March 25, Serb troops began to evacuate neighborhoods near military bases in Pristina and Pec.
At the same time, the army and police moved against a broad swathe 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 executions 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.
As the fighting moved south, a wave of refugees was pressed before it. By the weekend of March 27-28, as many as 60,000 displaced people had collected in the Pagarusa Valley just south of Malisevo. From the surrounding hilltops, Serb artillery shelled the refugees, according to KLA sources. Most later escaped, KLA sources said, and were led to safety in the hills.
In Pagarusa and elsewhere, low-flying Yugoslav MiG fighters reportedly dropped bombs on the masses of huddled refugees. In Baijora, north of Mitrovica, two MiGs attacked a school were 100 refugees were sheltering, according to a KLA senior commander in the region.
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, causing the streets to go black until dawn. Serb stores remained open, but Albanian stores were destroyed.
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. They judged the NATO strikes less of a threat than a night with the Serbs in the cellars.
Soon, Serb police, soldiers and paramilitary groups began to clear out Pristina's Albanian neighborhoods. Near the hospital, Serbs threw grenades to frighten people away.
Easy pickings for Serbs
At first, people displaced from one neighborhood simply moved to another. But by Monday, March 29, the Serbs were ordering he ethnic Albanians out of town. The lucky ones were able to drive their 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 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.
At the train station, 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.
As the trains left, Pristina grew quiet. On Tuesday, Milosevic declared a unilateral cease-fire and sealed his borders, forcing thousands of refugees to return home.