War Crimes and Punishment
I first heard of the massacre of the Berishas, an extended family of Kosovar Albanians, in June 2000, some 14 months after it happened. A colleague and friend, Shpresa Mulliqi, asked me to polish a rough English translation of her long interview with Shyhrete Berisha for publication in a bilingual magazine, Kombi (The Nation). Mrs. Berisha had survived the events that left at least 22 of her relatives dead, and had escaped from a truck that was carrying the corpses away.
Subsequently, what appeared to be those very corpses played a role in the exposure of the Belgrade regime's crimes when, in April 1999, a transport container loaded with dead Albanians surfaced in the Danube river. A number of the bodies were those of children; at least four of them apparently matched the ages of murdered Berisha children. Serbian opposition journalists tracked the measures taken to conceal this grim evidence not only to the offices of top Serb security bosses (some of them still in power today) but to the office of Slobodan Milošević himself.
If the prosecutors in The Hague, who have indicted Milošević for war crimes before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, can prove that Milošević ordered the disposal of the corpses, that may clinch their case. Already, however, Shyhrete Berisha's account of the killings and their aftermath conveys with horrible immediacy the cost of Milošević's wars. The summary that follows is based on her testimony.
In December 1999, the Berishas provoked the anger of the Serb authorities by renting a house in Suhareka to representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE had come to Kosovo to verify confidence-building measures intended to assist a peaceful resolution of the fighting between the Serb rulers of the territory and the Kosovo Liberation Army, which claimed to represent the Albanian majority. After only three months, the OSCE pulled out. When NATO began bombing Serbia on March 24, 1999, the Berishas knew they were in danger. The women gathered up their children—four of them under 2 years old—and took them to stay with Shyhrete's brother-in-law, Faton.
On March 25, Serb troops showed up at Faton Berisha's house with an armored vehicle. They shouted demands like, "Give us the money the Americans gave you or we're going to kill all of you!" They robbed the Albanians of all their money, whereupon 25 family members fled to the house of an uncle.
The next morning, a crowd in paramilitary and police uniforms approached this house. The Berishas knew almost all of the Serbs by sight; most were civilians who apparently had donned uniforms only that day. One of them spoke Albanian and demanded that one of the younger men, Bujar Berisha, surrender himself. As soon as Bujar appeared, they shot him dead.
All the Albanians were driven out into the street. The men were separated from the group, and the Serbs methodically executed them on the spot. When Shyhrete Berisha's husband Nexhat was killed, she recalled her daughter Majlinda screaming, "Oh father!"—a scream she believed the whole town must have heard. Some of the women were shot down alongside their men.
The rest of the women told the children to scatter. Shyhrete staggered, dazed, into the center of the town, where she saw a crowd at a restaurant and recognized among them some of her cousins. But police and paramilitaries arrived on the scene and ordered all Berisha family members into the restaurant, where the Serbs began firing machine guns into the group.
Shyhrete recalled every detail of this nightmare. Infants were killed before their parents' eyes. "I saw my [son] Redon," she remembered. "I said to myself, in two months, he would have been two years old. He...died. They shot him in the head....Ismet [aged 2] died." She herself was shot and injured by grenades.
After agonizing hours, Shyhrete and at least 40 dead and half-dead people were thrown into a truck. Her son Altin remained alive, but when his body was moved the Serbs realized he was breathing and killed him. In the truck, she said, "we were covered by the lifeless bodies of our children." In the tangle, Shyhrete heard a whisper from her uncle's wife, Vjollca, who had feigned death with one of her sons, Gramos. The women disagreed about what they should do. Vjollca said they should wait until they were buried and then try to claw their way out. Shyhrete said no, Gramos would be suffocated; they should jump out of the truck.
Shyhrete stuck her head out the back of the truck to see if they were being followed by police, and the wind blew her out. She struck her head and hung senseless by a foot while the truck dragged her. Then she fell free and lay unconscious on the highway. Some people from a nearby village saw her and, thinking she was dead or that it would be dangerous to approach her, left her there, until two villagers decided they should at least remove the body from the road.
When she was found to be alive, she was given first aid, then treated at a Kosovo Liberation Army field hospital, but Serbs attacked the hospital. She fled to a house in the mountains, but the Serbs began bombing the area. She tried to cross the border to Albania but was turned back by Serbian police, who again separated men and boys from the group and killed them. Finally escaping to Albania, she was found by an American missionary, Rufus Dawkins, who had stayed in her house when it was rented by the OSCE. "Mr. Rufus" took charge of her case, secured treatment for her wounds, and arranged for her return to Kosovo after NATO forces entered the territory.
Later Mrs. Berisha learned that Vjollca and Gramos had jumped from the truck and lived. But she had lost her entire immediate family in the massacre. Her husband Nexhat's body was located and buried; the corpses of her four children may be among those found in the container in the Danube.
While it may be of no interest to The Hague investigators, I recall with amusement that when Shpresa Mulliqi and I prepared Shyhrete Berisha's narrative for publication in Kosovo last year, the document was considered controversial. The international authorities in Kosovo believed such materials to be harmful to relations between Albanians and Serbs, and they disliked the journal Kombi for its independence. It is gratifying to see the narratives of the surviving Berishas gain the status of evidence in the Hague proceeding. The Berisha massacre was added to the original indictment on June 29, 2001, the day after Milošević was arrested.
This incident is only one of several atrocities I helped document in Kosovo, interviewing and photographing survivors in my capacity as a journalist. Another, which occurred the next day, March 26, 1999, figured in the Milošević indictment from the beginning: A 59-year-old Muslim spiritual leader living in the city of Gjakova, Sheik Zejnelabedin Dervishdana, was killed at his home by Serb gunmen, along with his two sons and three others. The sheik's daughter, Eli Dervishdana, told me her family included "seven generations of Islamic priests, four of spiritual Sufis, and four successive generations of Kosovar martyrs for Islam, with all the main male line now dead." Her brother Nesemi, then 17, was killed in 1981 in Kosovo Albanian demonstrations.
She described to me the night of terror when Serbs "in black masks came to the door. I only saw three of them, but there were at least 15." Sheik Zejnelabedin and two others were taken into his meditation room and murdered in the presence of their sacred pictures and ritual objects. The bloodstains remained on the floor, under the carpets.
Sheikh Zejnelabedin's deputy, Sheikh Rama, was killed in a Serb massacre of unarmed people including women and children in the nearby village of Korenica on April 27, 1999; this incident also figures in the Milošević indictment. When the Serbs had completed their assault, at least 129 people, and as many as 155, were dead. One survivor said every man in the village over 16 had been killed. Like the town's population, the victims were 90 percent Catholic, 10 percent Muslim. When the inhabitants returned to Korenica in June 1999, they found bones and hair protruding from mass graves, as well as dismembered corpses that lay where they had fallen. On the top floor of a burned house, limbs and other parts of men's bodies were strewn. Many bodies could not be identified.
The Serb assault on Korenica was a reprisal for a skirmish in which three local Albanians supposedly had taken part and seven Serbs had died. When survivors from Korenica came streaming into the Catholic church at nearby Gjakova, the priest, Father Ambroz Ukaj, went to the Serb army commander in Korenica and demanded to know what had happened.
He was interrogated as to how he knew anything had happened at all, and he replied that women in the village had reported the mass arrest of all males. Father Ukaj was warned that if he continued meddling, he too would be killed. Returning to his church, he warned the women who had fled Korenica not to take their wounded to the local hospital, where they would not be safe, but instead had them cared for in the church.
Facts like these require no elaboration. They speak for themselves. All that need be added is, in due course, the conviction of the man who engineered the Balkan catastrophe.