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Endgame in Kosovo


Across this near-exhausted century, imagery recurs. The knock at the door, the forced march, the mass evacuation—expressions now impossible to hear without their attendant echoes:

PRISTINA—The Albanian districts of the city have been pretty much emptied of their residents by now. Almost every home has been broken into, not even looted but simply destroyed.

The streets are filled with the sound of heavy gunfire both day and night…. Everyone seems to be shooting….

I just interviewed the doctors who saw the body of the slain human-rights lawyer Bayram Klimendi. They said they could not confirm how many times he’d been shot because his body showed “bad and deep signs of maltreatment”—torture….

My friends in the outside world call and tell me to leave. God, I do want to get out of here. I can’t stand it anymore….

But now it seems we have no choice. The knock on the door we had long feared has finally come. My family and I have been ordered to leave.

There is no time to finish this report. We have to leave NOW. I don’t know where. It seems I am about to join the ranks of the refugees I was writing about only a few days ago.

Pray for me. Goodbye.1

One can envision the scene even as these words were hastily written: looming in the doorway heavily armed Interior Ministry troops—automatic weapons, long knives, red berets, woolen masks covering their faces. Even as the correspondent and his family drag their suitcases out the door, the men prod them with the muzzles of their rifles, hustling them as they stumble out into the packed street, there to join a great river of frightened people trudging in silence toward the railway station. They arrive to find scenes of unmitigated chaos: jammed coaches, mobbed platforms, vast crowds waiting for hours in fields around the building. Babies cry, the old and the sick moan. Each family’s story is much the same:

Then they were herded into passenger cars and livestock cars. Their money and their documents were stolen….

Before the trains departed…, Serbian troops joked bitterly that refugees were being given free train trips to Macedonia in exchange for their homes and belongings….

Enver Vrajolli, 25, an economics student, said he saw what happened to a neighbor in his sixties who refused to leave his house. He was shot.

We had only one choice: to leave or be killed. We chose to go,” said Vrajolli…. “As we were leaving, [the city] was empty. There were only military forces and police left.”

It was very horrible,” Gjylizare Babatinca, 32, said as she described how her family was forced out of a house Wednesday by masked Serbs with automatic rifles…. “We were forced into the train cars they use for animals. We were packed tightly together…. It was completely dark, and we did not know where we were going.”2

The historical resonances could not be stronger, of course, and indeed perhaps the main difference is that here the victims themselves could hear the echoes: “You can’t imagine what kind of silence there was as we walked through the streets of Pristina,” one young woman said. “I thought Hitler’s time was coming back, and we were going to some kind of Auschwitz.”3

Such drawing of half-century parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory. How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, a mere few years ago. It is no accident that Serb forces—regular army soldiers, Interior Ministry specialists, and paramilitary marauders—were able to “cleanse” hundreds of thousands from Kosovo in a matter of days. For nearly a decade now, while Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and other Western leaders watched—while we watched—Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, his Bosnian Serb henchman Dr. Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and various army and paramilitary commanders have been developing these techniques, refining them, perfecting them.

From the well-documented stories of a great many cities and towns and villages, dating back to the cleansing of the Krajina of Croats during 1991 and 1992,4 one can extract a rough standard operating procedure:

  1. Concentration. Surround the area to be cleansed and after warning the resident Serbs—often they are urged to leave or are at least told to mark their houses with white flags—intimidate the target population with artillery fire and arbitrary executions and then bring them out into the streets.

  2. Decapitation. Execute political leaders and those capable of taking their places: lawyers, judges, public officials, writers, professors.

  3. Separation. Divide women, children, and old men from men of “fighting age”—sixteen years to sixty years old.

  4. Evacuation. Transport women, children, and old men to the border, expelling them into a neighboring territory or country.

  5. Liquidation. Execute “fighting age” men, dispose of bodies.

Too highly schematic to do justice to the Serbs’ minute planning—for each town, each village, each situation is different—these five steps nonetheless comprise the elements of the program that worked for the Serbs during 1991 to 1995, the main years of the Yugoslav wars. Serb troops, both regular army and security forces, working closely with their savage paramilitary protégés managed to “cleanse” more than 70 percent of Bosnian territory during a mere six weeks in the spring of 1992.

Percentages of Bosnians actually killed varied widely, partly according to the strategic value of the target. In Brcko, for example, which commands the critical and vulnerable “Posavina Corridor” linking the two wings of Bosnian Serb territory, Serb troops herded perhaps three thousand Bosnians into an abandoned warehouse, tortured them, and put them to death. At least some US intelligence officials must have strong memories of Brcko:

They have photographs of trucks going into Brcko with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally, stacked like cordwood….5

Similarly, pilots of American U-2 spy planes took photographs of the monumental “cleansing” operation General Ratko Mladic unleashed in and around Srebrenica during July 1995. An angry Madeleine Albright, then the US representative to the United Nations, released the photographs to her colleagues—doing so long after anything could have been done for the men of Srebrenica but at a time when “the international community” had begun to show sympathy for the Krajina Serbs, whom the Croats were then expelling en masse from their homes. 6 Thus we are able now to gaze upon photographs of Bosnian men gathered in a field, guarded by Serb soldiers; then of the same field days later, its grass now disrupted by what appear to be newly dug and refilled mass graves.

Together with a videotape showing another group of Bosnian men sitting terrified at the feet of their Serb captors, and a relatively large number of survivors’ accounts, we can now piece together the intricately planned and flawlessly executed minuet that allowed General Ratko Mladic and his Serbs, in less than a week, to expel nearly twenty-five thousand women, children, and old people from Srebrenica and to murder and bury perhaps seven thousand “fighting age”men there.7

What cannot be overemphasized, both in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, is the planned rationality of this project, the mark of brutality routinized:

Though many people were “indiscriminately” killed, tortured, beaten and threatened, the process was anything but random. The first objective was to force the Muslim populations to flee their home towns and create an ethnically pure Serb territory. A certain amount of immediate, “demonstrative atrocity” was therefore deemed necessary. The more random and indiscriminate the terror and violence, the easier this goal would be achieved.

Imposition of terror, the more “indiscriminate” the better, breeds fear; fear breeds flight. Some there were, however, who would not be encouraged to flee:

The second objective was to minimize possible future Muslim resistance. To the Yugoslav military, steeped in the Titoist tradition of territorial defence and people’s war, every man was a potential fighter. Thus, men of military age were singled out for particularly brutal treatment. In Visegrad, one observer witnessed a paramilitary gunman announcing, “The women and children will be left alone…” As for the Muslim men, he ran his finger across his throat.8

Today, as this plot is reinterpreted in the stories of refugees interviewed hard upon the Albanian and Macedonian borders9—reinterpreted, that is, as news—we must struggle to remember that by now the stories could not be more familiar, and hence more predictable.

Consider Selim Popei, for example, from the village of Bela Krusa, who on April 3 paused not far from the Albanian border to speak into the microphones and tell the world’s television viewers how, at eight o’clock on March 25, the morning after the NATO planes started bombing, the Serb army tanks came and surrounded his village; how the Serb special police caught two hundred of the fleeing villagers; how from those they separated out forty-six men. For his part, Selim was sent over with the women: an old man, he had now become a witness:

They killed five of my children. The youngest was thirteen, the oldest was forty-five. The others were thirty-two, twenty-two and eighteen. They killed my brother’s sons too. I was about twenty steps away when I saw it with my own eyes. We all saw it, the women too.

Then there is Jalai al-Din Sepulahu, another old man, who told how he and his friends from the village of Krusa Emade were cowering in a basement when the Serbs found them.

They collected all the people. They separated the women from the men. They told the women to leave. They put the men against the wall. And they killed the men. I don’t know what else to say. My brother was killed, three of my cousins, and the son of one of them. They were all killed.

And finally Mehmet Krashnishi, who comes from Krusa Evolva, a tiny village next door. He appears younger than the others, even with the burns on his face and his hands heavily wrapped in white bandages. Early on the morning after NATO warplanes dropped their first bombs, he said, Serb troops came to his village.

They rounded up all the villagers. They separated men from women. To the women they said, “You may go to the border,” and they put us men in two big rooms. They said, “Now NATO can save you,” and then they started to shoot. And when they finished shooting us they covered us with straw and corn and set it on fire. We were one hundred and twelve people. I survived with one other man.

Mehmet, reenacting a narrative familiar from the massacres at Srebrenica, collapsed and played dead as soon as the Serbs began shooting. He was burned in the fire, he said, but when the Serbs left to fetch more fuel to finish burning the bodies he managed to flee. 10

  1. 1

    See “The Knock on the Door: Letter from Pristina,” by an anonymous correspondent. Global Beat Syndicate, NYU Center for War, Peace, and the News Media: www.nyu.edu/globalbeat/ syndicate, April 1, 1998.

  2. 2

    See John Daniszewski and Elizabeth Shogren, “With Refugees From Kosovo, Tales of Terror,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1999, p. A5.

  3. 3

    See Daniszewski and Shogren, “With Refugees From Kosovo, Tales of Terror.”

  4. 4

    For a description of the techniques of ethnic cleansing see my earlier articles in these pages, among them “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” December 4, 1997; “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” December 18, 1997, and “The Killing Fields of Bosnia,” September 24, 1998, all three of which form part of a ten-part series.

  5. 5

    Though “photographs of the bloodbath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day,” the authors attribute this description to “an investigator working outside the US government who has seen the pictures….” See Charles Lane and Thom Shanker, “Bosnia: What the CIADidn’t Tell Us,” The New York Review, May 9, 1996, p. 10.

  6. 6

    In August 1995, with Srebrenica’s Muslims buried, Franjo Tudjman’s Croats launched a lightning attack to retake the Krajina region and succeeded in “cleansing” the territory of perhaps 150,000 Serbs, most of whom belonged to families that had lived in the territory for centuries. It was, until recent weeks, the largest single act of ethnic cleansing of the war.

  7. 7

    For an account of the Srebrenica operation, see “The Killing Fields of Bosnia, ” The New York Review, September 24, 1998, pp. 63-77.

  8. 8

    See Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime (Penguin, 1996), pp. 75-76.

  9. 9

    At this writing it appears that the Serbs have so far limited their massacres of military-age men to villages and towns, while in Pristina and other cities they have been more selective, murdering politicians, human rights lawyers, and other members of the intelligentsia, while in some cases detaining large numbers of men in police stations and military barracks.

  10. 10

    These stories are drawn from Christiane Amanpour’s report broadcast on “Strike on Yugoslavia,” Cable News Network, April 3, 1999.

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