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Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Separation of men and mass killing near Vucitrn

(New York, May 20, 1999) Serbian forces forcibly separated and then summarily executed tens of ethnic Albanian men traveling in a convoy near the town of Vucitrn (Vushtri in Albanian) on May 2 and 3, Kosovar Albanian refugees have told Human Rights Watch. The total number of dead may exceed 100.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed six Kosovar Albanians from the Vucitrn region in refugee camps in Kukes last week. The witnesses, interviewed separately, provided consistent accounts of how Serbian police and paramilitaries pulled ethnic Albanian men from a convoy of internally displaced persons, demanded money, and then shot some of the men in their custody.

Albanians from Vucitrn and the surrounding villages were forced by Serbian forces to leave their homes at the end of March and the beginning of April, all of the interviewees said. While some Albanians were able to stay in one spot until May 2, others had to move several times because of ongoing attacks by Serbian forces, either with small arms or by shelling. Ultimately, many displaced persons ended up in villages to the northeast of Vucitrn, such as Bajgore, Vesekovce, Kurillove and Sllakovce (all place names in Albanian), which became overcrowded with displaced Albanians. Several witnesses reported that they had to live with as many as one hundred persons in one house, and that others were forced to sleep in the open air.

The area where the refugees had gathered was largely under the control of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). In the beginning of May, however, Yugoslav and Serbian forces launched an offensive, and shelled several villages in the region around Bajgore. On May 2, government forces reportedly broke through the KLA's front line near Bajgore, forcing those sheltering in the area to flee. A convoy of refugees set out towards the villages of Sllakovce and Ceceli, where they were joined by other ethnic Albanians who had sought refuge in those places. At that point, the convoy consisted of several hundred vehicles and three to five thousand refugees, witnesses estimated, and stretched all the way to the village of Upper Studime (Studime e Eperme in Albanian). The Yugoslav forces reportedly followed the refugees as they traveled, burning many houses in Sllakovce and Ceceli.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they stopped to rest and discuss their plans in Upper Studime. Yugoslav Army forces were based in a warehouse in Lower Studime (Studime e Poshtme in Albanian), they said, a village the refugees would have to pass through to get to Vucitrn. S.A., a thirty-year-old woman from Novosella e Begut (in Albanian), who was on the first tractor of the convoy, told Human Rights Watch what happened around 8:00 p.m. on May 2:

"[We] decided to tie a white cloth to our tractor, to show that we wanted to surrender. But before we got to StudimŽ e Poshtme, they started shooting and shelling us in an awful way. I used a mattress to cover my children, and we drove on to Studime e Poshtme. When we got to the warehouse, we saw a line of soldiers on the left hand side of the road. They stopped us, and told us to get out of our tractors, and put our hands behind out heads, and then to sit down on the road. The soldiers started cursing us, and walked among us, kicking and beating some of us. One woman was beaten just because her child was crying."

The soldiers, who were joined by policemen and paramilitaries between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m., went from tractor to tractor in the convoy, cursing and threatening the refugees. At the same time, the soldiers coming from Sllakovce and Ceceli had reached the convoy as well. K.B., a thirty-four- year-old Albanian man from Vucitrn, told Human Rights Watch:

"When [the police and paramilitaries] arrived at my part of the convoy, they asked my brother where his KLA uniform was, and his gun. But he said he didn't have any because he wasn't a member of the KLA. Then they hit him with the butt of a gun, after which they came to me, and told me to get off the trailer. When I got off, he hit me with his gun on my cheekbone, forehead and mouth, breaking one of my teeth. Then they stabbed me with a bayonet, and almost cut off part of my ear. They took me by my elbow, pointed a gun at my back, and dragged me some twenty meters away. They pushed me towards a little stream, and I jumped over it, and fell down. When I got up, they hit me four times in the back of my head with a gun, and once in my ribs. Later, a doctor told me that they had broken one of my ribs. I fell again, and lay for about two minutes, after which I got up, and went back to the tractor."

Human Rights Watch inspected and photographed K.B.'s wounds during the interview in Kukes, Albania. The top of his left ear was torn, but had been repaired by a doctor in one of the refugee camps, and his right front tooth was broken. Others fared worse. Zeqir Aliu, a forty- four-year-old man from Novosella, related what happened to his family:

"At about 9 p.m., the paramilitary and army stopped us. I couldn't see them very well, it was already dark. They took away our money and jewelry. Then, two paramilitaries with masks and bandanas took my uncle, Remzi Aliu (54), and my nephew, Ramadan Aliu (38). They asked them for money. Then they took them away some thirty meters, and shot them with a burst of gunfire from their automatic weapons. Then they took Hajrula Aliu and his wife, but they gave them [the police and paramilitaries] 500 German Marks, so they didn't kill them."

B.A., a nineteen-year-old man from Lower Studime, told a similar story:

"When [the soldiers coming from Ceceli] came to us, a Serbian soldier grabbed my brother, who was twenty-seven years old, by his elbow and took him some three meters away from the tractor. There, he asked for money, and soon after that he shot my brother with a pistol in the back. At the same time, they took my uncle, shot at him and kicked him, and he fell on the ground. We saw two bodies lying on the ground, and we thought they were both dead. After that, they took my father as well, and while they pointed a pistol at his throat, they demanded money. My father gave them one hundred German Marks, but they asked for one thousand. I told my father to give it to him, so my father came back to the tractor and gave him another nine hundred Marks. They then released my father, but right away they caught my cousin, and asked him for money as well. So my father gave them again five hundred Marks, after which they released my cousin. After the army left, we heard my uncle asking for me to come and help him. A few minutes later, my father and grandfather went to him and carried him to the tractor, because he had been hit in his lower leg, so he couldn't walk. When they turned my brother over, they saw he was dead."

Other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported how men unknown to them were executed in front of their eyes. The soldiers and paramilitaries reportedly walked up and down the tractor convoy, harassing, robbing and sometimes executing the refugees. The witnesses all reported hearing repeated shooting during the period between approximately 9:00 and 10:30 p.m., when the troops left the convoy. About an hour later, around 11:30 p.m., policemen from Vucitrn came. They forced the refugee convoy to move on towards Vucitrn, where they arrived around 12:00 a.m., midnight, May 3. Several witnesses reported that they saw many dead bodies along the road. The exact number of executed refugees from the convoy is unknown. Four separate witnesses claimed to have seen twenty- five, thirty, seventy and "over a hundred" dead bodies, respectively. The varying numbers may result from the fact that the witnesses were located in different parts of the convoy, so that those towards the front of the line saw less than those at the back. None of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch was in the last part of the column, so the number of executed men may be higher than the witnesses have reported.

In Vucitrn, the refugees were directed towards an agricultural cooperative near Motel Vicianum, where they spent the night sitting in a fenced off area, guarded by the police and some soldiers. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were several thousand refugees there, and that the area was so crowded it was impossible to stretch their legs, let alone sleep. According to the witnesses, the guards roamed among the refugees all night, checking their papers, and in several cases beating people. In the morning, somewhere between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m., May 3, around thirty policemen entered the compound. Two different witnesses separately identified Dragan Petrovic, the police commander of Vucitrn, as the officer in charge, and a third witness identified the Vucitrn police chief without knowing his proper name. The police ordered the men between the ages of eighteen and sixty to separate themselves from the women, children and elderly men. The police checked the identity papers of the 500 to 600 men who had been separated out. From this group, all of the tractor drivers were allowed to rejoin their families, all together about 200 men. A large truck then came, witnesses said, loaded fifty to sixty of the remaining men, and took them away in the direction of Kosovska Mitrovica. Approximately ten to twenty minutes later, the truck returned empty and transported another group of men in the same direction. Witnesses reported that the truck returned to reload with men at least eight times. While the men were being transported, the tractor drivers were told to load their families onto their vehicles and drive towards Kosovska Mitrovica. Those who were among the first to leave the compound told Human Rights Watch that, as they drove by, they saw the truck used to transport the men parked outside the prison of Smrekonica. The witnesses claimed that they saw there several of the men who had been taken away at the agricultural cooperative in Vucitrn, including some of the witnesses' own family members.

Another witness - not one of the six interviewed from the Vucitrn convoy - also claimed to have seen ethnic Albanian men in and around the Smrekonica prison on May 3. This thirty-eight- year-old man from Bajgore, S.B., also interviewed in Kukes, said he had arrived in Smrekonica on the morning of May 2 on foot with another group of approximately 3,000 villagers from the Bajgore area. Around 5:00 p.m. that day, the police came to his uncle's house, where he was hiding, and ordered him to join the rest of the group in the Smrekonica school yard, which is next to the prison. S.B. told Human Rights Watch that he saw several thousand men being held in the prison, although it is not clear how he arrived at this number or whether he saw these people in the prison or around it. He also claimed that approximately 300 men staying with him in the school yard were taken to the prison. A few men were released from the prison every hour, he said, and all of them appeared to have been beaten. The convoy from Vucitrn traveled under police escort through Smrekonica to Kosovska Mitrovica and then alone through Srbica, Pec and Klina, where they spent a night. From Klina, a smaller road south was taken through Kramavile and Gegje (in Albanian) to the main road which leads to Prizren and then the Morina border crossing with Albania, which they crossed on May 4.

According to the witnesses interviewed in Albania who had male relatives taken in Vucitrn, none of their family members had arrived in Albania in the past two weeks. The witnesses expressed fear that they may never see their relatives again.

Source: Human Rights Watch
(Kosovo flash 40)

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