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News Archive 1999

Kosovo Human Rights Flash #34

Massacre in Meja:
At least one hundred men believed executed

(April 30, 1999)

Human Rights Watch has concluded three days of investigations into the April 27 massacre of ethnic Albanian men in the village of Meja, northwest of Djakovica. After nineteen separate interviews with eyewitnesses, the organization finds that at least one hundred, and perhaps as many as three hundred, men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were taken out of a convoy of refugees by Serbian forces and systematically executed. The precise number of victims is still unknown.

In the early morning of April 27, Serbian special police and paramilitary units, together with soldiers of the Yugoslav Army (VJ), systematically "cleansed" all ethnic Albanians from the villages between Djakovica and Junik, near the Albanian border. Beginning around 7:00 a.m., the security forces forcibly expelled residents from the following villages: Pecaj, Nivokaz, Dobrash, Sheremet, Jahoc, Ponashec, Racaj, Ramoc, Madanaj, and Orize. All of the nineteen witnesses interviewed from these villages, who included people from elsewhere who had sought refuge over the past month in those villages, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers and special police forces surrounded their villages, rounded up the inhabitants, and forced them to flee along the road towards Djakovica, some in tractors and some on foot. Many of the villages were then systematically burned.

One eighteen-year-old woman from Dobrash said that the security forces held two male members of her family, Iber and Avdyl, as the family left the village. "The police told us to walk on and then we heard the shooting of automatic guns," she said. The two men are currently missing.

The villagers from the region were all forced to follow the road to Meja, a small village just outside of Djakovica. Their accounts reveal how, during the course of the day, the many police and military present in the village systematically pulled hundreds of ethnic Albanian men out of the convoy and away from their families. Villagers who passed through Meja around midday reported seeing security forces holding "hundreds" of men at gunpoint. Those who had passed through Meja later in the afternoon reported having seen a "large pile of bodies," which some estimated to be as many as three hundred. This number could not be independently confirmed and, witnesses admitted, the count is based on the estimated number of men taken from the convoy who are currently missing.

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed all nineteen witnesses in Kukes, northern Albania, within three days after they entered Albania on April 28. Although questions remain about some details of the events, the consistency and specificity of witnesses' testimonies paint an undeniable picture of forced expulsion, the systematic destruction of civilian property, intimidation and robbery, and the forced separation and summary execution of many ethnic Albanian males.

The refugees, severely traumatized, began entering Albania through the Morina border crossing near Kukes in the early morning of April 28. A Human Rights Watch researcher at the border at 6:30 a.m. interviewed some of the refugees a short time after they crossed into the country. The newly arrived refugees, made up almost entirely of women, children, and elderly men, spoke of a mass slaughter in Meja.

Witnesses interviewed over the next two days in Kukes area refugee camps provided more details of the atrocities. One witness said she was forced out of Sheremet around 8:00 a.m. on April 26 and arrived in Meja with her family on a tractor around 10:00 a.m. "They took the men from the tractors," she said. "There were about forty people on our tractor, and they took twelve men. They took all of the men." Other refugees who traveled through Meja that day confirmed that security forces took men as young as fourteen and as old as sixty out of the convoy. Ray Wilkenson, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kukes who was on the border as the refugees arrived in Albania, told Human Rights Watch that in his estimation sixty tractors crossed into Albania and "six out of seven" of the tractors reported that some men had been taken from their vehicles. Journalists who were on the border at the same time said that the refugees repeatedly said that at least 100 men had been killed.

A nineteen-year-old man who arrived in Meja between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. described the scene to Human Rights Watch. He said:

Many people were in the convoy with tractors. The ones who were walking were mostly let through, but some were taken. They [the police and military] stopped the tractors and began to hit people with pieces of wood and they broke the tractor windows. The men were stopped and taken away, about one hundred men, to a field near the road. The police screamed for us to keep moving so we left the hundred men and we don't know what happened to them.

Human Rights Watch interviewed refugees who passed through Meja between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. and reported seeing large numbers of ethnic Albanian men in the custody of security forces. One witness, a thirty-eight-year-old teacher who passed through Meja around 1:00 p.m., told Human Rights Watch:

I saw a big crowd of people separated from their families: old and young men. I think it was more than 250. They were kneeling on the ground ... along the road at a small forest on the side of a hill about twenty or thirty meters from the road. They were in the village center.

Another witness who was in Meja at the same time, interviewed separately, provided a corroborating account, adding only that the group of men was kneeling with their hands behind their backs, surrounded by soldiers.

Other witnesses who were in Meja around midday described slight variations of this scenario. A forty-year-old woman who was in Meja around 12:00 p.m. said she saw "seventy men or more" squatting with their hands behind their heads in a small canal that ran parallel to the road. Another witness said her husband was taken off their cart to join a group of Albanian men at the side of the road and forced to shout: "Long live Serbia; long live Milosevic." All of the witnesses said that Meja was full of police and special forces dressed in blue and green camouflage uniforms, respectively. Many members of the forces wore black ski masks, and some wore red bandanas on their heads, they said. Some reported seeing red patches with a double-headed eagle, a symbol of Yugoslavia, on the soldiers' sleeves.

One witness who passed through Meja around 12:00 p.m. claimed to have seen fifteen dead men on the right side of the road. The eighteen-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch:

The road was full of blood. On the right side of the road there were fifteen men. I counted them. They were lying face down with blood all around, and they were not moving.

The refugees who passed through Meja later in the afternoon told of seeing many dead bodies in the village. An eighteen-year-old man and a nineteen-year-old woman, interviewed together, who arrived in Meja on foot around 5:30 p.m., said they saw a large pile of bodies about three meters from the right side of the road in the center of the village. The bodies, tumbled together, covered an area of ground about twelve by twenty feet, and were stacked about four feet high, they said. The witnesses admitted to being very scared and rushed along by the police, factors which prevented them from making any more than a very rough estimate of the body count. Based on the number of men that they believed were missing, they thought the number of dead totaled 300. Fifteen other men, they said, were sitting on the ground with their backs to the pile of dead bodies facing a group of security forces.

Human Rights Watch concluded today that Serbian police and paramilitaries, and probably Yugoslav Army forces summarily executed ethnic Albanian men on April 27 in Meja. The precise number of men and boys who were killed will not be known until forensics experts are allowed into Kosovo to examine the site. Urgent international action is needed to stop such slaughter. These war crimes should also be prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Source: Human Rights Watch

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