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Human Rights Watch Kosovo Flash #51

Large-scale massacre in Pusto Selo

Serbian forces removed bodies after release of satellite photos

(New York, July 2, 1999)-Three ethnic Albanian survivors of a large-scale massacre in Pusto Selo (Postoselo in Albanian), a village near the town of Orahovac, have described to Human Rights Watch how Serbian security forces shelled their village, captured surrendering villagers, and executed at least 106 men.

Two weeks after the massacre, which took place on March 31, NATO released satellite photos that showed a mass grave where local villagers had buried the dead. At present, however, the graves are believed empty. A survivor of the massacre said that Serbian forces returned to the site in late April with trucks and a small bulldozer, exhumed the bodies, and took them away.

B.K., fifty-seven, is one of the survivors who described the events in detail to Human Rights Watch. He explained how large numbers of Serbian security forces, including paramilitaries wearing red bandanas, attacked Pusto Selo on March 31 using tanks, artillery and mortar shells. The residents of Pusto Selo, joined by people from several other villages, took refuge in a nearby field down the hill from the village. Around 3:00 p.m. they surrendered by waving white bandages at the paramilitaries who had surrounded them.

The Serbian forces separated the adult males from the women and children, searched the women and confiscated their money and jewelry. The men were mostly older than fifty-five, as almost all of the younger men had fled into the hills. Around 4:30 p.m., the women were sent away from the village under orders to "Go to Albania!"

After the women left, the Serbian forces ordered the men to empty their pockets, stealing the several thousand German Marks that they found. "We begged them to spare our lives," said T. K., fifty-four, another survivor. "We gave them all of our money so that they wouldn't kill us." The Serbs also confiscated the villagers' identity documents. B.K. said that they took his papers, telling him: "You won't need any ID where you're going."

The Serbian security forces separated out a group of seven or eight younger men for interrogation and severe beatings. The group was then lined up nearby and shot with automatic rifles by seven or eight members of the Serbian security forces, believed by witnesses to be paramilitaries. Another group of about twenty- five men was then taken to the edge of a nearby gully and killed in the same manner.

"They came back to us and asked if we had seen what happened, telling us, 'you're going to go there too,'" B.K. said. In all, four groups, each consisting of between twenty-five and thirty men, were taken to the edge of the gully and executed using automatic weapons.

A Human Rights Watch researcher spoke separately to survivors from the second, third, and fourth groups, who brought the researcher to the field where the villagers had gathered and the nearby gully where the men had been killed. The three men each gave consistent accounts of the day's events. There was no visible blood at the scene but shreds of clothes and some shoes were scattered around in the gully amidst shrubs where the victims had allegedly been killed.

"I fell before they started to shoot," explained B.K., who was in the fourth group of men. "Two dead men fell on top of me. I didn't move. After a couple of minutes, someone said shoot again and I was hit. I stayed hidden under the bodies for another twenty minutes until I was sure that they were gone; then I escaped down the hill." Human Rights Watch saw the bullet scar on B.K.'s left buttock, as well as the bloody clothes he was wearing at the time.

Another man with the initials B. K., aged sixty, one of B.K's cousins, also escaped death. "They [the Serbian forces] were from somewhere else and they didn't know the terrain," he explained. "I was too quick for them; I slipped behind some rocks." In all, thirteen men survived the massacre, including one of the younger B.K's brothers, although a third brother, M.K., aged fifty-five, was killed.

The following day the Serbian forces removed between twenty and twenty-five bodies from the ravine and burned them in a house in the village, the three survivors said. Village men who later buried the remains of these men stated that they were unrecognizable, with little more than bones remaining.

Serbian forces abandoned the village that same day, but they left the remaining bodies, approximately seventy-five in total, in the gully. Returning villagers spent two days transporting the bodies to a site by the village mosque, where they were buried. Serbian paramilitaries returned to the village once before the burial was complete, forcing the villagers to flee into the woods. The burial resumed that same day after they had left. "We were very afraid; we rushed to bury them," said R. K., a villager who assisted in digging the graves.

Four days after the burial, another Serb attack on the village forced villagers to flee again, with Serb forces temporarily occupying the village. "Every day we watched the village to see if the Serbs would leave," said T. K., who explained that they used binoculars to keep watch over the village. On April 13, the United States government released satellite imagery taken on April 9 that revealed a mass burial site in Pusto Selo. T.K. claimed that on approximately April 24 he saw Serbs exhume the bodies, using a small tractor to dig up the burial site. "There were men wearing medical outfits and masks," he said. "They took the bodies away toward Orahovac in two civilian trucks."

Villagers showed a Human Rights Watch researcher the burial site next to the mosque in the village. There was a large patch of freshly tilled earth, although it was not possible, without digging, to determine if the bodies had been exhumed.

"Not to know where the bodies are hidden is, for us, as if they've been killed again." T.K. stated, articulating a sentiment expressed by several villagers.

Source: Human Rights Watch

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