Back to Archive Hope on the Balkans   Kosov@ Crisis 1999
Back to Kosov@
Crisis 1999
News Archive 1999

Human Rights Watch Kosovo Flash #39
May 19, 1999

Witness to Izbice Killings Speaks Possibly Largest Massacre of Kosovo War

(New York, May 19, 1999) -- This past weekend, video footage emerged of what may be the largest massacre in Kosovo since NATO bombing began: the killing of more than 120 ethnic Albanians in the village of Izbice in the Drenica region on March 26 or 27, 1999. Today Human Rights Watch released the direct testimony of an important witness to the crime (see photograph).

The twenty-year-old woman was interviewed by Human Rights Watch on April 25 in a refugee camp in northern Albania. While she, her mother, and her severely disabled brother were allowed to leave the scene of the massacre, she describes how her father, uncle and cousin were executed. She has agreed to give her testimony to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

On May 16 and 17, CNN aired video footage that a Kosovar Albanian doctor claims to have taken at the scene of the Izbice massacre. It shows a large number of bloody corpses in civilian clothes C ethnic Albanians who the doctor explains were killed in the massacre C and includes interviews with alleged survivors. The footage was smuggled out of Kosovo, the doctor said, with the help of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Apparently corroborating this footage are satellite photos released by NATO on April 17 that show three rows of freshly dug graves in the Izbice area.

Although the authenticity of the video footage cannot be guaranteed, it matches the witness testimony provided below. The apparent massacre in Izbice is also consistent with a pattern of mass killings throughout Kosovo, in villages such as Meja, Velika Krusa and Bela Crkva, documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations. In addition, the region around Izbice was known as an area of KLA activity, especially the village of Lausa. As in other areas of Kosovo, the rebels' presence may have served as a reason for retaliation.

The following is a transcript of the woman's testimony to Human Rights Watch (her name is being withheld to protect her identity). In addition to describing the circumstances of the massacre, it includes a harrowing account of her family's escape from Kosovo:

"The Serbs arrived late in the evening during the Muslim celebration of Bajram, on March 26 or 27. There were about fifty of them. Some of the Serbs were giving loud orders. Their voices were so loud that they scared the children. By this point, Izbice had become like a base for Albanians from all the villages in the area. These refugees began arriving two days after the NATO bombing began, because the Serbs started shelling neighboring villages when the bombing started. Late in the evening, when the Serbs arrived, almost all of the young men left the village. They went into the mountains to hide or to fight.

When we saw the Serbs coming we didn't dare stay in our houses. We went by tractor to a nearby field -- me, my mother and father, my brother, my sister, her family, and her mother-in-law -- a total of ten people. We joined the rest of the people from the village in the field, all of the other families. Families had started leaving their houses at about 4 a.m. By 10 a.m. everyone was in the field. There were thousands of people, almost all women, children, and old people. Only about 150 men were among us. An accident happened on the way to the field in which a child was killed. It was raining and a tractor tumbled; a woman tried to jump off to save her six-year-old daughter. The woman survived, the daughter was killed. At the field, everyone got off their tractors and huddled together. We had chosen the field because we wanted to be together. We were too scared to stay alone in our houses; it would be too easy for the Serbs to kill us there. From the field, we could see the Serbs setting our houses on fire. They were shooting in the air and yelling loudly: insulting us and scaring the children.

They told us: 'Give us money if you want to survive.' They said it cost 1,000 German Marks (DM) to save your family and 100 DM to save your tractor. Everyone paid, each man paying for his own family. My father paid 1,100 DM. After the Serbs got the money, they shot out the tires of everyone's tractors, and then burned all our belongings, which were bundled up on the tractors. They also set fire to the school.

At about 11 a.m. they separated the women from the men. We asked them why they were doing this and they told us, in a very scary voice: 'Shut up, don't ask, otherwise we'll kill you.' The children were terrified. The Serbs yelled: 'We'll kill you and where is the United States to save you?' All the women had covered their heads with handkerchiefs out of fear of the Serbs, hiding their hair and foreheads. The Serbs called us obscene things, saying 'Fuck all Albanian mothers,' and 'All Albanian women are bitches.'

They took the men away and lined them up about twenty meters away from us. Then they ordered us to go to Albania. They said: 'You've been looking for a greater Albania, now you can go there.' They were shooting in the air above our heads. We followed their orders and moved in the direction we were told, walking away from the men. About 100 meters from the place we started walking, the Serbs decided to separate out the younger boys from our group. Boys of fourteen and up had already been placed with the men; now they separated out boys of about ten and up. Only very small boys were left with us, one old man who had lost his legs, and my handicapped brother, who can't walk because of spinal meningitis. So they took the ten to fourteen-year- Olds to join the men. The boys' mothers were crying. Some even tried to speak to the Serbs, but the Serbs pushed them. We were walking away very slowly because we were so worried about what would happen to our men.

We stopped moving when we heard automatic weapon fire. We turned our heads to see what was happening but it was impossible to see the men. We saw the ten to fourteen-year-Olds running in our direction; when they got to us we asked them what was happening. They were very upset; no one could talk. One of them finally told us: 'They released us but the others are finished.' We stayed in the same place for some twenty minutes. Everyone was crying. The automatic weapon fire went on non-stop for a few minutes; after that we heard short, irregular bursts of fire for some ten minutes or so. My father, my uncle and my cousin were among the men killed. Kajtaz Rexha and Qazim Rexhepi were also killed, as were many other members of the Bajraj, Bajrami, Rexhepi, and Aliu families.

Then ten Serbs caught up with us. They said lots of obscenities and again told us: 'Now you must leave for Albania -- don't stop, just go.' We had to leave. Many hours later, when we had gone about forty kilometers and it was dark out, another group of Serb soldiers forced us into a huge hole that was along the side of the road. It seems that these soldiers had communicated with the others by walkie-talkie. The hole was giant, higher than our heads; we could only see the soldiers' heads and guns. The soldiers made us sit down in the hole and said: 'Now the tanks will run you over.' Looking out one of the ramps that led into the hole, we could see tanks coming; the noise was deafening. When the tanks arrived near the edge of the hole, about five meters away, we all started to scream: we saw death in front of us. You could see women trying to hide their children with their bodies. I was with my mother and crippled brother. My brother was in a wheelbarrow. Everyone was terrified, crying and screaming. When the tanks got close, we stopped hoping.

Suddenly the tanks jolted to a halt. A Serb told us, 'you'll survive only if you give us 5,000 DM.' A woman teacher from the village went through the women collecting money; I gave her 100 DM. When she had 5,000 DM a Serb entered the hole and she gave it to him. He said, 'you can go now.' My father had given me his jacket because I had been wearing another jacket that said 'American Sport' on it and he was afraid; he wanted to cover that up. Because I was pushing the wheelbarrow and wearing a man's jacket, they thought I was a man. They told me to stop and then to come over to them, but I was too afraid. It was the scariest moment of my life. Then they shined a flashlight in my face and saw that I was a woman. One of them said, 'let her go.'

We were tired and hungry but they took the bread from our hands, telling us, 'you don't need the bread of Kosovo.' We walked three days and nights without food and without rest. Finally when we reached Djakove (Djakovica) the Serbs forced us to enter a destroyed house full of broken windows. They let us drink some water from a nearby stream. We stayed there a few hours, sitting down and napping.

Then we continued walking to the border. The children were very hungry. We stopped in a village near Prizren. There was a line of tractors and someone pulled my crippled brother into one of the tractors. My mother and I kept walking. We walked all the way to Dushanove where, because of the traffic, we stopped for a day and a night. It rained a lot at night and someone made a fire. My brother slept but I couldn't. The next morning the Serbs told us to go back to our home villages. I don't know what day this was. All I know is that I can never forget the day they killed my father.

The women said: 'How can we go back? We have no food; we're exhausted.' The Serbs said: 'You're going back.' The people who had carried my brother took him out of the tractor. Everyone turned back except me, my mother and my brother. We stayed in the middle of the road. A police car drove up and I signaled for it to stop because I thought to myself I have nothing to lose; I must handle this situation. The policeman yelled 'how do you dare stop me?' and I responded 'I have no way out; I have this brother and he can't walk.' The policeman told me he'd find us a place on a tractor. He found one and told the people in it: 'Why aren't you people helping each other out; you're all Albanians; you should help each other.' So we got on the tractor even though it was very crowded.

When we arrived back in Xerxe (Zrze) the people helped us a lot, giving us food and a place to rest. We stayed there a week. We saw the army and police robbing people. We were scared because we were from Drenica, known as a UCK (KLA) stronghold, and we felt we were putting the other people in a difficult position.

When we left we saw a line of tractors at the main road but nobody gave us a lift. Then a bus stopped; it was full of gypsies and we were scared of them. A few Albanians were also on the bus and we spoke to them. When we arrived in Djakove (Djakovica) the gypsies got out. Then we arrived in Prizren and the driver, who was a Serb, told us, 'may God help you; I can't help you any longer.' We spent two hours in the bus station. Some old men who couldn't walk were also waiting there. Finally we begged the driver to give us a lift to the border. We said we'd pay him whatever he wanted. The driver said 'I'll think about it,' and then he said okay. We paid him 50 dinars per person.

Serb soldiers stopped the bus to ask for money. They wanted every last cent from us; they didn't want to allow anything out to Albania. But the Serb driver was very kind to us. When the Serbs asked him why he was transporting us, he told them, 'they are good people.' When we arrived at the border the driver wished us good luck, telling us that we were lucky to have made it. Then the bus left. The border guards took all of our documents and threw them in the trash. They asked for money and jewelry. I entered Albania on April 17 at about 1 p.m. Some people at the border helped my brother and gave us food and water."

Source: Human Rights Watch

Back to Archive | Back to Kosov@ Crisis 1999