Prizren MunicipalityThe Prizren municipality, located in Kosovo's southwestern corner, had a relatively mixed ethnic population. According to the OSCE, 78 percent of the population was ethnic Albanian, 5 percent Serbian, and 17 percent other national communities, such as Turks and Roma.1 Throughout 1998 and early 1999, the municipality was less severely affected by the war than Djakovica and Decani to the northwest. However, villages in the northeastern part of the municipality, in the direction of Suva Reka and Orahovac, were trouble spots due to the ongoing presence of the KLA.
Prizren municipality was the site of many crimes during the period of NATO bombing, including in the city of Prizren itself, especially the neighborhood of Tusus. Villages north of the city on the border with Orahovac municipality, such as Pirane, Mala Krusa, Mamusa (Mamushe), Zojic (Zojiq), and Randubrava (Randobrave), were particularly hard hit due to KLA activity in the area and the use of certain villages as rebel transit routes. The villages of Pirana (Pirane) and Mala Krusa, stretching north along the main road to Celina and Zrze (Xrxe), are covered separately in the chapter on the Prizren- Djakovica Road.
The Yugoslav Army's Third Army, responsible for Kosovo, had a barracks in Prizren, and witnesses claimed that the army was very active in the municipality, coordinating actions with the police. Based in Prizren was the army's 549th Motorized Brigade, commanded by Col. Bozidar Delic (see Forces of the Conflict). Prizren was also one of the seven regional bases in Kosovo of the Serbian police, known as a Sekretarijat Unutrasnjih Poslova (Secretariat for Internal Affairs), or SUP. The Prizren SUP covered the municipalities of Prizren, Orahovac, Suva Reka, and Gora. The commander of Prizren SUP throughout 1998 was Col. Gradimir Zekavica, and Lt. Milan Djuricic was the section head of Prizren SUP's police department.2 A new SUP head was apparently appointed in January 1999: Col. Milos Vojnovic, who was also assistant chief of the police department in the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs.3 But, based on awards issued to MUP officers after the war, Col. Zekavica was commander during the war (see Forces of the Conflict).
A historic Ottoman outpost with several fourteenth century Serbian Orthodox churches as well as centuries-old mosques, the city of Prizren, in south-western Kosovo, was largely spared the physical devastation suffered by so many other cities in Kosovo. Ethnically diverse, its pre-war population was roughly two-thirds ethnic Albanian, but with sizeable numbers of ethnic Serbs, Roma, Turks, Vlachs, and Muslim Slavs. It was not known as an important center of KLA activity and, in comparison to other Kosovo cities, both Albanian and Serb, relations among the various ethnic groups were relatively peaceful prior to the conflict.
At the outset of the NATO bombing campaign, the OSCE has reported, Serbian military and police shelled a few areas of the city and destroyed the historic seat of the "League of Prizren," an important historical monument for Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.4 Yet, with the exception of the Tusus neighborhood, the "ethnic cleansing" of Prizren was carried out with a lesser degree of violence and fewer wanton attacks than in many other parts of Kosovo. Thus, Jamie Shea, NATO spokesman during the air strikes, was either exaggerating or misinformed when he stated on May 17, 1999, that Prizren was the city that "has probably suffered the most over the last months in the whole of Kosovo."5 Serbian forces cleared some areas of Prizren systematically, but many ethnic Albanians remained in the city throughout the conflict. Because of the obvious dangers outside, men generally stayed within their homes for weeks and months at a stretch.
In April 1999, on at least two occasions, Serb police and military rounded up hundreds of men in Prizren and forced them to serve on trench-digging brigades near the border with Albania. Human Rights Watch interviewed two men who were taken from their homes on April 24 to serve in such brigades.6 They were initially brought to Prizren's sports center, near the military barracks, and given outdated army uniforms to wear; then they were brought to the Dragash municipality south of Prizren and made to dig trenches for a month. Other Prizren natives who fled the city in mid-April reported that they had left in order to escape a similar round up. One man stated that he had been held at the sports center for five hours with about 200-300 other people, but was released after a doctor certified that he was disabled.7
The May 26 attack on the Tusus neighborhood of Prizren, in which Serb forces killed some twenty-seven to thirty-four people and burned over one-hundred homes, was the most violent episode in Prizren during the conflict. In the first half of June, Human Rights Watch interviewed three refugee eyewitnesses from Tusus in Albania.8 A Human Rights Watch researcher then visited the Tusus area on June 14, just after NATO's entry into Kosovo, photographing the devastation and interviewing additional witnesses. In all, Human Rights Watch heard the testimonies of fourteen Tusus residents.
The Tusus violence was apparently sparked by the killing of at least two Serbian police officers on Ramiz Sadik street, a major avenue that cuts through the area. Several witnesses told Human Rights that they had heard about the killings, while one witness, L.V., stated that he saw the bodies on May 26 in the early morning. "One [of the police] was lying on his back," L.V. explained. "The other was face down, with lots of bullet holes in his back; his back was bloody."9 Kosovapress, a KLA press organ, reported higher numbers of Serb losses, stating that twenty-one Serbian police and paramilitaries were killed in Tusus by a KLA commando unit the night before the attack.10 The Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs website, gives the names and photographs of two policemen killed in Tusus on May 26: Milosav Rajkovic (born in 1975), and Zlatomir Stankovic (born in 1957).11
By about 7:30 a.m. on May 26, the Serbian forces had begun a violent rampage though the neighborhood. F.K., a thirty-three-year-old Tusus resident, told Human Rights Watch that he and sixteen members of his family "stayed in the basement and heard lots of shooting." The gunfire, he said, "was non-stop, very close, maybe fifty meters away from our house. After a half hour of shooting, they started burning and demolishing houses in the neighborhood. They smashed everything."12 He said that the fires continued through the early evening, at which time his family finally escaped by climbing over their garden wall, walking through burning timbers to reach a road out of the neighborhood.
Other families described how Serbian forces entered their homes, sometimes to kill, sometimes to conduct searches. L.V., a sixteen-year-old boy, told Human Rights Watch:
More than fifteen Serbs came in the house. They asked us, "Are there KLA here?" They searched the house, staying inside for about five minutes. They were special police, wearing a red insignia of the Serbian flag on their arms. They took me outside and said, "We're going to kill you. Take a last look at your family because we're going to kill you."13
When L.V. was brought outside, however, a man whom he believed was the Serbian commander told the others to release him. L.V.'s mother was also harassed; she said that she thought the security forces were going to take her away but that her mother-in-law's screaming saved her.14 More than one group of Serbian security forces visited their house, which is centrally located on Ramiz Sadik Street.
Just off Ramiz Sadik Street was the home of the Abdulmexhidi family. J.A., a nineteen-year- old woman, described the family's ordeal:
The police came to our house around noon and ordered all the men to face the wall. There were six Serbs in green camouflage uniforms; the word police was written across their chest. We were inside the house at the time. They came inside and they ordered everyone outside, except my father and uncle.15
F.A., her mother, continued:
They called the women from inside the house and demanded money from us. They said they'd kill our husbands. They put a Kalashnikov to my husband's head. I gave them 2,000 DM and the men gave them 1,500 DM. Everyone came outside. They ordered us to leave and they kept the men . . . . When we left, we saw the men being beaten. They kicked the men in the stomach and back, and hit them with the butt of their guns.16
Six men, including F.A.'s husband, her brother-in-law, and her two sons, age seventeen and twenty-one, were forced to stay behind. F.A.'s daughter described what happened next. She explained: "[T]he men were facing the wall with their hands up. When we got to the road, we heard shooting, the sound of Kalashnikovs."
F.A. returned to the house the next day, finding it blackened and burned, its roof caved in. The family's small dog had been shot. She saw blood everywhere around the house but no sign of her relatives. "Someone suggested to me that the men were in jail, not dead, but I knew they were dead," she told Human Rights Watch. Two days later she found their bodies in the morgue.
Residents who stayed in the area throughout the attack said that the security forces left the neighborhood in the mid-afternoon. At about 4 p.m., after the security forces were gone, a truck arrived to pick up the bodies of the dead. The group of people handling the truck were said to include an ethnic Albanian driver, four Serbian civil servants, and four Roma, charged with retrieving the bodies. "Their truck was full of dead bodies," said one witness. "It was open in the back and you could see them. The gypsies were going house to house looking for bodies. They threw them in the back of the truck like sacks."17 According to another witness, who said that she saw numerous bodies wrapped in white sheets in the back of the truck, one of the civil servants carried a camera and was photographing the dead.18
Human Rights Watch interviewed two people who picked up bodies at the local morgue in the following days. M.B., age sixty-five, said that he and a few friends picked up about two dozen bodies from the morgue that Friday, including a thirty-four-year-old woman who was completely burned; she had lived on his street. He recalled: "The doctor at the morgue told us that we had to decide: either we bury them or they would put them in a mass grave. I transported some of the bodies in a horse cart."19 Another sixty-five-year-old man, F.D., went to the morgue for several days in a row, each time picking up a couple of bodies. He attended a funeral for many of the dead that Sunday at a cemetery near the local mosque.
The perpetrators of the attack appear to have been a mix of special police forces and paramilitaries. One woman said that they wore green camouflage uniforms; some wore masks, and some had bandanas on their heads. An eleven-year-old remembered them as carrying "big knives" and "smoking cigars."20 One witness reported the presence of "Greeks and Russians who didn't even speak Serbian."21
Estimates of the total number of neighborhood residents killed range from twenty-seven to thirty-four. Two witnesses said that they had each personally seen more than twenty-five corpses.22 When Human Rights Watch visited Tusus on June 14, 1999, about three weeks after the killings, residents claimed that thirty-four people had been killed, and they provided the names of twenty-six of them. The area was physically devastated: entire streets were blackened, with nearly every house on them reduced to charred wreckage. Approximately one hundred homes were badly damaged.
An-other Prizren neighborhood in which killings were reported is _Bilbildere. On the morning of May 16, 1999, two ethnic Albanian men were said to have been summarily executed there by paramilitaries. Human Rights Watch interviewed three relatives of the men who were killed, all members of a single family.
The witnesses said that almost all of the residents of the neighborhood fled to Albania in late April, leaving only their family and six others. Three weeks passed without incident, but then early on Sunday, May 16, a group of Serbian police arrived and searched the house for weapons. Not long after the police left, a large group of paramilitaries arrived. E.M., a twenty-six-year-old woman, told Human Rights Watch what happened:
At about 9:00 a.m. Arkan's men came, nearly one hundred of them. They had light blue bandanas around their heads, and special vests that they wore open; you could see their chests. They wore necklaces with crosses and other emblems. Most of them had shaved heads; some had beards. There was a Russian with a beard; he didn't speak Serbian . . . . They had greasepaint on their faces, under their eyes. They wore camouflage green uniforms, like soldiers, but a few had dark blue ones . . . . They didn't come into our house but were all over the neighborhood. We were terrified.23
E.M. said that the paramilitaries took away her two brothers-in-law, Elez Muharremi and Enez Muharremi, as well as Fatmir Muharremi, the son of Enez. Not long after the men were taken away the remaining family members heard automatic weapon fire. A.M., the mother of the two older men, explained: "I heard the sound of shooting. `I'm afraid they've killed them,' I told my other son . . . . it was a burst of fire from an automatic weapon."24 After the paramilitaries left the neighborhood, the family found the bodies of two of the men in the bathroom of a neighboring home.
Enez's surviving brother told Human Rights Watch:
I heard the women cry out when they found the bodies so I ran over. A neighbor told me, "don't go in, you won't be able to bear the sight," so I didn't go in. I went to the police station to get the police, but on the way I ran into three police. They came to the house with me and we entered the bathroom together. That's when we saw the bodies: they were lying on the floor. There was blood everywhere. Enez had been shot twice in the chest and arm; Fatmir had been shot in the chest and foot. The police never took the bodies to the morgue.25
As of June 1999, the whereabouts of the other brother-in-law,
Elez Muharremi, were not known.
Serbian sources, in contrast, claim that the building was destroyed by aerial cluster bombs dropped by NATO. See Committee for National Solidarity, "Aide Memoire on the Use of Inhumane Weapons in the Aggression of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia," May 15, 1999.
6 Human Rights Watch interview with R.G., Kukes, Albania, June 6, 1999; Human Rights Watch interview with F.K., Kukes, Albania, June 9, 1999. Human Rights Watch also interviewed the relatives of six other men who were said to have been taken at the same time. The six were killed in the attack on the Tusus neighborhood of Prizren only days after they were released from digging trenches. Human Rights Watch interviews with F.A., H.A., and J.A., Prizen, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
7 Human Rights Watch interview with L.G., Morina border crossing, Albania, April 14, 1999.
8 The Washington Post interviewed several refugee eyewitnesses within days of the incident. See John Ward Anderson, "Massacre Reported in Kosovo," Washington Post, May 30, 1999. The UNHCR also reported on the incident based on refugee testimonies. See UNHCR, Kosovo Crisis Update, June 2, 1999 (stating that twenty-five people were allegedly killed on May 26 in Tusus), available at www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/Kosovo/Kosovo-Current_News209.htm, (March 23, 2001).
9 Human Rights Watch interview with L.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999. Another witness told Human Rights Watch that his wife saw the bodies of two Serbian police in the street at about 7:30 that morning. He said that he woke up "to a burst of automatic weapon fire," and that his wife had gone to peer out into the street to see what was happening; she then noticed the bodies. Human Rights Watch interview with F.K., Kukes, Albania, June 9, 1999.
10 "As the Historic City of Prizren Burns, Dozens of Kosovars Murdered," Kosovapress, May 28, 1999. Available on the internet at: http://www.alb-net.com/kcc/052899.htm#7, (March 23, 2001).
11 See the MUP website, www.mup.sr.gov.yu/domino/mup.nsf/pages/index-e, (March 23, 2001).
12 Human Rights Watch interview with F.K., Kukes, Albania, June 9, 1999.
13 Human Rights Watch interview with L.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
14 Human Rights Watch interview with A.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
15 Human Rights Watch interview with J.A., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
16 Human Rights Watch interview with F.A., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
17 Human Rights Watch interview with L.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
18 Human Rights Watch interview with A.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
19 Human Rights Watch interview with M.B., Kukes, Albania, June 11, 1999.
20 Human Rights Watch interview with K.V., Prizren, Kosovo, June 14, 1999.
21 Human Rights Watch interview with M.B., Kukes, Albania, June 11, 1999. Press accounts cite other witnesses who claim that Russian "mercenaries" were involved in the Tusus killings. Roy Gutman, "Russian `volunteers' allegedly helped Serbs," Newsday, June 22, 1999; Maggie O'Kane, "Russian soldiers' peace role gives refugees chills," Guardian (London), June 24, 1999; "Retour des Russes sous l'habit de la KFOR: Tusus n'y croit pas," France 3 Infos, June 21, 1999.
22 The Washington Post reported that one woman claimed to have seen thirty-one bodies at the morgue. Anderson, "Massacre Reported in Kosovo."
23 Human Rights Watch interview with E.M., Kukes, Albania, June 11, 1999.
24 Human Rights Watch interview with A.M., Kukes, Albania, June 11, 1999.
25 Human Rights Watch interview with S.M., Kukes, Albania, June 11, 1999.