(New York, April 8, 1999, 7:00pm EDT) — Refugees fleeing into northern Albania described an atmosphere of utter terror in the Kosovo village of Belanice, which was used by Yugoslav forces as a gathering point for ethnic Albanians living in the Malishevo district. Dozens of witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that they were robbed, threatened with death, suffered physical deprivation, and that refugees were occasionally murdered. On April 1, their ordeal in Belanice came to an abrupt end, when they were forcibly expelled from the village toward the Albanian border.

According to refugees, Serbian police and Yugoslav Army soldiers forced some 50,000 villagers in the Malishevo and Suva Reka region of south-west Kosovo to gather in Belanice village beginning on or about March 26. The Yugoslav authorities forced the dispersed rural inhabitants into Belanice by shelling their homes or sending raiding parties into their villages. Villagers were instructed by the authorities to flee towards Belanice, one of the few villages in the area that had not been shelled. After spending several days and nights in the central square of Belanice village, the authorities drove the bulk of the refugees southwards towards the Albanian border, telling them that they were no longer welcome in Kosovo. After traveling in a slow-moving refugee column for up to three days, many of the Belanice survivors reached Kukes, a northern Albanian border down, on or about April 4, where they were interviewed by a representative from Human Rights Watch.

Refugees -- the bulk of whom were women, children and older men -- said they were forced to gather in the Belanice central square, where they were surrounded by Yugoslav security forces who repeatedly and persistently ordered them to hand over their money. Several witnesses recalled that Qemal Bytyci, a bus driver from the village of Semetisht, was repeatedly ordered by Yugoslav soldiers to search his passengers for money, which he then turned over the to the surrounding troops. The bus was parked in Belanice's central square for several days along with hundreds of tractors and cars brought by the refugees. "After they had forced him to search the passengers on three separate. occasions," recalled eighteen-year-old Shukrie Bytyci, "he could no longer find any money in the bus. So they took him away and beat him so badly that you could see the marks all over." Despairing of saving his vehicle, the bus driver abandoned the bus to the police, who then "drove all around the village, singing and shouting that they had captured the bus," the witness recalled.

Other witnesses said that soldiers repeatedly and persistently threatened them with death if they refused to hand over their money. "The nights were full of terror," one elderly woman recalled, "with the Serbs roaming around the square shooting in the air and pulling out their knives to threaten you with death if you didn't pay. We gave them everything, even the earrings in our ears and the rings off our fingers." In many cases, refugees were beaten and cut with knives if they refused to comply with demands for money.

On occasion, the Serb forces also killed refugees in Belanice. On April 1, for example, all refugees gathered in the town were ordered to leave for Albania. Batisha Hoxha, seventy-two years old, told Human Rights Watch that her husband, seventy-five-year old Izet Hoxha, was shot dead on the afternoon of April 1 after failing to join the mass flight. "He tried at first to leave when they ordered us to clear out," she recalled, "but he then said he was too old and tired to leave." After returning home, the elderly couple was attacked by four security force personnel who broke in through the front door. "My husband couldn't see who they were at first," Mrs. Hoxha recalled, "and offered them cigarettes. One of the soldiers knocked the pack from his hand, and then shot him twice. The first bullet hit him in the arm; the second hit him in the chest and killed him." Batisha Hoxha was then ordered to join the other refugees in the central square, who were making preparations to leave for Albania.

Dozens of witnesses who arrived in the northern Albanian town of Kukes after traveling from Malishevo district to Albania through Rahovec, Suva Reka, and Prizren said that most of the villages and towns in south-western Kosovo had been burned down and are empty of ethnic Albanian inhabitants. "Everywhere you go, you only see burnt homes and Serbian police or army," one refugee said. "All of Kosovo is empty of its people."

For further information contact:
Fred Abrahams: 1-917-293-3090
Holly Cartner (New York): 1-212-216-1277
Jean-Paul Marthoz (Brussels): 322-736-7838


(New York, April 7, 1999, 10:00pm EDT) —Human Rights Watch condemns the Macedonian government's forcible relocation of tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees during the past 48 hours, in total disregard of obligations under international refugee law. Since Monday, Macedonian authorities have forced tens of thousands of refugees onto planes or buses, and transported them to Albania and other countries. Some refugees have been separated from their families. In addition, a large number of Kosovo Albanians who had been waiting for days on the Yugoslav side to enter Macedonia, were apparently forced back into Kosovo by the Serbian police. Their whereabouts are unknown and Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about their fate.

"The treatment of Kosovo refugees in Macedonia has been deplorable" said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "There are clear international norms that must be adhered to and the treatment of refugees in Macedonia is an extremely troubling development."

Until Tuesday, April 6, as many as 65,000 refugees had been trapped for days in Blace, a muddy "no-mans land" between the borders of Kosovo and Macedonia, waiting to enter Macedonia. Refugees were held in appalling conditions, with no shelter, humanitarian relief, or medical assistance. During Tuesday night, most of the refugees in this area were forcibly cleared by the Macedonian authorities. The passports, blankets, and clothing found at the empty site today by UNHCR officials indicates that refugees were removed in haste. Refugees were given no information about where they were being taken and did not give their consent to be moved. UNHCR and IOM officials were not informed about plans to move the refugees and were not present during the relocation.

Reports now indicate that thousands of refugees were taken to the new transit center at Brazda. Some were transported out of Macedonia by plane to Turkey, and thousands of others were taken by bus to Albania and Greece. A Human Rights Watch representative in Skopje reported that the whereabouts of an estimated 10,000 refugees apparently relocated during this period remains unknown. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that those transported out of Macedonia were not registered prior to their departure and that UNHCR was given no information about their identities. In some cases, family groups were not allowed to travel together, and no proper records were kept to facilitate family reunification.

In addition, the whereabouts of a large number of persons who had been waiting inside Kosovo at the Jazince and Blace border crossings is unknown. International monitors reported receiving telephone calls throughout the day from persons who had been waiting at the border and were then forced to go back to Pristina by Serbian police units. Human Rights Watch visited the Macedonia-Yugoslav border crossings at Jazince and Blace today. Both were empty of people and reportedly closed on the Serbian side.

Human Rights Watch urgently calls on the Macedonian government to keep its borders open and to uphold its obligations under international refugee law. Refugees should not be moved out of Macedonia against their will, and every effort should be made to keep families together. UNHCR and relief agencies should be given unhindered access to provide assistance and protection to the refugees.


(New York, April 7, 1999, 6:00pm EDT)— Human Rights Watch today contended that U.S. government plans to place Kosovo Albanians at Guantanamo Bay will not adequately protect their rights as refugees. "We appreciate the humanitarian response of the United States to the refugees, but it is no favor to keep them indefinitely confined at an offshore military base" said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "There is no doubt that these are refugees under international law, and the U.S. should fully recognize them as such rather than giving them a dubious secondary status."

To date, the U.S. plan does not include giving the Kosovo Albanians legal status as refugees under U.S. law. By keeping the Albanians offshore, the U.S. government will deprive them of their right to apply for political asylum, to challenge any decision to deport them, or to challenge the conditions of their confinement at Guantanamo. "These rights are essential," said Cartner, "because it is unclear when -- if ever -- Kosovo will be safe for ethnic Albanians to return to their homes." Guantanamo, as a military base, has historically presented obstacles to the humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, including difficult access for lawyers, restricted movement for those interned, poor medical facilities, and minimal social services.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to immediately extend refugee status to all Kosovo Albanians being airlifted by the U.S. and to respect fully their rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The organization welcomed the government's announced decision to halt deportations of Kosovo Albanians who are already in the country, and urged that they too be granted full refugee status under U.S. law.

Inquiry into Aleksinac Bombing Demanded

(New York, April 7, 1999, 2:30pm EDT) — NATO forces are required to respect international humanitarian law, the laws of war, by minimizing damage to civilian areas and populations, Human Rights Watch asserted today. The group called for an immediate investigation into Monday's bombing of Aleksinac village, which reportedly killed five civilians and injured fifty.

"The countries of the NATO alliance must take all steps to minimize civilian casualties in times of war," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division. "Warfare has its unintended tragic consequences. But now the alliance must take visible and deliberate steps to make sure that these are minimized. This includes holding accountable those who might have made such a mortal mistake."

On Monday evening, three NATO missiles were reported to have landed in a civilian neighborhood of Aleksinac, a village about 100 miles south of Belgrade, killing five civilians. NATO regretted the loss of life and called the incident an accident of war. The intended target, NATO said, was a military barracks positioned nearby.

International humanitarian law is the set of rules governing the conduct of parties to international and internal armed conflicts. It is comprised of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their protocols, which are binding on all states and belligerents.

The cornerstone of this body of law is the duty to protect the life, health and safety of civilians and other non-combatants such as soldiers who are wounded, captured, or who have laid down their arms. It is absolutely prohibited to attack, injure or deport such persons.

All warring parties -- in this case Serbian and Yugoslav forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the NATO alliance -- bear a responsibility to take precautions, including doing everything feasible to verify targets are not civilian objects, minimizing incidental loss of civilian life, removing the civilian population from the vicinity of military objectives, effectively warning the civilian population in advance of attack unless circumstances do not permit, and avoiding locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas..It is forbidden at all times to direct attacks against civilians or civilian objects (such as places of worship, historic monuments, or hospitals). Parties to the conflict may not use civilians to shield military objectives from attack. Military objects are those that make an effective contribution to military action; where there is doubt, the object shall be presumed to be civilian.

A corollary to civilian immunity is a basic prohibition on indiscriminate attacks. An attack is "indiscriminate" when its effect cannot be limited and so harms military and civilian targets without distinction. Indiscriminate attacks include those which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and/or damage to civilian objects which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Typical examples include tactics such as carpet bombing populated areas which have military targets interspersed or laying land mines that will kill both soldiers and civilians for decades.


Human Rights Watch on the Kosovo Refugee Crisis
Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been forced to flee horrific atrocities and systematic "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo over the past two weeks...(more)

Human Rights Watch on International Law in the Kosovo Conflict
Both NATO and Yugoslavia must be judged by International Law in the current Kosovo conflict. Human Rights Watch explains why...(more)

Baton Haxhiu

©Human Rights Watch


(New York, April 5, 1999, 2:15pm EDT)—Human Rights Watch has confirmed that Baton Haxhiu (pictured right), the editor-in-chief of Koha Ditore, is alive and well. On March 29, 1999, it was reported that he was feared dead (see HRW Flash #8), but sources verify that is not the case.

The photograph of Mr. Haxhiu is available through Saba press photos at 212-477-7722.


(New York, April 4, 1999, 12:00am EST) -- Human Rights Watch interviewed six refugees late on April 2 who reported that Yugoslav forces shot and killed forty male ethnic Albanian villagers in the town of Velika Krusa (Krusha e Madhe in Albanian) on Friday, March 26. The village, on the main road between Dakovica and Prizren, was reputed to have had sympathies for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) over the past year. Human Rights Watch fears the men may have been slain in reprisal for their village's suspected support for the Albanian insurgents.

The six witnesses -- three men and three women -- had driven through the mountains on a tractor for seven days before crossing into Albania at the Morina crossing point near Kukes in northern Albania, where they were interviewed by Human Rights Watch. One of the men was wounded, having suffered shrapnel wounds in his legs and lower back.

The refugees said Yugoslav infantry raided their village on the afternoon of Thursday, March 25, the day after the NATO air campaign began. One of the witnesses, who was in the fields tending cattle, was shot and wounded as he ran towards the village. He hid that night with the five others, he said, who were discovered early the next morning by Yugoslav security forces wearing green camouflage uniforms.

"They gathered us together with the rest of the people from the village," said X.S., aged sixty-four. "Then, at about seven in the morning, they separated out forty younger males and shot them with machine guns."

The five other witnesses -- C. R., a forty-seven-year-old male, N. G., a seventy-seven-year old male, R. R., a fifty-year-old woman, Z. R., a fifty-year-old woman, and X. G., a sixty-five-year-old woman -- told similar stories.

On April 3, the BBC broadcast exclusive footage of an alleged massacre in Velika Krusa. The video, smuggled out by an amatuer cameraman and edited because of its graphic content, shows the bodies of several young men who were, according to the BBC, "killed with a single bullet to the head after trying to escape." According to the cameraman, more than one hundred people were killed when Serb forces shelled the area. He told the BBC: "A group of Serbs were on top of the hill. Others came from behind. Our men were captured and the Serbs killed them one after the other." The cameraman gave the BBC a list of twenty-six victims, many of whom were known to him, which is reprinted below. He claimed that there were thirty-one bodies in total, but five of the corpses were burned beyond recognition.

The consistent and credible reports of killings at Velika Krusa supplement the testimonies of three other refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch on March 30 and 31, who said that they had seen at least fifteen ethnic Albanians killed on the road around Velika Krusa (see Human Rights Watch Flash #14). According to these refugees, the killings took place near a police and army checkpoint on the main road between the villages of Zrce and Velika Krusa.

In recent days, two international journalists have gathered the testimonies of eyewitnesses from Mala Kruse (Krushe e Vogel in Albanian), another village located a few miles to the southeast of Velika Krusa. CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour interviewed a badly burned refugee late last night form the village, who said he had been placed in a pile of 112 bodies that were covered with petrol and set on fire by Yugoslav forces. The witness survived, however, and made it out to the border.

New York Times correspondent John Kifner interviewed another witness from Mala Krusa on March 30. The refugee, N.Z., reported having seen a mass killing, although no details were provided ("Kosovars Flee to Beat Serb Deadline of Death," The New York Times, March 31). The article said that her claims "conformed with other accounts given by refugees" and with accounts heard by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Based on its own research, as well as the coverage of the international media, Human Rights Watch believes that two separate massacres may have taken place in the two villages, Velika Krusa and Mala Krusa. It is possible the the killings were security force reprisals or "revenge killings" for the villages' suspected support for the KLA. Human Rights Watch researchers have determined that such a pattern of reprisal killings is indeed underway in south-western Kosovo, and it has been a pattern over the past year of the Kosovo conflict.

Reportedly Killed in Velika Krusa:

  1. Ramadan Krasniqi
  2. Ramadan Shait Hoti
  3. Eqrem Jemin Duraku
  4. Ibrahim Myrteza Duraku
  5. Gjevgjet Syljman Duraku
  6. Fahri Haxhilaf Hoti
  7. Bajram Ali Duraku
  8. Haxhi Halim Hoti
  9. Hasaf Nexhat Hoti
  10. Habib Haxhilat Duraku
  11. Fraidin S. Dina
  12. Flyrin S. Dina
  13. Nimetullahli i Hoxhes
  14. Shaban Rasim Duraku
  15. Ali Selim Duraku
  16. Azem Jonuz Duraku
  17. Haxhi Arif Shala
  18. Jeton Abdyl Duraku
  19. Faredin Shemsedin Hoti
  20. Kresnik Faredin Hoti
  21. Sami Sadik Nalli
  22. Sali Sadik Nalli
  23. Selim Bajrami
  24. Dahim Bajrami
  25. Qamil Bajrami
  26. Ismet Jemin Duraku