(New York, April 23, 1999, 3:15pm EDT)—The Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore resumed publication from Macedonia yesterday, April 22, 1999.

Before its March closure by Serb police, Koha Ditore was the largest and most influential Albanian-language newspaper in Kosovo. On March 22, the newspaper and its editor, Baton Haxhiu, were convicted for publishing information that "incited hatred between nationalities," according to article 67 of Serbia's controversial Law on Public Information. (For more information about Mr. Haxhiu's conviction, please see our March 22 press release.) The paper was fined 420,000 dinars (US$26,800) and Haxhiu personally was fined 110,000 dinars (US$7,200). On March 24, Serbian police shot and killed the guard at the Koha Ditore newspaper office in Pristina, and then ransacked the office.


(New York, April 20, 1999, 1:45pm EDT)—Over the past ten days, Human Rights Watch researchers in Macedonia independently interviewed more than twenty refugees from villages in the area between Urosevac (Ferizaj in Albanian) and the Macedonian border. The refugees, many of whom were on the move inside Kosovo for more than two weeks, described military style operations against their home villages, including heavy shelling and the use of tanks, followed by the wholesale burning of villages and crops and the deliberate slaughter of livestock. Refugees from several villages also provided consistent accounts of the killing of civilians by Serbian police and paramilitary units, as well as reports that some of the corpses had been mutilated.

In the village of Bajnica (close to Doganovic), eyewitnesses described how tanks entered the village without warning on the morning of April 3, followed by Serbian police and paramilitaries who set fire to houses, shot farm animals and beat residents in the street. Qamil Rhexepi, a sixty-year-old resident of Bajnica, and Demir Sulemani, a forty-eight-year-old man from Brod, were shot by Serbian forces during the operation, witnesses said. One witness saw Rhexepi being shot by masked men in green camouflage uniforms as he tried to flee the village. When the witness and three other men, all interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch, returned to the scene of the shooting later that day, they found the mutilated bodies of Rhexepi and Sulemani. Sulemani's eyes had been removed, and his throat had been cut, they all said. Describing the scene, one of the witnesses said: "the village was destroyed -- it was horrible to see. They just did it so we can't go back."

A refugee from the village of Rakaj told Human Rights Watch that Serbian police had entered the village on April 3, forcing the residents to flee to neighboring Cakaj. The village was subsequently looted and burned, he said. On Tuesday, April 13, Cakaj's inhabitants and those being sheltered there (including persons from nearby Lamaj and Duraj) also fled after Duraj was shelled at around 11:00 a.m. The women, children and elderly, who took refuge in a canyon, were subsequently caught by armed police in masks who told them that they "couldn't leave until they [the police] had burned all the houses."

Three witnesses hiding in the area heard shots after three men (forty-year-old Shiqiri Halili, forty-year-old Jakup Caka, and forty-six-year-old Mahmut Caka) tried to escape from the area around the canyon. After the police left around 3:00 p.m., one witnesses found Halili shot eight times, but still alive. Nearby, the witness said, were the mutilated corpses of Jakup and Mahmut Caka. Halili died later that same day.

Four witnesses interviewed by a Human Rights Watch researcher indicated that an additional eight bodies were discovered when the villagers returned to Cakaj, bringing the number of dead to eleven. Those killed included: Rahman Lama, 50; Ibrahim Lama, 20; Habib Lami, 18; Ilir Caka 19; and Qemal and Sabri Saliu, as well as their brother. The village was completely burned, witnesses said, including the bodies of farm animals.

Human Rights Watch representatives also spoke with multiple witnesses from the area who claimed that the police had destroyed the following villages: Slatin, Gabrica, Elezaj, Gatchka, Duraj and Lamaj. Three witnesses from the village of Firaj (on the road between Strpce and Brod) interviewed independently by Human Rights Watch also reported forcible evictions and scorched earth tactics in their area. They described the widespread looting and burning of villages, including Firaj, Brod, Vica, Upper and Lower Bitinja.

These interviews indicate a consistent pattern of killings and literal scorched earth tactics by Serbian and Yugoslav forces in the southern region of Kosovo. Most villages along the Macedonian border have been ethnically cleansed and destroyed.

Five Witnesses Describe Killings to Human Rights Watch

(New York, April 16, 1999, 7:15pm EDT) —Five witnesses, interviewed separately, have described in detail how Serbian security forces executed more than sixty ethnic Albanian men in the village of Bela Crkva (Bellacerka in Albanian) just hours after NATO bombing began in Yugoslavia on March 24.

Human Rights Watch researchers in Kukes, Albania, interviewed the five witnesses yesterday. The refugees' detailed accounts were consistent with one another and matched the testimony of a sixth witness given to a journalist from the French newspaper Le Monde.

According to the witnesses, the killings took place on the morning of March 25, some twelve hours after NATO began bombing targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The witnesses described in consistent detail how residents of the village of Bela Crkva were forced to flee their homes at approximately 4 a.m., an hour after Serb forces started burning the village. The villagers fled into the fields toward Rogovo, hiding themselves by the banks of the Bellaj (in Albanian), a stream flowing from Bela Crkva to Rogovo.

In the early morning of March 25, Serb forces found the ethnic Albanians hiding near a bridge where the railroad tracks crossed the stream. The families of Clirim Zhuniqi and Xhemal Spahiu, who were approximately fifty meters away from the main group of villagers, were the first to be discovered. Twelve members of the two families were summarily executed with automatic weapon fire, witnesses said. There was one survivor: a two-year-old boy whose mother had protected him with her body.

Nesim Popaj, an Albanian doctor from Bela Crkva, reportedly tried to negotiate with the Serb commander, pleading with him to spare the lives of the hundreds of villagers. He explained that they were not members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), witnesses told Human Rights Watch, but just villagers who wanted to work in peace. The commander responded by saying: "You're terrorists, and NATO will have to save you."

During this discussion, the commander was stepping down on the neck of Shėndet Popaj, the doctor's seventeen-year-old nephew, who was lying prone on the ground. Abruptly ending the discussion, the commander -- described by one witnesses as a medium-height man, around thirty-five years old, in a green camouflage uniform with three stars on his shoulders -- mowed down Nesim with an automatic weapon in front of Nesim's wife and three children, after which he killed Shėndet. The witness noted specifically that the commander, believed by the witness to be a captain, had a distinguishing feature: a recognizably scrunched up mouth.

The Serb forces then separated men and boys as young as twelve from the rest of the villagers. The men were told to undress, in an apparent attempt to humiliate them in front of their wives and children. The Serb forces, described by witnesses as "special police forces," then proceeded to search the mens' clothes and strip them of money, jewelry, and documents. One witness reported that the men had to hand over their wedding rings. The women and children were then told to walk along the railroad track towards Zrze (Xerxe in Albanian), a village on the Dakovica-Prizren road about a mile southwest of Bela Crkva.

Robbed of their possessions, the men were told to dress again, and then to go to the nearby stream. At that point, Serb forces opened fire with automatic weapons. The female villagers who were walking along the railroad tracks told Human Rights Watch that they heard a burst of gunfire, lasting for several minutes without interruption.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with one man, who did not wish to be identified, who claimed that he was shot with the group of men near the stream, and survived. When interviewed in Kukes he had bandages on his right shoulder, right arm and head from wounds he said he had sustained during the shooting (to his right shoulder), as well as some shrapnel wounds he had sustained later while trying to escape Kosovo (to his head and arm).

In a detailed testimony that was highly consistent with the other witnesses, the man told Human Rights Watch that a bullet had struck him in the right shoulder, forcing him back onto the bank of the stream. He was then covered by the bodies of several dead men, he said, which hid him from the Serb forces who were examining the bodies for signs of life. He told Human Rights Watch:

I was lucky. I was in front of the group. I was shot in the shoulder and flew into the stream, where I pretended to be dead. About twenty dead bodies fell on top of me. They then shot into the pile of bodies to be sure they were dead... They shot people one by one, but I didn't get shot because they didn't see me.

Roughly ten minutes later, still hiding under the pile of bodies, the witness heard another round of automatic weapons fire nearby. Some thirty minutes after that, when the witness realized that the Serb forces had moved on, he stood up and saw the dead bodies of seven elderly people from his village, as well as two persons unknown to him, lying in a field about a hundred meters away from the stream. He then proceeded to walk towards Zrze, where he told the women from Bela Crkva who had arrived around 10:00 a.m. what had happened.

The witness' account closely matched the testimony of another apparent survivor given to French journalist Nathaniel Herzberg (see "The Refugees of Kosovo Witness Executions by Serb Forces," by Nathaniel Herzberg, Le Monde, April 14, 1999). This witness told Herzberg that the men were forced to undress and then dress again before being marched to the stream bed, where they were shot. He said:

It was then that they opened fire. I was thrown into the water, and others fell on top of me. And then nothing. Five minutes later, I heard another gust of machine-gun firing, far away. After about 20 minutes, I moved. There were six survivors, but four were wounded. I didn't have anything [I wasn't hurt.] I think there were between thirty-five and forty dead, of which four were my cousins.

According to other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who also wished to remain anonymous, a man and several women near Zrze went back to the stream by tractor to see if there were any other survivors. They told Human Rights Watch that they found five or six men who were wounded near the stream and brought them to Zrze. Two of the men later died of their wounds, and it is unknown what happened to the others. Two days later, on the Muslim religious holiday of Bajram, a group of villagers buried the bodies in a field near the river. A witness who participated in the burial told Human Rights Watch that the villagers had to work two nights in a row to bury all the bodies.

The massacre in Bela Crkva reveals a pattern of mass killings in a seven-mile stretch of villages along the Dakovica-Prizren road between March 25 and March 27. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least forty male ethnic Albanian villagers were killed in the town of Velika Krusa (Krusha e Madhe in Albanian) on March 26 (see Human Rights Flash # 18, April 4). There are highly credible reports from individual witnesses of mass killings in the nearby villages of Mala Krusa, Celina, and Pirane.

One possible explanation for the spate of mass killings in this specific area may be revenge for the past activity of the KLA, which at times controlled territory to the northeast of Velika Krusa in the direction of Orahovac. It is also possible that these killings can be attributed to one particularly brutal group of soldiers or police, although this is speculation.

List of Those killed in Bela Crkva on March 25:

  • 1. Hajrullah Begaj (village Imam), 29
  • 2. Murat Berisha, 62
  • 3. Adem Berisha, 33
  • 4. Hysni Fetoshi, 50
  • 5. Halim Fetoshi, 70
  • 6. Fatmir Fetoshi, 30
  • 7. Ardian Fetoshi, 16
  • 8. Fadil Gashi, 47
  • 9. Musat Morina, 60
  • 10. Zyraje Morina (wife of Musat), 55
  • 11. Nesim Popaj (doctor), 36
  • 12. Shendet Popaj, 17 (nephew of doctor)
  • 13. Etihem Popaj, 40
  • 14. Krashnik Popaj (son of Etihem), 48
  • 15. Isuf Popaj, 65
  • 16. Mehmet Popaj (son of Isuf), 46
  • 17. Vehap Popaj, 60
  • 18. Bedrush Popaj, 50
  • 19. Avdullah Popaj (son of Bedrush), 16
  • 20. Sedat Popaj, 50
  • 21. Ifan Popaj, 40
  • 22. Rrustem Popaj, 63
  • 23. Mersel Popaj, 50
  • 24. Sahit Popaj, 42
  • 25. Behlul Popaj, 14
  • 26. Nazmija Popaj, 45
  • 27. Albani Popaj, 20
  • 28. Agon Popaj, 14
  • 29. Hysni Popaj, 38
  • 30. Lendrit Popaj, 17
  • 31.-37. Xhemajl Spahiu, 70 (from village of Apturush, he and 6 family members were killed together with Clirim Zhuniqi in first group of 12)
  • 38. Eshref Zhuniqi, age 60
  • 39. Fatos Zhuniqi, 42
  • 40. Labinot Zhunici, age 17
  • 41. Mahamet Zhuniqi, 65
  • 42. Reshit Zhuniqi (son of Muhamet), 25
  • 43. Qamil Zhuniqi, 72
  • 44. Ibrahim Zhuniqi, 70
  • 45. Abedin Zhuniqi, 36
  • 46. Bajram Zhuniqi, 50
  • 47. Qemajl Zhuniqi, 57
  • 48. Hysni Zhuniqi, 62
  • 49. Kasim Zhuniqi, 30
  • 50. Mehdi Zhuniqi, 60
  • 51. Ahmed Zhuniqi
  • 52. Agim Zhuniqi, 55
  • 53. Destal Zhuniqi, 65
  • 54. Bilal Zhuniqi, 75
  • 55. Shemsi Zhuniqi (son of Bilal), 52
  • 56. Muharem Zhuniqi (son of Shemsi), 28
  • 57. Qlirim Zhuniqi (killed in first group of 12), 40
  • 58. Lumnije Zhuniqi, 39
  • 59. Dhurata Zhuniqi, 10
  • 60. Dardana Zhuniqi, 8
  • 61. Dardan Zhuniqi, 5
  • 62. Hysen Zhuniqi, 22

Human Rights Watch Compiles List of 32 Victims

(New York, April 13, 1999, 4:45pm EDT)—Additional information about executions emerged today from refugees fleeing the brutal "ethnic cleansing" in Djakovica (Gjakove in Albanian), an ethnic Albanian-majority city with approximately 100,000 inhabitants in southwestern Kosovo.

Based on separate interviews with fourteen ethnic Albanian refugees in northern Albania, Human Rights Watch believes that Yugoslav security forces killed at least forty-seven ethnic Albanian men during the violent depopulation of Djakovica between April 1 and April 4. The actual number may be much higher.

Four witnesses independently told Human Rights Watch that they had personally seen Yugoslav security forces execute fourteen different men, whom they identified by name (see list below). Ten other witnesses said that they had seen, in total, the bodies of thirty-three civilian men lying in the streets of their neighborhoods, presumably killed by security forces. The witnesses identified eighteen of these victims by name (see below). All ethnic Albanians who had been killed were civilian men; they appeared to have been shot at close range.

While Human Rights Watch has not been able independently to confirm these killings, the detail and consistency of the witnesses' testimony gives powerful evidence that Yugoslav security forces, including special police, army, and paramilitary troops, executed these ethnic Albanian men.

The witnesses' reports are also highly consistent with testimony provided earlier by other refugees who had fled Djakovica. On April 2, newly-arriving refugees, mostly women and children, told Human Rights Watch that they had seen a large number of corpses lying in the city streets, sometimes in clusters of one to six bodies. Many refugees reported that a large number of families had suffered at least one execution in their homes. (See Human Rights Watch Flash #16, April 3).

One witness, Bardhi Vula, interviewed on April 10, told Human Rights Watch how Yugoslav soldiers knocked on the door of her family's house on April 1 at about 5 a.m. When the family did not answer, she said, the soldiers shouted that they knew the family was inside and that they should come out. When the family opened the door, the soldiers pulled Mrs. Vula and her children out into the yard, but kept Hajdar Vula, her fifty-two-year-old husband, inside. Hajdar Vula pleaded with the soldiers to let him accompany his family, emphasizing that he had worked his whole life with Serbs, and finally they let him go. As the family fled into the street, however, three policemen stopped her husband and "shot him immediately" as Mrs. Vula ran away. About ten minutes later, Mrs. Vula returned to the spot where her husband was killed. She found him lying dead in the street "with a bullet shot through his temple." According to Mrs. Vula, the bodies of four other men -- Mahmut Vula (her brother-in-law), Shpetim Morina, Hazur Lusha, and one unknown man -- were lying near her husband. All of the men had been shot, and Hazur Lusha's throat had also been cut, she said. Other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch also reported having seen the same men's bodies.

In addition to the reports of killings, as described above, many refugees said that their homes had been looted and set on fire or destroyed by government forces.

It is unknown how many ethnic Albanians remain in Djakovica. Most refugees report that the city was largely emptied. As Human Rights Watch previously reported, there are numerous unconfirmed reports that some men of military age were taken out of a refugee column as they tried to flee. Their whereabouts are unknown.

Yugoslav forces began destroying homes and neighborhoods in Djakovica around March 24 but the intensified depopulation of the city began in earnest on April 1. According to refugees, Yugoslav tanks and mortar fire destroyed ethnic Albanian homes in a systematic, neighborhood-by-neighborhood manner. Residents were typically ordered out of their homes before troops wearing green or blue camouflage opened fire on their residences. Ethnic Albanians were then ordered to walk to the Albanian border at Qafe Prushit, where their identity documents were destroyed and they were expelled from the country.

The violent "ethnic cleansing" in Djakovica is a marked departure from the forced depopulations that have taken place over the past two weeks in large cities such as Pristina, Pec, and Prizren. Although some killings took place in those cities, most military-age men were allowed to accompany their families out of Kosovo. (See Human Rights Watch Flash #9).

Djakovica and most other cities in Kosovo were generally exempt from violence since the Kosovo conflict began in March 1998. Fighting between the KLA and Serbian/Yugoslav forces took place predominantly in rural areas, often followed by a reprisal attack by government forces against the nearby villages. Forcibly displaced civilians often went to the urban centers for protection.

Witnesses claim to have seen Yugoslav forces kill the following people:

1. Hasan Haxhiu (49)
2. Nyzafere Haxhiu (49)
3. Adem Haxhiu (46)
4. Berat Haxhiu (17)
5. Fadil Krasniqi (31)
6. Wife of Ali Hajdari (from Lapsheve, near Malisevo)
7. Nexha Zherka
8. Hajdar Vula
9-12. Four brothers of Fejza family
13-14. Two brothers of Haxhim family
Witnesses claim to have seen the bodies of the following people:

1. Nazim Nagovci (about 45)
2. Bujar Tetrica (about 32)
3. Hasan ?
4. Iset Hima
5. Son of Iset Hima
6. Zec Kuci
7. Fehmi Vula
8. Shek Midini
9-10. Two sons of Shek Midini
11. Tahir Daci
12. Hajdar Daci
13. Hazur Lusha
14. Shpetim Morina
15. Mahmut Vula
16. Astrit Spahija
17. Qumil Spahija
18. Ali Spahija

Thousands More From Municipality Moving Toward Border

(New York, April 10, 1999, 6:30pm EDT) — Late Friday evening (April 9), an estimated 1,500 refugees from the village of Vragoli were allowed to cross into northern Albania near the town of Kukes. Several thousand more displaced from the same municipality are reportedly moving toward the Albanian border.

In dozens of separate interviews conducted at the border by Human Rights Watch, refugees described how they were systematically expelled from their homes in Vragoli and forced toward the Albanian border. During the previous two days, the border between Kosovo and Albania had been closed by Yugoslav forces, and no refugees had been allowed to cross.

"The now familiar pattern of `ethnic cleansing' by Yugoslav forces is continuing unabated in Kosovo," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Those who arrived last night at the Albanian border were traumatized and desperate, and we are deeply concerned about the safety of those who were forced to stay behind in Kosovo."

Refugees reported that, early on April 9, Yugoslav military and Serb police forces went door to door ordering ethnic Albanian villagers to leave their houses and gather in the center of Vragoli, located twelve kilometers southwest of the Kosovo capital of Prishtina. They were given no time to take any of their belongings with them. According to the villagers, almost all of the inhabitants of Vragoli were forced to leave, although some elderly people who were not able to travel remained behind in the village.

The villagers, who used their own vehicles for transportation, were then escorted by Yugoslav forces to the main road to Prizren. From Prizren, they proceeded to the Morina border crossing near Kukes, Albania, where Yugoslav border police systematically stripped them of their belongings, including all documents and license plates that would prove they are residents of Kosovo.

According to several refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, there was a "massive presence" of Yugoslav forces along the road from Prizren to the Albanian border, to stop anyone who might try to flee the convoy and return home. The villagers reported that many of the villages along the road were empty and many of the houses had been burned.

Over a week earlier, the inhabitants of Vragoli had been warned that they would have to leave the village. However, despite the presence of Yugoslav military and Serb police forces who burned some houses in the village and shot rounds of ammunition into the air, the villagers had been able to remain in their homes until the morning of April 9. It is not known what caused them to be expelled on that day. Nor is it clear why the villagers were forced to go to the Albanian border, instead of the Macedonian border, where most people from the area around Prishtina had so far been sent.

The village of Vragoli is part of the Fushė-Kosove commune, which in Serbian is known as Kosovo Polje, the site of an important battle between Serb and Ottoman forces in 1389 and the place from which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic began his nationalist campaign in 1987.