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Violations in the Drenica Region

Drenica is a hilly region in central Kosovo inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Albanians. The region has a tradition of strong resistance to outside powers, dating back to Turkish rule in the Balkans. By 1997, Albanians had begun to refer to Drenica as “liberated territory” because of the local KLA presence, which forced Serbian policemen to abandon their checkpoints at night. The government considered Drenica the hotbed of “Albanian terrorism.”

A focal point of police attention in Drenica was the village of Donji Prekaz, and especially the family compound of Adem Jashari, who was gaining repute in 1997 as a local KLA leader. In January and then again in March 1998, the police mounted attacks on the compound, the second involving a large-scale force based at the nearby ammunition factory. Jashari’s entire family, save an eleven-year-old girl, was killed in the attack. Of fifty-eight bodies later buried, eighteen were women and ten were children sixteen years old or younger (see below).

On February 28 and March 1, the police mounted a major attack on two other villages in Drenica: Cirez and Likošane. In both cases, special police forces attacked without warning, firing indiscriminately at women, children and other noncombatants. Helicopters and military vehicles sprayed village rooftops with gunfire before police forces entered the village on foot, firing into private homes. A pregnant woman, Rukia Nebihi, was shot in the face, and four brothers from one family were killed, apparently while in police custody. Ten members of the Ahmeti family were summarily executed by the police (see below).

The Serbian police denied any wrongdoing in the attacks and claimed they were pursuing “terrorists” who had attacked the police. A police spokesman denied the “lies and inventions” about torture carried by some local and foreign media and said “the police has never resorted to such methods and never will.”2

These events in Drenica, in which eighty-three people died, including at least twenty-four women and children, were the turning point in the Kosovo crisis. Although it is unknown precisely how large the KLA was up to that point and what its exact structure was, there is no question that the brutal and indiscriminate attacks on women and children greatly radicalized the ethnic Albanian population and swelled the ranks of the KLA. Whether Miloševic thought he could crush the KLA in Drenica, or whether he intended for the KLA to grow and become overly confident and more aggressive is a question for debate.

The Attack on Likošane

The first large-scale police attacks in Drenica were on Likošane and Cirez, small villages that lie about two kilometers apart from one another, on February 28 and March 1. From the testimonies of victims, witnesses, and those who visited the villages just after the attack, it is clear that the special police forces used at least one attack helicopter, armored personnel carriers (APCs), mortars and automatic machine guns in the attack.

Twenty-five Albanians died in the attack. Although it is unknown how much resistance was mounted by the local villagers and the KLA, most of the Albanians who died were clearly not offering any resistance at the time of their death. Evidence strongly suggests that the police summarily executed at least fourteen people.

It is still not clear how and why the attack began. According to police reports, a police patrol was attacked by armed Albanians near Likošane on February 28; four policemen were killed and two seriously injured.3 A fight ensued over the next two days, in which sixteen “terrorists” and two policemen were killed. Albanians from Likošane and Cirez told Human Rights Watch that they heard shooting near Likošane, at the place called “Six Oaks,” around 11:00 a.m. on February 28, and some had heard that the police had been ambushed there. There were also unconfirmed reports that armed Albanians had attacked the ammunition plant near Donji Prekaz, where the police were based, on February 27. When the police chased the Albanians, they were ambushed near Likošane.

Regardless of what triggered the incident, there is no question that the special police forces acted in a quick and well-organized manner, which suggests that the police may have been planning to attack. There is also no doubt that the police used arbitrary and excessive force against the villagers long after resistance ceased.

Some articles in the Western press cited anonymous Serbian police sources who said that, while the Albanians had fired first, the situation had then gotten “out of hand.”4 One article cited an unnamed Serbian police officer as saying that only intervention by a Belgrade commander had limited the slaughter of villagers.5

According to those present in Likošane, the police arrived in the village between 11:30 and 12:00 p.m., about half an hour after the shots had been heard near Six Oaks. An attack helicopter was firing overhead while APCs and many armed special police surrounded the village. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that there was no KLA presence, but it is possible that someone was firing at the police.

Two neighboring households were the focus of police attacks: the families Gjeli and Ahmeti. Two men were killed by gunshots in the former, eleven in the latter, apparently while in police custody.

At around 3:30 p.m. the police burst into the compound of the Ahmeti family, which was the richest family in Likošane. There is some speculation that a KLA member may have entered the house and then left, but it remains unclear why the Ahmeti house was targeted. Interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch, the Humanitarian Law Center, the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, and journalists corroborate a story of beatings and, ultimately, the extrajudicial executions of ten Ahmeti men, aged between sixteen and fifty, as well as one family guest, Bajram Fazliu.

According to two women in the Ahmeti family interviewed by the Humanitarian Law Center, the police, dressed in green and blue camouflage uniforms, broke down the family compound gate with an armored vehicle and then broke into the house. The police ordered everyone to lie down on the floor, and then the men were taken outside the compound, where they were beaten. Two neighbors of the Ahmeti family, Ilir Islami and Haxhi Hasani, told the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms that they heard the screams of the Ahmeti men from the front yard until the evening.

One woman in the house, Merci Ahmeti, told a journalist from the Times:

All of our men walked out to protect the rest of us. The police beat them unconscious. Then they told us to lie on the ground and kept some policemen to watch over us for the next four hours. We heard screams outside and shots. We do not know what happened, but I knew then they were no longer alive.6

The only brother to survive the attack, Xhevdet Ahmeti, was by chance in Priština on February 28. The next day, having learned of the incident, he returned to Likošane and watched from a hill overlooking the village as the police continued their attack. He told Human Rights Watch:

I arrived around 8 a.m. on March 1. There was an APC in our compound and another outside. A third was behind. There was artillery all over and the police were shooting everywhere.7

According to Xhevdet Ahmeti, the police withdrew around 3:30 p.m. He immediately went to his house and was told that the police had taken ten male members of his family and Bajram Fazliu into custody. He told Human Rights Watch that the doors and furniture of the house had been destroyed, and that the police had taken most of the family’s valuables, such as thetelevision satellite dish, clothing, and shoes that their uncle had just brought back from Switzerland, as well as some gold and 50,000 Swiss francs.

Xhevdet and the rest of the Ahmeti family did not learn that the eleven men in custody had been killed until March 2, when their bodies were seen by chance in the Priština morgue by another Likošane resident, Kadri Gjeli, who had gone to collect two members of his family who had been killed (see below). An Ahmeti cousin then went to the morgue himself to collect the bodies. On his return, he was blocked by the police in Komoran and was forced to take a circuitous route by unpaved roads.

The eleven men were buried on March 3, along with the fifteen other victims from Likošane and Cirez. A journalist from the United States who saw the Ahmeti corpses on May 2 told Human Rights Watch that they bore clear signs of torture, including gouged out eyes and slash wounds.8 Autopsies were not performed on any of the victims, even though Article 252 of the Yugoslav Criminal Code mandates autopsies in cases where the death may have been related to a criminal act. On April 3, lawyers for the Ahmeti family asked the local prosecutor and investigating judge to investigate why the autopsies had never been performed but, as of September 1998, they had received no answer. As of September 1998, the Ahmeti family had still not received death certificates from the local authorities despite repeated requests by their lawyers.

It is not clear whether the Ahmeti men and Bahram Fazliu were killed in Likošane in front of the Ahmeti family compound or after they had been taken away by the police. A researcher for the Humanitarian Law Center, who was in Likošane on March 2, saw blood, teeth, and what looked like brain tissue near the bushes in front of the front gates, which suggests some or all of the men were either killed or severely beaten in front of the compound. Human Rights Watch spoke separately with two journalists, an ethnic Albanian and an American, who both saw the same blood and human remains in front of the Ahmeti’s gates on March 2, as well as Serbian writing on the compound wall that said: “This is what will happen next time too.”9

The other household in Likošane targeted by the police was that of seventy-year-old Muhamet Gjeli, who, according to the Albanian-language media, had been deported from Germany on December 17, 1998.10 Muhamet and his son Naser were apparently killed by gunshots, Muhamet in a small dairy next to his house and Naser inside the house in front of his wife and two children, aged two and four. It is not known whether the two men were shooting at the police or whether the police warned them to surrender before shooting.

Naser’s wife, Ganimete Islami, told the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms that she first heard shooting from Six Oaks around 12:00 p.m., so she took her children into the bathroom while her husband joined them with a hunting rifle and put a mattress over the window. She said:

At one moment, bullets got through the windows and shot my husband dead. Bullets came through the door, too. The firing stopped and the room was full of steam and dust...

Muhamet was apparently killed in the small dairy next to the house. Journalists who visited the scene saw an axe, a cap, and a blood smear indicating that the body had been dragged out of the dairy.11 According to Ganimete Islami, the police took Naser and Muhamet’s bodies, as well as 6,500 DM from the house. They also destroyed the family’s tractor and Zastava car.

The Attack on Cirez

According to those present on February 28, the police arrived in Cirez around 12:30 p.m., after the shooting near Six Oaks. Three witnesses independently told Human Rights Watch that at least seven APCs were present, as well as a helicopter which was firing down on rooftops.12 Damage of the buildings in Cirez seen by Human Rights Watch was consistent with those claims.

The most brutal incident was the killing of Rukia Nebihu, a twenty-seven-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant. Her father-in-law, Sefer Nebihu, was present with his wife, eldest son, Xhemsil, and five children when the police shot Rukia in the face, killing her instantly. Xhemsil was also killed. Sefer Nebihu told Human Rights Watch:

The police destroyed my front gate with two tanks and came up to the windows of my house. About seventeen policemen came out of the tanks. They wore military camouflage, green and yellow, with a police sign on their chests. No masks. The tank came up to the window. One policeman broke the window with the butt of his gun and started shouting. They said “stand up” and I said “don't shoot because there are only women and children here.” They cursed me and then one fired at me.13

Sefer Nebihu was hit three times in the right leg and one time in the left. Human Rights Watch saw the bullet marks, which were consistent with an automatic gun having been sprayed at about thigh level. All of the bullet scars were between the knees and groin. According to Sefer, he fell back and Rukia grabbed his leg while he was on the ground. He said:

Rukia grabbed my leg and saw what happened as they smashed the side door. When the door was smashed, Rukia was holding my leg. They shot her and hit her in the face... After they shot Rukia, they said “What is he doing here?” and they fired at Xhemsil. I think there were fifteen to seventeen bullet holes in his stomach. He [the policeman] kept shooting until the magazine was empty. Then they [the police] entered all of the rooms checking everything. Seventeen policemen were inside, one was outside with a Motorola [radio]. I heard him say “where now?”

After the shooting, the police took Sefer to the house next door where his other son, twenty-one-year-old Zahir, was hiding. Sefer was told to call his son, which he did. He said:

One [policeman] tried to hit him [Zahir] with the butt of his gun in the head but he ducked and it hit him in the chest. They told him to lie down. They forced me to open all the rooms in the house and they searched everything.

They took me to my brother's house and they asked who lives there. Inside the house were twenty-three women and children. I told them to come out. They came out and were told to lay down on the grass. One policeman came running up and said “kill them all.” They started arguing amongst themselves and some of them said “we can't shoot them.”

Sefer’s other son, Ilir, who was the husband of Rukia, was also taken by the police from somewhere in the village during the attack in Cirez. His corpse was returned to Cirez on March 2 along with the other twenty-five victims from Likošane and Cirez. It is not known when or how he died.

Four other victims from Cirez were the sons of the Sejdiu family, Bekim, Nazmi, Bedri, and Beqir, who were apparently executed by the police outside of their home. According to Abida Sejdiu, the mother of the household, her sons came back from working in the fields when they heard the shooting near Likošane around 12:00 p.m.. Around 3:30 p.m. some APCs slammed open the family’s front gates. Visibly disturbed, she told Human Rights Watch:

They [her sons] came from the field and we sat in one room. My daughter-in-law, two kids and my sons. They [the police] surrounded the house. We heard fighting in Likošane around noon. My sons were killed around 4 p.m. The tanks came in the garden, they broke the gates and two tanks were outside the compound and two behind. Two helicopters were constantly firing. Some seven to ten policemen broke into the house and our room. I stepped in front of the police and put my hands out in front of my sons. They took all of us into the garden. They said lie on the ground. They hit Bekim and I shouted “Don't you have any sons!” They hit me on the head with the end of the gun. They took all of my sons then I took the kids inside...14

At this point, Mrs. Sejdiu could say no more and left the room. Her husband, Sheremet said that she had witnessed her sons being killed. According to him, the police killed Nazmi first. Then they took Bekim outside and shot him in the garden, followed by Bedri and Beqir. He told Human Rights Watch that Beqir had seventeen bullets in his chest. The police didn't take the bodies. Human Rights Watch saw photographs of two of the Sejdiu brothers, each with bullet wounds, although it was not possible to determine from this the circumstances of their deaths.

Also killed in Cirez on March 1 in unknown circumstances were Ibish Rama, Smail Bajrami, Rexhep Rexhepi, Beqir Rexhepi, and Shaban Muja. Ibish Rama and Smail Bajrami were last seen in police custody.

According to Liman Ademi, a local villager, he, Ibish Rama, and Smail Bajrami, were hiding along with three others in a warehouse in the center of Cirez when the police attack began around 12:30 p.m.. After one hour with machine gun fire and a helicopter shooting over head, the three of them decided to leave the warehouse and hide in the village. Liman Ademi told Human Rights Watch what happened next:

Three of us went in one direction. Me and Ibish went towards our homes. Smail came with us because his sister lives in the same village. But the three of us found ourselves in front of an APC. They [the police] said lie down and one policeman got out of the APC. We were handcuffed together and guns were pointed at us. They took us inside the APC and we drove to the main road. One policeman went out of the APC and called some other policeman. I was closest to the door. They untied me and I went outside with one policeman and he told me to wait there, but the other one was aiming his gun at me. Then the APC started to move slowly [because there was a disturbance somewhere else]. The other cop started to move away from me slowly. At that moment, the other cop aiming at me turned away. I took the chance and ran away. My two friends were still tied inside the APC. Three days later I found out that my two friends were massacred along with twelve others.15

On March 3, all twenty-six people killed in Likošane and Cirez were buried in a field near the two villages. An estimated 30,000 people attended the ceremony. Police checkpoints on the major road from Komoran prohibited many more from coming. Visitors from outside the area and journalists had to circumvent the police by back roads and walking through fields.

Police Attacks in Donji Prekaz

Human Rights Watch was not able to visit Donji Prekaz, a village with a pre-war population of approximately 1,000 people, due to continued fighting. It is, therefore, the case from Drenica on which the least direct testimony was available to Human Rights Watch. This notwithstanding, Human Rights Watch has concluded that serious violations of international humanitarian law were committed by the Serbian special police: notably, indiscriminate attacks on noncombatants, the systematic destruction of civilian property, and the summary and arbitrary executions of those in detention.16 Although it appears that someAlbanian villagers in Donji Prekaz were armed and defending themselves against the police, the evidence is overwhelming that the police used excessive and indiscriminate force, and that the police executed at least three people after they had been detained or had surrendered.

The first attack on Donji Prekaz took place on January 22, 1998, and was focused on the compound of Shaban Jashari, whose son Adem was known as a local KLA leader. Adem Jashari had already been convicted in absentia by a Priština court on July 11, 1997, for “terrorist acts” along with fourteen other ethnic Albanians, in a trial that clearly failed to conform to international standards.17

According to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the January 22 incident was a shoot-out between local gangs. However, according to Adem Shaban Jashari, who was interviewed a few days after the first incident by the Humanitarian Law Center and was killed in the second police attack, the police attacked his home around 5:20 a.m. but were repelled when Adem’s friends “from the woods” came to help.18

Others were also victims of what appears to have been execution-style killings after detention or in unknown circumstances. Hysen Manxholli, a fifty-two-year-old ethnic Albanian from the nearby town of Srbica was killed on January 22 in unknown circumstances. His body was found the same day near the ammunition factory. According to the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Humanitarian Law Center, Idriz Idrizi was seized by the police on January 23 near the ammunition factory and, as of September 1998, was still missing.19

The police attacked Prekaz and the Jashari compound again on March 5, 1998, this time in a more prepared and determined manner. All evidence suggests that the attack was not intended to apprehend armed Albanians, considered “terrorists” by the government, but, as Amnesty International concluded in its report on violence in Drenica, “to eliminate the suspects and their families.”20 Testimonies collected by human rights groups and journalists indicate several cases of extrajudicial executions and unlawful killings from excessive force.

An estimated fifty-eight ethnic Albanians were killed in the attack, including eighteen women and ten children under the age of sixteen, and then summarily buried by the police before autopsies could be performed. The exact number and identities of the dead reported by different sources varies slightly, a consequence of the manner in which the burial was conducted (see below) and because some of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.21 Among those buried were at least six Albanians who were killed in unclear circumstances in the nearby village of Lausa and buried together with the dead from Donji Prekaz.

According to the Serbian police, the attack on Donji Prekaz was in response to KLA attacks on nearby police patrols. According to witnesses, however, the attack was well orchestrated and included APCs, artillery shelling from the nearby ammunition factory, and special police forces in camouflage and face paint. The first target was the Ljushtaku family compound, which is between the Jashari compound and the ammunition factory. The Ljushtaku family members fled their home as the police turned the focus of their attack on the compound of Shaban Jashari.

Based on interviews with witnesses, the Humanitarian Law Center confirmed that inside the house were, at least, Shaban Jashari (74), his wife Zaha (72), and their sons Rifat, Hamza (47), and Adem (42) with their families, including four girls, Blerina (7), Fatime (8), Besarte (11) and Lirije (14), and four boys, Blerim (12), Besim (16), Afete (17), and Selvete (20). All of these people died except Besarte, who hid under a marble slab used for kneading dough during the attack. Besarte was later captured by the police, taken to the nearby ammunition factory and then released. Interviewed later by a foreign journalist, Besarte told of hours-long shelling which killed her seven brothers and sisters, her mother and uncle Adem inside the house. “I tried to pretend I was dead,” she told a journalist from the Sunday Times. “But one of the soldiers put his hand on my chest and he felt I was alive.”22

Also killed in the attack, and probably in Shaban Jashari’s house, were Adem Jashari’s wife Adilje, their son Kushtrim (13), Rifat Jashari’s wife, Zafire Batir, and their daughter Igballe (11), and Hamza Jashari’s wife Feride Ramadan and their child Fatusha (8).

The police also attacked the homes of other Jashari family members in the village, including those of Sherif, Zuk, Qazim, Fejzija, and Beqir Jashari (43). The daughter of Serif Jashari, who was hiding in the house of Beqir Jashari together with twenty-four children, five women, and six men told the Humanitarian Law Center that the police surrounded the house with APCs, shelled the roof and then fired tear gas into the house. She told the center:

The soldiers shouted for us to come out one by one or they would kill us. When my cousin Qazim (47) came out with his hands up, they killed him on the steps. I was in the middle of the yard when it happened. We ran and had just gone through the first cordon when the soldiers caught my cousin Nazim (27) who was helping his mother Bahtije along. They grabbed him, tore off the woman’s dress we had given him to wear, ordered him to lie down on the ground and then to get up. He had to do this many times. They fired into the back of his head and back and I saw his body jerking from the bullets.23

Bahtije Jashari, who also witnessed the killing of Qazim Jashari, told center staff about her son’s death:

My son Nazim took a child of one and a half years to hide him from the police and tried to help me along because I didn’t have my crutch. The police grabbed him by both arms and stopped him from helping me. I begged them to let him go. They ordered my son to lie down and then searched him for guns. Then they ordered him to stand up with his hands in the air. It lasted only a few seconds. I clutched my head and started screaming. All of a sudden, the police ordered Nazim to lie down again and emptied a whole magazine into his back. They didn’t let me turn him face up. A policeman told me to get away from there but I didn’t. I looked at my son for the last time and said good-bye to him.24

The Humanitarian Law Center interviewed three people who witnessed Qazim and Nazim’s executions. A forensic pathologist who examined a photograph of Nazim Jashari’s body for Amnesty International found injuries “broadly consistent with the accounts of him having been extrajudicially executed.”25

Amnesty International also interviewed most of the family groups that hid in Beqir Jashari’s house and found their testimonies largely corroborated details of the attack and the extrajudicial execution of three of the six men who were with them, as well as the wounding of a fourth.

Summary Burial

On March 8, 1998, the police contacted the local Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms in Srbica and told them to take the bodies of those killed in Donji Prekaz. The council asked for the list of people killed and the appropriate documentation but were provided nothing. According to the Council, the police had transferred forty-six of the corpses to the Priština hospital morgue on March 7, and then brought them back to Srbica the next day, where they were eventually placed in a warehouse without walls on the outskirts of town.26 Among the fifty-eight bodies were those of eight children aged seven to sixteen, and thirteen women, as well as a number of elderly. Ten corpses remained unidentifiable.27

Photographs taken at this time of the corpses reveal serious disfigurement and deep burns, probably from explosions. Shaban Jashari had a large hole in his chest with burn marks and was missing his right hand. There were a number of dead children, including a baby, some of them burned almost beyond recognition. Adem Jashari had a bullet wound in his neck.

On March 9, the police warned publicly that they would bury the victims themselves if they were not buried by family members quickly. Family members waited in the hope that autopsies would be conducted so, on March 10, the police dug a large grave with a bulldozer near Donji Prekaz and buried fifty-six people, ten of them still unidentified.

That same day, relatives of the deceased, a group of Albanian doctors from Priština, religious leaders from the Islamic community and the Catholic church, and international aid agencies like the ICRC were denied access to Drenica by the police. ICRC also tried to act as an intermediary between the police and the families but was turned down by the authorities.28 Police spokesman Ljubinko Cvetic, in a press conference in Priština, told reporters that humanitarian aid agencies had been turned back because they had been caught with weapons in the past. The head of the Secretary of Information in Kosovo, Bosko Drobnjak, later told Human Rights Watch the same story.29

The next day, March 11, the bodies were disinterred by relatives and reburied in accordance with Islamic tradition, with the heads pointed towards Mecca. None of the bodies showed signs that autopsies had been performed, even though Yugoslav law stipulates that autopsies should be conducted when there is reason to believe that the death was connected to a criminal act.30

On March 13, the United States-based human rights group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which conducted autopsies in Bosnia, requested twelve visas from the Yugoslav authorities for an international team of forensics experts it had assembled to investigate the deaths in Donji Prekaz, Likošane and Cirez. In addition, the prosecutor for the ICTY requested visas for PHR and asked that its staff accompany the team to Kosovo.31 In mid-April, the Yugoslav government responded to PHR,via the U.S. State Department, that three U.S. citizens could travel to the region as long as they were accompanied by “experts” designated by the Yugoslav government, an offer that PHR did not accept.32

The Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms later compiled a list of those who were identified as having died in Donji Prekaz from March 5-7, as well as some Albanians killed in unclear circumstances in the nearby village of Lausha. They are:

From Donji Prekaz
Shaban Murat Jashari (74)
Zahide Jashari (72)
Hamëz Shaban Jashari (47)
Adem Shaban Jashari (42)
Zarife Bahtir Jashari (49)
Feride Jashari (43)
Adile Bahtir Jashari (40)
Hidajete Rifat Jashari (18)
Igballe Rifat Jashari (13)
Igballe Rifat Jashari (11)
Valdete Rifat Jashari (14)
Selvete Hamëz Jashari (20)
Besim Hamëz Jashari (16)
Afete Hamëz Jashari (17)
Blerim Hamëz Jashari (12)
Fatime Hamëz Jashari (8)
Blerina Hamëz Jashari (7)
Lirije Hamëz Jashari (14)
Fitim Adem Jashari (17)
Kushtrim Adem Jashari (13)
Elheme Jashari (57)
Blerim Zenë Jashari (16)
Bujar Zenë Jashari (12)
Abdullah Zenë Jashari
Hajzer Zymer Jashari (20)
Halit Imer Jashari (65)
Qazim Osman Jashari (47)
Nazmi Zukë Jashari (26)
Sinan Ramadan Jashari (66)
Ali Ramadan Jashari (68)
Feride Ramadan Jashari (43)
Beqir Bajram Jashari (43)
Halil Bajram Jashari (35)
Sherif Brahim Jashari (47)
Bahtije Muharrem Jashari (45)
Murtez Zymber Jashari (22)
Faik Tahir Jashari (30)
Qerim Husë Jashari (54)
Salë Hajzer Jashari (60)
Kajtaz Jashari (44)
Hamit H. Jashari (65)
Isak Halili (35)

From Lauša
Osman Shaban Geci
Sadik Miran Kaçkini (38)
Miftar Rreci (43)
Fatime Gashi (46)
Gazmend Bajram Gashi (16)
Makfirete Bajram Gashi (13)

Attack on Novi Poklek

On May 31, an estimated 300 special police forces attacked Novi Poklek, a relatively wealthy village next to the small city of Glogovac. Ten men were seized by the police during the attack; one of them was found dead later that day and the other nine are still missing and are presumed dead. An eyewitness claims he saw five of these men being shot by the police, although this could not be confirmed.

How the attack began remains unclear. According to ethnic Albanians from Novi Poklek who spoke with Human Rights Watch, a car with two policemen had an accident near the village. Two villagers, Ajet Gashi and Shefqit Bytyci, went to give the plainclothes policemen some help. One of them reportedly heard the policeman in the car radio for help, saying that they had come under attack. While Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm this story, and it thus remains unclear why the police attacked Novi Poklek, there is no question of the abuses that followed.

According to three separate eyewitnesses, the police attack lasted from 12:15 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and involved an estimated twenty-two vehicles, both APCs and jeeps, from a base at the nearby ferrous-nickel plant. The witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police went from house to house and gathered the men and women of the village. About sixty women and children and ten men were then forced into the house of Sahit Qorri. The women and children were later released and told to run for the neighboring village of Vasiljevo. One of the ten men, seventeen-year-old Ardian Deliu, was found dead that evening after the police had left, while the other nine men are still missing.

One man from Novi Poklek claimed to have witnessed most of the attack from behind a stone wall about 200 meters from the center of the village. He testified that he saw the police shoot five people from behind, but Human Rights Watch was not able to corroborate the story. He said:

The village was surrounded by about three hundred policemen with artillery. I saw it with my own eyes, about twenty-two vehicles were in the village. Four to five policemen entered each house and I saw the police forcing people out of their homes. They gathered them together in front of one house [Sahit Qorri’s] at the entrance of the village and made them go into the house. Ten men and I don't know how many women and children, probably between sixty or seventy.

They burned one house in the center of the village. I don't know whose house because I only saw the flames. After one hour they led the women and children out of the village and forced them to Vasiljevo. Then they burned two or three more houses. And then the shooting began from all directions. It was about 4:00 or 4:30 p.m..

Then two men, Ahmet Berisha and Hajjriz Hajdini, were taken out of the house. They told them to walk in the other direction from the women and children. While they were walking, it was sixty or seventy meters away, they started shooting. I just saw them falling, and I could see their backs, and they didn't get up. Ten minutes later another neighbor [Sefer Qorri] was told to leave the house and he was also told to walk in the same direction, and at about the same point they shot him too.

After that many other houses were burned. Smoke was rising and it kept me from seeing but I saw two more silhouettes walking and falling but I could not see who it was.33

According to this witness, twenty-eight houses were burned and many were looted. This number was confirmed by Zahrije Podrimcaku, an activist from Glogovac for the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, who witnessed the attack from her balcony about 500 meters away. According to her, twenty-nine houses were burned and she saw the police taking away television sets and video recorders.34

A woman from Novi Poklek, who was among the women and children taken into Sefer Qorri’s house, largely corroborated the other witness’ story. According to her, the police, who were familiar with Albanian customs, went from house to house ordering the men of the households to hand over their guns. She said:

One [policeman] approached us and said that the head of the household should come out. He said give me your gun. My husband said that he had no gun and that he only works for his family. He said just give it. “You have a good house, you are wealthy so it is not possible that you don’t have a gun.” He had green eyes and a thin gold chain. He was not tall and was dirty blond. He wore black gloves and was in a policeman’s uniform. They told my husband to go on and take the weapon and they made the children and women go outside and lie down.

According to this woman, her husband emerged from the house with some policemen holding a cloth on his bleeding head. One policemen allegedly said, “How could you not have guns if you have this?” — waving an Albanian state flag. Another policemen then came and held a gun to her husband’s mouth ordering him to lie down. Then they told all of them to walk to the house of Safit Qorri. She said:

All of us were told to go in the house and we were led to a room. When we entered there was a guy watching us and he spoke Serbian and Albanian. There were ten men and fifty or sixty women. They asked the men where their sons were. One old man didn’t understand Serbian and they hit him. One policeman pulled out his knife and threatened him saying, “I’ll show you now.” My husband said to the police “In God’s name, don’t do it.” The policeman stopped and said I’ll leave you alone, but you’ll see what happens when Lutka35 comes.

Another guy then came with a green uniform. He had black gloves and a black vest with thinning, short blond hair. He told the other policemen to separate the men and the women. He asked my husband where he is from. The men were in the other room but I heard him say he is from Vasiljevo, so he decided to send us [the women and children] in that direction. We went outside and they ordered us to walk and not to stop. When we started to walk we heard shooting. We were running and bullets were flying all around, even at us, so we kept going. The men were still in the house.36

Zahrije Podrimcaku was in Novi Poklek on June 1 and saw the body of Ardian Deliu with a bullet wound in his left cheek and one in the left side of his neck. She told Human Rights Watch that she saw nine spots of blood, and shoes, a belt, and coat buttons near the blood marks.37 Human Rights Watch spoke with two foreign journalists who were in Novi Poklek that week. Carsten Ingemann, a Danish photographer, said:

I saw several blood stains on the ground. They looked similar. In some of the places you could see that there was shooting there because there were holes in the ground. I saw three or four blood splotches. One was fromthe same person. You could see the blood spot and then a trail of blood, like the body had been dragged, and then another blood spot with a bullet hole in the ground.38

An American journalist, Philip Smucker, was also in Novi Poklek that week. He told Human Rights Watch that he saw blood in eight places in the area where villagers said the men had been shot, as well as bullet casings next to the blood stains.39

What remains unclear in the Novi Poklek attack is whether the police faced any resistance from the Albanians prior to the concentration of villagers in Safit Qorri’s house. One villager claimed that she saw a dead policeman and heard the police speaking on a walkie-talkie that one policeman had been killed. But she, like all the other villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, strenuously asserted that “there was no resistance.”

All evidence points to at least one summary execution after police gathered Poklek’s villagers together, that of Ardian Deliu, and the detention and possible execution of nine others. As of September 1998, the police had not offered any information about the nine men last seen being taken away by the police, despite requests from the families and their lawyers.40 The nine missing are: Ahmet Berisha (40), Hajriz Hajdini (48), Muhamet Hajdini (45), Sahit Qorri (60), Sefer Qorri, (55), Ferat Hoti (39), Rama Asllani (60), Fidel Berisha (17), and Blerim Shishani (15).

Villagers told Human Rights Watch that one man from the army in a military camouflage uniform was leading the action, while the others were in police uniforms. One villager said that the leader was about 165 cm. tall, well-built, and had short, blond hair and a reddish face. The name of Lutka, the vice-commander of the Glogovac police station, was also mentioned a number of times as someone who was present. Some villagers also claim that they saw Pero Damjarac, the police chief in Glogovac, entering the village in a white Volkswagen during the action.

Zahrije Podrimcaku, an activist for the Council for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms who investigated the incident, was arrested by the police in Priština on June 9, 1998, about one hour after she told Human Rights Watch about her findings in Novi Poklek. On June 13 she was charged with “terrorist acts,” according to Articles 125 and 136 of the Yugoslav Penal Code, and is currently in the Lipljan prison.

2 “Interior Ministry Spokesman Gives Press Conference,” Tanjug, March 7, 1998.

3 “Interior Ministry Spokesman Gives Press Conference,” Tanjug March 7, 1998.

4 Reuters, March 2, 1998.

5 Guy Dinmore, “Serbian Forces Accused of Slaughter,” Financial Times, March 3, 1998.

6 Tom Walker, “Massacre by the ‘Ethnic Cleansers’,” Times (London), March 4, 1998.

7 Human Rights Watch interview with Xhevdet Ahmeti, Likošane, May 24, 1998.

8 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Chris Hedges, June 16, 1998. See Chris Hedges, “Albanians Bury 24 Villagers Slain by the Serbs,” New York Times, March 3, 1998.

9 Humanitarian Law Center, Spotlight Report No. 26, “Kosovo: Human Rights in Times of Armed Conflict,” May 1998. See also Philip Smucker, “Evidence Grows that Serb Police Units Carried Out Summary Executions,” The Daily Telegraph, March 4, 1998.

10 “Viktima e Likoshanit ishte debuar nga Gjermania gjate dhjetori te vjetme,” Koha Ditore, May 1998.

11 See, for example, Guy Dinmore, “Serbian Forces Accused of Slaughter,” Financial Times, March 3, 1998.

12 In a press conference on March 7, Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman Colonel Ljubinko Cvetic told journalists that helicopters were only used for humanitarian purposes, such as for evacuating the injured.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with Sefer Nebihu, Cirez, May 24, 1998.

14 Human Rights Watch interview with Abida Sejdiu, Cirez, May 24, 1998.

15 Human Rights Watch interview with Liman Ademi, Cirez, May 24, 1998.

16 This conclusion is founded on Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and human rights researchers, reports by other human rights organizations, notably Amnesty International and the Humanitarian Law Center, as well as newspaper reports and the analysis of photographs. See Amnesty International, “A Human Rights Crisis in Kosovo Province, Document Series A: Violence in Drenica, February-April 1998,” London, June 1998, and Humanitarian Law Center, Spotlight Report No.26.

17 See press release, “Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Condemns Political Trial in Kosovo,” July 15, 1997. The three defendants that were present for the trial, Besim Rama, Idriz Asllani, and Avni Nura, all stated that they had “confessed” after being tortured. All of the defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging between four and twenty years.

18 Humanitarian Law Center, Spotlight Report No. 26, Kosovo.

19 “Enforced Disappearances in Kosovo January-May 1998,” Humanitarian Law Center.

20 Amnesty International, “A Human Rights Crisis in Kosovo Province, Document Series A: Violence in Drenica, February-April 1998,” London, June 1998.

21 According to Amnesty International, fifty-six bodies were buried on March 11, forty-one of which were identified. Of these, twelve were women, eleven were children under sixteen, and at least two people came from Lausa. According to the Humanitarian Law Center, at least fifty-five people were buried, thirty-seven identified and eighteen unidentified. Among these were seven women, eleven children and five people from Lausa. The Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore wrote on March 9 that, in Donji Prekaz alone, forty-six people died, including eleven children, eleven women and five elderly (above seventy years old). The account of the local Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms is the most detailed, and is cited further below.

22 Marie Colvin, “Kosovo’s Silent Houses of the Dead,” Sunday Times, March 15, 1998.

23 Humanitarian Law Center, Spotlight Report No. 26, Kosovo.

24 Ibid.

25 Amnesty International, “A Human Rights Crisis in Kosovo Province, Document Series A: Violence in Drenica, February-April 1998.”

26 Council for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, “Appeal on the Latest Events in Skenderaj,” Priština, March 9, 1998.

27 Council for Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, “Quarterly Report January-March, 1998,” Priština, April 17, 1998.

28 Associated Press, March 10, 1998.

29 Human Rights Watch interview with Bosko Drobnjak, Priština, June 11, 1998.

30 Yugoslav Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 252.

31 According to the Dayton Accords, signed by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav government is obliged to cooperate fully with ICTY and to comply with requests for investigations into alleged war crimes.

32 Physicians for Human Rights press release, April 28, 1998.

33 Human Rights Watch interview, Vasiljevo, June 7, 1998.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Zahrije Podrimcaku, Priština, June 9, 1998

35 “Lutka” means “doll” in Serbian.

36 Human Rights Watch interview, Vasiljevo, June 7, 1998.

37 Human Rights Watch interview with Zahrije Podrimcaku, Priština, June 9, 1998.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with Carsten Ingemann, Priština, June 7, 1998.

39 Human Rights Watch interview with Philip Smucker, Priština, June 7, 1998. See also Philip Smucker, “Villagers Tell of Ouster, Mass Executions,” The Washington Times, June 5, 1998, and Tim Butcher, “Hidden Massacre is Uncovered in Kosovo Village,” Sunday Telegraph, June 28, 1998.

40 Letter submitted to the district court in Priština by the lawyers Fazli Balaj, Bajram Kelmendi, Destan Rukiqi, Lirije Osmani, and Nekibe Kelmendi, June 11, 1998.

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