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After a period of intense shuttle diplomacy by American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, on May 15, 1998, Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloševic met the president of the shadow Kosovar Albanian state Ibrahim Rugova for the first time in almost ten years. The talks were heralded by Western governments as “a positive first step” that could lead to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. On May 25, the E.U. member states rewarded Miloševic by deciding not to go forward with an earlier decision to impose a ban on investment in Serbia. (See section Response of the International Community.)

That week, the Serbian police together with forces of the Yugoslav Army began the largest offensive to date against a series of villages on Kosovo’s border with Albania. The offensive was apparently intended to create a cordon sanitaire along the border in order to cut off the supply routes of the KLA. Up until that point, small arms and new recruits had been arriving in large numbers from northern Albania, a region that is largely out of the control of the Albanian government.

While KLA troops were definitely in the area, and at times were attacking the police and army, many villages from Pec in the north to Dakovica in the south were shelled while civilians were still present. Noncombatants who fled the attacks weresometimes fired on by snipers, and a still undetermined number of people were taken into detention. Afterwards, most villages in the region were systematically destroyed, and farmers’ livestock was shot, to ensure that no one could return in the short run. Human Rights Watch conducted an investigation in the area in September and saw clear indications that houses had been set on fire where there was no evidence that combat had occurred.

The offensive was clearly intended to depopulate the region. Approximately 15,000 people fled over the mountains into Albania, sometimes under fire from the police and army, and an estimated 30,000 escaped northwards into Montenegro. An unknown number went east towards the then-KLA held territory in Drenica.

Human Rights Watch spent four days interviewing refugees in northern Albania and Tirana, Albania’s capital, in late June, and two weeks interviewing refugees in Montenegro in September. A clear pattern emerged of detentions, beatings, indiscriminate shelling, excessive force, and the systematic destruction of villages. One refugee claimed to have witnessed the rape of six people, two of them thirteen-year-old girls. On three occasions, refugees said, helicopters marked with the red cross fired on refugees heading for the border.41

Based on interviews with refugees in Albania, Human Rights Watch heard of shelling in the following villages and towns: Decan, Junik, Bakaj, Bokez, Carabrec, Prelep, Ljocan, Vokš, Drenovac, Slup, Dobroš, Rastevica, Ljbuša, Nivokaz, Ponoševac, Poberz, Smolic, Jasic, Isnic, Strelc, Polac, Polluz, Obri, and Likovac.

Use of Indiscriminate Force and Attacks on Civilians

Refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Albania and Montenegro told strikingly similar stories about the shelling of their villages. Most often the attacks began in the early morning, around 5:00 a.m., without warning. The villagers would flee into the woods or the mountains until the shelling subsided. Many civilians were reportedly killed during the shelling and as they attempted to flee their villages.

Civilians, predominantly women, children, and elderly people, would travel from village to village, sometimes under the escort of armed male family members or the KLA. When there was no place left to go, they crossed the mountains into Albania. Along the way, the police or army sometimes fired in their direction, and occasionally at them directly.

Shkurta Bacaj from Drenovac said she left her village on May 25 and went to her uncle’s home in Junik because they were shelling:

At 7 a.m. they began [shelling] and it went on all day. In the evening we left the village. When they shelled, every person in the village went to a village where they had family. We had no other solution but to go to the mountain. The place where they shell from is Hulaj village, where the police are based. They shell from there and we had to be careful because the police were shooting at us too. We were lots of children, old women and men.42

She and her family stayed four days in Junik, until the shelling began there too on May 30.

According to Ms. Bacaj, everybody in Junik left the village, in total some 7,000 Junik inhabitants and 5,000 people who had come to Junik from nearby villages. Ms. Bacaj went to Dubrosh. Along the way, snipers injured her grandmother, Time Gazheraj, and six others, including Hate Shalaj, who later died, Caush Cestaj, Osman Gazheraj, and Shkelzen Kukaj. Then Ms. Bacaj herself was injured. She told Human Rights Watch:

While I was walking they saw us and they shot at us in order to kill. The police shot at us and hit me in the leg. We lay down on the ground, then they kept on shooting. The bullet entered my left leg and right arm. Wewere a group of eight [her father, two sisters, a niece, younger brother and two uncles]. Only I was hit. We stayed there [in a ditch at a place called Shkoze] for fifteen hours not daring to move because they were shooting. From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. we didn’t dare to move. We returned to Junik when it got dark. Then they took me by car to Dobrosh, where I stayed for ten days.

Ms. Bacaj walked twelve hours through the mountains into Albania on June 9 without incident. Human Rights Watch visited her in the Bajram Curri hospital and saw two bullet scars. One bullet apparently entered her lower left shin and exited above the knee; the other bullet grazed the right shoulder.

Other refugees said that they were shot at as they tried to cross the border. Human Rights Watch interviewed the Selmanaj family just as they arrived in Bajram Curri directly from the mountains. Two women and one man escorted ten children, ranging in age from a baby to twelve years old. The children and the adults looked worn and dazed, having just walked for two days and two nights through the mountains. One of the women said:

We left my village [Rastavica] three months ago when there was the attack on Glodjane. We have been moving for three months. Two nights ago we left and we have been traveling for two days and two nights. In the night they tried to shoot us. They were shelling us in the forest. They put lights on us and fired. They were shooting at us with helicopters near the border.43

One woman from the village of Slup said:

We left Jasic at 6 a.m. for the border. We were lucky that no one shot at us. While we were coming, an airplane came and was shooting. An airplane was following us and bombing. We were 300 people all spread out. They shot with automatic guns and bombs. They shot for two hours near the border. We hid in some caves. I don’t know if there were injured people because we all hid in the caves.44

On June 21, Human Rights Watch interviewed Dr. Imra Vishi, a doctor from Kosovo who was working in the Bajram Curri hospital. He said that, since the refugees began arriving in early June, the hospital had treated twenty-two refugees in the department of surgery with gunshot wounds, shrapnel, or other similar injuries. Eight people with gunshot wounds were in the hospital at that moment, one of them, a twenty-three-year-old man, with multiple wounds believed to have been from a single projectile in Smolic on June 8.45 According to Dr. Vishi, most of the twenty-two injuries since June 1 were incurred during the shelling of villages, but some people, he said, were injured in battle. Two people were injured by grenades while trying to cross the border. Human Rights Watch interviewed one seventy-year-old woman in the hospital, Time Maserekaj from Voks, who had bullet wound scars on her right forearm and left wrist from what she claimed was sniper fire.46

Some of the wounded interviewed were most likely injured while fighting with the police and army; as combatants, they do not have protected status under international humanitarian law unless hors de combat. However, noncombatants too were systematically attacked in their villages during indiscriminate shelling or deliberately targeted as they were fleeing. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions clearly states that, in internal armed conflicts, civilians and others who have ceased to be combatants are protected persons who must be treated humanely, with specific prohibitions on murder, torture, or cruel, humiliating or degrading treatment. In addition, there is clear evidence that livestock was killed and villages were destroyed beyond any possible military need, which is also a violation of the rules of war (see section Legal Standards and the Kosovo Conflict).

Finally, refugees reported three incidents where helicopters marked with the Red Cross emblem fired on civilians. Two cases were reported by journalist Roy Gutman in an article published on June 22, 1998, in Newsday. Mr. Gutman told Human Rights Watch that he had spoken with four individuals who described observing a Red Cross helicopter firing on people near Rrasa e Zogut (in Albanian) on June 13 and 14. He also spoke with one witness who said he saw the same thing at Baba I Bokes (in Albanian) on June 11.47

Human Rights Watch interviewed one witness who claimed to have seen a Red Cross helicopter engaged in military activity: this, however, was a KLA soldier who said that the helicopter fired on civilians in Smolic on approximately June 2, 1998.48

Summary Executions in Ljubenic

There is still no clear picture of what happened in Ljubenic on May 25, 1998. But interviews with six witnesses conducted by six different organizations suggest that at least eight, ethnic Albanians were executed there by the Serbian special police.

The first account of the executions was made by the Kosova Information Center (KIC), a news service close to Ibrahim Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo. In its May 26 bulletin, KIC reported that police killed the following nine people in Ljubenic: Zeqe Hamzaj (68), Brahim Hamzaj (64), Dervish Hamzaj (51), Ymer Hamzaj (53), Gani Hamzaj (25), Rifat Hamzaj (24), Bashkim Hamzaj (23), Hysen Alimehaj (40), and Haxhi Goga (24). One eye witness, Mehmet Gogaj, reportedly told KIC:

Around 1:15 p.m., the Serb army started shelling Albanian homes. A bit later, many policemen in buses and armored personnel carriers surrounded the Ljubenic village. The Serb forces raided houses of local Albanians, killing and massacring people. Men were forced out in the yards and executed in front of their family members. The Serbs also took my three sons and my nephew. They were forced to stand against the outside wall of the house. Then, the Serbs walked several meters back and started firing rallies from automatic rifle on them. The four boys fell to the ground. There was nothing I could do.49

Two human rights organizations, the Humanitarian Law Center and Amnesty International, subsequently interviewed witnesses who had slightly different stories, but were able to confirm some executions. According to the Amnesty International report on the incident, a civilian car possibly carrying reserve policemen was fired upon on the road between Decan and Pec near Ljubenic, on the morning of May 25. Ostensibly in retaliation, police with armored cars attacked Ljubenic from a distance with artillery for thirty minutes and then entered the village around 1:30 p.m. A group of police reportedly entered one house where fourteen people were sheltered and separated the men from the women and children. The women and children were told to run away, while the men were beaten. The men were then also ordered to run away and, as they were running, they were shot in the back. Ymer Hamzaj, Brahim Hamzaj, and Bashkim Hamzaj were killed; one man was injured but survived.

According to Amnesty International, a group of policemen also entered the house of Zeqe Hamzaj, who was taken away with his sons, Gani and Rifat. The three, together with a guest, Haxhi Goga (24), were reportedly told to strip to their underwear, beaten and then killed.50

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia interviewed one witness from Ljubenic, identified as N.N., who arrived in Plav, Montenegro, on June 3, 1998, with six other men. He told the Helsinki Committee that he saw the police kill nine of his neighbors, aged twenty-three to sixty-five, in front of their house, although no names were provided.51

Finally, the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms interviewed Ardeshir Gogaj, who was wounded by the police in Ljubenic. He told the council:

At about 12:30 p.m., after several shots, we saw the Serbian army and police from Peja [Pec] heading for Deçan [Decan]. They entered the village of Ljubenic and beat women, children, elderly, and adults. Then they went into the house of Shaban Husku, where ten citizens from Deçan had hidden. They took women and children and lined them up to execute them. We could see what the Serbian army was doing to them. They came and took us out into the yard. They lined us up to execute us and opened fire towards us. My brother Haxhi Mehmet Goga was killed, whereas I was wounded. Later on, I went towards the place called “Zagerlla”, where I saw many killed, about twenty-nine. On the way to the mosque, I saw many killed and wounded near the house of Rame Huskaj. I saw that Zeqe Misini and his two sons were killed. As I was wounded, I could not go further, so I went back home where my brother’s corpse was. Then I passed out and I have no idea what happened later on. Once again, I point out that I have seen tens of killed and wounded who remained in the fields, as well as tens of houses that were ruined and burned. Our village has become ruins.52

In northern Albania, Human Rights Watch interviewed a refugee, T.H., from the village of Slup who had been in Ljubenic for four days prior to the morning of the attack, and gave a slightly different account of the attack. She said that police dressed in blue uniforms arrived in Ljubenic around 4:00 a.m. wearing masks. She told Human Rights Watch that she watched from a house about twenty meters away where she was staying with her three children:

Four policemen came around 4:00 a.m. They wore masks. We were in the basement of M.D.’s house.... I saw from the window. The police took nineteen people from a house. It was three men, four woman and twelve children. They took an old man with twin daughters, thirteen years old. They pushed the old man against the wall of the garden. They took off the girls’ clothes and four policemen raped the two daughters. . . It was all between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m..53

T.H. claimed to have seen the police shoot those in the yard, but Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm her account. However, taken together with the testimonies collected by the other human rights groups, the evidence is overwhelming that at least nine summary executions took place. Human Rights Watch also saw a photograph, allegedly of the Hamzaj family, which showed the bodies of four older men, ranging in age from forty to sixty, all of them in their underwear on the ground with bullet wounds to their bodies.

The Use of Landmines

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has not signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and On their Destruction, known as the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. At a regional conference on the treaty held in March 1998, the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense defended the decision by arguing that, “through no fault of her own,” Yugoslavia had been, “excluded from the work of a number of international organizations, and been subjected to additional political, economic, and psychological pressure.”54

The FRY representative to the seminar told the delegates that Yugoslavia was maintaining its stock of landmines only for the purposes of training. He said:

By maintaining her stock of anti-personnel mines for a certain period, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia does not threaten anybody, she does not use the mines, does not develop them, neither does she distribute, nor export them to other countries but rather uses them for educational purposes in a very restricted way, primarily in teaching de-mining techniques.55

Despite this, the United Nations, through information from the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM), has confirmed that either the Serbian police or the Yugoslav Army has placed anti-personnel and anti-tank mines on Yugoslavia’s borders with Albania in the west and Macedonia in the south, as well as in some places in central Kosovo.

An August 25, 1998, security alert issued by UNICEF said:

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cannot confirm various reports about mines in Kosovo, it is confirmed that mines have been laid along the Albanian and Macedonian border with Kosovo and in the areas of Lapusnik, Iglrevo, Rakovina and the road between Rakovina and Klina. Landmines are confirmed in the areas of:

· Junik and surroundings, particularly a dirt road which goes to the north from the village of Junik
· Yugoslav-Albanian border
· South of Grevnik (south of Dolac checkpoint in Klina municipality)
· Southwest of Komerane.56

Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who claimed to have seen mines inside Kosovo but did not find anyone who claimed to have been injured by a mine, or to have witnessed a mine-related injury. One of them, a KLA fighter who identified himself as Gazmend, said that in early June he saw eight mines about ten meters from the border with Albania at a placecalled Qafe e Morines.57 As of June 21, 1998, however, no mine-related injuries had been reported in the hospital in Bajram Curri, the Albanian town closest to Qafe e Morines or to the international humanitarian agencies, like ICRC and UNHCR, working in northern Albania.

According to the Anti-mining Friends Committee/Shoqata Anti-Mina, the Albanian branch of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, approximately twenty refugees, including some KLA fighters, arrived in a hospital in Tirana, Albania, with wounds from landmines around July 18, 1998. Most had fled Kosovo after the police overran the border town of Junik, which had been a stronghold of the KLA. Those still in the hospital on August 1 told a member of the Anti-mining Friends Committee that they knew of eleven deaths from landmines in the villages of Ponashec, Mulliq and Rrasa e Zogut, but Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm these cases.58

On August 20, 1998, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin accused Serbian forces of laying land mines around the town of Junik: “Reports indicate that the Serbs have mined paths around the village and refugees from the Junik area are entering Albania and have been treated for injuries consistent with anti-personnel land mines.”59

According to the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP), the U.N. mission based in Macedonia, and the Macedonian Ministry of Defense, landmines have also been placed along the Yugoslav border with Macedonia, ostensibly to hinder the flow of arms coming into Kosovo from Albania through Macedonia. On August 5, an UNPREDEP spokesman said that the U.N. had spotted mines along the border and the Macedonian Ministry of Defense announced that mines had been placed near the Jazince and Blace border crossings.60 The Macedonian media speculated whether the mines had been placed inside Macedonian territory, since the Macedonian and Yugoslav governments have not yet agreed on the exact location of their common border, which was an unmarked internal boundary until Macedonia’s independence in 1991.

On August 5, the Anti-mining Friends Committee in Albania cited witnesses who had seen mines near five villages along the Yugoslav-Macedonia border: Gorance, Krivenik, Secishte, Dimce, and Dermja. According to the organization, signs marking landmine fields had been placed in these areas, and the Yugoslav Army had asked the local religious organizations to inform the local population of the mine fields.61

On September 14, an armored car carrying the KDOM team from Canada and an Albanian translator hit an anti-tank mine on a road just south of Likovac in Drenica. The car flipped over but nobody was seriously hurt.

41 See also a report by Physicians for Human Rights based on a mission to northern Albania in June. The report documents “serious human rights violations, including detentions, arbitrary arrests, violent beatings and rape, throughout Kosovo during the past six months.” Physicians for Human Rights, “Medical Group Recounts Individual Testimony of Human Rights Abuses in Kosovo,” June 24, 1998.

42 Human Rights Watch interview with Shkurta Bacaj, Bajram Curri, Albania, June 16, 1998.

43 Human Rights Watch interview with members of the Selmanaj family, Bajram Curri, Albania, June 19, 1998.

44 Human Rights Watch interview with man from Slup, Bajram Curri, Albania, June 21, 1998.

45 Dr. Vishi said that the patient had eight shrapnel-like wounds but claimed he had been struck by only one bullet.

46 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Imra Vishi, Bajram Curri, Albania, June 21, 1998.

47 Human Rights Watch interview with Roy Gutman, Bajram Curri, Albania, June 21, 1998.

48 Human Rights Watch interview with KLA soldier, Tirana, Albania, June 23, 1998.

49 KIC, May 26, 1998.

50 Amnesty International, “A Human Rights Crisis in Kosovo Province, Document Series A: Events to June 1998, #5: Ljubenic and Poklek: A Pattern Repeated,” July 1998.

51 Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, “Report on Refugees from Kosovo Situated in Montenegro,” Belgrade, June 18, 1998.

52 Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, “Human Rights Violations in the Course of June-July 1998.”

53 Human Rights Watch interview with woman from Slop, Markaj, Albania, June 19, 1998.

54 Basic Points of the Statement by the Representative of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the International Seminar on Anti-Personnel Mines, Budapest, March 26-28, 1998. The Yugoslav government’s justifications for not signing the landmines treaty are worth noting. At the regional seminar, the Yugoslav delegate said:

(I) Through no fault of her own, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been, for a longer period in a very specific international situation, excluded from the work of a number of international organizations, and been subjected to additional political, economic, and psychological pressure, (II) It is evident that due to the above the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has failed to participate in the process from the outset, therefore she has been unable to participate in the negotiations on the elaboration of the Convention’s text on equal footing with other states, (III) During last year’s second semester, over a period of accelerated work to prepare the Convention for signing, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was engaged with other priorities, in particular, in striving to contribute to the strengthening of the region’s stability, coming to terms with the Dayton Agreement, then to successfully implement her obligations under the Agreement on the sub-regional control of armaments, to integrate herself in the institutions of the international community, and last by not least, to solve the humanitarian and social problems of refugees and to ameliorate the consequences of the war in her neighborhood, (IV) The experience we have gained in the course of implementing the obligations under the Agreement on the sub-regional control of armaments shows that - despite certain difficulties and being without any outside assistance - the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia can bear the costs related to the destruction of mines, and she can honor other financial obligations deriving from the Convention, too, (V) By maintaining her stock of anti-personnel mines for a certain period the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia does not threaten anybody, she does not use the mines, does not develop them, neither does she distribute, no export them to other countries but rather uses them for educational purposes in a very restricted way, primarily in teaching de-mining techniques.

55 Ibid.

56 UNICEF, Security Alert: Landmine Information on Kosovo, August 25, 1998.

57 Human Rights Watch interview with KLA soldier, Tirana, June 23, 1998.

58 Correspondence with Dhimiter Haxhimihali, August 1, 1998.

59 U.S. State Department press briefing, Washington D.C., August 22, 1998.

60 “Yugoslavia mines its border with Macedonia,” Associated Press, August 5, 1998, and “Minefields near Jazince and Blace,”Macedonian Information Center, August 5, 1998.

61 Letter from Besnik Alibali, head of the Anti-mining Friends Committee/Shoqata Anti-Mina, August 5, 1998.

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