Human Rights Watch today interviewed the sole survivor of a September 26 summary execution of thirteen men by Serbian police.
The witness gave a coherent and credible account of the summary execution which was corroborated by the evidence found at the execution site and the testimony of another witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch on September 29.
Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern today about the safety of the survivor in light of the Serbian police presence in the region, and called upon the international community to take the necessary steps to relocate this important witness to a safe location. Furthermore, the man has a severe and infected gunshot wound on his upper left leg, as well as gunshot wounds on his left arm, and is in need of immediate medical attention. "The survivor is a credible witness to a summary execution, and the ability to bring the perpetrators of this serious war crime to justice hinges on his safety," said Holly Cartner. "The international community must take immediate steps to insure that he is safe and his testimony is preserved."
During an interview today, he told Human Rights Watch that the inhabitants of his village Golubovac in the Drenica region of Kosovo had fled into the nearby forest on Friday morning after Yugoslav forces began shelling around the neighboring village of Cerovik. The villagers spent the night in the forest.
According to the survivor, Serb police sent several elderly ethnic Albanian villagers who had remained in Golubovac to the forest on Saturday morning to tell the civilians taking shelter there that it was safe for them to return home. When they attempted to return, they were then gathered in a field by a group of about thirty or forty police officers, and the men were separated from the women and children. The police initially chose about twenty-five men from the larger group of men, but then narrowed this group down to fourteen men who, according to the survivor, would later be lined up and shot.
The survivor told Human Rights Watch that the fourteen were beaten with fists and rifles and kicked with boots while being questioned by Serb police about ties to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The process of separating the men and their subsequent interrogation lasted for about two hours. The men were then taken to the road next to the execution site, where they were forced to crouch with their hands behind their backs for an extended period of time.
The survivor told Human Rights Watch that the men were then led into a garden and ordered to lie flat on the ground, face down with their hands behind their backs. They were told that if they identified KLA members in their midst everyone else would be freed. During this time, the survivor reported being beaten on his back with sticks and kicked all over his body. He showed Human Rights Watch deep bruises on his back and buttocks that were consistent with this account. He also described in detail how the men were executed, relating how a single police officer first executed the man lying next to the survivor and then two other men nearby. The police officer then moved up and down the column firing a burst of automatic gunshots at each victim. Several of the men were kicked afterwards and one man was shot again when he displayed signs of life. The witness apparently survived because he was able to feign death when being kicked. The police left the site almost immediately after the execution and the survivor was helped from the scene by local villagers.
The testimony of the survivor was coherent and credible, and matched the testimony of an earlier witness previously interviewed by Human Rights Watch, as well as the evidence inspected at the execution site on Tuesday. Along a fence within a family compound, Human Rights Watch inspected many pools of fresh blood on Tuesday and found over eighty bullet shells at the spot where the witnesses claimed the policeman fired. The site was also visited by diplomatic observers on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch is greatly concerned about the health and safety of the sole survivor, who remains in the Drenica region, which is under heavy Serbian police control. Human Rights Watch calls upon the international community to assist the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in bringing the survivor to a safe location, and demands that the Yugoslav authorities and police and military forces refrain from any actions that would jeopardize the safety of this important witness.
The violations of humanitarian law being committed in Kosovo fall under the jurisdiction of the ICTY. By taking immediate steps to collect and preserve evidence and witnesses' testimony, the Tribunal will not only increase the chances of ultimately bringing the perpetrators to justice, but also of deterring future abuses. However, time is of the essence if the tribunal is to fulfill its enormous deterrence potential. Much more intense and timely attention to ongoing atrocities are required.
In order for the ICTY to meet this challenge, it must have sufficient capacity and equipment on site to conduct an immediate investigation when allegations of atrocities emerge. Further, its investigators, including forensic experts, must have unimpeded access to the sites of recent abuses. To date, the Yugoslav government has denied entry visas to forensic teams, investigators of the ICTY, and other respected and impartial international organizations in a blatant attempt to prevent international and independent scrutiny of the abuses committed by its forces. Human Rights Watch calls upon the international community to assist the ICTY in developing such urgently needed capacities, and on the Yugoslav government to provide immediate access for the ICTY and its independent forensic experts to carry out investigations into allegations of mass graves and other atrocities in the region.