This report documents serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by Serbian and Yugoslav government forces in Kosovos Drenica region during the last week of September 1998. As Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloevic wrapped up a summer-long offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), special forces of the Serbian police (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) committed summary executions, indiscriminately attacked civilians, and systematically destroyed civilian property, all of which are violations of the rules of war and can be prosecuted by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). These atrocities took place in the face of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199, passed on September 23, 1998, which demanded an immediate cessation of all actions by the Yugoslav and Serbian security forces against civilians.
The war crimes documented in this report are neither the first nor the last committed by the government in the Yugoslav conflict. Most recently, on January 15, 1999, government forces killed forty-five ethnic Albanian civilians in the village of Racak, which has sparked the most recent round of diplomatic engagement (see Appendix A). The Kosovo Liberation Army has also committed serious abuses, including the taking of hostages and extrajudicial executions, which have been documented in previous Human Rights Watch reports and will continue to be the subject of investigation. Under no circumstances, however, can the Yugoslav government use abuses by the KLA as justification for committing abuses against ethnic Albanian civilians.
As the recent massacre in Racak show, President Miloevic and his military planners believe they can continue their abusive campaign with impunity. This disturbing pattern of abuse can only be stopped by an unequivocal message from the international community that such blatant disregard for the most basic principles of humanity is unacceptable, and that the perpetrators of these abuses will be brought to justice. Any negotiations about the future status of Kosovo must include provisions to hold political leaders and members of the security forces accountable for human rights and humanitarian law violations during the conflict.
Human Rights Watch researchers were in Kosovo at the time the abuses documented in this report were committed and conducted two additional research missions to Kosovo, in November and December 1998, to document the crimes that took place in Drenica.
The worst incident documented in this report took place in late September 1998 at the Delijaj family compound in Gornje Obrinje, a village where there had been intense fighting between government forces and the KLA that left at least fourteen policemen dead. Special police forces retaliated by killing twenty-one members of the Delijaj family, all of them civilians, on the afternoon of Saturday, September 26. Fourteen people were killed in a nearby forest where they were hiding from government shelling, six of them women between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-two. Five of the victims were children between eighteen months and nine years of age. Of the three men killed in the forest, two were over sixty years old.
Human Rights Watch visited the scene on September 29 while the bodies were being carried out of the forest for burial. All fourteen victims were wearing civilian clothing; most appeared to have been shot in the head at close range, and several of the bodies had been mutilated. In one case, the leg of sixty-two-year-old Hava Delijaj was cut off below the knee save for some skin.
In addition to the fourteen persons killed in the forest, seven other members of the Delijaj family were killed by government forces in and around the family compound. The ninety-four-year-old family patriarch Fazli Delijaj, an invalid, was found burned to death in his burned-out home. Habib and Hysen Delijaj were summarily executed by Serbian police in front of Hysens wife and children. Adem Delijaj was found near the forest hide-out with histhroat cut. Over the next few weeks, the decomposed bodies of two girls, Antigona and Mihane Delijaj, and of Hajriz Delijaj, were found in the general area of the massacre. One man, Sherif Delijaj, remains missing to this day.
After the forest massacre, Serbian special police forces arrived at the nearby Hysenaj family compound in Gornje Obrinje, together with four young Delijaj children whom they had apparently captured in the forest. The children were handed over to an elderly woman, Shehide Hysenaj, who then witnessed the police interrogate and beat a husband and wife before executing them with an axe. After the police left, Shehide found the body of her elderly husband near their home with a gun shot wound to his head. Human Rights Watch saw the bodies of these three persons three days after their deaths, and found the wounds on their bodies consistent with the testimony given by Shehide.
On September 27, the police also rounded up the civilians hiding in the forest near the Hysenaj compound, selected out twenty-two men, and drove them to the nearby village of Likovac, where the government forces were temporarily based. On the way, the men were repeatedly beaten by police. When they reached Likovac, a policeman walked up to the tractor, grabbed sixteen-year-old Driton Hysenaj by the hair, and slit his throat. The remaining twenty-one men were then driven to Glogovac police station, where they joined hundreds of other ethnic Albanian men who had been taken from their hiding places in the forests around Glogovac. The detainees were subjected to three days of physical abuse before being released. Several of the detainees were taken away and remain missing to this day.
On September 26, Serbian police also rounded up a group of several thousand civilians who had fled the shelling in Golubovac, a village just kilometers away from Gornje Obrinje. Fourteen men were ultimately selected out, interrogated, physically abused for several hours, and ultimately executed. The men were first sprayed with bullets from a short distance, then a police officer walked among the men, kicking them and shooting again at anyone who showed signs of life. One of the fourteen men miraculously survived by feigning death, and gave a detailed and damning testimony of the executions to Human Rights Watch, clearly holding the Serbian special police responsible. Several other witnesses corroborated his account of the days events. Another villager, Ramadan Hoxha, was later found shot and burned in the forest outside Golubovac just meters away from where the police had encamped. All of the victims were male civilians.
The most common crime throughout Kosovo, and in Drenica specifically, has been the governments systematic destruction of civilian property, which presents further evidence of a military campaign against civilians in clear violation of the laws of war. Throughout Kosovo, the Yugoslav Army has shelled villages from a distance, and the Serbian police have followed by looting and burning. Water wells in some villages have been rendered useless through intentional contamination, and livestock have been shot. According to a recent UNHCR-sponsored assessment, 28 percent of all homes in the 210 Kosovo villages affected by the conflict have been completely destroyed.
The experience of the village of Plocica in Drenica, visited by Human Rights Watch on September 26 while the offensive was continuing, is typical. The villagers fled after they heard shelling and saw the police approaching, and returned the next day to find most of their village compound burned to the ground. Human Rights Watch did not find a single shell casing or any other evidence of fighting in Plocica, or signs that the KLA had used the village as a base. The evidence was clear: like many other villages, an abandoned Plocica had been systematically looted, trashed, and burned by the police.
Virtually all relevant governments and international organizations responded to the abuses in Drenica with outrage; governments threatened serious action, including possible air strikes by NATO. But, as with every other atrocity thus far in the Kosovo conflict, the international community did not back its words with serious preventative measures to discourage such atrocities from taking place again.
Although witnesses reported seeing forces of the Yugoslav Army, special police forces and special anti-terrorist forces (Specijalna Antiteroristicka Jedinica, or SAJ), both under the Ministry of the Interior, as well as the special forces unit (Jedinica xa Specijalne Operacije, or JSO) commanded by Franko Frenki Simatovic and also under the Ministry of Interior, at the site of the atrocities documented in this report, the precise units of these forces that were responsible for the atrocities have not yet been identified. This information is clearly available to the Yugoslav authorities, who have publicly stated that its forces were in regular contact with their superiors.
Those who perpetrated crimes against ethnic Albanian civilians of Kosovo as well as those who planned them, encouraged them, tolerated or acquiesced to these crimes, must be held accountable for their intentional disregard for the laws of war. But the Yugoslav authorities, themselves deeply implicated and ultimately responsible for the abuses in Kosovo, are preventing the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia from effectively carrying out its investigations. The international community must apply the necessary pressure to ensure that the tribunal can investigate and prosecute the individuals responsible for these atrocities. The issue of accountability must be moved to center stage, in order to send the uncompromising message that brutal abuses against civilians will not be tolerated.