Orahovac (Rrahovec) MunicipalityWith regular KLA activity in the area throughout 1998 and early 1999, Orahovac municipality was tense and violent both before and during the NATO air campaign. Approximately 90 percent of the municipality is ethnic Albanian and there is one predominantly Serbian village: Velika Hoca (Hoce e Madhe).
On July 19, 1998, the KLA tried to capture Orahovac town. The police regained control two days later and began a summer-long offensive that retook the nearby KLA base at Malisevo and much of the territory throughout Kosovo that the KLA had declared "liberated." Serbian and Albanian civilians died in the Orahovac battle, and dozens of people are still missing.1
War crimes such as killings and abductions of civilians on both sides continued throughout 1998 and early 1999, with a primary target of the KLA being Serb civilians in Velika Hoca.2 During the NATO bombing, ethnic Albanians from the municipality recognized Serbian villagers from Velika Hoca among the troops that committed large-scale executions of Albanian civilians in the area.
During the air war, Orahovac town experienced forced expulsions and sporadic killings. The most serious crimes were committed between March 24 and March 26 in the southwestern part of the municipality, between Bela Crkva and Pirana, along the border with Prizren municipality. Because these villages were attacked in a single offensive, they are dealt with as a unit in the chapter on the Prizren-Djakovica Road. The major atrocity in Orahovac municipality away from the road was the killing of more than one hundred men in Pusto Selo, as documented below.
The Serbian police in Orahovac fell under the jurisdiction of the Prizren Secretariat for Internal Affairs, or SUP (which covered Prizren, Orahovac, Suva Reka, and Gora municipalities). Col. Gradimir Zekavica was the commander of Prizren SUP until at least January 1999, with Lt. Milan Djuricic the section head of Prizren SUP's police department.3 According to Policajac Magazine, in January 1999, Col. Milos Vojnovic became the new Prizren SUP commander, while also serving as assistant chief of the police department in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.4 But, according to awards given to MUP officers after the war, Zekavica was the Prizren SUP commander in 1999 (See Forces of the Conflict).
In August 1999, KFOR forces arrested the former mayor of Orahovac, Andjelko Kolasinac, along with more than a dozen other Orahovac Serbs. On June 14, 2001, the Prizren district court found Kolasinac and another Orahovac Serb, Cedomir Jovanovic, guilty of war crimes against the civilian population of Orahovac, and sentenced them to five and twenty years imprisonment respectively. According to the Humanitarian Law Center, which monitored the trial, the defendants were denied a fair trial.
Pusto Selo (Pastasel)
One hundred and six ethnic Albanian men were summarily executed on March 31, 1999, in Pusto Selo, a small village near the town of Orahovac. Human Rights Watch visited the village on June 26, 1999, interviewing three of the massacre's thirteen survivors, as well as another man who helped bury the bodies. The men spoke of a well-coordinated military attack on the village followed by the expulsion of the village women and the killing of its men. Previous clashes between the KLA and government forces, possibly in the nearby village of Drenoc, may have precipitated the slaughter.5
B.K., age fifty-seven, is one of the survivors who described the events in detail. He explained how large numbers of Serbian security forces, including paramilitaries wearing red bandanas, attacked Pusto Selo on March 31 using tanks, artillery, and mortars. "Two tanks were up on the hill; four tanks came into the village, and one tank went down to where the people were," said B.K.6 The villagers of Pusto Selo, joined by residents of other villages from the area-well over 2,000 people in all-took refuge in a nearby field just downhill from Pusto Selo. Around 3:00 p.m. they surrendered by waving white bandages at paramilitaries who had surrounded them.
The Serbian forces separated the men from the women and children, searched the women, and confiscated their money and jewelry. The men were mostly older than fifty-five, as almost all of the younger men had fled into the hills. Around 4:30 p.m., the women were sent away from the village under orders to "Go to Albania!"
After the women left, the Serbian forces ordered the men to empty their pockets, stealing the several thousand German marks that they found. "We begged them to spare our lives," said T.K., age fifty-four, another survivor. "We gave them all of our money so that they wouldn't kill us."7 The Serbs also confiscated the villagers' identity documents. B.K. said that when they took his papers they told him: "You won't need any ID where you're going."
The Serbian forces separated a group of seven or eight younger men for interrogation and severe beatings, demanding to know whether the men belonged to the KLA. The group was then lined up nearby and shot with automatic rifles by seven or eight members of the Serbian security forces, believed by witnesses to be paramilitaries. "The Serbs were in green camouflage police uniforms. They had shiny metal insignias on their caps, the Arkan or Seselj sign; we're not sure," said T.K. Another group of about twenty-five men was then taken to the edge of a nearby gully and killed in the same manner.
"They came back to us and asked if we had seen what happened, telling us, `you're going to go there too,'" B.K. said. In all, four groups, each consisting of between twenty-five and thirty men, were taken to the edge of the gully and executed using automatic weapons.
A Human Rights Watch researcher spoke separately to survivors from the second, third, and fourth groups, who on June 26, 1999, brought the researcher to the field where the villagers had gathered and the nearby gully where the men had been killed. The three men each gave consistent accounts of the day's events. There was no visible blood at the scene but shreds of clothes and some shoes were scattered around in the gully amidst shrubs where the men had been killed. "I fell before they started to shoot," explained B.K., who was in the fourth group of men. He continued: "Two dead men fell on top of me. I didn't move. After a couple of minutes, someone said shoot again and I was hit. I stayed hidden under the bodies for another twenty minutes until I was sure that they were gone; then I escaped down the hill."8 A Human Rights Watch researcher saw the bullet scar on B.K.'s left buttock, as well as the bloody undergarments he was wearing at the time.
Another man with the initials B.K., age sixty-a cousin of the other B.K-also escaped death. "They [the Serbian forces] were from somewhere else and they didn't know the terrain," he explained. "I was too quick for them; I slipped behind some rocks."9 In all, thirteen men survived the massacre, including one of the younger B.K's brothers, although a third brother, M.K., age fifty-five, was killed.
The following day, the Serbian forces removed between twenty and twenty-five bodies from the ravine and burned them in a house in the village, the three survivors said. Village men who later buried the remains of these men stated that they were burnt beyond recognition, with little more than bones remaining.
Serbian forces abandoned the village that same day, leaving the remaining bodies, approximately seventy-five or eighty of them, in the gully. Returning villagers spent two days transporting the bodies up the hill to a site by the village mosque where they were buried. Serbian paramilitaries returned to the village once before the burial was complete, forcing the villagers to flee into the mountains. The burial resumed that same day after the Serbs had left; it was finished on April 3. "We were very afraid; we rushed to bury them," said R.K., a villager who assisted in digging the graves.10
Four days after the burial, another Serb attack on the village forced villagers to flee again, with Serb forces temporarily occupying the village.11 "Every day we watched the village to see if the Serbs would leave," said T.K., who explained that they used binoculars to monitor the Serbs' actions.
On April 11, 1999, NATO released imagery taken by an aerial reconnaissance flight on April 9 that appeared to reveal a large burial site in Pusto Selo. The photograph showed two long parallel lines, each made up of several dozen mounds of dirt; it was paired with what NATO spokesmen said was an earlier photograph, one in which the freshly turned earth does not appear.12 The evidence of mass graves was widely noted in the Western media.13
Roughly two weeks after the photographs were released, Serbian forces returned to Pusto Selo to remove the physical evidence of the crime. T.K. told Human Rights Watch that on approximately April 24 he saw unidentified individuals exhume the bodies, using a small tractor to dig up the burial site. "There were men wearing medical outfits and masks," he said. "They took the bodies away toward Orahovac in two civilian trucks."14 Panorama, a BBC news program whose reporters visited Pusto Selo after NATO's entry into Kosovo, obtained video footage that was said to have been taken by Kosovar Albanian villagers monitoring the exhumation from a hill above the burial site. The footage shows a large truck, with police and workers in protective clothing at work near the mosque. The BBC claimed that its investigations established that some of the exhumed bodies were brought to the village of Zrze, southwest of Orahovac, where they were reburied in the village cemetery.15
Also on April 24, according to Agence France Presse, the Dutch daily newspaper Algemen Dagblad ran a story casting doubt on the veracity of NATO claims of a grave site in Pusto Selo.16 A Dutch map expert quoted in the newspaper claimed that the aerial photographs of Pusto Selo displayed suspicious inconsistencies. Indeed, stories disputing accounts of the killings in Pusto Selo continued to circulate well after survivors' first-hand descriptions of the massacre became known.17 Human Rights Watch's own interviews and inspection of the scene confirmed that the massacre had, in fact, occurred such as initially reported, and that the government had acted first to bury and then to remove the bodies.
When Human Rights Watch visited Pusto Selo in June 1999, villagers pointed out the burial site next to the village mosque. Part of the fence surrounding the site was broken down; within it was a long stretch of rough and uneven ground. Villagers, who spoke of close relatives whose bodies were missing, looked at the spot with anguish. "Not to know where the bodies are hidden is, for us, as if they've been killed again," T.K. stated, voicing a sentiment shared by others.18