Located in north central Kosovo, Vucitrn municipality had a pre-war population of approximately 90,000 people, 90 percent of whom were ethnic Albanians. Serbs were located primarily in the town of Vucitrn and a few surrounding villages. Since early 1998, the KLA had been present in the Cicavica mountains, which run parallel to the main road and railway line between Mitrovica and Pristina. Numerous KLA attacks along that stretch were recorded throughout 1998 and early 1999.
On February 25, 1999, the Yugoslav Army began what it called "winter exercises" in the Vucitrn area. As the OSCE later reported, the exercises were in fact an army operation to clear the road and rail links north into Serbia by pushing the KLA back into the mountains, which it did.1
Vucitrn town was shelled the day NATO bombing began, and thousands of residents were expelled in that first week of the air campaign. On April 3, buses were organized to send residents to Macedonia. Another wave of forced expulsions took place around April 15.
Sporadic incidents took place to the northwest and southwest of Vucitrn during the bombing, although most of the civilians had fled the area due to ongoing fighting. By the end of April, many displaced persons had gathered in Veliki Kicic (Kqiqi i Madhe) to the north of Vucitrn. On May 2, they were forcibly dispersed in different directions.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian displaced persons gathered throughout April in the Shala region of the municipality, where KLA forces were present, to the north and east of Vucitrn town. A government offensive in late April and early May succeeded in breaking through KLA lines in the north of the region near Bajgora (Bajgore) and Meljenica (Melenice) villages. Displaced persons fled primarily in two directions: east toward Podejevo or south along the Slakovce River.
Police and paramilitary forces caught up with the convoy that traveled south. On May 2 and 3 between Gornja Sudimlja and Donja Sudimlja (Studime e Eperme and Studime e Poshtme), police and paramilitaries killed an estimated one hundred men, as described below. Random executions, including the shooting of twelve people from one family, took place in and around the villages during May. In total, forensic teams from the war crimes tribunal discovered ninety-eight bodies in Gornja Sudimlja. According to Vucitrn residents and U.N. employees in Kosovo after the war, another mass killing of sixty-nine men took place in Vucitrn town on May 22, although this incident is not documented in this report. The ICRC recorded sixty-nine men missing from Vucitrn on that same day, although it is not clear whether these are the same men reportedly killed.2
Also covered in this chapter is the treatment of ethnic Albanian men held in Smrekovnica prison in the north of the municipality. Most of the men, more than 3,000 according to the OSCE,3 were expelled from Kosovo in late May and early June with reports of physical abuse in detention.
Gornja sudimlja and Donja Sudimlja (Studime e Eperme and Studime e Poshtme)
The May 2 Convoy Attack
While in Kukes, Albania, during the NATO bombing, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed six Kosovar Albanians who had witnessed the attack on the convoy near Gornja Sudimlja. Interviewed separately, they provided consistent accounts of how Serbian police and paramilitaries pulled ethnic Albanian men from a convoy of tractors, and then shot some of the men in their custody.4 Subsequent interviews were conducted with ethnic Albanians from the area who had been taken from the convoy and held in detention (see section on Smrekovnica prison). Finally, in August, Human Rights Watch visited Gornja Sudimlja and Donja Sudimlja and interviewed an additional nine villagers, who corroborated the first witnesses' versions of events and provided further details.
According to the interviewees, Serbian forces ordered a group of ethnic Albanians from the town of Vucitrn and the surrounding villages to leave their homes at the end of March and the beginning of April. Five buses took ethnic Albanians to the border with Albania at this time. Some ethnic Albanians were allowed to stay in the area around Vucitrn until May 2, while others had to move several times because of ongoing small arms attacks or shelling by Serbian forces.
Ultimately, many displaced persons ended up in villages to the northeast of Vucitrn that were under the marginal control of the KLA, such as Bajgora, Vesekovce (Vesekofc), Kurilovo (Kuril-love), and Slakovce (Sllakovc), where the KLA had a field hospital. The area became overcrowded, and several witnesses reported that they stayed in houses with more than one hundred persons, while others were forced to sleep outside.
In the beginning of May, Serbian and Yugoslav forces launched an offensive and shelled several villages in the region around Bajgora. On May 2, government forces broke through the KLA's front line near Bajgora and Meljenica, forcing those sheltering in the area to flee.5 A convoy of refugees set out southward towards the villages of Slakovce and Cecelija (Ceceli), where they were joined by other ethnic Albanians who had sought refuge in those places. At that point, the convoy consisted of several hundred vehicles and three to five thousand refugees, witnesses estimated, and stretched all the way to the village of Gornja Sudimlja. The Serbian and Yugoslav forces followed the refugees as they traveled, burning many houses in Slakovce and Cecelija.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they stopped to rest and discuss their plans in Gornja Sudimlja, which had been occupied by the KLA until May 2. Yugoslav Army forces were based in a warehouse in Donja Sudimlja, some said, a village the refugees would have to pass through to get to Vucitrn. A thirty-year-old woman from Novo Selo Begovo (Novoselle e Begut), S.A., who was on the first tractor of the convoy, told Human Rights Watch what happened around 8 p.m. on May 2:
[We] decided to tie a white cloth to our tractor, to show that we wanted to surrender. But before we got to Studime e Poshtme [Donja Sudimlja], they started shooting and shelling us in an awful way. I used a mattress to cover my children, and we drove on to Donja Sudimlja. When we got to the warehouse, we saw a line of soldiers on the left hand side of the road.
They stopped us, and told us to get out of our tractors, and put our hands behind out heads, and then to sit down on the road. The soldiers started cursing us, and walked among us, kicking and beating some of us. One woman was beaten just because her child was crying.6
The soldiers, who were joined by policemen and paramilitaries between 8:30 and 9 p.m., went from tractor to tractor in the convoy, cursing and threatening the refugees. At the same time, the soldiers coming from Slakovce and Cecelija had also reached the convoy. The men had either blue or green uniforms. Some of them had beards, while others were masked.
K.B., a thirty-four-year-old Albanian man from Vucitrn who had been hiding in the villages, told Human Rights Watch what happened next:
When they [the police and paramilitaries] arrived at my part of the convoy, they asked my brother where his KLA uniform was, and his gun. But he said he didn't have any because he wasn't a member of the KLA. Then they hit him with the butt of a gun, after which they came to me, and told me to get off the trailer. When I got off, he hit me with his gun on my cheekbone, forehead and mouth, breaking one of my teeth. Then they stabbed me with a bayonet, and almost cut off part of my ear. They took me by my elbow, pointed a gun at my back, and dragged me some twenty meters away. They pushed me towards a little stream, and I jumped over it, and fell down. When I got up, they hit me four times in the back of my head with a gun, and once in my ribs. Later, a doctor told me that they had broken one of my ribs. I fell again, and lay there for about two minutes, after which I got up, and went back to the tractor.
After I was beaten, I saw three soldiers or policemen drag away two girls between seventeen and twenty years old. They took them away some twenty or thirty meters, so I couldn't see what happened to them. But when they came back after fifteen or twenty minutes, I saw that their shirts had been ripped apart in the middle.7
Human Rights Watch inspected and photographed K.B.'s wounds during the interview in Kukes, Albania. The top of his left ear was torn, but had been repaired by a doctor in one of the refugee camps, and his right front tooth was broken. Others fared worse. Z. A., a forty-four-year old man from Novosella, related what happened to his family:
At about 9:00 p.m., the paramilitaries and army stopped us. I couldn't see them very well, it was already dark. They took away our money and jewelry. Then two paramilitaries with masks and bandanas took my uncle, Remzi Aliu (aged fifty-four), and my nephew, Ramadan Aliu (aged thirty-eight). They asked them for money. Then they took them away some thirty meters, and shot them with a burst of gunfire from their automatic weapons. Then they took Hajrula Aliu and his wife, but they gave them [the police and paramilitaries] 500 German marks, so they didn't kill them.8
B.A., a nineteen-year-old man from Donja Sudimlja, told a similar story:
When they [the soldiers coming from Cecelija] came to us, a Serbian soldier grabbed my brother, who was twenty-seven years old, by his elbow and took him some three meters away from the tractor. There, he asked for money, and soon after that he shot my brother with a pistol in the back.
At the same time, they took my uncle, shot at him and kicked him, and he fell on the ground. We saw two bodies lying on the ground, and we thought they were both dead. After that, they took my father as well, and while they pointed a pistol at his throat, they demanded money. My father gave them one hundred German marks, but they asked for one thousand. I told my father to give it to him, so my father came back to the tractor and gave him another nine hundred marks. They then released my father, but right away they caught my cousin, and asked him for money as well. So my father again gave them five hundred marks, after which they released my cousin. After the army left, we heard my uncle asking for me to come and help him. A few minutes later, my father and grandfather went to him and carried him to the tractor, because he had been hit in his lower leg, so he couldn't walk. When they turned my brother over, they saw he was dead.9
Another man from Gornja Sudimlja explained how he witnessed three men being pulled from his tractor and shot:
There were about fifteen paramilitaries near my tractor. They shone a flashlight on the father of a four year old. One of them pushed the son aside with a gun and shot the father, Agim Gerguli [aged thirty-seven or thirty-eight], who was a father of four children. Then they asked something from Enver Gerguli [aged forty], my relative, but he was deaf and dumb, so he didn't answer. They took him by his collar off the tractor, and I got off the tractor and begged them to save his life. They said I should give money or they would make him speak. I gave him 800 German Marks and they said it was okay. Then another guy came. He took my brother two meters away and shot him.
He came back again with a flashlight and found another relative, Naman [aged thirty-nine]. He took him to the other side of the tractor and asked for money. I gave them 1,400 marks, but they killed him two meters away with a Kalashnikov. I thought he was maybe still alive, and I told him to tumble and go through the water. But there was a guy who understood [what I said], and they shot him again with the Kalashnikov. After that, he pointed the Kalashnikov at my jaw. He said: "You have two minutes to give me 1,000 marks." But I didn't have any money. My wife and kids were in the tractor, and they told me to get money from my wife. But she didn't have any money either, so I gave them my brother's money. They were counting down: "Two minutes, one minute . . . two seconds, one second," and then I pushed the gun down, and the gun fell, and I ran and jumped into the stream. I stayed there for one minute, thinking he would come and find me. I couldn't walk, I just crawled in the woods, twenty or thirty meters away from the tractor. Then I heard them say: "Gotovo, gotovo!" ["Enough, enough"] They got in a car and started to drive down.10
Human Rights Watch also interviewed Z.G.'s brother, M.G., a man who witnessed a killing and then lost an arm due to a gunshot wound. He told Human Rights Watch that his tractor was stopped somewhere between Gornja and Donja Sudimlja. One unidentified man tried to escape the convoy at this time and was shot, he said. The police then demanded money from M.G., who provided some, but was shot anyway in the arm. He said:
They came to my tractor with a flashlight, and told me to climb down. They asked me for money, and I gave 300 DM to a policeman from Serbia in a police uniform with good looks who was bald. After I gave 300 DM, he took out his automatic weapon and told me to turn around. I thought he would shoot me, and he did shoot me with two bullets in my right arm, and one in my back. I fell down on my left arm, and I tried to move my right arm, but I couldn't, so took my arm with my other hand. I felt my arm was getting colder. After they [the Serbian forces] left, I asked my neighbor for water, which I got. He asked me if I was alive, and they took me in the tractor. When I heard they [the Serbian forces] were coming back, they took me into the forest. I stayed there all night with my mother.11
The next morning, M.G.'s brothers came into the forest with their father and the bodies of Agim, Enver, and Naman. They left the bodies in the graveyard and took M.G. into the garden of his house. That evening, a doctor came from Vucitrn and treated his wounds. Then, on May 4, M.G. was taken to Slakovce, which was back under the control of the KLA, and a doctor amputated the arm with a sharp knife-a fact that was confirmed independently for Human Rights Watch by the doctor who performed the procedure.
Yet another man from Gornja Sudimlja, S.B., witnessed the security forces execute his son, who had been married that morning, and two other men from the village. He told Human Rights Watch:
When they came to my tractor, there were three men: my son, Adnan, Eshref Rashica [aged approximately thirty], and Ismet Statovci [aged between twenty-seven and thirty]. First, they caught Ismet, took him off the tractor, and started to beat him. They asked him where he was from. He said he was from Firaja. Then another one said: "Just take him and kill him." They killed him with an automatic gun, I heard two booms, he was only three or four meters away.
Then they came back and took my son. They grabbed his right arm, took him to the other side of the road. I went with him, but they hit me with the butt of a gun on my left cheekbone, and I fell. I heard them shoot my son, I heard two booms. I saw him lying, he was shot in his upper back. After that, they caught Eshref, and killed him as well. I heard them talk over the radio, asking how many people were killed. One of the guys said seventy-five, and then they said: "just go until you have one hundred."12
A fifty-nine-year-old farmer from Gornja Sudimlja, H.A., told Human Rights Watch how men in police uniforms shot his brother and son, killing the latter. He said:
They came to the tractor and took my brother Haki, and my son Rahman (aged twenty-seven) from the tractor. They took 1,100 DM from my brother and son, and then shot at my son and brother. My brother was wounded in his right ankle13 and they killed my son. I wasn't even three meters away, and they shot him in front of us, in front of his mother. The men who did it were in police uniforms, and were wearing masks. When my brother fell down, they shot him again with one bullet in his back.14 The bullet went through.15
Other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported how men unknown to them were executed in front of their eyes. The soldiers and paramilitaries walked up and down the tractor convoy, they said, harassing, robbing and sometimes executing the refugees. The witnesses all reported hearing repeated shooting during the period between approximately 9 and 10:30 p.m. Around 11:30 p.m., policemen from Vucitrn came and ordered the convoy to move on towards Vucitrn. Around 12 a.m., May 3, they arrived in town.
Several witnesses reported that they saw many dead bodies along the road to the city, but the exact number of executed persons from the convoy is unknown. Four separate witnesses claimed to have seen twenty-five, thirty, seventy, and "over a hundred" dead bodies, respectively. The varying numbers may result from the fact that the witnesses were located in different parts of the convoy, so that those towards the front of the line saw fewer than those at the back. Investigators from the war crimes tribunal discovered ninety-eight bodies in Gornja Sudimlja.16
Precise numbers were also provided by those who helped bury the victims. Z.G., for example, said that he returned to Gornja Sudimlja around 5 a.m. on May 3, and saw seventy-two bodies between the graveyard and the location where his relatives had been killed. He said:
In the graveyard there were ninety-two bodies. All dead bodies were destroyed-without arms, legs, or a head. Only two bodies had not been mutilated. We put covers over them. We just opened several graves, and put five or six bodies in one place. We buried them with a few men, and had some help from the KLA, but we couldn't bury all of them on May 3, we could only bury thirty-four bodies.17
The commander of the KLA unit responsible for Donja and Gornja Sudimlja said that his soldiers buried ninety-two victims from the convoy attack. He said:
There were ninety-two dead bodies, all from the column. The victims were mostly drivers of tractors and trailers. There were a lot of deserted tractors, and some people were shot dead on tractors. The majority of them were shot at a close distance, maybe two or three weren't. I think most people were shot in their heads or upper bodies. We buried them on May third, fourth, and fifth. We found many bullet casings there, of automatic weapons produced in Yugoslavia, and also some casings from pistol bullets. There is also a video of the bodies made by an amateur.18
Human Rights Watch obtained and viewed a copy of the video tape. It shows the village of Gornja Sudimlja the day before the attack, and on the day of the attack. The tape also shows footage of between twenty and twenty-five dead bodies, many of them apparently shot in the head, although it cannot be concluded with certainty from the video how they died. The bodies are filmed individually close up and are never seen against a recognizable landmark in the village. Moreover, there is a pause between the footage of the village and the footage of each of the bodies, either because recording was paused or because of subsequent editing. Nevertheless, the position of the bodies is consistent with witness statements and the tape appears credible.
The account of the attack on the convoy collected from witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch matches the information provided by foreign journalists who covered the incident, either from Albania during the war, or from inside Kosovo after June 1999. All together, five media accounts in the English-language press include nine eyewitness statements, all of which mention the police and paramilitary killings that took place on May 2 and 3. One man claimed that eleven members of his family were killed.19 One woman told a journalist from the Independent (London), "They killed my husband before my eyes. . . . At first they beat the men with rifle butts, then they killed them. All through the journey I closed my eyes because I did not want to remember the scene."20
Detentions and Expulsions
Since the convoy of displaced persons reached Vucitrn, the Albanians were directed towards an agricultural cooperative near Motel Vicianum, where they spent the night sitting in a fenced off area, guarded by the police and some soldiers. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that several thousand refugees were there, and that the area was so crowded it was impossible to stretch their legs, let alone sleep. The guards roamed among the refugees all night, checking their papers, and in several cases beating people.
In the morning, somewhere between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m., May 3, approximately thirty policemen entered the compound. Three different witnesses separately identified a policeman named Petrovic, who they claimed was a police commander in Vucitrn, as the officer in charge. One of these three witnesses did not know his first name, but the other two claimed his name was Dragan Petrovic.21
The witnesses concurred that the police ordered the men between the ages of eighteen and sixty to separate themselves from the women, children and elderly men. The police checked the identity papers of the 500 to 600 men who had been separated. From this group, all of the tractor drivers were allowed to rejoin their families, all together about 200 men.
A large truck then came, witnesses said, loaded fifty to sixty of the remaining men, and took them away in the direction of Mitrovica. Approximately ten to twenty minutes later, the truck returned empty and transported another group of men in the same direction. Witnesses reported that the truck returned to reload with men at least eight times.
While the men were being transported, the tractor drivers were told to load their families onto their vehicles and drive towards Mitrovica. Those who were among the first to leave the compound told Human Rights Watch that, as they drove by, they saw the truck used to transport the men parked outside the Smrekovnica prison. The witnesses claimed that they saw several of the men who had been taken away from the agricultural cooperative in Vucitrn, including some of the witnesses' own family members.
Another witness, who was not part of the convoy in Gornja Sudimlje, claimed to have seen ethnic Albanian men in and around the Smrekovnica prison on May 3. This thirty-eight-year-old man from Bajgora, S.B., interviewed in Kukes, said he had arrived in Smrekovnica on the morning of May 2 on foot with another group of approximately 3,000 villagers from the Bajgora area. Around 5 p.m. that day, the police had come to his uncle's house, where he was hiding, and ordered him to join the rest of the group in the Smrekovnica school yard, which is next to the prison. S.B. told Human Rights Watch that he saw several thousand men being held in the prison, although it is not clear how he arrived at this number or whether he saw these people in the prison or around it. He also claimed that approximately 300 men staying with him in the school yard were taken to the prison. A few men were released from the prison every hour, he said, and all of them appeared to have been beaten.22
Back in Vucitrn, the convoy of mostly women, children, and elderly traveled under police escort through Smrekovnica to Kosovska Mitrovica and then alone through Srbica, Pec and Klina, where the displaced persons spent one night. From Klina, a smaller road was taken south to Prizren, and then to the Morina border crossing with Albania, which they crossed on May 4.
After the initially displaced in the convoy were deported, between 15,000 and 40,000 ethnic Albanians remained in the area between Cecelija (Ceceli) and Dubnica (Dumnice), a few kilometers to the south, where the KLA had regained control. In addition, the police told some families in Vucitrn that it would be safe for them to return to Gornja and Donja Sudimlja. The KLA also assumed positions in the villages. Shortly thereafter, however, government forces assumed positions on the high ground around the villages, which cut off access to Vucitrn. The only entry point into the town, where food was available, was along a stream which runs from Gornja Sudimlja through Donja Sudimlja to Vucitrn. At various times during May, ethnic Albanian villagers were shot and killed while trying to get to or from Vucitrn.23
According to the local KLA commander, on May 17, around 8:00 p.m., his soldiers found six men who had been shot near the stream. All of them had been killed from a range of approximately fifteen to twenty meters, he said. Two of the men survived.
Human Rights Watch interviewed one of the two survivors, V.Z.. He said that he was traveling on foot with seven other men from Gornja Sudimlja back to Vucitrn, where he had spent most of the war with relatives. His home is near the stream that leads to town, so when the group approached it, he went off for a minute to check his house. He explained what happened next:
We went down through the stream together at 7:00 p.m. We came close to my house and I told them to keep going, I just wanted to see my house. We were about 200 meters away from my house. When I took my first steps, I was maybe four meters away from the others, I heard a burst of gunfire. I ran and hid in a stone house. I didn't know where to go. I stayed a little while, and I heard shots all the time.
I heard gun shots, and I was afraid they were in front of me. I just ran and hid in some bushes, 300 or 400 meters away from the stream. I saw another group of Serbs coming with a tractor from Sfracaku [Svracak], but they didn't see me. I was only 150 meters away, but they didn't see me. I saw they had uniforms, but I don't know which ones, [because] I was lying down. During that time, I heard a lot of shots, it took one hour.
I thought they would see me, so I waited for them to come when they finished with the others. I could only see one of the persons that was shooting, he was close to me. He was lying in the apple orchard, and when he saw me, he started shooting and screaming at me. He was wearing a green camouflage uniform. Even in my house, there was one person on the second floor.24
Another killing took place on May 23, but there were no direct witnesses. Another KLA commander, who claimed to have been responsible for a battalion in the Sudimlja and Samodraza (Samadrexhe) area, said he found the bodies of eight women, aged approximately fourteen to thirty-one on May 24 near the stream. Two of them had been cut with a knife near the mouth, he said, and some of them had their clothes torn off, leading him to believe that some of them had been raped.25
The KLA commander for Sudimlja, interviewed separately, also claimed that KLA soldiers found the bodies of eight women and girls, aged between twelve and thirty, near the stream around 12 a.m. on May 23. Six of the bodies were in the river and two girls were a few meters away, he said. The commander also believed that two of the girls had been raped because their shirts had been torn off, but a medical examination was not performed, he said.26
The last reported killing took place on May 31, when government forces killed twelve members of the Gerxhaliu family who lived in Donja Sudimlja close to the main road near the stream. After clashing with Serbian forces, KLA soldiers found three men from the family, Xhemail, Selatin, and Shaban (Selatin's son), shot near their house. Nine other members of the family, including six children under the age of fourteen, were killed inside the house.27
One sixty-eight-year-old man from the family, Sali Gerxhaliu, said that he woke up on May 31 to the news that his three relatives had been killed near their house. He hitched up his horse and cart and went to collect the bodies. He said:
When I came to the stream, I saw that one of Selatin's arms had been cut off by gunfire, and he was hit in his neck. Shaban was shot in his eye, and you could see a fracture in his skull. Xhemail was shot in his chest and in his lower belly. All of them were shot with bullets. There were seven or eight bullets in Xhemail, all of them had been shot more than once. I started to cry for my relatives.28
After collecting the bodies, Sali Gerxhaliu, his friend Ismet, and Xhemail's daughter decided to look in the family home, since they realized that none of their relatives had come looking for them. Xhemail's daughter held the horse as Sali Gerxhaliu looked inside:
So I went inside the house, and I saw nine of them in a room. From the door, I saw Sale lying with her arms in front of her head. Two boys were close to Sale and two women. It looked like they were sleeping. The boys were sitting with their legs down. I said: "Allah, Allah, they are all dead, all nine of them." I went outside again, and took the three bodies to the graveyard. At the graveyard, I met some other people, and I told them there were twelve people dead. They asked whether they should bury them, but I said it would be better to wait, and call some police.29
Sali Gerxhaliu did call the police in Vucitrn, who came to investigate the crime scene. He explained:
The police and an investigation judge came and took pictures. They said they would give us copies, but they never did. When they came, the investigative judge, a woman from Montenegro, started crying. One policeman asked her why she was crying. The woman said: "What did these kids do?" But one of the policemen, Dragan Petrovic, said: "This is a war, comrade." I said to him: "A war is of men against men, so go in the forest, and fight with the KLA. These are kids that were sleeping." But Petrovic just looked at me. After they took pictures, they said we shouldn't bury them, because they would bring people from Kosovska Mitrovica. They went to Vushtrri [Vucitrn] with a car, but then they came back, and told us to bury them after all.30
Dragan Petrovic was mentioned by three other villagers from the area, who claimed they saw him in Vucitrn dealing with the convoy after the attack in Gornja Donja Sudimlja on May 3.
Human Rights Watch also spoke with Shukri Gerxhaliu's son, a forty-four-year-old man from the village. He said that he heard two loud explosions from NATO bombs around 4:00 a.m. on May 31. Then, around 7:00 a.m., Serbian forces entered the village. Most of the men managed to slip away but they later learned that three men from the Gerxhaliu family, Selatin, Shaban and Xhemail, had been killed. Later in the day, the man went into the Gerxhaliu house and saw the nine bodies. He said:
When I went inside the house, from the door of the room, I saw a son of Selatin sitting, and to the right of him, there was an old woman and two children, who she was trying to protect. Next to her, there were the wife of Nexhmedin and her son. The others had been trying to hide in the room.31
The KLA battalion leader also told Human Rights Watch about the Gerxhaliu killing, claiming that the men were not members of the KLA. He said:
I went to see the dead people [of the Gerxhaliu family]. Three of them were outside up the hill, and they were shot from a close distance. Selatin, Xhemail and Shaban were not members of the KLA, I had never heard of them before. Nine of them were in one room. When I saw the children, I couldn't stay there. Some were hit in the face, others in the chest. They were executed by Yugoslav Kalashnikovs, we found the shells. The children were aged from around five to eighteen, and there were also some women. This case was also investigated by the Serbs. Even for them it was strange. There were two police positions, left and right of the village. They blamed each other: the police said the military had done it, and the other way around. It was the military police who did the investigation.32
Smrekovnica (Smrekonice) Prison
On May 22 in Kukes, Albania, Human Rights Watch interviewed six Kosovar Albanian men who had been released that day from Smrekovnica prison near Mitrovica, a minimum security prison built in the 1970s. All of the men described abusive treatment by Serbian authorities, including beatings in detention.
Over the next two weeks, dozens of other ethnic Albanian men from the Vucitrn and Mitrovica area entered Albania and told of their detentions in Smrekovnica. All of them told of regular beatings by police during their imprisonment, especially during interrogations about their activity in or knowledge of the KLA.33 On many of the interviewees, Human Rights Watch saw obvious signs of physical abuse, including black eyes, severe bruises on inmates' backs, legs and buttocks, and skin abrasions. Most of the men were forced to sign confessions that they were engaged in terrorist activities before being released.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than thirty former detainees, and their testimonies were remarkably similar. All of the men were arrested in Vucitrn or Mitrovica or other villages in those areas, where the KLA was active. Some were arrested on May 2, taken from a refugee convoy near Sudimlja (see section on Donja Sudimlja).
The prisoners were held in conditions that fell far short of minimal acceptable standards. All of the former detainees said that their cells were extremely overcrowded, and in some cells it was impossible to sit down due to the overcrowding. A fifty-two-year-old man from Resnik said that seventy-six persons were crowded into his cell, which measured four by eight meters,34 while a forty-three-year-old man from the Podujevo area said that his four-by-five-meter room held thirty-six men.35 The detainees were not provided with mattresses or blankets and were forced to sleep on the concrete floor.
Without exception, the detainees were interrogated, some as many as five times, about their possible connections to the KLA. During these interrogations, the men reported being beaten, some severely. A.K., age twenty-seven, was first held for two weeks in a school in Srbica and then transferred to Smrekovnica prison, where he was held for another two weeks. He told Human Rights Watch:
I was interrogated five times: two times in the school in Skenderaj _[Srbica], and three times in the prison [in Smrekovnica]. They asked me if I was a member of the KLA, who I knew in the KLA, whether I had given money to the KLA if I had connections in the KLA, etc. Whenever I said I didn't know any KLA, they'd beat me up with [wooden] sticks, rubber police batons or the butt of a gun. They'd hit me in my back and on my hands.36
Other interviewees also stated that they were severely beaten on their backs, heads, hands and knees during interrogations, some of which took place in technical and medical schools in Mitrovica, which allegedly served as police headquarters during the war.
One former detainee from Dolak village, who was released from the prison and arrived in Albania on June 7, told Human Rights Watch:
Forty-two of us went to the technical school [in Mitrovica] and the rest went to the medical school We were placed in a basement and then they started beating us up. There were five or six police and soldiers. We were facing the wall so it was hard to see. They hit us with rubber batons, iron rods, and the butts of the automatic weapons. They kicked us. Not much punching with fists, except one guy who was punched in the eye. [Human Rights Watch saw the man with bruising around his eye.]37
Former detainees said Serbian youths in Mitrovica had thrown stones at them as they were being transported to or from the technical school, and some of them even participated in the beatings. One man said:
Serbian kids also came into the basement and hit us with metal rods and threw stones at us. The kids said, "Let us beat them." They were different ages, eleven, twelve, or so. They had been in the street playing. When we were taken off the truck, they were there; they threw stones at us. The kids insulted our mothers and called us terrorists.38
Another man, said: "I was hit in the back by a kid. It was lighter than a _beating by an adult. Compared to being hit by the police, it was like being tickled."39
Another former detainee claimed that, on May 28, the prisoners were threatened with sexual abuse. Men described as "paramilitaries" forced some of the prisoners, mostly younger boys around fourteen years old, to stand naked, after which they were verbally threatened with rape. According to the witness, six young prisoners were then taken away, but Human Rights Watch found no other evidence to prove that further sexual abuse took place.40
Besides physical mistreatment, the men reported that prisoners were provided insufficient food, about 200 grams of bread per person per day. The men from the Vucitrn region all reported that they had not received any food at all for forty-eight hours, from the moment they were detained in Vucitrn on the evening of May 2, until about 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4. Some former detainees reported that the food improved about ten days into their detention, when the authorities began to serve warm meals.
It is unknown how many detainees were still in Smrekovnica when the war ended on June 12. Many prisoners being held in other detention facilities in Kosovo, such as in Lipljan or Prizren, were transferred to prisons inside Serbia proper, where many of them remain as of September 2000. (See Abuses After June 12, 1999.)