used without permission, for "fair use" only

Bloody Weekend in Drenica

by Dejan Anastasijevic

Vreme, Belgrade, FR Yugoslavia, March 7, 1998

On Tuesday March 3 over 50,000 people gathered in front of an improvised stage on a barren hill above the village of Likosani in Drenica, about forty kilometers north east from Pristina. Nine corpses wrapped in red and black Albanian flags were laid next to the stage, before being placed into graves fifty meters away. The funeral, at first scheduled for 1 p.m., actually took place in the late afternoon because the Police had blocked all the main roads to Drenica, barring the people who had been pouring from all sides from the funeral. The line of buses and cars at the check point Kormorani near Glogovac was several kilometers long. Ten members of the Ahmeti family from Likosani and one their neighbors were also barred from the funeral, although they had a very good reason to be present: they had been dead for three days already, had been taken that morning from the mortuary in the Pristina hospital and were supposed to be buried together with the already mentioned other ten victims. Thus, the truck with corpses arrived in Likosani only in the late afternoon after several hours of driving on country roads which the police had failed to close. Once the dead had finally been unloaded, it turned out that there were a few too many, and the undertakers had to dig three more graves. Twenty four people, mostly villagers from Likosani and the neighboring village of Cirez, were buried that day. Together with four policemen and one Albanian who had been buried a day earlier the total number of victims after a bloody weekend in Drenica stands at twenty nine.

Because of deliberately distorted accounts in the Serb and Albanian press and confusing testimonies by eye witnesses who were still in a state of mild shock, it is difficult to come up with a coherent picture of what really took place between Friday night, when the shooting started, and Sunday night, when the Police finally pulled out of Drenica. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Kosovo hasn't seen this much blood since March 28 1989 when in several days of disturbances in connection with the abolishment of the autonomy, more than seventy people lost their lives. The attempt of Albanians to express their outrage in street demonstrations was prevented by a brutal police intervention during which more than thirty demonstrators were injured while one was, allegedly, killed with a shot to the mouth. The situation in the Province is at the verge of an explosion and no one knows what will come next. Albanian political leaders, including president of the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova and the chief of the Parliamentarian Party Adem Demaqi, have been meeting for days trying to come up with a common strategy in view of the latest massacre. Until Wednesday evening, when Vreme was sent to the press, it was not possible to guess how they intend to address the drastic change in the situation. In the meantime, the Serb media and the overwhelming majority of Serb politicians from both the government and opposition have been competing in tasteless praises for "the decisive police action against terrorists". President of FRY Slobodan Milosevic has (in an unusual statement for him) personally expressed condolences to the families of the killed policemen, at the same time praising the police for "courage, patriotism and dedication". For colonel Miroslav Mijanovic, commander of the Special police units, the killed policemen are "Kosovo knights who died as the victims of Shqipetar gangs"; for Albanians, the people buried in Likosani are "martyrs and heroes, innocent victims of the Serb occupiers". Neither of the sides, it seems, counts "the others" among human beings.

POLICE VERSION:according to the Police, everything started on Saturday around 12:30, when a police car on a routine patrol was ambushed near Likosani. The driver lost control and the vehicle ended up in a ditch next to the road, while the policemen called for help. A "Lada Niva" jeep with four policemen was sent as a reinforcement but it was also ambushed a few miles from the original ambush. Two policemen, Milan Jovanovic and Radojica Ivanovic, both from Pancevo and temporarily stationed in Glogovac, were killed while Slavisa Matejic and Pavle Damjanovic were seriously wounded with fire from machine guns. Around 2 p.m. another reinforcement arrived and engaged the attackers "in accordance with its orders". The battle between the policemen and the members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which has since claimed the responsibility for the attack, has spread over the nearby villages, continued through the night and ended on Sunday afternoon. Another two policemen have been killed in the clashes, two were wounded, while the number of casualties on the opposing side has reached sixteen. The Police hasn't bothered to publish the names of killed "terrorists" nor of the nine who have allegedly been arrested, leaving that part of the job to the Albanian side.

There are many indications that the police version is only partly true. First, in Drenica, central part of Kosovo, surrounded by the municipalities of Glogovac, Mitrovica and Klina, there were no routine police patrols since November 1997, when UCK practically took over the control of that region. In the meantime, there were several clashes, all of which ended with the police pulling back. Since then, the police has in general avoided to enter Drenica without escort of at least a few armored vehicles and helicopters. Thus, it is hard to believe that the ambushed patrol was on a routine mission. Furthermore, a majority of killed Albanians (the number of victims also doesn't correspond to the police version) were definitely no terrorists, which will be explained later in the text. According to the eye witnesses from Drenica, first clashes between UCK and the police started on Friday evening, a day earlier than claimed by the police, and not on the road to Likosani but in Srbica, the largest town in Drenica. On Friday, unknown perpetrators shot from a car (a Nissan) at a school in which Serb refugees [from Croatia] live; the Police pursued the attackers. The Nissan drove away towards Likosani but stopped behind a curve on the road, while the passengers shot at the police car from machine guns and forced the police car into a ditch. It seems that the first two policemen were killed then, and the newly arrived reinforcement couldn't get any further because of darkness. During the night and the following morning, both sides brought in fresh forces and prepared for the forthcoming battle. UCK shot several times at the police but the battle reached full force only when about thirty police transporters followed by at least one armored car and two battle helicopters of type "gamma" appeared on the scene. After trying to resist stronger opponent for a while the members of UCK withdrew leaving Likosane and Cirez to the mercy of the policemen who entered the villages and started to search the houses. It seems that during the search someone again shot at them and that initiated a massacre.

BRAIN IN GRASS: Those who on Monday managed to get through to Likosani and Cirez saw a horrible scene: the victims lay in pockmarked houses, surrounded by distraught survivors. Four brothers from the Gjelli family, Becir, Nazmi, Bedri and Bekim were killed in their house in Cirez. Seventy nine years old Muhamet Gjella from Likosane, his brother Naser and cousin Kadri were, judging by the photographs, killed at point blank range, because traces of gun powder can be seen around their wounds. Xhemsir Nabihu and his pregnant wife Rukija were also, it seems, killed at point blank range. Rukija's head has been literally blown up by bullets. All victims were killed in their houses, or in front of them. Some houses were damaged by bullets of various caliber but the reports about burned and destroyed houses, fortunately, turned out to be wrong.

Nevertheless the Ahmeti family from Likosani fared the worst: it was the wealthiest family in the village, and almost all of the males in the family were killed. Mirsije Ahmeti (24), who lost the father and three brothers, says for Vreme that the police broke through the gate of the family compound in an armored car around four o'clock on Saturday afternoon. "My father was shouting that the gate was open, but they broke the windows and pointed their guns at us. They ordered us to lie on the floor and put our hands on our heads. They took the males outside and put us, women and children, in a small room. We stayed there until they left." When Mirsije and the others went outside, there was no sign of ten male members of the family. Actually, there were some traces: bloody stones in a bush in front of the gate, cartridges and dried blood on the ground, torn pieces of clothing, bone fragments and a whole brain spilled on the grass. Neighbors surrounded that sport with a rope, not touching anything, and this reporter saw it with his own eyes (except for the brain which has disappeared overnight; it was probably eaten by cats and dogs, but there are photographs, taken a day earlier).

The ten Ahmetis, ranging in age between 16 and 60, were delivered to the family on Tuesday, under already described circumstances. One of the men who saw the corpses in the Pristina mortuary said that the corpses looked "pretty chewed up". "They were alive when they took them away," says Mirsija crying. Her cousin Xhevdet Ahmeti (30) who happened to be in Pristina over the weekend and fortunately avoided the fate of others, says that the police took from the house over DM 5000 in gold, some foreign currency, ten kilos of meat and two hundred eggs. They also took a satellite receiver from the living room and someone even remembered to break into the family car and pull out a radio. "I don't understand these people," says Xhevdet, with an eerily peaceful voice.

After they finished with the Ahmeti family, the policemen moved into one of the neighboring houses which appeared to be empty. They were mistaken: seventeen years old Nait N. (name changed for obvious reasons) was hiding in the attic. "I haven't seen anything but could hear everything," says Naim. "I heard blows and cries in front of the Ahmeti family compound. Then, I heard shots and the cries stopped after that". Nait spent 27 hours motionless in the attic. The house in which he was hiding served the policemen as a temporary canteen where they prepared food taken from the home of the Ahmetis. "They ate, drank and sang the whole night. One of them climbed to the attic, but fortunately only looked inside. I froze with fear, but he didn't see me," says Nait. Everyone in Likosani claims that no one from the Ahmeti family was a terrorist. "They were the only wealthy family in the village. They measured everything with money and did not feud with anyone," says one of the villagers. Why were they massacred? The villagers say that the police saw someone escaping into their yard. Is seems that that was enough. A source from the Police says: "They shot at us from all the houses. Our boys simply went wild. If we hadn't received an order from Belgrade to stop, no one in the village would have survived."

SAY HI TO GELBARD: However, the Albanians from Likosani and Cirez are convinced that there would have been many more victims if it wasn't for UCK whose reputation has apparently remained unsullied after the most recent events. "If we were defenseless, they would have killed us all," says one of the villagers. To the "naive" question of the journalist where UCK is and whether it was possible to talk to them, the same villager, surrounded with a mass of fellow Albanians, replied: "What do you think, who are these people from UCK and where did they come from? Look around you: all of us are UCK." The attempt of the Serb regime to portray the victims from Likosani and Cerez as terrorists who do not deserve better probably won't be successful. "Fight against terrorism, 'according to the standards from the civilized world' doesn't mean that laws do not apply to suspects and that every suspect should be shot at sight. We also have terrorism but we capture terrorists and try them," says a western diplomat. "There will be consequences for Milosevic, because of this". Also, the West shouldn't feel totally innocent in this bloody story because the massacre in Drenica took place only a few days after American envoy Robert Gelbard condemned UCK as a "terrorist organization". In Pristina it is believed that this was a green light to Milosevic for the massacre in Drenica, while many Albanians these days tell American diplomats and journalists to "say hi to Gelbard". The Americans have been explaining that that's not what they meant. There are strong indications that the events in Drenica are a part of cynical strategy. The forthcoming visits of foreign diplomats to Belgrade, as well as the optimistic statements of the Serbian president Milan Milutinovic regarding the implementation of the agreement about education indicate that the bloody weekend was perhaps an introduction into a sort of Kosovo "lex specialis". Too bad, the villagers from Likosani and Cerez didn't know about this. Had they known, perhaps they would have chosen to spend the last weekend somewhere else.

Translated on 3/21/98