Heroes of horror

Risking snipers, facing sights so dreadful that they weep along with the victims' families, forensics teams from around the world -- including a team from the FBI -- are performing the heartbreaking but essential task of recording Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.

Published July 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the village of Meja, on the outskirts of the 16th century town of Djakove, the fields are filled with the anonymous dead. In one, two large compost piles circled by bulldozer tracks have been moved, re-piled and inverted. According to witnesses, they contain countless executed ethnic Albanians. The air around them is putrid, the surrounding grass littered with identity papers, combs, cigarette cases, bloody hats, human bones and teeth; a leg dismembered at the hip, the shoe still attached. The whole figure of a man, just bones and clothes now, lies in the thicket where he fell, probably shot trying to escape. According to war-crimes investigators, at least 400 men, women and children -- most of them refugees on the run from other villages, some from Djakove itself -- were executed and buried in this one place by Serbian paramilitaries. At least 100 more were shot in a schoolhouse 200 meters down the road and trucked away. Two cemeteries nearby have been scored by pit graves big enough to accommodate dozens of bodies. Atop one lies a severed human foot and the scalp of a young woman who had had long black hair.

It is to this place that Naxhie Gagierri, 27, comes looking for her husband, Fadil, 35, with Fadil's brother and sister. Leaving Naxhie's 2-year-old daughter crying in the back seat of their car, they walk resolutely into the carnage. They toe through the effects. "Where is he?" Naxhie asks, raking her fingers through her hair. She bends over the dismembered leg, stares hard at the corpse in the brush. But the clothes don't match her husband's. Not that she has any hope of his being alive. "Look what the Serbs have done," she sobs. All she wants, she says, is a body to re-bury with dignity.

Naxhie and Fadil were among a large group of refugees from the villages surrounding Djakove, traveling together toward the Albanian border, believing there was safety in numbers. On April 27, not far from this field just a few miles short of their goal, they were surrounded by Serbian paramilitaries. The men were separated out, the women searched for money. Naxhie remembers watching in horror as one Serbian paramilitary, demanding money from one woman, ripped out the teeth of her child as punishment when she couldn't produce any.

Naxhie's last sight of her husband was of him standing beside a tractor, hugging his 2-year-old daughter, telling her goodbye. As Naxhie ran off with other women toward the Albanian border, she heard long rips of automatic gunfire behind her.

Now she walks a widening circle, then stops, staring at the ground. One hand over her nose to block the stench, she fingers a bloody sock. "It is his," she says; she repaired the sock herself and recognizes her handiwork. She frantically looks for other evidence but finds nothing.

Standing among the fields, villagers come from all directions and ask to be able to show visitors the location and evidence of massacres in their homes and yards. No one near Djakove is burying bodies just yet. They are waiting for the war crimes tribunal to come, exhume the dead and bear witness to the Serbs' crimes.

"Come see my atrocity," one man insists.

In Djakove itself, more than 1,200 ethnic Albanian men are still missing. Only four have returned in recognizable form. They were released from Serbian prisons last week with 162 other Kosovars and bused home by the International Red Cross. The Djakove they came home to has been turned largely to rubble, the alleyways and cobblestone streets of its old quarter incinerated in a night and day of frenzied revenge by Serbian paramilitaries following the first NATO bombs. The shops and homes are X-rays of themselves, the walls gone, all the contents evaporated but those made of metal and glass: blackened wine glasses and bottles sit where they were abandoned on an iron cafe table; a drill press and grinding stone stand awkwardly in the ashes of a machine shop. The minaret of the town's 500-year-old mosque has been decapitated. In the last two weeks the town of 100,000, of whom 98 percent are ethnic Albanians, has had the air of emerging from an apocalyptic blizzard, the neighborhoods clogged by giant drifts of slate and brick, its population -- steadily returning from refugee camps -- blinking with astonishment and despair.

Djakove's streets are dangerous. The tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Italian KFOR battalion patrol the streets. Five Italian soldiers have been killed, four by land mines. Last week, their compound was fired upon; the local Kosovo Liberation Army leadership has made no secret of its desire to not surrender their weapons as stipulated in the peace agreement. It is known but not openly discussed that the weapons they do hand over will be replaced, or already have been. Automatic gunfire rings out at night throughout town. Now and then one hears return fire.

This town and the mass graves surrounding it are quickly becoming a focal point for The Hague's war crimes tribunal investigations. Officials, bound to silence by the rules of legal conduct in the case against the Serbian leadership, won't say why. Its spokesman in Pristina, James Lansdale, will only hint at the need to prove how the chains of command among local Serbs lead to Belgrade. In the end, that is the evidence The Hague is looking for, should Serbian president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosovic and four others ever be brought to trial. "If The Hague doesn't do the job, it will lose all credibility," said Masar Shala, a former spokesman for the Kosovo Liberation Army, now the minister of information for civilian authorities in southern Kosovo. "They must go to every grave so they can have a record of the Serbs' crimes in Kosovo. If this doesn't happen, it will be a gift to the criminals."

The forensics teams of eight nations have dispersed throughout Kosovo, working at The Hague's behest. Scotland Yard is here. So are teams from Germany, Denmark, Canada, France, Holland and Switzerland. Djakove belongs to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI left Djakove on July 1, after less than a week, its operation a model of efficiency, having exceeded by nearly double its mandate to examine and catalog five local massacre sites. It had brought an entourage of 64 forensics experts and medical and security personnel. It had brought air-conditioned tents, computers, generators, its own food and water, its own armored vehicles and a small arsenal of weapons. It could have fought its own small war if it had to.

The FBI team lived and worked out of a corner of the Italian KFOR command compound. At the tightly guarded compound gate the night before the FBI is to leave, two Gypsy women are wringing their hands, trying to mime the town's latest tragedy. The younger of the two says, "Papa," then, "KLA," and draws her finger across her throat. Eventually, the Italian captain and a visitor decide that what she is saying is that the KLA just shot her father. This is a problem. If the shooter had been a Serb, the Italians would have mobilized instantly. Instead, the captain shrugs, offering the visitor a helpless look, then mimes for the woman to wait so he can locate a higher-ranking officer to tell her they can do nothing about it. No one is protecting the Gypsies. Albanians blame them collectively for collaborating in Serbian atrocities. Gypsy neighborhoods all over Kosovo are ablaze. The plight of those who have fled the country is no better. In Macedonian refugee camps, Gypsies have been attacked and nearly killed by ethnic Albanian lynch mobs. One such incident in Stankovic I caused a violent riot. The lives of the Gypsies in question were saved at the very last moment.

Inside the KFOR compound, the FBI team is resting after a grueling and upsetting couple of days. The four heavily armed members of the hostage recovery team it brought as bodyguards are on high alert. The team was fired upon by at least two snipers the night before from a building across the street.

Today, the team exhumed one of eight bodies found in a well and buried by locals near the town of Pec. The subject was an old man, and his family had coincidentally returned from Albania the day before to this news of his murder and the torching of the family's home. They watched from a distance as the forensic pathologist performed an open-air autopsy to make official what was already known. With the HRT soldiers eyeing the surrounding countryside, their machine guns ready, experts in white gowns, white caps, masks and shoe coverings cleaved the man's skull, pulled off his face like a rubber mask and fished around inside the brain for the projectile. They didn't find the bullet, and decomposition was too advanced to locate an exit wound, but they found the entrance wound at the base of the skull and made their conclusion: shot once in the back of the head, tossed down a well in a puzzle of limbs. Most upsetting to the team was that of the nine bodies in the well, five were children. The old man's family embraced the team afterward. Everyone, including the FBI, cried. The old man could be buried with dignity now.

"Everyone's emotionally beaten up from not being able to solve the problem," says Allyson Simons, chief of the FBI's forensic analysis team, her eyes wet. "In 29 years in the business, I've never seen anything like this. This is the worst I've ever seen. How do we do this to each other? Everyone understands army vs. army, but how do you mix in women and children?"

The day before, in Djakove, the team had spent the day sifting through the ashes of 157 Millogh Gillic St., collecting and cataloging the bone fragments of 20 women and children. Analyzing bullet shell casings, blood spatter patterns and eyewitness testimony, forensic pathologists can reconstruct what happened: The women told their men to flee to Albania, that they would be safe, that the Serbs wouldn't dare kill women and children. The next day, Serbs were at their door. The women and their children were herded to No. 157 Millogh Gillic St. and incinerated alive with hand grenades.

As the team worked, the neighbors on Millogh Gillic Street surrounded them, flooding them with good wishes. Family members came to ask them what really happened, to achieve a state of personal reckoning and bury their relatives in their minds. "We are treated like heroes," says Simons. At other sites around Djakove, citizens beg them to come examine other massacres, bodies in their homes, in their yards. More than once the FBI complied, "just to listen to the stories," says Roger Nisley, the team's commander. "That's what's needed here. To listen to the stories, to release them, to let their relatives go."

But Paul Mallet, the team's assistant commander, emphasizes the team's limitations. "The evidence we've collected shows clear proof of wide-reaching atrocities," he says. "What this evidence cannot show is the extent of the human suffering inflicted on a whole people." Adds Paul Risley, the tribunal's chief spokesman at The Hague: "The resources of the tribunal must be focused on those investigations that can lead to the indictment and arrest of specific individuals that we hope to bring to justice."

There are simply too many sites to examine. The forensics teams are overwhelmed. The original seven sites named in the indictment are being added to every day. "This is the biggest undertaking by far by the Office of the Prosecutor, in terms of the gravity, scale and speed with which the crimes were committed," says The Hague's spokesman in Pristina, James Lansdale. It is bigger, he says, than Bosnia. Bigger than Srebrenica, the site where 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men were slaughtered in the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.

The massacres, then, have to be prioritized. But is it more of a war crime to kill 100 people than 10? Is it quantity rather than quality? Women and children rather than men? The answer is counter-intuitive. The most important element, says Lansdale, is to pick sites, whether vast or limited, that will add not drama but hard information to the most important puzzle: the chain of command. Milosovic and his henchmen are the tribunal's targets, not catharsis. Together with the intelligence reports of foreign agencies and local informants, massacre sites that are clear in terms of who did what, rather than big, are the most useful in proving what Lansdale calls a "widespread and systematic campaign" of criminal conduct. After all, a charge of genocide, the highest possible indictment, can be brought on the basis of the murder of a single individual. What must be proven to convict is not the wiping out of an entire ethnic grouping, but the intent to do so. Not the deed, in other words, but the design. Patterns of murder are important, but blueprints pieced together with linked massacre sites, witness testimony and intelligence reports even more so. The Hague has already charged Milosevic with crimes against humanity. What it really wants is to charge him with genocide.

On the other hand, Lansdale says, "Big sites can't be ignored. Common sense dictates attention be paid." The reason the FBI didn't examine the Meja pit graves, he says, is that it simply wasn't equipped for mass exhumations. And Allyson Simons, whose decision it would have been to make the effort, refused to expose her team to the contamination risks in handling large numbers of corpses without being fully prepared. In sites where there are corpses to handle, she says, pathologists are often literally elbow-deep in flesh. "Some bodies are so decomposed," she says, "bones were pulled out of the flesh when the bodies were lifted up." Also, many of the larger sites have yet to be de-mined. Meja is now at the top of the tribunal's list. Some of the war's fiercest battles were fought between Djakove and the nearby Albanian border. The atrocities that took place there are linked to the fighting, and may, Lansdale hinted broadly, lead The Hague directly to Belgrade. Other forensics teams are on their way there. The FBI, too, he says, may return.

Lansdale insists on making one final, and important, point about the tribunal's indictments. "We are trying to relieve a sense of collective guilt. Not all Serbs are guilty. The indictments against individuals may help break the chain of retribution."

The particular ruthlessness of Serbian activity in and around Djakove may stem from the town's robust intellectual and economic status over the years. During Yugoslavia's Communist rule, many of its diplomats and university professors came from Djakove. The old quarter of town was wealthy, the economy robust, fed by factories that made refrigerator motors and washing machines. It is also not far from Djrenica, the heart of Albanian nationalism, and the location of the first KLA rebellions, and first Serbian atrocities.

The night after NATO's bombing campaign began, Djakove was one of the first towns to burn. A young man named Patrit, who refused to give his last name, remembers "the first day of bombing, the town was empty, like Texas. It was hot, the dust was blowing. It was scary." At 11:30 in the morning, the first fires began. "We thought NATO had bombed the town. People were crying in the streets, 'God save us.'" Two hundred fifty shops burnt in the old quarter, including the town's 500-year-old mosque, the most famous in Kosovo. "I thought, this is the end, this is how God wanted it to be, how it's supposed to be.

"Life after that was a nightmare," Patrit says. "You had a vision in your head that the police would come and that they were only looking for you." The vision, for many, came true.

On March 28, the KLA mounted an offensive against Serbian positions in the town. But the Serbs countered with overwhelming force and decisively won a firefight that largely took place in what remained of the old quarter. The KLA withdrew, leaving Djakove's exposed population helpless before Serbian reprisals. The paramilitary units came swiftly and brutally. Within days, more than 1,200 men disappeared, the fate of most still unknown. It was around this time that the massacres at Meja occurred.

Today, every morning, a man in a green suit, hat and tie sits before his incinerated store, from which he once sold funeral supplies. Down the street, another man sits before his obliterated machine shop. "I worked in this shop for 55 years," he says. "I will rebuild if the U.N. helps me. My tools are gone. I don't have anything. NATO started this, so they have to fix it. What they did was good for the nation but my shop is only mine and no one can help me."

Tacked to Djakove's charred telephone poles are stark notices of the known dead. Townspeople gather and crane their necks to take note of who among them won't be coming back. But the notices are few.

One Djakove man who has lived to tell his tale has become something of a celebrity. Labinot Lifovec, 24, was one of the four released from Serbian prisons. He sits on his porch, gaunt, weak, glad and lucky to be alive.

"It was 6 a.m. on May 14," he recalls of his capture, "and my brother and sister were sleeping. I was awake with my mother and father. Fifteen to 20 policemen in blue uniforms broke down the door. I saw only guns in my face.

"One guy beat me in the head with his gun. I lost consciousness, and woke three to four hours later. I saw myself in the garden with my brother. I asked what happened. Another guy took my mother and began to beat her in front of me with a club. I started to scream, 'Don't push my mother.' One policeman says, 'I'm going to kill you. You have 30 minutes to live.' I said it's better to kill me now. He hit me with his gun. I was unconscious again. When I woke I saw blood everywhere. I asked my brother, 'Are we alive or are we dead?' The police said: 'You want to say your last words to your family now?' I said, 'I don't have last words. I'm not going to die, I'm going to live.'

"They started laughing. I thought my life was gone. I told my brother, 'We are going to die, but don't be afraid, we are not the first, and we won't be the last.'"

In Djakove's jail, Lifovec was interrogated, accused of spying for NATO and beaten for five days and nights. Then he was transported with four others to a jail in Pec. There, he was tossed into a cell full of Serbian criminals, who were told he'd worked with NATO and the KLA, and hated Serbs. Ten men descended on him and beat him.

At 4 a.m. on June 11, Lifovec was awakened. "I knew what was going to happen, because Milosevic signed agreements. I knew I was going to Serbia." He was herded onto one of eight buses full of ethnic Albanians. On the bus, the Serbs forced the men to eat bars of soap, threatening them with cutting their throats if they didn't comply. If they didn't eat enough, their faces were cut. The Serbs drank continuously, beating their prisoners with the empty bottles of liquor. They put the business end of their machine guns in the prisoners' mouths. "Do we kill them now or after?" Lifovec remembers them asking each other.

At one point, forces belonging to the notorious Arkan stopped the bus and demanded three Albanians be brought to him to be shot. The guards argued for over an hour for the prisoners' lives. They won the argument, but when the buses began to move again they demanded the prisoners pay for the lives they'd just been spared. But no one had the money to pay, and they were severely beaten again. Once over the border in Serbia, en route to the prisons, the guards stopped the buses in 10 different villages, each time permitting local Serbs to board the buses and take their shots at the Albanians with fists and clubs. The buses were split into two groups, one heading to a prison in the town of Lifovec, the other to Zagechar.

Other reports by ethnic Albanians who survived Serbian jails detail a brutal regimen of mistreatment that reminds one of adolescent torture fantasies: large groups of men packed into small rooms, forced for hours to drink water tinged with their own blood from previous beatings, then refused access to a bathroom, leaving them no choice but to urinate on each other; forced one by one to play goalie against a string of Serbian penalty kickers, the punishment for failing to stop a shot a severe beating.

The men were kept for over a month, surviving on daily food rations of 200 grams of bread and four grams of cheese. Lifovec lost 33 pounds. He was released on June 29. When asked why he didn't flee Djakove when he had the opportunity, to join the columns of refugees fleeing toward Albania and Macedonia, he replies, "I wanted to stay, not to be a refugee. It is better to die at home than to die somewhere where they won't know who is the body."

By Peter Landesman

Peter Landesman is a journalist and novelist. His journalism has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. His second novel, "Blood Acre," was published in February by Viking.

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