"The ones who fell on top of me saved my life"

A man who miraculously survived a Serbian massacre tells his terrible story.

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

A couple of miles to the southwest of Suhareka, Kosovo -- a charmless, sun-bitten tire-manufacturing town of 110,000 north of Prizren -- four unclaimed bodies lie half-interred in the gravel of a riverbed, hands clawed and legs kicking skyward like amputated trees. The corpses appear headless, the flesh chewed at, the manner of death not clear. A leg wears an Adidas tracksuit. The riverbank hums with bees. A few hundred yards downstream, the water empties into the town's drinking supply.

Among Suhareka's vineyards, a girl, perhaps 15, perhaps 19, lies spread-eagle in a clearing. No one knows her name; probably she was a refugee from another village. There is no clothing. Her hair, long and black, pools beneath a skull charred by the sun, teeth clenched in agony. Her body, obviously young, has burst, maggot-ridden. Worse still are her fingernails, painted scarlet red, unchipped, the perfection of a great beauty. Dead two weeks, she was led here, raped, her throat slit, not necessarily in that order, and left as she lies. One imagines her not begging for her life.

Hundreds died in Suhareka. In household gardens rest human skulls, femurs, teeth. In the bedrooms of houses torched by Serbs, couples lie burnt in their beds. In a nearby village off the road, nine bodies -- still unidentified -- lie in a puzzle of limbs at the bottom of a well.

Among Suhareka's killing fields lives Muharren Shala, age 47, although he shouldn't. On March 25, the day after NATO began bombing, Shala was shot five times by local Serbian militia members and left for dead beneath a pile of friends and neighbors. He is one of the few victims of Serbian massacres who is able to tell his story. When asked if he would do so, he hesitates, glancing skyward, wringing his hands. Thus far he has spoken to no one about this but family.

Then he nods, assenting, recalling a hasty pledge among his now-dead neighbors -- made on the off chance that anyone survived -- to make what happened known.

At 5:30 a.m. on March 24, Shala says, 30 to 40 militia members -- a ragtag platoon of local Serbs deputized by a notorious paramilitary leader named Mishko Niskovic -- rounded up 14 ethnic Albanian men from three neighboring families. Thirty refugees from nearby villages had been previously collected and separated by gender. The men were shoved together with the locals, then told to wait in a house.

Across the road, one girl among the female refugees was stripped of her jewelry and money, then told to run. She obeyed, began to flee, and was shot in the back. Other women were told to do the same and were similarly shot. Shala does not remember how many, but it was many. Then there was quiet again. The Serbs stood smoking in the road. "I could hear the flies," Shala says. The men began to pass cigarettes between themselves. "We told each other we would be killed. We told each other that if someone survived, he should tell what happened."

The Serbs approached them. "You are looking for independence?" one asked, grinning. Shala remembers putting out his cigarette and dropping it into his breast pocket.

The men were herded toward the door to a carpentry shop and told to go inside. As the men filed by, the militiamen opened fire with automatic weapons. Shala was shot five times in the shoulder and back and fell beneath two friends. Eight in all were shot from behind in the fusillade, then fell in a heap inside the shop entrance. As Shala lay quietly, militiamen stood over them and shot in the head the two they took to still be alive. In the chaos, two others had managed to bolt for the back door. They were caught, shot and later burned.

Lying beneath the bleeding corpses of his friends, Shala didn't understand why he was still alive. "I felt born for the second time," he says. He waited 20 minutes beneath the weight, pulled himself out, then, bleeding heavily, slipped into a neighboring building. Serbian snipers had taken positions on the roof of a school across the street. Shala waited three hours until the snipers withdrew. Someone he knew -- someone he would not name -- walked by. Shala signaled to him, begging for help, but the neighbor walked quickly on, afraid for his own life.

At 11 a.m., in agony, Shala spotted a girl of 7 or 8 in the street. He signaled to her and asked her to bring him water. When she returned with the water, he asked for bread and cheese, and she -- still unknown to him -- brought him those things. The girl returned a fourth time with her mother, who told Shala's wife where he was. At first Shala sent his wife away, fearing for her life. But they spent that night together in the house, lying on the floor, talking quietly of their escape.

By the next morning, Shala's bleeding had subsided, and with his wife's help he made his way back to his house. The Serbian police came looking for him, but his wife and children hid him beneath a couch, draping his 7-year-old daughter atop him.

The bodies, 90 in all, lay untouched in the street and carpentry shop for three days, when the Serbs returned to bury them in hastily dug graves in a cemetery across the street. Most were refugees unknown to Shala or anyone else, and those who do know them will most likely never know where they died.

Shala and his family then began a dismal journey identical to that of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, taking refuge in one village, then the next. They were on the run for seven weeks. They returned to Suhareka only recently.

Shala holds out two plastic vials. One contains three bullets removed from his shoulder. The other holds the cigarette he dropped in his breast pocket moments before he was shot. "They are my memories," he says.

He leads his visitors to the cemetery and stands among the unmarked graves. A hardened man, he begins to weep. He wonders which of the mounds contain his friends. "The ones who fell on top of me saved my life," he says. "They paid."

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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