Kosovo: A Bloody Weekend In Drenica
7 March 1998
On Tuesday, March 3rd, over 50,000 people gathered on a hill in the village of Likosani near Drenica, some 40 kilometers north-east of Kosovo's capital Pristina. Nine bodies wrapped in red-and-black Albanian national flags were lying in front of a makeshift stage. Only fifty yards away, there were nine freshly dug graves. The funeral was originally scheduled for one o'clock in the afternoon, but commenced in the early evening hours because police had erected barricades on all roads to Drenica. They tried to prevent people coming from all over Kosovo to attend the funeral. Rows of cars and buses at the Komorani checkpoint near Glogovac stretched for miles. Ten members of the Ahmeti family from Likosani and their neighbors had a good reason to be at the funeral: they had been dead for three days already. Their bodies were taken that morning from the Pristina morgue but the truck carrying them reached the village only late that afternoon, as the driver was forced to take almost impassable side-roads the police couldn't barricade. When the bodies finally arrived, it turned out that the death toll was bigger than expected so three more graves had to be dug. A total of 24 persons, mainly peasants from Likosani and the nearby village Chirez, were buried that day. The four policemen and an ethnic Albanian buried the day before bring the total death toll of the bloody weekend in Drenica to 29.
The obviously exaggerated reports by both the Serb and the Albanian side, as well as controversial testimonies of eyewitnesses still in a state of shock, made it no easier to establish what exactly happened between Friday, when the clashes broke out, and Sunday, when police finally left Drenica. It is certain, however, that Kosovo has not seen so much bloodshed since 28 March 1989, when 70 people were killed in riots following a government decision that effectively took away Kosovo's autonomy.
A protest rally by ethnic Albanians in Pristina following the Drenica bloodshed ended with a brutal police intervention in which 30 protesters were wounded and one was killed, allegedly with a shot in the mouth. The situation in the province is tense, there is no telling what could happen next. Ethnic Albanian political leaders, including the Democratic Alliance of Kosovo leader Ibrahim Rugova and head of the Parliamentary party Adem Demaci, have girded together and convened for days in an effort to take a common stand on the massacre. At the time this edition of Vreme was being put in circulation, it was still too early to predict how they might react to the aggravated situation in the province. Meanwhile, the Serbian media and the vast majority of both government and opposition leaders took turns in congratulating the police with some exaltation for "dealing a decisive blow to the terrorists". Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic went out of his way to express his personal condolence to the families of the killed policemen, and duly praised the police for their "courage, patriotism and commitment". The Commander of the special police troops, Miroslav Mijanovic, called the four killed policemen "the knights of Kosovo slued by ethnic Albanian bandits", while the ethnic Albanians said the friends and relatives they buried in Likosane were "martyrs and heroes, the innocent victims of Serbian terror". It appears that neither side is prepared to treat one another as human beings.
The police version: The Serbian interior ministry released a statement to the effect that it all started on Saturday around half past noon, when a police unit allegedly on a routine patrolling assignment was ambushed near Likosane. The car ran into a ditch, and the officers in trouble requested back up. Another police vehicle with four officers in it was sent to rescue them, but they too were ambushed several miles down the road. That is when two officers were killed from automatic weapons, while another two were seriously wounded and taken to hospital. Around two o'clock in the afternoon, another back up unit was sent and "engaged in battle against the terrorists, in full accord with the powers vested in the police". Clashes between the police and the self-styled Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which claimed responsibility for the death of four Serbian policemen, went on all night and spilled into the nearby villages. By Sunday, when the fighting stopped, two more police officers were killed and another two were wounded, while the death toll on the other side rose to 15. The Serbian interior ministry didn't bother to disclose the names of the killed "terrorists" nor the nine allegedly arrested, leaving that to the ethnic Albanian side. There are lots of facts indicating that the Interior Ministry statement is only partially true. There had been no routine patrol assignments in the central Kosovo region of Drenica and its border municipalities Glogovac, Mitrovica and Klina since last November, when the UCK effectively took control of the region. Several minor skirmishes occurred, and they all ended with police withdrawal. Since then, police going on business to Drenica have been backed up by helicopter and armored vehicles. It is therefore hard to imagine that the police unit ambushed on Saturday was on a routine mission. Most of the killed Albanians (the death toll does not match police reports), were no terrorists. According to eyewitness reports from Drenica, clashes between police and the UCK broke out on Friday evening, a whole day prior to what the police said. According to eyewitnesses, the fighting broke out in Srbica, the largest village in the Drenica region, and not in Likosane.
The fighting broke out when unidentified individuals drove by a primary school accommodating Serb refugees and fired at the building with automatic weapons. Police reacted instantly and started pursuing the assailants, who stopped their vehicle in a chicane near Likosani and opened fire at their pursuants. The police vehicle slid off the road into the ditch, and it seems that two police officers were killed in this shootout. The back up unit that consequently arrived could not make any progress at night. During the night and the following morning, both sides deployed reinforcements and prepared for battle. Full-scale clashes broke out when the police arrived with some 30 armored vehicles and two Gama assault choppers. The UCK fighters tried to repel the vastly superior enemy but had to withdraw and leave the inhabitants of Likosani and Chirez at the mercy of the police, who stormed into the villages and started searching the houses. It appears that someone fired at the police during the search, and that is when the massacre began.
Brains in the grass: Those who somehow managed to reach Likosane and Chirez on Monday came across a sickening sight: in the bullet riddled houses lay the dead, surrounded by their family members in a deep state of shock. Four brothers of the Djelji family - Bechir, Nazmi, Bedri and Bekim were killed in their Chirez home. Muhamet Dzleja, 79, his brother Naser and cousin Kadrid were apparently shot from close range, the photographs clearly showing gunpowder marks around the wounds. Dzemsir Nabihu and his pregnant wife Rukija had their heads blown off. Virtually all the victims were killed in their homes or just outside them. Some houses were hit by artillery, but reports that they had been torched and demolished fortunately turned out to be devoid of all truth. The worst fate befell the Ahmeti family of Likosani, the wealthiest in the village, as almost all its members were executed. Mirsije Ahmeti, 24, who lost her father and three brothers, told Vreme that police stormed into their estate breaking through the gate with an armored vehicle at around four o'clock in the afternoon. "My father shouted out that the door was open, but they shattered the windows and pointed their rifles at us. They told us to lie down on our fronts, put our hands behind our heads and locked us up in a small room. They took all the men out while we stayed locked until they left," Mirsije told Vreme's reporter. When she and the other women got out, their men were nowhere to be seen. Traces of blood on the rocks near a bush led them to outside their estate, where the neighbors found bullet shells, dry blood on the ground, pieces of clothes, human bones and an entire human brain on a patch of grass. They sealed the area with a rope and let Vreme's reporter take a look for himself. Ten dead members of the Ahmeti family between the age of 16 and 60 were delivered on Tuesday in the truck mentioned earlier.
An individual who saw the bodies in the Pristina morgue said they looked "pretty chewed up".
"They were alive when they left", Mirsije said in tears.
Her cousin Dzevdet Ahmeti, 30, who happened to be in Pristina over the weekend and fortunately avoided the fate of his relatives, said the police robbed their home of about 5,000 German marks' worth of gold and foreign currency, ten kilos of meat and 200 eggs. They also took a satellite dish receiver and a car radio. "I don't understand these people", Dzevdet said with a strange calm in his voice. After they were done with the Ahmeti family, they moved into a neighboring house thinking it was abandoned. They were wrong, for 17 year old Nait N. (the name has been changed for obvious reasons) was hiding in the attic. "I didn't see anything but I heard it all. I heard blows and screams outside the Ahmeti estate. Then I heard gun shots and the screams stopped", Nait said. He spent 27 hours in the attic, too afraid to move. The house he was hiding in was used by the police as a canteen in which they prepared food they took from the Ahmeti home. They ate, drank and sang all night. One climbed into the attic and peeped in, but he didn't see me. I was paralyzed with fear", Nait said. The Likosani villagers say that not a single member of the Ahmeti family was a terrorist. "They were the only wealthy family in the village. They worked hard for their money, minded their own business and had good relations with everyone", one of the villagers said.
Why were they killed then?
The villagers said the police saw someone run into the Ahmeti backyard, while a police source said the following: "They shot at us from each and every house in the village. Our boys went wild. No one in the village would have survived if it weren't for orders from Belgrade to stop."
Say hello to Gelbard: The ethnic Albanians of Likosani and Chirez believe there would have been far more casualties if it weren't for the UCK, whose reputation seems to have remained unstained after the latest events. "They would have killed us all had there been no one to defend us", a villager said, and then answered our "naive" request for information on the whereabouts of the UCK and whether they would be willing to talk. "Who do you think the UCK are and where do you think they came from? Look around you, everything you see is the UCK", he said.
The efforts by the Serbian regime to label the Likosani and Chirez victims as terrorists who got what they asked for will probably fail. "Anti-terrorism, the way its done in the 'civilized world', doesn't mean that suspects have no rights and that they should be shot on sight. We also have a problem with terrorism, but we apprehend our terrorists and give them a fair trial", a western diplomat said. "Milosevic will have to bear the consequences of this action, but the immediate problem is that the western allies can't back their words by decisive action at the moment. The threat to bring back the sanctions is simply not enough", he added.
The West, after all, should not feel completely innocent in this bloody drama. The Drenica incident occurred only days after US diplomat Robert Gelbard sharply condemned the UCK as a terrorist organization. Ethnic Albanian leaders feel this was tantamount to giving Milosevic the green light to order an onslaught, while many ethnic Albanians now tell western diplomats and reporters to "give Gelbard their regards".
The US administration now has to explain that encouraging Milosevic was not their intention. What happened last weekend will only widen the rift within the international community. Some of America's European allies, not too fond of what they call US bulldozer diplomacy in the Balkans, are actually quite delighted that the US is now tangled up in the Kosovo mess, and they will most certainly look for a way to capitalize on any Washington error.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Drenica massacre was in fact a result of a cynical strategy. Serbian president Milan Milutinovic's optimistic statements about the education agreement and the forthcoming visits of western diplomats to Belgrade could be a prelude to a "Lex Specialis" for Kosovo. Too bad there was no one to explain this to the dwellers of Likosani and Chirez, for they might have decided to spend the weekend somewhere else.