'Unfinished business': The former Kosovo fighters ensuring Gjakova massacre killers not forgotten

Kim Sengupta

“I don’t think the Serbs will give us anything. I hope there isn’t another war, but we will fight again if necessary. There is unfinished business” said Berat Dana, sitting with a group of former comrades and reflecting on what lay ahead for Kosovo two decades after the bitter struggle for independence.

Mr Dana lost 13 members of his family in the conflict. The others who were in the Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) with him had all also paid a price – injuries, capture and torture as well as losing relations themselves.

They wanted to see a final settlement with Serbia, they said, as long as it was just and fair: and they remained uncertain about if and when that will be possible.

Last week Kosovo marked the 20th anniversary of the war, and the birth of statehood, with a ceremony attended by Bill Clinton, then US president, and Madeline Albright, then secretary of state – the two people in charge of American policy when Nato began its mission against the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

A Nato force of 3,500 still remains in the country while a deal with Belgrade continues to remain elusive.

Kosovo’s independence is recognised by 115 countries including the US, UK and most Western European states: but not by Serbia, its allies Russia and China and European Union member states Spain, Rumania, Cyprus and Slovenia.

The former KLA members reflecting on the past, present and future were in a restaurant in Gjakova in western Kosovo— a town that had been once a fierce centre of resistance during the war and had experienced grim retribution as a consequence.

Parts of the town, including historic cultural heritages from Roman and Ottoman times, were deliberately destroyed.

Hundreds of civilians were killed, many remain missing, and there was systematic abductions and rapes of girls and women by the security forces. Around 75 per cent of the population were expelled, their homes burned.

What took place in Gjakova formed a major part of the United Nations war crimes indictment of Milosevic and his trial in The Hague.

New evidence of abuse continues to be collected to this day with the hope of activists that charges could be brought even after all this time.

Relations of Mr Dana died in one particularly bloody massacre on 10 May 1999, when Serbian forces descended on a neighbourhood that was seen as a hotbed of nationalism, and took away the male residents from the very young to the very old.

The youngest to die was Labinot, a 14-year-old cousin, the oldest Mr Dana’s 90-year-old grandfather Ramadan.

Other members of his extended family had been ‘disappeared’ after being arrested, their graves not yet found.

Mr Dana was with his KLA unit in the countryside when he heard about the killings. “I felt very angry and also very sad. What happened was so unjustified, killing people who were just civilians,” he said.

“I found the names of two policemen who were involved in the arrests and contacted them after the war, I wanted to find out what happened to the missing. I tracked one down to Montenegro, but I was told that he was ill. So we have all these murders and people who have got away, it’s not easy to forgive.”

Shkendie Hoda is part of a team who want to ensure that the victims are not forgotten and perpetrators do not escape justice with the passing years. They have collated information that they pass on to the United Nations and the European Union for fresh investigations.

Kosovars pay respect for their relatives killed during Gjakova massacre (ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The demand for new prosecutions of accused Serbians have grown with the setting up of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office which is looking into allegations of war crimes against a number of former senior KLA figures, including the Kosovar President Hashim Thaci.

The prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, was charged with war crimes after he became prime minister following the war. He was tried twice by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague and acquitted both times.

His trials caused widespread anger in Kosovo, nowhere more so than in Gjakova. Mr Haradinaj comes from this region and is regarded here as a wartime hero who was denied the opportunity to shape the country at a crucial time by the international community acquiescing to Serb demands.

“There are killers who are free now leading normal lives while we don’t even know where many of those who were killed are buried. We have been collecting evidence, carrying put research and handing it over to the international authorities,” Ms Hoda said.

“This is an issue for all of Kosovo, but felt really strongly by us in Gjakova because this place suffered so much during the war. We were targeted by regime because so many people from here were in the struggle for independence.

“It’s not just the killings, there were so many sexual assaults, there were around 25,000 rapes in Kosovo, the victims have to live with the trauma every day.”

Ms Hoda was 29, and her brother Hekuran, 33, when they joined the resistance. He fought in a KLA unit in the field while she stayed on in Gjakova collecting intelligence.

“Everyone played their part in the movement, men, women, boys and girls all joined” recalled Mr Hoda, who won a reputation as a formidable fighter. “It was not just being in the field, it was very risky for those who stayed inside Gjakova, getting the information, organising things, risking arrests and what followed that.”

“Ramush Haradinaj was our commander, he was out there with us. He was really needed after the war at a very difficult time for bringing stability, getting peace. And that is the time when he was charged with all these things and taken out of the country.”

Mr Hoda wanted to stress that he and his fellow Kosovars would always be grateful for international intervention.

“Let’s be clear, without the Nato bombing we wouldn’t have succeeded. We had to fight the Serbs, but without America, without Britain, we would not be here,” he said.

Mr Hoda was injured in a firefight, some of the shrapnel still remains in his body. “We didn’t have much medical facility. But that’s what happens in the war, a lot of people suffered. Many of us thought we would rather be killed than be captured, we knew what happened to those who were taken by the Serbs, like this guy here” he said gesturing the man across the table.

Gembi Batusha was captured on 11 May 1999 after a running battle with Serbian forces.

He was gathered with 300 others, many picked up in raids in the town, at a local factory. “We were beaten repeatedly, we hardly had any food, it was quite hard” he recalled.

“After a few days hey released the older men, the rest of us were then taken to Dubrovka jail.”

What happened at Dubrovka, the largest prison in Kosovo, became one of the most notorious and controversial chapters of the conflict.

On 19 May, Nato aircraft bombed buildings adjacent to the prison believing.

The Alliance held what they thought were hitting barracks of the Yugoslav army and Serbian police.

The government in Belgrade claimed 85 people, including prisoners, were killed.

Human Rights Watch found evidence of 18 deaths.

There were more air strikes on 21 May.

“The guards were angry, they could not do anything about the planes, and they took it out on us, the beatings were some of the worst”, said Mr Batusha.

“There was real hate there, a lot of people were badly injured.”

The next day a thousand prisoners were ordered to line up at a sports hall to be transferred, they were told, to safer places.

Hashim Thaci (Bloomberg/Getty)

“Then the guards and the police on the walls started shooting, they were using everything rifles, bazookas, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), there was screaming, people falling, blood, fire. I was among those who dived to the ground, those who could not mostly got shot,” his voice trailing away.

Some of the prisoners found places to hide in the prison complex, the basement areas and the sewers. Over the next 24 hours more paramilitary units were brought in and, with the help of Serb prisoners who had been armed by the guards, hunted them down, some were arrested, others executed, say the survivors.

More than 70 were killed at the sports ground, another 60 afterwards, according to humanitarian groups. The Serbian government maintained, however, the vast majority of the deaths were caused by Nato bombings.

The remaining prisoners, including Mr Batusha, were taken to the town of Lplijan in Kosovo before being moved to jails in central Serbia. He, along with some others, was eventually released after two years through the mediation of the International Red Cross.

“I got to live, others didn’t, people who were good friends died in Dubrovka, of course you think about them a lot, this is a very close community in Gjakova “ he reflected.

On the way out of the town one passes the home of Ferdonije Cerkezi whose husband and four sons are still missing after being arrested in March 1999. She had preserved the house the way it was the evening they were taken as a shrine .

Every Sunday she lays out dinner for her husband and sons at the dining table.

“There is an old belief that if you put out food and spoons for those who had gone away from a family they will come back” she explained.

“I don’t think there is much hope of that left, but who knows? But most of all I would just like to know now what happened to them, that they didn’t suffer too much.”