Returning to sites of Kosovo’s horrors, signs of healing and injustice

PRISTINA, Kosovo — In the Balkans, the 28th of June has resonated on the calendar through centuries of history like a bell tolling slowly and steadily at the end of a funeral.

The meaning of the date still clangs with nationalism and ethnic divisions, echoing through to today as Kosovo’s nascent democracy unceremoniously marks the conclusion of the 1998-99 war when President Bill Clinton came here to celebrate the liberation of the Kosovar Albanians from the Serb army and paramilitaries.

I covered the war in Kosovo, which killed 10,000 people in a matter of months after independence-seeking fighters known as the Kosovo Liberation Army rebelled against Serbian military rule. And now 15 years later, I set out to revisit the once burned-out neighborhoods and villages I had reported on to see if they’d recovered after the horrific ethnic cleansing campaign and mass killings carried out by the Serbs in their crackdown on the bid for independence.

Specifically, I wanted to find Liria Gashi, who I could never forget. She had told me the story of her family losing 41 relatives and friends in a slaughter of innocent civilians in a small village called Cuska at the hands of a local Serb paramilitary unit, a leader of which she knew from high school. It took place on May 14, 1999 and was one of the worst mass killings in the war. I had last seen her, as it turned out, almost exactly 15 years ago to the day, according to a frayed and yellowing notebook from my reporting for The Boston Globe.

I had no idea if Liria was still alive, and if so, whether she felt justice had ever been served to the culprits, particularly her high school classmate who had killed so many of her family and friends.

* * *

So why is this day, June 28, unique in Kosovo’s history? The reasons tumble through time from the Middle Ages through the Balkan wars of the early 20th century to today.

On this year’s calendar, June 28 will mark the 100th anniversary of an event in Sarajevo that touched off the cataclysm that was the First World War.

June 28th was not a random day chosen by the 19-year-old assassin Gavrilo Princip and the web of Serb nationalists who took part in the conspiracy to kill the heir to the Austrian throne. They chose June 28, historians believe, because it was a solemn day on the Serbian calendar remembered every year for more than five centuries as St. Vitus’ Day.

It was June 28, 1389 when the medieval empire of Tsar Stepan Dusan was defeated by the Turks on the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo. And so the date and the place are a sacred part of the Serbian national narrative marked by a granite tower dedicated to the battle.

The field has long symbolized a calling to Serbs to restore a Greater Serbia, to restore the honor of Orthodox Christianity over the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. It lies at the center of their identity of victimhood, of heroes and villains, of conspiracies and assassinations and a desperate sense of fate that they will someday return.

It was on June 28, 1989 that Slobodan Milosevic, then a rising and charismatic Serbian nationalist leader in the former Yugoslavia, delivered a thundering speech from the historic field in Kosovo. He resurrected the idea of Serbia restoring its greatness and the reach of its empire, and he memorably vowed to his fellow Serbs, “They will never beat you again!”

That speech turned out to be a rhetorical call to arms that two years later, with Milosevic in power, would materialize into a series of conflicts in the Balkans from 1991 to 1999.

It was 1999 when Milosevic inspired Serb paramilitary units to invade Kosovo and undertake yet another campaign of ethnic cleansing in an attempt to push out the Kosovar Albanian population and fulfill his dream of a Greater Serbia. And so Kosovo Field still stands as the site of an epic battle from the history of what Harvard historian Samuel Huntington would later dub “The Clash of Civilizations,” a fault line between Christianity and Islam.

In the northern town of Pec near the border of Montenegro, I had seen the burnt shells of row after row of homes and shops owned by ethnic Albanians torched by Serbs. In Pristina’s Grand Hotel, I had seen a basement nightclub where Serb paramilitaries had allegedly set up a rape camp and heard the testimony of ethnic Albanian women who said they were assaulted there.

In the village of Blace, I had seen the sprawling refugee camp, described as the largest in Europe since World War II, where ethnic Albanian families had been forcibly taken in boxcars and marched at gunpoint through frigid weather to be dumped on the muddy hillside camp on the border of Albania where they were told by the Serb forces that they should go to live. That was before NATO intervened on behalf of Kosovo and the KLA and pushed the Serb forces back and liberated the country.

Fittingly perhaps, it was on June 28th, 2001 when a defeated — and by then deposed —Milosevic was flown by helicopter from Belgrade to face charges for war crimes before the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. In 2006, Milosevic was found dead in his cell of an apparent heart attack before a long, drawn-out trial against him was concluded.

Concerns remain among Kosovars and the international community that the cancerous violence of Serb nationalism, which lies in remission now, might return as it did so fatefully in World War I. The Serbs, who live in the northernmost corner of Kosovo, keep a kind of sullen silence and separation.

But overall, Kosovo seemed on the surface to be on the way to communal rebuilding and collective healing.

Pec was almost completely rebuilt and revitalized. The sun was shining on a pleasant June afternoon. Children were playing. Families were strolling and young lovers were kissing in the park. Cafes were packed with crowds glued to the World Cup competition. The war seemed as if it had never happened.

In Pristina, hotels including the Grand were renovated and full of tourists steadily returning and restaurants were flowing with non-governmental organization, or NGO, staff who form a thriving industry of their own built on humanitarian missions and international donors dedicated to rebuilding Kosovo.

There was excitement surrounding a June 8 national parliamentary election, which featured no violence and a relatively high voter turnout in what looked like a reelection of the incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci to a third term.

Even as rival political parties vied to build a ruling coalition and a political scandal threatened to engulf Thaci, the antics made it all seem, well, like many other Western-style democracies.

But an important touchstone of whether Kosovo was truly recovering was the village of Cuska and I made the three-hour drive there with photographer Ron Haviv, a friend and colleague who did signature work in documenting the war Kosovo and just about all of the worst fighting in the Balkans through the 1990s.

* * *

We pulled off the newly paved highway from Pristina to Pec and down a narrow road through fields that ended up in the small farming village.

We stopped at the turn in the road where most of the mass graves had been freshly dug back in June 1999. Now the graves were marked with headstones. The bodies had been exhumed and autopsies performed that were used as evidence in the prosecution of the Serb forces for war crimes. And there was a black marble monument with the name of each of the victims.

A farmer with deep lines of age in his face but the step of a young man approached with a wheelbarrow stacked with fresh-cut hay. He was rushing to get the hay in from an approaching rain. We stopped him and talked for a while.

He was Isa Gashi, 72. We asked about the day of May 14, 1999 when the Serbs targeted Cuska because it was the hometown of Kosovo Liberation Army commander Agim Ceku. When the Serb paramilitary fighters swept into the town, first they killed Ceku’s father. Then they went house to house, Gashi remembered, robbing the families, robbing their possessions and separating the men from the women and children. They executed the men at close range in a cluster of three separate farm buildings.

“My three brothers were killed right beside me. I was shot and lay still as if I was dead and two of the dead were thrown on top of me,” he said.

He hid under the corpses before managing to escape through a window of the farm building just before they poured gasoline over the bodies and set them ablaze. He lay in a field bleeding from a gunshot wound in his leg and hearing the horror unfolding around him. He was recovered that night by relatives who emerged from hiding after the units finally pulled out of the village.

He told us that, like many of the eyewitness survivors, he had testified in a recent trial of the Serb paramilitaries, a unit known locally as “The Jackals,” which carried out the attack.

I had not known about the prosecution until I arrived in Kosovo, and had just dug up some coverage of the trials in the local press, which reported that they took place at a war crimes tribunal in Belgrade. A total of 11 men were tried and nine were convicted. Sentencing had just been completed in the cases, he said, about a month earlier. They received between 2 and 20 years.

When asked if he felt there was justice, Gashi said simply, “No.”

I wanted to hear more, but then he explained that he had to get the hay in before the rain. Just before he left, we asked if Liria still lived in the village.

“Right there,” he said, pointing to a small cottage set in a vineyard with traditional cement walls and a red tiled roof.

“She’s married to my cousin. They’re at the market selling milk. She’ll be back,” he said.

And so we waited under the trees next to the monument reading the names of the 41 killed, their ages ranging from 19 to 91, and the inscription carved in black granite:

“May 14, 1999. Martyrs of Freedom. Killed and burned by Serb criminals. You stayed in your homes, immovable. And you will stay in the hearts of your people forever.”

The rain was just starting as a couple came walking down the narrow road into the village. I was sure it was Liria. She had aged, but she was definitely recognizable. She knew I was waiting because a relative had called her cell phone to say that an American reporter was looking for her. She said she remembered me and we shook hands and then hugged.

“Yes, I remember you,” Liria said. “I remember everything from that day and from that time. I remember you coming here and listening to our story. You can never forget. As hard as you try, you can never forget anything from a day like that,” she said.

* * *

She was now 52 years old. We walked down the road and went into the home where she and her husband, Sadik, 60, put down their bags of groceries from the market, where they said they go every Friday to barter and sell their produce.

They have five children, and several of them sat with us on a small patio overlooking the fields. We ate cucumbers that Sadik had picked from the field, carved the skin with a pocket knife and gently salted.

Liria explained that she lost 13 relatives in the mass killing, mostly cousins, and many neighbors. She knew every one of the 41 killed as it is a small and tightly knit community.

She had hid her oldest son that day and he survived, she said. Her daughters were small children and one of them, Danietta, who was five at the time, has never been the same, she said, Danietta has experienced severe depression and psychological trauma.

An Italian team of psychiatrists offered counseling in the aftermath, she said, but not in many years. Danietta hovered on the edges of the conversation and at one point was visibly shaking as Liria recounted the horrors of that day, the details of the paramilitaries arriving with green grease paint and camouflage uniforms and automatic weapons.

“I swear to God I would like to never have to go back to that story to tell it again. We have gained nothing out of telling it,” said Liria.

I asked her about the recent case against the local Serb paramilitaries and soldiers who had carried out the attack. She explained that she traveled twice to Belgrade to testify in the case and that she was accompanied by a team of prosecutors from the European Union. Nine were convicted she said, but three were released.

And what about the local Serb leader who she knew from high school, Zvonimir Svetkovic, nicknamed Zvonko. In my story in 1999, Liria had recounted how he had arrived in the village prior to the attack and she quietly whispered to him, “Zvonko, is that you?”

She asked him to spare her family as they were once friends. She recounted how he had changed and how he had become cold-hearted and indifferent to her pleas.

When Zvonko and the unit returned, she hid in her home behind the baseboard of a bed, she said, and was able to catch a glimpse of the scene when they arrived to carry out the attack. She said she saw Zvonko looking for her and calling out for her, but she feared he would kill her to make sure she could not live to tell who carried out the attack.

She had a chance to testify directly about what he did and she said she was afraid, but proud of bearing witness. But she also informed me that Zvonko denied all of the charges against him and she said he lied to the court, stating that he was never in the village. He was among the two who were acquitted in the trial. He was released and is believed to be living in Serbia.

“I told the court he was lying. We all saw him. We know him and we know what he did,” she said.

Indeed, her husband and several neighbors, including her cousin with the wheelbarrow who circled back after finishing loading hay, confirmed that they knew Zvonko and that that they saw him there before and during the attack.

“We are unsatisfied by the whole process. It was a show trial. I told the criminals that if they were tried in Kosovo they would have had a different fate, and they would be executed, I would not be surprised if they’ve all been released already,” she said, growing visibly upset as her husband tried to calm her.

We walked outside in a light rain to look at the monument and the scene where the crime took place, and I asked if she was okay in the rain.

She laughed a bit at the question, smiling for the first time since we greeted, and said, “I’m not sugar, I won’t melt in the rain.”

There was complete quiet except for the rain hitting the tiles of the cottages in the village and chickens pecking in a courtyard. The farmlands were lush in the rain and it seemed to calm her after the emotion of sharing her story.

Out of the quiet, she offered a last observation, saying, “It’s hard, but we’re okay. We have rebuilt our home. We have our lives. But there was no justice. How do we move on knowing that? I am not sure we can ever really move on if there is not justice. ”

 See more of Ron Haviv’s photography from the wars in Yugoslavia