Rather Than Mass Killing, Serbs Are Forcing Rebels to Care for Refugees

Recent mass-grave claims and 'ethnic cleansing' charges are played down by West.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The body of Xhelal Ejudi, an ethnic Albanian, is buried beneath a heap of garbage and marked by a sun-bleached wooden stake. The body of Eshref Shehu, killed three weeks ago, lies under cans, flattened plastic bottles, and an old sneaker.

The crude graveyard is tucked in the hills just outside Orahovac, where Serbian forces last month battled with ethnic Albanian rebels seeking independence for Kosovo. There are 25 stakes, but it is unclear exactly what lies below ground.

Serbian authorities confirmed that they collected 58 bodies after the fighting in Orahovac. They held most of them unclaimed for a week in the nearby city of Prizren and buried the remainder between July 20 and Aug. 3.

Recommended: Default

Reports of the trash-dump graveyard, and of some 200,000 displaced persons, have sent a wave of fear through Kosovo.

"This is like Bosnia, with ethnic cleansing, house-burning, and mass graves," says Sylejman Canta, a grape farmer from Orahovac who last week watched from a hill as a bulldozer dug the graveyard. Mr. Canta was one of the few who had returned after having fled the fighting.

But international officials have made distinctions between what happened in Bosnia during its 1992-95 civil war and what is taking place in Serbia's independence-seeking southern province.

More than 400 people have died in Kosovo since fighting erupted Feb. 28, but the international community has stopped short of using force to stop the violence.

European Union monitors visited Orahovac Aug. 5 and said there was no evidence of a "mass grave." Unlike in Bosnia, efforts had been made to identify the dead. And during a recent interview, a senior Western diplomat was careful not to use the phrase "ethnic cleansing," a term coined in Bosnia when ethnic groups were forced out and replaced with other nationalities in an effort to create ethnically pure regions.

"You bet it's disturbing," says the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But "I don't think the [Serbian authorities] are looking to replace the Albanian people with Serbian people."

Rather than try to drive all the Albanians out of Kosovo, it is more likely that the Serbs are attempting to disrupt the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) by forcing its soldiers to care for the homeless.

But the crisis in Kosovo clearly has similarities to Bosnia. For one, civilians are bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Zade Arucaj, an elderly ethnic Albanian woman from Rezale, was forced from her house this week when her village came under attack. "I don't know what happened to the men in my family," she says as she walks with two children in tow. "I don't know what happened to my house, but it was probably burned."

Less than 20 miles away, Serbian security forces could be seen filling plastic bottles with fuel. Down the road, a strip of five stores was in flames, an apparent systematic burning of Malisevo, a former rebel stronghold that last week was overrun by the Serbs.

After months of steady gains, the KLA has been beaten back in the past month by the greater firepower of the Serbian forces. As displaced persons have fled to the hills and fields, so has the KLA.

In a valley near Cirez, hundreds of ethnic Albanians set up a camp. A group of KLA soldiers in plain clothes had dropped their guns. They had just brought supplies, but there were too many people and not enough food.

Milaim Hajdari, a KLA soldier, says caring for the displaced has taken a toll on the guerrilla army.

"It has been hard enough fighting," he says, standing near a family by a stream. "But caring for these people is almost impossible."

International relief agencies have had limited access, despite reassurances from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Some areas are difficult to reach because of traffic-jammed roads and nearby fighting. Albanians there say they are not considering returning.

"When the Serbian police forces leave Kosovo, then I'll feel safe to go back," says Aferdita Ismajli as she holds a two-month-old baby.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...