The search for truth in one Kosovo village

Alleged killing of 150 in Izbica may be the war's worst massacre.

Izbica is so small it is not marked on most maps of Kosovo. But the isolated cluster of farms has seized the attention of war-crimes investigators and Western officials sifting through the atrocity tales of ethnic Albanians driven from Kosovo by Serbian "ethnic cleansing."

Izbica is among 43 locations in Kosovo that NATO and US officials have identified as potential mass-grave sites. Satellite imagery of Izbica released by NATO shows an estimated 150 graves in three rows.

Now, ethnic Albanian refugees have separately told the United Nations, independent investigators, and the Monitor their accounts of what happened in Izbica. Some testimonies mirror reports from ethnic Albanian rebels of what would be, if confirmed, the worst massacre known in Kosovo. Yet many contain inconsistencies, while others give totally different versions. Indeed, Izbica is emblematic of the enormously complex task facing UN investigators of war crimes.

"One of the things that's a bit tricky is the accounts of whose bodies they are in the graves," says Johanna Bjorken, an Amnesty International investigator looking into Izbica. "I have no doubt that there is actually a graveyard in Izbica, and I am concerned by the testimonies that I have that civilians were executed in that area."

Those scrutinizing Izbica face many of the problems common to war-crimes cases. Disoriented and terrorized by their experiences, witnesses or survivors can forget, omit, or confuse details. They can repeat hearsay and are often unwilling to come forward. And tracking down corroborating witnesses among the estimated 600,000 refugees in Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and elsewhere is an enormous challenge.

"When you have hundreds of thousands of people flowing across the border, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," says Andre Lommen of New York-based Human Rights Watch, who has also been pursuing the Izbica case.

Izbica may also prove difficult because Kosovo has been sealed off for weeks to outsiders, and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has consistently refused to cooperate with UN war-crimes investigations. Belgrade denies anything untoward happened in Izbica, prompting a Western official to warn that "the Izbica grave site is being monitored to detect Serbian efforts at grave tampering."

Izbica is about 30 miles northwest of the Kosovo capital, Pristina, in the Drenica region, the heartland of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which is fighting for Kosovo's independence. Wooded, hilly, and with few roads, Drenica has been the site of previous massacres and was stormed by armor-backed Serbian forces and paramilitary gangs at the beginning of the month. Refugees from the area immediately began telling of an alleged massacre in Izbica when they arrived in Kukes last week, before NATO released its satellite pictures on Saturday.

The Monitor tracked down three men who in separate interviews insisted they were among 60 or 70 people who helped to bury the dead. One gave the number of victims as 148, with two survivors; the others spoke of 150, including several women, and also mentioned two survivors. None of the men knew the other two. Each relates how they had been hiding in the hills after Serbian assaults on their homes and had heard in the nearby village of Kaldernica that there was to be a burial of massacre victims in Izbica.

"I heard that in Izbica there was a burial ceremony of 150 people who were killed," recounts Izmet Konjuhi, from nearby Lecina. "When I got to Izbica, I saw the bodies were in lines in a field. Some graves had already been dug. Nineteen victims belonged to my village." He recites the names of 19 members of the Shala, Draga, Dervisaj, and Hoti clans. The name of a 20th victim, the wife of a Hoti man, he does not know.

Mustafa Kajtazi and Bajram Citaku, both of Kaldernica, and Mr. Konjuhi each say they talked to a survivor, who described how the victims, all relatives of KLA fighters, were lined up by Serbian police and shot from behind as they stood with their hands behind their heads. Mr. Citaku alleges the killers were local officers from the villages of Belica, Susica, Lecina, and Polana.

But there are inconsistencies in their accounts. They differ on the date of the burial, with Citaku giving it as April 8, Mr. Kajtazi saying April 4, and Konjuhi April 3. Two also say the victims were killed as a group, while Konjuhi recounts that "I heard they killed them in two places."

As for the location of the graves, Konjuhi and Citaku describe it as a field; Kajtazi's description of a piece of ground lying between a stream and the village fits the satellite imagery.

Ms. Bjorken says there are also inconsistencies in the testimonies she collected from 10 confidential witnesses. "Everyone talks about a mass grave where 150 people are buried in Izbica," she says. "What's confusing is exactly what happened."

Some witnesses told her of a massacre; others recounted how bodies of individuals killed around the area by Serbian police were brought to Izbica for burial. "What is disturbing is that one person I talked to said they had buried a person, who they named, in Izbica," she continues. "But I talked to another person who named the same person and said, 'We buried him in the woods.' "

Finally, she adds, "People from the area without direct knowledge identify that as a location of a KLA graveyard. So it's tricky."

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