Tales of atrocities mounting

Patterns are emerging in accounts of Serb abuses as the refugee exodus

Uprooted in a new wave of Serbian ethnic cleansing, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians are telling tales of atrocities and abuses so similar and numerous that it is apparent NATO is failing to avert a humanitarian crisis.

While accounts are nearly impossible to confirm independently, every refugee interviewed over a three-day period claims to have witnessed or heard of massacres, mass disappearances, and rapes. Men and women, including the elderly, nurse wounds from batons or rifle butts.

All say they were given a few minutes to leave their homes, which were looted and then burned, some with the infirm left inside.

Says an American official with access to satellite photos: "The sheer scope of the burning that is visible is unprecedented. You have hundreds and hundreds of villages."

Western officials say the new exodus ends an Orthodox Easter pause in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's drive to expel Kosovo's 2 million majority ethnic Albanians, something President Clinton says NATO bombing was designed to stop.

Says Bjork Therkildsen, a monitor with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe: "No matter what happens now, Milosevic has won."

The more-fortunate refugees ride in overloaded buses, tractor-drawn wagons, cars, and horse carts. Others, pointing to raw blisters on their children's feet, say thousands are force-marched for days without food or water, with infants and elderly dying on roadsides.

One man claims to have survived a massacre of 45 other men. Another alleges that more than 60 people in a column he was leading were killed April 15 by a Yugoslav jet in an attack that Belgrade staged to blame on NATO. (See story, below.)

The sheer volume of allegations is overwhelming human rights monitors and investigators of The Hague-based United Nations War Crimes Tribunal on Yugoslavia, which has pulled some workers off other cases and sent them to Albania.

Tracing witnesses among refugees scattered across Albania and Macedonia is extremely hard. Accounts that can be corroborated must be laboriously catalogued and cross-referenced before they can be used as evidence.

Persuasive stories

But Western officials say the similarity in stories from different areas of Kosovo makes it difficult not to conclude that Serbian forces and paramilitary gangs are committing massive, systematic abuses. "Small creeks make a big river," said Mr. Therkildsen, as he watched refugees pour through the Morina crossing, which has seen tens of thousands pass since Friday.

"The scale of what we are talking about is enormous, and the number of people we are talking about is enormous," says Jim Landale, a UN tribunal spokesman. "We have to be slightly careful with categorizing things at this stage. But it is clear that there is a very, very large quantity of reports that are extremely worrying."

From interviews with several dozen refugees, it appears Serbian troops, police, and masked paramilitaries began the latest wave of expulsions early last week in the central Drenica region, the rugged heartland of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). They then moved on the towns of Prizren and Mitrovica.

In the countryside, refugees say, Serbs have encircled mosques and schools where villagers seek safety at night. In the cities, they go door to door, ordering residents out and robbing them of cash and jewelry, refugees say.

They also say Serbs separate men between 15 and 60 from the elderly, children, and women, who are then ordered to begin walking to Albania. The fate of the men remains unknown.

"Masked people came into my home," recounts Ahmet Muhfleri, of Mitrovica. "One put a gun into my mouth and told me to leave immediately."

Zenia Loshaj says her husband was among dozens of men held by Serbs who descended April 12 on the village of Padaliste. Shortly after she began a four-day forced march with hundreds of others, including her pregnant sister-in-law, a grenade was tossed into her column, killing seven refugees and wounding three others, she says.

Throughout the march, she says, refugees scrounged for food in abandoned homes during breaks. At night, they slept by the roadside; during the day, police drove up and down the column "shooting in the air all the time to scare us and keep us moving," she says.

Story in a stream bed

Maharem Kopaj, of Bela Crkva, says he and three other men survived a massacre on March 26 in which 45 men were executed by Serbian police. The group had been hiding under a bridge in the village of Belaja when they were discovered and ordered to come out, he says. "They ordered us to walk through the stream bed. When we started, they opened fire. I fell down and was covered by four or five dead men," he says.

"I stayed nearly an hour in the water.... I stayed [in some bushes] until local people came and saw the bodies," he says, his brow beaded with sweat.

Elezi Shkendije, of Prizren, says she felt safe for the first time in months after arriving with her family at the trash-strewn, crowd-choked border post. "I feel so happy, so lucky, because I am free. I am not scared anymore."

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