Village of orphans tries to recover
As the trial of Slobodan Milosevic continued yesterday, Kosovo's survivors were watching.
LUBENIQ, KOSOVO — Over and over, the children of this ethnic Albanian village draw houses - some with a bright sun in the sky, others with warplanes overhead.
As several children gather around a table to draw at a community center here, volunteer aide Elhame Haradinaj explains: "When we returned after the war, so many houses had been destroyed, and they became intensely interested in houses and how they were built."
While the youngsters relive the past and construct a future with crayons and paint, the adults are also trying to rebuild their lives, shattered after Serb troops attacked the village three years ago. A hundred children and youth under 18 lost one or both parents. Now Lubeniq, once famous for its rich creams and cheeses, is known as "the village of orphans."
As ex-Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial before a Hague tribunal, continues to deny war crimes and blame NATO and anti-Serb rebels for deaths in this area and elsewhere in Kosovo, the survivors are following the proceedings intently.
Yesterday Milosevic, who is acting as his own lawyer, ripped into the testimony of an ethnic Albanian doctor who had told the court he saw Serb troops kill six of his relatives.
"It is so difficult hearing him [Milosevic] say that people were killed by NATO and the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army]," says Ms. Haradinaj, whose father died during the 1999 attack.
As part of Milosevic's aim to drive all Albanians from Kosovo, Yugoslav tanks and soldiers rolled into Lubeniq in the early morning of April 1, 1999, forcing people from their homes before looting them and setting them afire. Most of the women and children fled into the mountains toward the Albanian border. The Serbs herded the men together and shot 66 of them.
Since the war, most of the 700 residents have returned to Lubeniq, which lies at the foot of the Cursed Mountains in the western part of the province. Haradinaj says the massacre touched almost every family.
"The strong people - the pillars of the village - are gone now," she says. "The Milosevic regime tried to take away our leaders and destroy all the men ... and we are left with these children."
Krishnet Alimehaj is like many 12-year-olds. He likes to sing, he'll buckle down and study when pressed, and he knows what he wants to be when he grows up: a doctor. But he is at times withdrawn, at times given to outbursts, Haradinaj says. Both of his parents and a brother were killed in the 1999 attack.
Krishnet is among the more than 100 children who come to the community center every day to play games, paint, and learn songs and poetry.
Sevdie Ahmeti, a psychologist who works with Kosovo children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, says the children's memories of sadness cannot be erased, but they can slowly be replaced with memories of happiness. "At first the children draw what they know, what they feel and have been through," she says. "Many children begin by drawing pictures of massacres. But after a while, they begin to draw and focus on the future and their hopes and wishes."
The village widows also gather at the small community center, built after the war by Concern Worldwide, an international nongovernmental organization. "It gives us somewhere to go in the day, and we are able to earn some money," says Kumrije Jahemurataj, now alone in raising her two children, ages 9 and 12. "It also helps keep me from focusing on what happened."
Mrs. Jahemurataj weaves a woolen rug as she speaks. For the past two years, thanks to the work of a few NGOs, many of Lubeniq's widows have received training in needlework, sewing, and preparation of small-business projects. The table linens, handbags, and rugs they produce are sold at a shop in the nearby town of Peje, which promotes the work of 200 women in 13 of the region's damaged villages.
As life slowly comes back to Lubeniq, the village still faces the painful issue of the return of the bodies of its dead. Witnesses claim to have seen Serb soldiers loading bodies into trucks after the massacre. Only 12 bodies were subsequently found - in graves marked with the wrong names in a Peje cemetery.
"Many families still hope their men are alive, even though we have witnesses who survived and told us what happened," says Haradinaj.
Like others in the village, Haradinaj says she hopes that Milosevic's trial will be followed by others. "Although it is painful to watch, Milosevic's trial is in some way a relief," says Haradinaj. "Because we felt no one would ever find out what happened to us. And now the whole world will know. But I would feel better if all the criminals would go with him."
Many here say that although Milosevic directed the carnage, he was not alone in carrying it out, and that the wounds can only begin to heal if Serbia admits to and apologizes for its crimes.
Meanwhile, Lubeniq needs help getting back on its feet. Burned roofs rise above some garden walls, and many families still live in containers supplied by the Swiss Red Cross.
"Many of the donors who initially came to help us have left," says Haradinaj. "There was a competition in the beginning among them, but now the last ones are withdrawing."
Haradinaj is particularly worried about the children after the donors leave. "In the beginning the kids didn't feel the trauma so much because they hoped to see their parents again," she says. "But now they're realizing that they never will, and they're getting emotionally sicker."
Krishnet has not shown up at the center today, even though his partially rebuilt house is just down the muddy road. The other children increasingly have trouble understanding him, and Haradinaj says he needs special treatment.