Tue, 21 Mar 2000

Kosovar village still struggles in limbo

By Brian Murphy

RACAK, Yugoslavia (AP): The school playground is alive with shouts and laughter. Boys kick a fraying soccer ball. Girls giggle in groups or dart about playing tag.

The sounds carry up a muddy path. Through a green metal cemetery gate. Over the neat rows of graves, each topped by an identical wooden plank painted the Albanian colors of red and black.

The dates on the markers also are the same: Jan. 15, 1999, the sunny morning when Serb forces turned their fury on the ethnic Albanians of Racak and took 45 lives.

The carnage -- point-black executions, bodies beheaded and mutilated -- was a pivotal episode in NATO's showdown with Yugoslavia. Racak (RAH-chak) gave the United States and other backers of military action a powerful rallying point for the 78- day bombing campaign that began last March 24 and ended with Kosovo under international protection.

In the cemetery, Racak's mayor paused to listen to the joyous hum from the nearby school yard. Then he went back to straightening the half-dome memorials of plastic flowers and ribbons that permanently cover each plot. He took extra care on his uncle's grave.

"I can't say if this will ever be a normal village again," said Agim Kamberi. "If so, it will take a long time. Maybe for the children of those children at the school. At least they won't know with their own eyes the horrible thing that happened here."

Racak's struggle with its demons is being repeated everywhere across Kosovo. The facades of routine life generally have returned. Stores and restaurants are open. Work crews patch up burned houses and other damage from the ethnic conflict.

But the emptiness left by killings can't be so neatly corrected. In Racak alone, 63 children lost a parent. Twenty-five women lost a husband.

And the continuing flashpoints -- the ethnic Albanian insurgency in southern Serbia, clashes in the divided Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica -- feed worries that real peace is still far away.

"I just hope that the dead of Racak did not leave this world in vain. I try to believe that someday we will have a free and peaceful Kosovo," said Kamberi. "The story of Kosovo's struggle was written with their blood."

A poem by a 13-year-old girl, Behare Bajrami, asks: What are you doing, Serbs? What are you doing in Racak?

The answer is still not clear.

A week before the attack, an ambush in the nearby village of Slivovo killed three Serb policemen. Tanks and troops were sent to the area.

But there was nothing to distinguish Racak from the other villages in the gentle foothills about 18 miles (30 kilometers) southwest of Pristina, the provincial capital. Racak itself had not been considered a particularly important staging ground for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). It was under KLA protection and often sheltered rebels, villagers say. But this was true of many surrounding hamlets.

A portion of Racak was burned by Serbs in July 1998 and many families had fled. On Jan. 14, 1999, international monitors reported hearing heavy gunfire and shelling in the Racak area. The Serbs claimed it was a skirmish with KLA militiamen, but it could not be confirmed.

An estimated 1,140 people were left in Racak when Serb police and army units streamed in at dawn on Jan. 15. Some of the officers were from the nearby town of Stimlje and well known in Racak, villagers say.

Many people in Racak believe the village was simply a convenient target for Serb revenge. It sits alone in a bowl- shaped valley and can be easily cut off by military units.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were blocked by Serb commanders until the operation in Racak was nearly over. The OSCE teams had no weapons. Their ammunition was their influence in the West.

Before the NATO air strikes, the OSCE tried hard to remain dispassionate and even handed. But in Racak, the head of the OSCE mission, William Walker, couldn't hold back.

"I do not have the words to describe my personal revulsion ... at the site of what can only be described as an unspeakable atrocity," Walker said shortly after viewing the bloodshed.

The bodies of 23 men, all shot at close range, lay piled in a dry gully. In the village, victims' heads were smashed; brains and organs removed. Some people were shot in the back, suggesting they were gunned down while trying to run away. All those killed -- 42 men and boys and three women -- were in civilian clothes. The youngest was 13; the oldest 75.

The Racak killings were cited by the UN war crimes tribunal in its May 1999 indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four members of his inner circle.

The more immediate impact was felt in NATO capitals. The scales tipped sharply in favor of the United States, Britain and others arguing for military action against Yugoslavia. NATO partners seeking more negotiations, such as Greece and Germany, suddenly appeared overwhelmed. The "Racak effect," as it is sometimes called now, was building steam.

"No doubt Racak was a turning point for NATO," said Terry Taylor, a regional expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It proved an extremely powerful tool for those who wanted to spur on military action."

The death toll in Racak could have been even higher, survivors say. A group of about 40 men were told to march toward the massacre site, but managed to slip away and hide in a deep ravine, said Ilaz Ymeri, 33, whose brother was among those killed.

"After that, I joined the KLA," he said while walking over rocks marked by blue paint to show where bodies were found. "I had many chances to kill civilians, even children and women. But I didn't. To me, this makes all the difference. This is why I can sleep at night."

But nightmares linger. Many of the children fear sleeping alone, said the school's director, Skender Bajrami. The students often mention an elementary-level teacher whose eyes were gouged out.

"So, you see, no one was untouched. Even families who did not lose someone are connected to the pain," Bajrami said. "Neighbors died. Friends died. Even the children see every day that one of their teachers is gone."

One family has no more husbands, only widows. Sherife Syla, 62, said she witnessed her husband's decapitation. Two sons were also killed, leaving their wives and a total of five small children.

"I've explained everything to my son," said Zymrie Syla, stroking the shoulders of 3-year-old Dardan. "He understands it all. He knows who killed his father and he knows why. Can you imagine that? A three-year-old should have to face such things."

Dardan added softly: "My daddy is in the hill." He pointed across the village to the cemetery.