|Kosovo's silent houses of the dead
by Marie Colvin
All 11-year-old Basorta Jashari knew was that the artillery shells had stopped crashing into her house. For hours, the noise had been unbearable. As she hugged herself tightly beneath the table her mother used to prepare bread, the ceiling had collapsed and the walls had appeared to explode. Now it was the silence that was terrifying. Choking on smoke and dust, she screamed for her mother.
Weeping as she crawled through the rubble, she found her sisters, Lirie, 10, Fatima, 8, and seven-year-old Blerina. She tried to shake them awake and was covered in blood by the time she realised they were dead. Then Basorta saw her brothers: Selvete, 20, Afeti, 17, Besim, 14, and Blerin, 12. They had always seemed so strong. Now, all were dead. Finally, there was her mother, Ferida, whose dark shiny hair and beautiful voice Basorta had cherished, lying with her limbs protruding at impossible angles. She would never again respond to her daughter's cry of 'nene' (mummy).
Basorta climbed through a hole in the wall and ran round the house, shouting: 'Anybody - is anybody still alive?' When nobody answered, she crawled back under the table. The pause in the shelling was all too brief. Basorta would spend the night and the next day alone, with her family dead all around her, as the Serbs' rockets came again and again, smashing into the whitewashed house with red-tiled roof that had once been home. A bright, happy pupil at school, Basorta was the sole survivor of an attack that can now be revealed as nothing less than a calculated, cold-blooded massacre.
The house in Prekaz, a village in a pastoral landscape of neatly tilled fields and rolling hills, had sheltered 22 members of the families of two brothers, Hamza Jashari, Basorta's father, and Adem Jashari, her uncle - ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the southernmost province of what remains of Serb-ruled Yugoslavia. Their deaths were no accident of war. I pieced together the horror last week from the account Basorta - now in hiding in the nearby town of Srbica - gave to relatives who managed to escape from other homes in Prekaz. I saw the gaping holes in the roofs and walls of the three Jashari homes in the compound - one for Basorta's grandparents and one each for Hamza and Adem - and the brown pockmarks left by close-range machine-gun fire on the walls. In the muddy farmyard lay strewn the detritus of domestic life: a little boy's shredded sports bag, postcards from relatives in Germany and a satellite dish dented by bullets. The nose cones and tail-fins of two rockets were scattered amid the debris.
Yesterday all that moved in the compound that once teemed with children were two black and white cows and a flock of chickens pecking at the rubble. On the other side of the dirt road that runs in front of the compound were 5l fresh graves with mounds of dark earth and wooden crosses. These were the final resting places of the Jasharis who died in the house, four relatives who were killed nearby and neighbours who got in the way of the Serbian forces.
There is little doubt that the Jashari brothers were connected to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a militant force that emerged last November dedicated to fighting for the interests of the ethnic Albanians who make up 90% of Kosovo's population. They had grown impatient with the policies of the mainstream Kosovo Democratic League. The league advocates passive resistance to the strongarm tactics of Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist Serbian president of Yugoslavia, who revoked the province's autonomous status 10 years ago. However, this was not the killing of suspected terrorists in a firefight, nor the ambush of dangerous outlaws. It was a military assault on three family homes without warning: on men, women and children asleep in their beds.
The Serbian offensive in the Drenica valley, a region of farming villages that is the stronghold of Albanian resistance, began on February 28, the day after four Serbian policemen were killed in an ambush as they chased KLA guerrillas. The Serbs moved first against the village of Likoshani, killing 24 Albanians. Then they prepared to attack Prekaz, where the Jasharis were the principal family. Jetish Durmishi, a bus driver, was alerted to danger when a friend telephoned from his home near the local police station in Mitrovica with the warning that a convoy of buses full of Serbian police was moving towards Prekaz. Durmishi escaped to the woods, leaving his family behind; in the past the Serbs had targeted only men. He saw what happened from the woods above the Jashari compound.
'Within minutes, it seemed, the police came and the village was surrounded by a cordon of Serbs,' Durmishi said. 'They were standing about half a yard apart all along the road and up across the hills.' The artillery fire came at 6am from a Serbian base above Prekaz. There was no warning. The first to die were the Agas, members of a gypsy family who panicked and tried to flee their house. The mother, a small boy and a girl were gunned down in their garden. The next victim was Nazmi Jashari, who ran a kiosk in Prekaz selling cigarettes and sundries and lived opposite the main family compound. He tried to carry his elderly mother, Naile, out of the back door, and was shot in front of her. The signal was clear. Anyone seen leaving their home would be a target for Serbian snipers.
The extended Jashari family gathered in what they thought would be the safest room, which had a new brick wall. But they were trapped: they faced gunfire if they came out or bombing if they remained inside. Soon the shells were coming through the roof, then the walls. Basorta's last memory of her family is that her uncle, Adem, was singing Albanian folk songs above the noise to keep up their spirits. She remembers the moment he stopped singing. Then, for 36 hours, there was only the sound of the bombs.
When they thought everybody inside was dead, the police entered the house, throwing grenades into several rooms ahead of them. One officer stood guard while another sprayed the bodies with bullets. Perhaps they had had their fill of killing when they found Basorta cowering. Perhaps they thought she was too young to accuse them. Or perhaps they could not look a terrified schoolgirl in the eye and shoot her. But she is the reason the truth can be told.
'I tried to pretend I was dead,' she said to her uncle Hilmi. 'But one of the soldiers put his hand on my chest and he felt I was alive.' Still dressed in her red shirt and black trousers, by now covered with blood, she had to step over the bodies of her family to leave the room, surrounded by Serbs. She was taken to the military base nearby and interrogated for three hours. Basorta believed her only chance was to lie. She denied that she was a Jashari, claiming her father was abroad and she was merely a guest in the compound. 'They asked about my father and about Uncle Adem' she said. 'I told them nothing, nothing.'
The Serbs dumped her on a road in Srbica and she ran to the home of a school friend. Yesterday, shocked and finding it increasingly difficult to speak, she was being moved from house to house for protection. Unbeknown to Basorta, the bodies of her father, mother, uncle, aunt and all her cousins were lined up by the police at a bus depot in Mitrovica last week. When nobody from the family turned up to identify them and friends tried to insist on post-mortem examinations, the Serbs dumped them in the graveyard they had dug opposite the remains of their house, leaving the coffins poking through the earth. The surviving villagers came back in the night to finish the job with respect. All that was left of Basorta's family was a pile of numbered black binbags at the bus station, each filled with the bloody clothing they had been wearing when they died.
This report first appeared in The Sunday Times on 15 March 1998