In Cold Blood
by Ian Traynor
In March 1999, Serbian paramilitaries gunned down 19 women and children in the Kosova town of Podujevo in a brutal act of ethnic cleansing. Amazingly, five children survived. In July 2003 four of them left their new home in Manchester and travelled to Belgrade to testify against one of the men accused of trying to kill them.
Under a hazel tree in a Kosovan backyard, a Serbian death squad fired 16 bullets into Saranda Bogujevci's back, right leg and left arm. The killers, from the special Serbian police unit known as the Scorpions, left the 13-year-old Albanian girl for dead, slumped among a pile of corpses of women and children, all murdered at point-blank range with Kalashnikovs. Saranda glanced up to see the head of Shpetim, her nine-year-old brother, blown off his torso. She saw the dead bodies of her mother and grandmother. Under her legs lay her 12-year-old cousin, Fatos, also apparently dead.
The massacre of the Bogujevci families - the wives and children of two brothers, Selatin and Safet - and of the Duriqi family took place on a springtime Sunday morning four years ago, in a neighbour's back garden in their hometown of Podujevo, just on the Kosovan side of the border with Serbia. Of the 19 herded against the garden wall, seven women and seven children died, the youngest a boy of two, in a chilling act of bloodlust. Five children, the eldest of whom were Saranda and Fatos, survived the spray of bullets: 97 casings were found in the yard.
‘I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be dead,’ recalls Fatos. Saranda lost her mother and two younger brothers, Fatos his mother and elder sister. Fatos's young brother, Genc, and his two sisters, Jehona and Lirie, also survived. Lirie, then eight, had a bullet through the neck that required her to be fed through her stomach for eight months.
Fatos's mother, Shefkate, was the first to die in front of her five children, within hours of the 120-strong Scorpions being ordered into Podujevo ‘to cleanse the territory’. The killer shoved her to the ground and shot her as she implored the Serbs with her final words: ‘They are only children.’
‘My cousin started crying,’ remembers Saranda. ‘I looked at them [the Serbs]. My aunt [Shefkate] was on the ground. He shot her again. Then he changed his weapon. He took a machine-gun from another soldier and shot us all. ‘I was still conscious. I could hear everything. But I don't think they knew we were still alive. Then someone started making a gurgling noise because he couldn't breathe and they started shooting again.’
Fatos's recollection, while feigning death, is that the Serbs received a message on their walkie-talkies, stopped shooting and left. The next thing they knew was a Serb police doctor organizing an ambulance for the survivors. The doctor offered Saranda a fizzy drink.
Yesterday, Saranda, Fatos, Jehona and Lirie made Balkan history of sorts with an extraordinary act of bravery. They went to a drab red-brick courtroom in Belgrade to testify in a war-crimes trial, the first Albanian victims ever to come to the Serbian capital to tell a Serbian judge and Serbian public, which remains generally in denial about the war crimes, how they suffered from the atrocities committed during the regime of Slobodan Milošević.
The four children are proud Mancunians these days. When the Kosovo war ended in June 1999, the wounded children were found in a Kosovan hospital by British army doctors and Dr Lynne Jones, a child psychiatrist specialising in traumatized children. They were evacuated to Britain for medical treatment, and have been in Manchester ever since.
But this week they came to Belgrade to confront the chief suspect in the massacre. Saša Cvjetan, a former Scorpion paramilitary, is charged with war crimes for the killing of 19 civilians in Podujevo on March 28 1999 - the 14 in the backyard, plus a further five at two other nearby locations. The bull-necked 28-year-old with cropped black hair sat impassively in court in a black-and-red T-shirt as Selatin, Fatos's father, nervously recounted what he knew about the murders of his wife, mother, daughter, relatives and friends.
Separately, before going to court, all four children picked Cvjetan out of an identity parade as being at the scene of the crime. Indeed, Jehona, now 15, is convinced it was Cvjetan who opened fire. He initially admitted his participation in the massacre to police, then retracted the confession, and is pleading not guilty. His co-accused, Dejan Demirović, has fled to Canada where he is fighting extradition.
For the Bogujevci families, it has been a gruelling few days - travelling from Manchester to the seat of the regime that crushed their lives and killed their family members. Their appearance before Judge Biljana Sinanović in a closed Belgrade courtroom, besides being an act of great courage, is also a watershed: Serbian human rights campaigners hope the Bogujevci children will help Serbia to face the truth and cut through the fog of war, political manipulations, denials, lying and cover-ups.
‘This was the worst event in Podujevo during the [Kosovo] war, and now these witnesses can describe for the first time what happened. Without Albanian witnesses, the trial can't show what really happened,’ says Nataša Kandić, a Serbian human rights campaigner who has worked tirelessly to bring about yesterday's denouement. ‘Serbian public opinion has to hear these stories,’ she says.
Jones, who has been treating the children, also points to the importance of them being heard in Serbia for the sake of their own recovery. ‘People underestimate the role that justice plays in therapy. For these children, it's not about revenge, it's about justice. ‘None of these children is sick. They're coping in school, they've got friends, they've got networks of support. They're not in denial. They don't pretend it didn't happen. They're survivors and they're coping really well.’ Fatos's father, Selatin, adds: ‘If they can prove that he was the one who did it, that he was involved, or gave the order to do it, it will be easier for us. There was no reason for this, it was only women and children.’
Disaster for the defence
For Cvjetan and his defence lawyers, the arrival of the Bogujevci children in Belgrade is a disaster: without their evidence, there would, in all likelihood, have been insufficient evidence to convict. Until yesterday, things had been looking good for the Serbian defendant. Originally, an investigating magistrate threw out the case against Cvjetan for lack of evidence. When the trial was then launched last year after an appeal, it was held in the hardline southern Serb town of Prokuplje, near the Kosovan border. All the witnesses were Serbian police and military, who simply declared there had been no killings. Fellow Scorpions and other Serbian veterans of the Kosovo war packed the courtroom and threatened the judge and prosecutors.
In spite of the case being transferred to the the Serbian supreme court in Belgrade, the charge sheet against Cvjetan is generally seen as weak, failing to name the Bogujevci victims. And Cvjetan himself was a mere foot soldier in a concerted campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing. He has told investigators how, when NATO started bombing the Serbs four days before the massacre, the Scorpions were mobilized, taken to Belgrade to pick up their uniforms, then on to southern Serbia by bus to pick up their automatic weapons and ammunition. They were then ordered to Podujevo at dawn on the day of the massacre to ‘cleanse the territory’. Some 10,000 Albanians were driven out of Podujevo the same day.
Selatin and Safet escaped summary execution by fleeing home a few hours before the Scorpions arrived. Selatin says that at 10am that fateful morning, when his wife, mother, and daughter were shot, he was hiding in another house a mere 300 metres away and knew nothing. He then fled into the forests. It was three weeks before he heard through the grapevine what had happened; another fortnight before he could find his way to the hospital to find his four surviving children.
In the Serb-controlled hospital in Prishtina, Saranda remembers, visitors were told that the Bogujevci children were victims of NATO bombs. They were too frightened to contradict the medical staff.
As soon as the mission was accomplished, the Scorpions were withdrawn. A notorious unit of the Serbian interior ministry, they were formed in 1991 to perform ethnic cleansing missions first in Croatia, then in Bosnia, later in Kosovo. For the past 12 years they have been commanded by Slobodan Medić. His brother, Dragan, nicknamed Gulyo, commanded a Scorpions sub-unit and was in Podujevo on the day of the slaughter. Investigators have heard testimony that Gulyo ordered the killings. Neither man has been arrested. ‘The main task of the Scorpions was to expel the Albanian population,’ says Kandić.
‘If there was an intention to hold a just trial,’ says Teki Bokshi, a Kosovar lawyer representing the Bogujevcis, ‘the first requirement would be to try the Scorpions commanders. Their names are known. This person, Cvjetan, has been detained in order to spare the others.’
Saranda and her four cousins have survived the Serbian executioners, defeated the rigours of the British asylum system to start a new life in Manchester, and now undertaken a journey that would have been inconceivable only a few weeks ago. It was only last December, after more than three years in Manchester, that the children and their fathers, both remarried, obtained ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in Britain from the Home Office. Had they not gained the right to stay in Britain, there would have been little chance of them coming to Belgrade to reveal what it was like to be on the receiving end of a firing squad.
‘The only people who know what really happened are us and the soldiers who did it,’ said Saranda before bravely taking the witness stand in a closed courtroom. ‘I just want to do my best and tell them everything I know. I just want to tell them the truth.’
This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 10 July 2003