News 18 Dec 17

Kosovo Witnesses Tell Belgrade Court of Relatives’ Murders

Two witnesses told a Belgrade court how their family members were murdered during the May 1999 massacre of Kosovo Albanian villagers from the Cuska area by Serbian forces.

Filip Rudic
BIRN
Belgrade
A house in the village of Cuska, which was attacked in 1999. Photo courtesy of the Swedish court.

Witness Rame Nikqi from Kosovo told Belgrade Special Court on Monday about how he found the burned bodies of his parents and how he heard the killings of 18 ethnic Albanian civilians at a vehicle repair shop in 1999.

He told the court that the Serbian police and army came to his village of Pavlan near Cuska in Kosovo on May 14, 1999, and that he watched as the soldiers plundered his home.

"They were stealing, loading up their vehicle. The car literally ‘sunk’ from the weight... Soon smoke started rising [from the house]," Nikqi said.

He watched in hiding as the soldiers left and did not dare enter the house until evening, when he found three burned bodies.

"There I saw my father... He was all burned but I recognised him by his wristwatch," Nikqi told the court.

"They killed my father, mother, aunt," he added.

Serbian forces entered Cuska and the neighbouring villages of Pavlan and Zahaq that day, killing a total of 138 Albanians, according to the prosecution.

Fighters rounded up some of the locals and ordered them to go towards the town of Pec/Peja. When the column of trucks and tractors carrying the ethnic Albanians reached a crossroads between Pavlan and Zahaq, the soldiers singled out men of fighting age.

Women, children and the elderly were sent on to Pec/Peja, while the men were taken to the Kuqi vehicle repair shop, and then ordered into the workshop pit.

Nikqi, who was hiding nearby, said ran away when he heard shots and the screams of the people who were being murdered inside.

"I fled in fear," Nikqi said, adding that he did not see the killings taking place, as he was a couple of hundred metres away.

Nikqi said he recognised one of the defendants, Radoslav Brnovic, the head of the police in the village of Klicina, who died during the trial, standing in front of the repair shop at the time.

He said that he heard that another defendent, Slavisa Kastratovic, was a member of the group of fighters who entered his house.

From photographs, Nikqi also identified several other people who allegedly committed crimes against civilians at the time, but have not been charged.

The Serbian prosecution has charged 11 former members of the 177th Yugoslav Army Unit with committing war crimes in the Kosovo villages of Cuska, Pavljan, Zahac and Ljubenic in spring 1999.

The group was initially convicted in 2014 and sentenced to 106 years in jail for killing at least 118 Kosovo Albanian civilians.

But the Serbian appeals court reversed the verdict in 2015 and sent the case for a retrial.

Another witness, Have Gashi, told the court on Monday about that Serbian forces killed her father-in-law Brahim Gashi and three brothers who lived locally.

She said that they also "torched our houses and took our property".

"It doesn’t get much worse than what happened [to us]," Gashi said.

The trial is considered to be one of the largest ever cases relating to Kosovo war crimes in the Belgrade courts.

But from its outset, it has been marked by delays and the refusal of witnesses to come to Belgrade to testify.

In 2014, the Serbian war crimes prosecution also launched an investigation into general Dragan Zivanovic, former commander of the Yugoslav Army’s 125th Brigade, for allegedly doing nothing to prevent the crimes, but the probe was shut down.

BIRN reported on these crimes in the documentary film ‘The Unidentified’ which reveals the scale of the crimes committed in the four Kosovo villages in 1999, while also uncovering the command structure of the police and army units involved in the crimes.

BIRN’s documentary ‘The Unidentified’ is available for streaming here:

The Unidentified from BIRN on Vimeo.

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