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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kosovo Scarred by Fire, Graves and Fear

DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia -- The war's survivors emerged from their cellars and homemade bunkers to discover their 500-year-old city, once the small beauty of southwestern Kosovo, turned into a corpse.

Stores and homes are blackened skeletons standing over streets clotted with rubble and glass. The dead, and there are hundreds, lie in makeshift graves in family courtyards and under fresh earth in the local cemetery.

The living, and there are few, are sunken in despair as they wander through the whirlwind's remains, their bellies empty as they scratch for food. They point to houses where two, three, 30 people were executed, their bodies sometimes carbonized by fire.

Kosovo is a brutalized landscape. Sections of it remain untouched and can seem almost normal. But turn any corner, traverse any road, approach any city and enter a wasteland scarred by fire, fear and freshly dug graves.

A picture of Kosovo became clearer this week than it has been in months, since large areas disappeared behind a Yugoslav military offensive, NATO bombing and the flight of more than a million people. Now, as the Serb-led Yugoslav forces withdraw from still smoldering towns, many residents are learning for the first time what the war left of their lives.

Reporters from The Washington Post, traveling across Kosovo to assess the breadth of destruction, found new evidence of massacres by Serb forces, and a pattern of killings suggesting that executions of ethnic Albanian civilians were carried out in community after community across a wide swath of the province.

The evidence and accounts of civilians spoke of a grim period of reckoning.

In Siqeva, 20 minutes' drive from the provincial capital Pristina, it was the children who had to dig the mass grave. It was a pit in a field, and they laid the five bodies alongside each other, covering the grave with branches.

"It was all we could do,'' said Shehide Berisha's son, Jakup, a waiter. "We would like to have given them a proper funeral, but it was impossible."

Siqeva, at the end of a dirt road in and nestled in green hills, is home to the tightly-knit Berisha clan. Everybody in the village bears the same surname. By ancient custom, when a daughter marries, she must leave the village and go to live with her husband. No one but Berishas live in Siqeva.

When the Serbs launched their military offensive at the end of April, torching and looting homes believed to belong to Kosovo Liberation Army sympathizers, all but the oldest people in Siqeva fled into the surrounding hills.

The elderly felt they were safe, and chose to remain in the village. When the Serbs pulled back, the rest of the population came down from the hills.

A second offensive followed in the middle of May. Since half the houses had been destroyed, the older people gathered in the home of 85-year-old Sulejman Berisha at the end of the village. Sulejman and a 90-year-old male relative, Jahir Berisha, slept in a room to the right of the porch. Sulejman's wife, Vahide, 66, and a female relative, Shehide, 77, slept in a room on the left.

"I pleaded with them not to stay. I said, 'It's better for you to flee because they will come to kill you,''' recalled Sulejman's son, Hajdim. "But my father said, 'They came before and did not kill us. I will not leave this place.'''

Having fled to the hills a second time, the younger members of the Berisha clan could see the Serbian forces move into Siqeva. They carried away everything that could be carried away: stoves, refrigerators, television sets, furniture, video equipment, loading their booty on trucks. They recognized men from the neighboring Serb village of Brnica among the looters.

It was only six days later - May 20 - that the younger villagers dared return. When they went into Sulejman's house, they found the corpses of the two old wom en were stretched out on their beds. The floor was littered with a dozen bullet cartridges from an automatic rife. Across the hallway, in the room the men had been using, lay the prone body of Jahir. A hole in the floor suggested that someone had thrown a hand-grenade into the room with the men inside.

The younger men found Sulejman's body in a stream at the bottom of his garden, covered by a bloodstained leather coat. His hands were cuffed behind his back and his corpse bore signs of the explosion from the hand grenade that had killed Jahir.

They concluded that Sulejman had been dragged back into his room for execution by hand grenade. "My father was beaten badly,'' Hajdim said. "I could see the marks on his face.''

Another tale of horror and murder was told by chemistry teacher Rifat Billali, in Cikatova, in the central Drenica region of Kosovo. Billali stood at the edge of a large strip mine for nickel and iron ore, covering his nose with his hand to fight back the stench.

Then he pointed to the place where, he said, the bodies of roughly 80 ethnic Albanian men had been dropped after Yugoslav troops mowed them down with machine guns on May 1.

Billali, who had been beaten and shot by the troops, said his captors told him to watch. "This will happen to you later,'' one soldier said. He said another soldier warned that "I would soon be sent to the ovens'' of the nearby Feronikal plant.

"In those moments, I couldn't cry,'' Billali said. "We were not sure that we were going to survive.''

Shaban Veliqu, also forced to witness the execution, said he too became convinced that "it was going to happen to me.'' Both men were spared for reasons that were never clear to them.

Billali and Veliqu survived five weeks at a nearby prison, where they were forced to dig trenches and construct bunkers to protect tanks and troops from NATO airstrikes. When Serb security forces withdrew from this area at 9 a.m. Tuesday, they were released.

Several weeks after the massacre, Yugoslav troops returned to the scene and pulled the bodies from the mine, lending credence to Western concerns that Yugoslav authorities may have attempted to hide evidence of atrocities in Kosovo from war crimes investigators.

Residents in the area said that a few weeks ago, several tractors pulled into a vacant lot across the street from a police station in Cikatova and deposited bodies from the mine in shallow graves.

There are 66 mounds of earth at the site, including many that are large enough to hold more than a single body. The rubber heel of a shoe pokes out from one pile; a fragment of human bone sticks out from another.