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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Out of Every 180 Kosovars Died

BELA CRKVA, Yugoslavia -- For 2 1/2 months this spring, an average of 128 lives were snuffed out each day in Kosovo. During a single changing of the seasons, at least one out of every 180 Kosovo Albanians died.

That is the harsh, inescapable reckoning now emerging to confront international war crimes prosecutors, NATO peacekeepers and most of all the traumatized survivors of Kosovo as they try to rebuild this vast necropolis of the graves and ashes of 10,000 dead.

As NATO rained bombs on Yugoslavia, evidence now being collected is showing, a great killing machine was at work here - a premeditated Serbian military-and-police juggernaut that swooped down on almost every city and hamlet in the province, leaving in its wake burned homes, charred bones and mass graves for the ethnic Albanian majority to cry over.

While the Serbian onslaught was happening - amid a war between NATO and Yugoslavia, and amid Belgrade's armed conflict with Kosovo separatists - the overall extent of the massacres could only be speculated on. Now, eight weeks on, the worst fears are being verified.

More graves and decomposed remains are being found daily despite the efforts of the killers to conceal corpses by burning and scattering remains.

By putting together physical information from grave sites and testimony of survivors, the horror of those 2 1/2 months is revealed. It becomes clear that a great convulsion of organized, geographically pinpointed killing began with simultaneous attacks across Kosovo on the morning of March 25, hours after NATO airstrikes began, and rarely ebbed until June 12, when the first NATO peacekeepers arrived.

"We have a register [of deaths] for all Kosovo that has more than 10,000 people, and growing," said Pajazit Nushi, the chairman of Kosovo's oldest human rights group, the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Although it occurred in the context of a war, this extermination of so many thousands of unarmed people stands as a crime of historic dimensions.

Over four weeks, the Los Angeles Times set out to retrace the course of the massacres, visiting killing fields from Bela Crkva and Goden in the south of the province, where it all began, to the ravaged western cities of Djakovica and Pec, to Kosovska Mitrovica in the north.

Virtually every small hamlet in between has its horrors: swollen bodies floating in wells; human spinal columns and ribs that have been gnawed at by dogs; flies hovering over mass graves excavated by relatives seeking loved ones.

Based on what they are learning on the ground, investigators and prosecutors say they are more convinced than ever that this slaughter was plotted far in advance at the highest levels.

The victims were children such as 5-year-old Argjend Demjaha, stabbed to death in Djakovica and then hung with a rope from his family's gate. Old men such as Fathi Emrush Morina, 73 - lined up, told to look away and shot dead in a hayfield in Jovic with 33 other men. Or young women such as the unmarried 33-year-old in Bela Crkva (whose name is withheld) who was raped by Serbian police, who then dispatched her with a bullet to her genitalia. Many of the victims died in family groups, like the Vejsas, who were among 19 women and children and one man who were shot cowering in their home and then burned while at least some were still alive.

"Any one of these individuals would have been a tragedy. But when you put it all together, it's staggering," said Paul Mallet, an FBI agent sent to Kosovo to help investigate war crimes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague. The tribunal has already charged Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Putting it all together is the job of the tribunal. But with so many suspected mass graves, more than 200 by NATO's last count, and with so many sites where human remains evidently were incinerated, it will take months for investigators to reach them - and they may never get to every one.

"The reality is that there has been homicide on this territory on a magnitude that the international community has a very difficult time responding to," said the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour.

Some supporters of Yugoslavia and critics of NATO continue to argue that the Serbian onslaught was a spontaneous reaction to the NATO bombing campaign. That's not likely, according to Western officials and analysts.

Instead, they see it as a bold stroke by Milosevic and his henchmen to finally control Kosovo - a province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic.

They point to Belgrade's pre-positioning of troops, special police units and weapons in the months leading up to the killings and expulsions and the fact that intensified attacks on the Kosovars began several days before NATO's assault.

Indeed, the German government believes that it has in hand the written blueprint for the whole campaign, put together late last year under the code name " Operation Horseshoe."

It turned over a copy - which it says was obtained from a country neighboring Yugoslavia - to Arbour in April.

When the killing started, it was with unexpected ferocity.

On the morning of March 25, barely half a day since the beginning of NATO airstrikes, Zenel Popaj found himself submerged in the Billai River, weighed down by the bodies of his relatives and neighbors, and struggling now and then to push his nose above the surface long enough for a quick breath. Finally, he couldn't stand it anymore. Better to die quickly from a bullet, he thought, than to drown in this freezing stream. So he pushed aside the corpses that were covering him and looked around.

The Serbian police were gone. There was only a boy staring at him in disbelief.

Popaj had survived one of the first massacres, 45 men gunned down in Bela Crkva.

The massacres had their own logic. The first significant waves of killings and expulsions happened in the south and southwest of Kosovo, emptying out towns and villages on the border with Albania and astride the road between Djakovica and Prizren, clearing a channel through which most of the ethnic Albanian population would flood on its way to Albania.

Thus, in those first three days, Celina, Bela Crkva, Velika Krusa, Mala Krusa and other small farming communities within sight of the two-lane asphalt became killing zones.

Today, the main massacre site looks innocuous - a grassy slope that rises gently from a farm lane, next to a ravine filled with underbrush. But the grass is strangely beaten down, and there are bits of debris - socks, broken dentures, rusted cigarette cases - strewn about.