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Massacre at Cuska

Editors note: The following essay, originally published for American RadioWorks (the full essay available here on their Web site), describes events related to a case in the small village of Cuska near the western Kosovo city of Pec where members of the Serbian security forces allegedly murdered dozens of ethnic Albanians in October 1999. A primer on the current status of the investigation can be found on Human Rights Watch’s Web site. The names of victims and perpetrators in this report are changed in some cases to conceal their identities.

Family members of the Cuska victims carry photographs of the deceased in a funeral procession. © 1999 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

Family members of the Cuska victims carry photographs of the deceased in a funeral procession. © 1999 Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch

When the sun rose above the western Kosovo village of Cuska (pronounced CHOOSH kuh) on May 14, 1999, it was one of those humid, airless mornings that warns of a scorching day ahead. Dragan, a young Serbian militiaman, was agitated. He had been crouching in a grassy field since the previous day when he and dozens of other fighters were ordered to Cuska’s outskirts and told to prepare to attack the ethnic Albanian village. Dragan says he hated these expectant moments that delayed the adrenaline rush of combat. He furtively smoked cigarettes, exchanged lewd jokes about the Albanians, and contemplated death – preferably someone else’s.

“We waited all night for the signal to attack,” he says, his thin face staring off at a distant scene. “It was nerve-wracking. … The only way to forget about the blood and death is to treat it like a football game. And the only thing is to win the game.”

“At dawn we finally got the go-ahead.”

The first fired shots by Dragan and his comrades startled Lule, a 27-year-old Albanian woman who was dozing in her father’s house in the center of Cuska. “I ran outside in my pajamas,” she recalls. “I saw the men of our village running. I also saw smoke and flames. My neighbors said the Serbs were killing and burning, … so I woke my parents and my uncle and the children.”

“The soldiers had face paint, and some wore bandannas for masks,” recalls Akif, Lule’s uncle. “They were wearing a mixture of uniforms – some were police officers’ uniforms, and some were the Yugoslav army’s.”

Some Albanian men managed to flee to nearby woods. Others were shot as they tried to escape. But many families were trapped. The militiamen quickly seized Lule’s father, her uncle Akif, and her cousin.

The village of 200 houses and some 500-700 people (some Albanians had fled earlier in the war) was an easy target for the 100-or-so Serbian fighters present on May 14. The Albanian inhabitants could not have known that the early-morning attack was part of a broad assault on Cuska and two neighboring villages that had been planned days before by Serbian police and military commanders and that was carried out by some of Serbia’s most elite units as well as its notorious militia gangs.

Serbian police and military commanders gave each of the six or seven fighting units a set of coordinates and a sector in the village to attack and “cleanse” according to Dragan. “When we went into the village it was undefended. We went house to house, clearing people out,” he says. “We concentrated on killing rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). If we decided a guy was KLA, we often executed him on the spot.”

“They took us to the village cemetery,” says Akif, the wiry, 57-year-old Albanian farmer. “They separated the men from the women. The men they thought could fight. Then they started burning houses and shooting at people’s feet to scare them.”

Akif and his neighbors recognized some of the gunmen from their previous patrols in the village, when the Serbs rolled into Cuska looking for KLA fighters and menacing the villagers. But on those earlier visits the Serbs assured Cuska’s residents that if they worked their land and lived peacefully, they’d be safe. May 14 was different.

“We were rough, even with kids or women,” says Dusan, another Serbian fighter who took part in the attack on Cuska. “At one house an Albanian came out with bread and salt, which is a traditional Serbian way to welcome guests. We were insulted. So one of our guys hit the Albanian’s wife with his rifle and then kicked the guy’s child. Then that Albanian guy was taken away.”

Akif was rounded up with some of his neighbors. “They divided us men into three groups and took us away. There were 12 of us in my group. They took us inside a neighbor’s house and lined us against the living-room wall. They cursed us, then demanded more money. But we had already given them all the money we had.”

Dragan was one of the Serbian fighters who led Akif and the others into the house. “We took 11 or 12 men. We concluded that some of them were KLA. … You know the way we got them to talk, interrogation — fists and a rifle butt to the head. Cut them with a knife so they’d confess something.”

“The soldier came to the door,” Akif says slowly, “and he said, ‘In the name of Serbia you will all be executed.’ And then he opened fire.”

A bullet ripped into Akif’s thigh, but he was saved by the bodies of his brother Halil, and a neighbor. Before the killers left they tossed a cushion soaked with gasoline into the room where Akif lay hidden by the bodies of his family members. Dragan says the fire was meant to destroy the evidence, especially the bodies.

Remarkably, Akif escaped. “The door outside was on fire. Fortunately there was a window,” Akif says. “I jumped from the window and ran bleeding into a grassy field and that’s where I hid.” None of the other men escaped the house alive.

Two other groups of men from the village were forced into separate houses, gunned down, and set on fire. In all, 41 men died in Cuska on May 14, ages 19 to 69. That same morning, Serbian security forces attacked two adjacent villages, Pavlan and Zahac, driving out the women, children, and elderly, and killing a total of 72 people. One young woman was kidnapped and never seen again.

Cuska, July 18, 1999. Two months have passed since the massacre. Nine Albanian soldiers snap to attention, raise their assault rifles to the blue, summer sky, and fire three sharp volleys. As the shots crackle through the war-scarred village, Albanian mourners rush the burial mound in a desperate lurch. Women in black head-scarves and their children wail fiercely. One woman, whose two sons and husband were killed, tries to throw herself onto the grave, shouting, “I must be with you.”

The ceremony is part of a grim reckoning across Kosovo, as returning Albanian families gather to re-bury their dead. On this day, mourners are honoring the men murdered in Cuska on that stifling morning in May.

Akif, the Albanian farmer, stands among the mourners dressed in a simple black suit, starched white shirt, and black tie. His expressionless gaze betrays none of the anguish he feels as one of few men in the Cuska who survived the massacre. “This is where they gathered us,” Akif says quietly, motioning to the small cemetery. “Before they took us men away.”

Situated in the fertile cropland along the Bistrica River, Cuska sits on a flat plain shadowed by the rocky peaks of the Accursed Mountains, which form the border with neighboring Albania. Like many of Kosovo’s Albanian villages, the place is latticed with dirt roads and the traditional, high stone walls which surround each family compound. The village is considered a suburb of Pec, a city that was emptied and half-burned by Serbian forces.

By mid-July, 1999, Serbian forces were gone — driven out of Kosovo by NATO troops. NATO helicopters now patrolled Kosovo’s skies, and peacekeeping troops guarded the uneasy truce below. With NATO came investigators from the UN war crimes tribunal and from human rights groups. In their effort to piece together what happened in Kosovo and who did the killing, these investigators came to Cuska, too.

When Fred Abrahams arrived at Cuska for the massacre commemoration, he had already visited similar atrocity sites across Kosovo. But something was different here — accounts of survivors like Akif and Lule were more detailed, for one — so Abrahams decided to investigate further. Abrahams is an Albanian-speaking researcher for the United States-based Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental group that investigates war crimes and other human-rights abuses. During and after the war, Abrahams traveled in Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo, interviewing Albanians about the Serbs’ three-month campaign of murder and deportation that was the focus of NATO’s air war and led to war crimes indictments against Slobodan Milosevic and four aides. Western governments estimate that some 10,000 Albanians are dead or missing, though fewer than 3,000 bodies have been recovered so far. But what drew Abrahams to Cuska was not so much the brutality of the massacre but rather the executioners’ utter recklessness. The fighters were sloppy.

“The remarkable thing about Cuska,” Abrahams says, “is that in each of these three houses there was one survivor. Three people who can tell us very precisely how the execution took place.”

Abrahams found another detail that distinguished Cuska from other massacres in Kosovo; In their haste to pull out of the province in June — just ahead of NATO’s ground force — some of the Serb fighters left behind a record of what they had done. Returning Albanians found military documents and even snapshots showing Serbian fighters in action, flaunting guns and posing before burning buildings. These photos provide unusual clues for war crimes investigators like Abrahams and the opportunity to finally unmask the men behind the killings.

Abrahams got hold of a series of color photos from the office of the Pec prefect, a former KLA commander now in charge of running the city. They show Serbian fighters in full combat gear.

“The photographs clearly have a weekend warrior, Rambo-esque aura about them,” says Abrahams. “They’re quite remarkable. They showed local Serbs in various military poses in front of burning homes with automatic weapons in full uniforms. Apparently these individuals were somehow proud or interested in showing off their large guns and sharp knives.”

Abrahams scanned the photographs into his laptop and went back to Cuska, where he powers up the computer screen for Akif and his 27-year-old niece, Lule. As the image emerges, Akif and Lule react immediately, pointing at the screen, exclaiming, “That’s him!” Lule begins to shake as she recalls how on May 14, the fat, dark-haired man in the photo, wearing the same gold cross and gripping a machine gun, pulled her away from the other villagers and threatened to kill her family unless she followed his orders.

“It’s the same guy,” Lule says. “Nobody else. If I saw him ten years from now, I would still recognize him. He’s the one that took me aside and threatened to rape me. He was the commander.”

Seven villagers told American RadioWorks that the barrel-chested man posing so proudly with his machine gun in the photograph was one of the militia commanders who led the attack on Cuska. They say other gunmen called him by a nickname — Burdush — the name of a heavyset, Balkan television entertainer. The villagers say Burdush ordered the three groups of unarmed men to be taken away for execution.

So who was this man called Burdush, who appeared to give orders to the other gun men. And who were his commanders? What kind of men would order such a cold-blooded massacre, and why? Does the killing of unarmed men bother these “triggermen”? Can justice really cope with the aftermath of such heinous crimes, or does violence of this order feed itself in an unending cycle?

Important clues lie not just in the events of May 14, but in the distant past.

For many Serbs, Kosovo is sacred land, soaked in the blood of martyrs and eulogized in folk songs. The fields of Kosovo were the heart of Serbia’s medieval empire and the site of the Serbian nation’s defining moment, a legendary defeat to the Ottoman imperial army at a place called the Field of Blackbirds.

By the end of the 20th century, Kosovo was still a Serbian province but populated mostly by ethnic Albanians. Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic, waged a ten-year campaign to impose a Balkan-style apartheid to enforce Serbian control over the Albanians and to boost his own political power. At the same time, Milosevic fought wars in Croatia and Bosnia in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and deported. In 1997, a shadowy Albanian independence group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army struck back, launching a guerrilla war. KLA fighters assassinated Serbian government officials, police officers, and so-called Albanian collaborators.

As the insurgency widened, Milosevic rushed more military and police forces to Kosovo, targeting suspected rebels and their village strongholds. Many of Milosevic’s fighters were veterans of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. But Western investigators say the Serbs killed thousands of unarmed civilians without troubling to find direct evidence of KLA connections.

Jon Cina, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that is collecting war-crimes data in Kosovo, says Serbian attacks incrementally expanded in scope and brutality from the early clashes with the KLA in 1997.

“If you compare it to a tree, initially they were trying to lop off the branches, then they decided to hack away at the trunk,” he says. “Finally they decided to dig up the garden, which obviously is going to remove the tree, but it’s also going to cause a hell of a lot of collateral damage, as they like to call it.”

To this day, Serbia’s leadership and many of its citizens deny that the police and army committed atrocities in Kosovo. They insist the war was a legitimate effort to destroy anti-government guerrillas, and they dismiss atrocity stories as NATO and KLA propaganda that exaggerates the excesses of a few rogue units.

Dennis Milner, one of the UN war crimes tribunal’s lead investigators in Kosovo, rejects official Serbia’s view of the war.

“What do they call a rogue element?” he asks. “Are they talking about a whole (army) corps as a rogue element? Is one of their generals a rogue element? It defies all common sense.”

Human rights investigators contend massacres like the one in Cuska, in which Serbian forces murdered unarmed civilians who offered no resistance, are textbook examples of war crimes. Yes, Cuska is the home village for the KLA’s top commander, Agim Ceku. And Ceku’s father was murdered on May 14, but several Serbian fighters say his killing was not the primary aim of the attack. “There’s no evidence to suggest that Cuska had any KLA activity whatsoever,” says Abrahams. “All of the villagers said that while some of them had been members of the KLA and fought in other areas, Cuska during the war remained quiet.”

Why Cuska? The key seemed to lie in the identities of the gunmen, especially the commander called Burdush. Through them it might be possible to learn who planned the operation and, more importantly, why. None of the survivors at Cuska knew Burdush’s real name. But Lule, the young woman he threatened to rape, says no one in Cuska will forget his face, nor the crimes they say he committed.

“Do you see these hands?” Lule asks trembling. “With these two hands I collected the bones of my uncles, my cousins, and my father. I found my father’s remains last, but just parts of him. I didn’t find his legs or his head. Just his torso. And with these hands I placed him in the earth. As for those Serbs, the ones who killed him, they have their hands covered with blood. They belong in The Hague.”

Read the full essay here.

Human Rights Watch does not endorse, and does not necessarily share, the views and opinions expressed in the film “Worse Than War” or other word contained or referenced therein. Human Rights Watch takes no responsibility for the accuracy or currentness of any information contained in the film “Worse Than War” or other work contained or referenced therein.

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