[efiwebheads] One refugee's story
- I thought this story is relevant to our discussions of Kosovo.
'If I Could Not Talk, Nobody Would Know'
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page A1
TIRANA, Albania In an empty farm shed in the southern Kosovo village
Velika Krusa, Selami Elshani asked one of the Serbian paramilitaries
standing in front of him and 14 other ethnic Albanian men if he had
"Yes," the Serb replied.
"Please think about our children," pleaded Elshani.
The paramilitary, carrying an automatic rifle and wearing a light green
uniform with white epaulets and "Policija" written in white letters on
back, shook his head and said, "It doesn't interest me."
Another paramilitary said, "Let's start."
Within moments, 14 of the 15 men were dead, all except Elshani. The
threw straw on the pile of bullet-riddled corpses, doused them with
and set them on fire.
Three weeks later, in Tirana's Central University Hospital, Elshani
himself into a sitting position using his elbows to avoid leaning on his
heavily bandaged hands. When unbandaged, his face, once angular and
appeared destroyed: lips reduced to pus and scabs; bloody sores bubbling
from his singed hair to under his chin; cheeks dried white and black;
bandages, streaked red by blood and yellow by iodine, wrapping his
Elshani grimaced as he rose from the bed. But he was determined. He had
story to tell: how 14 men were executed in cold blood. How their blood
trickled down his face as he dared not breathe. How he smelled the
when a paramilitary brought it into the room. How he burned.
And how he survived.
"God saved me to come out and tell," said Elshani, 37.
In a bed where seepage from his wounds streaked the sheets with blood,
cinder-block hospital where the pink and green walls were rotting and
peeling, in a city of refugees and garbage and dust, Elshani was perhaps
most fortunate and the most cursed of the displaced.
"If I could not talk, nobody would know," he said. "Those men. Nobody
On March 25, the day after NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, about 50
from the same extended family gathered in the house of Elshani's uncle.
Elshani, his wife, his parents and his two boys, ages 4 and 8, had been
living in Velika Krusa since the previous July when they were burned out
their home village of Reti, near the town of Rakovica, during a summer
offensive by Yugoslav forces.
There were 10 fighting-age men in the house the night after the bombs
to fall, and they decided to flee to a nearby riverbank, fearing that
Serbian assault on the village would target them.
"We had to leave," said Elshani, "because we knew the Serbs wanted the
When the 10 men reached the river about 10 p.m. they found about 200
men hiding there as well as dozens of women and children.
It was cold and the children were crying. No one had brought any food.
By 3:30 a.m., the villagers were surrounded by Yugoslav forces,
in the distance. Through the night, random gunfire pierced the darkness.
In the morning light, the villagers were ordered to emerge with their
above their heads. The women were taken to the village mosque, and the
were lined up in six rows on either side of a road running through
Krusa. One by one, they were searched and stripped of money, identity
and car keys.
When the search was over, the 200 men were ordered into an open area
a farmhouse. They lay on the ground, face down, with their hands behind
their heads. Out on the street, the men had been searched by Interior
Ministry troops or special police forces, but in the courtyard they were
guarded by about 20 Serbian paramilitaries.
"The normal police were calm," said Elshani, "but the paramilitaries
screaming. They said we were terrorists." Elshani said he recognized one
the Serbs as a civilian from the village of Velika Hoca, near Elshani's
For five hours, the paramilitaries moved among the ethnic Albanians,
them with wood. Elshani's right hand was broken. Five or six men were
away individually, but Elshani said he never heard gunshots or
"I don't know what happened to them," he said. "We never saw them
After five hours, the men were ordered to stand and were asked who was
from Velika Krusa. Fifteen men, including Elshani, stepped forward. "I
thought they would know I was from Reti," he said.
They were marched 50 yards to a shed that had housed farm animals but
empty except for straw and muck. They were forced into a corner. Elshani
knew four of the 14 others: Ylber Thaci, 36; his brother, Isa, 35; and
Berisha, 36, were all from Reti. Fatmir Kabashi, 43, from the village of
Zociste, was married to Elshani's cousin.
Pressed into the corner, the men begged for their lives.
"We asked them to set us free," said Elshani, who was standing at the
of the men. "We said, 'We have done nothing.' I said, 'Mister, is there
possibility to let us go. We are not terrorists.'
"In the end, they said, 'Go ask Bill Clinton,'" said Elshani. "That's
we knew we would die."
Five men lined up in front of them with Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
fired a couple of rounds and Elshani fell to the ground. He wasn't hit.
just fell. A burst of gunfire erupted and bodies fell on top of him.
from the victims streamed down Elshani's face. He lay face up, his eyes
closed, with one of the victims lying almost completely on top of him.
"I felt his blood trickle on my face," he said.
The paramilitaries continued to fire into the corpses and Elshani was
lightly grazed on the shoulder. The Serbs then covered the bodies with
straw, soaked it in gasoline and lit it.
"I was mad with fear," said Elshani. The body on top protected him some,
the heat became intense. Elshani didn't know, however, if the Serbs were
still around, and if crawling out meant certain death.
"I had to come out of the fire or die burned alive," he said. "It felt
an hour in the flames even though it was a very short time. It was
"I pushed the body aside and opened the straw with my hands and that's
my face and hands were burned."
Elshani rolled out screaming, oblivious now to his fear of the Serbs.
clothes were on fire. He pulled them off, stripping flesh from his
ran screaming from the room and out into the yard where he found some
"That helped me find my senses," he said.
Out on the street, he said, there were about 20 corpses. He recognized
of his cousins, Ramadan Ramadani, 36, and his brother, Afrim, 35. He
know the others.
"I looked at them carefully," he said. "I saw some people with half of
heads gone away." Elshani ran to his uncle's house, where he found his
father, uncle and two other relatives, all elderly men. They started in
fright, and no one seemed to recognize him.
"I said, 'It's me, it's me,'" said Elshani, "and they started to cry."
March 26 to April 1, the men hid Elshani in the basement, treating his
"I was conscious. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't move my hands. Terrible
pain," he said.
On April 1, an ethnic Albanian came to the house and said everyone was
leaving. Elshani was hidden under blankets on the back of a tractor
elderly men. They made it across the border without being searched.
At an Albanian military hospital in Kukes, doctors cleaned Elshani's
and face but told him he had to get to Tirana for treatment. There was
ambulance to take him, so one of Elshani's relatives paid a local taxi
driver his last 300 marks to take the two of them to the Albanian
Here, Elshani has had three skin grafts, and two more surgeries are
But doctors said they cannot offer him plastic reconstructive surgery,
they believe he will need.
After nearly a week at the hospital, Elshani saw his wife walk through
door. The relative who brought Elshani to Tirana found her and Elshani's
sons at a refugee camp in the southern Albanian city of Fier. The family
fled into the hills for four days on March 26 and then joined a convoy
refugees going to Albania.
"They told me he was a little burned," said Mahije Elshani, 33, who now
lives in her husband's hospital room, tending his bandages and
spooning food into his mouth. "I asked him, 'Do you hear me?' He said,
'Yes.' And I fainted."
She fainted twice more that day.
A stream of visitors, mostly relatives, comes to see Elshani every day.
this week, officials from the war crimes tribunal at The Hague also came
to take a statement from Elshani. They refused to discuss the case, but
Elshani said they told him they hope to bring those who killed the 14
Two people have not come to see Elshani his sons, Leotrim, 8, and
4, who are being sheltered by an Albanian family.
"I can't have the kids see me," said Elshani. "They can't see me."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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