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[efiwebheads] One refugee's story

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  • Vance Stevens
    I thought this story is relevant to our discussions of Kosovo. Vance If I Could Not Talk, Nobody Would Know By Peter Finn Washington Post Foreign Service
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 6, 1999
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      I thought this story is relevant to our discussions of Kosovo.

      Vance

      '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
      of
      Velika Krusa, Selami Elshani asked one of the Serbian paramilitaries
      standing in front of him and 14 other ethnic Albanian men if he had
      children.
      "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
      his
      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
      Serbs
      threw straw on the pile of bullet-riddled corpses, doused them with
      gasoline
      and set them on fire.
      Three weeks later, in Tirana's Central University Hospital, Elshani
      eased
      himself into a sitting position using his elbows to avoid leaning on his

      heavily bandaged hands. When unbandaged, his face, once angular and
      bronzed,
      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
      forehead.
      Elshani grimaced as he rose from the bed. But he was determined. He had
      a
      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
      gasoline
      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,
      in a
      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
      the
      most fortunate and the most cursed of the displaced.
      "If I could not talk, nobody would know," he said. "Those men. Nobody
      would
      know."
      On March 25, the day after NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, about 50
      people
      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
      of
      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
      began
      to fall, and they decided to flee to a nearby riverbank, fearing that
      any
      Serbian assault on the village would target them.
      "We had to leave," said Elshani, "because we knew the Serbs wanted the
      men."
      When the 10 men reached the river about 10 p.m. they found about 200
      other
      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,
      silhouetted
      in the distance. Through the night, random gunfire pierced the darkness.

      In the morning light, the villagers were ordered to emerge with their
      hands
      above their heads. The women were taken to the village mosque, and the
      men
      were lined up in six rows on either side of a road running through
      Velika
      Krusa. One by one, they were searched and stripped of money, identity
      papers
      and car keys.
      When the search was over, the 200 men were ordered into an open area
      beside
      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
      were
      screaming. They said we were terrorists." Elshani said he recognized one
      of
      the Serbs as a civilian from the village of Velika Hoca, near Elshani's
      home.
      For five hours, the paramilitaries moved among the ethnic Albanians,
      hitting
      them with wood. Elshani's right hand was broken. Five or six men were
      taken
      away individually, but Elshani said he never heard gunshots or
      screaming.
      "I don't know what happened to them," he said. "We never saw them
      again."
      After five hours, the men were ordered to stand and were asked who was
      not
      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
      was
      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
      Gezim
      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
      front
      of the men. "We said, 'We have done nothing.' I said, 'Mister, is there
      any
      possibility to let us go. We are not terrorists.'
      "In the end, they said, 'Go ask Bill Clinton,'" said Elshani. "That's
      when
      we knew we would die."
      Five men lined up in front of them with Kalashnikov automatic rifles.
      They
      fired a couple of rounds and Elshani fell to the ground. He wasn't hit.
      He
      just fell. A burst of gunfire erupted and bodies fell on top of him.
      Blood
      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,
      but
      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
      like
      an hour in the flames even though it was a very short time. It was
      horror
      for me.
      "I pushed the body aside and opened the straw with my hands and that's
      when
      my face and hands were burned."
      Elshani rolled out screaming, oblivious now to his fear of the Serbs.
      His
      clothes were on fire. He pulled them off, stripping flesh from his
      hands. He
      ran screaming from the room and out into the yard where he found some
      water.
      "That helped me find my senses," he said.
      Out on the street, he said, there were about 20 corpses. He recognized
      two
      of his cousins, Ramadan Ramadani, 36, and his brother, Afrim, 35. He
      didn't
      know the others.
      "I looked at them carefully," he said. "I saw some people with half of
      their
      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."
      From
      March 26 to April 1, the men hid Elshani in the basement, treating his
      burns
      with yogurt.
      "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
      carrying
      elderly men. They made it across the border without being searched.
      At an Albanian military hospital in Kukes, doctors cleaned Elshani's
      hands
      and face but told him he had to get to Tirana for treatment. There was
      no
      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
      capital.
      Here, Elshani has had three skin grafts, and two more surgeries are
      planned.
      But doctors said they cannot offer him plastic reconstructive surgery,
      which
      they believe he will need.
      After nearly a week at the hospital, Elshani saw his wife walk through
      the
      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
      had
      fled into the hills for four days on March 26 and then joined a convoy
      of
      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
      delicately
      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.
      And
      this week, officials from the war crimes tribunal at The Hague also came
      by
      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
      men to
      justice.
      Two people have not come to see Elshani – his sons, Leotrim, 8, and
      Nderim,
      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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