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Refugees call Korisa a setup; Serbs locked them up to die, survivors say

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PRIZREN, Yugoslavia -- Zela Ahmetaj lost her leg to a NATO bomb. So did Ljuljeta Rexhaj. Sevdije Kukaj lost 11 members of her extended family, all in the same attack. They don't blame the NATO pilot who launched the bomb, because they believe that Serbian police deliberately put them in harm's way.

They were among several hundred refugees from the village of Korisa who were locked inside a building supply depot in the early morning hours of May 14, when a single terrifying explosion destroyed the depot and killed 87 people. All of them were Kosovar Albanians.

Yugoslav authorities denounced the attack as an atrocity, and brought Western reporters to the scene to survey the damage. NATO said the depot had been next to a military command post and artillery bunker, and accused the Serbs of using the refugees as human shields.

The NATO position has not changed.

"There was military stuff there. It met all our criteria, and we struck it," one NATO military officer said last week.

Survivors interviewed last week at the hospital here, however, have a different interpretation. The idea of using human shields is to thwart an attack, and they don't think that was the Serbs' intention. They believe that the police set them up to be killed.

At this point it is impossible to know what the Serbian police in Korisa had in mind. That hundreds of innocent refugees had been sent into a building a few hours before it was demolished by NATO bombardment might have been a horrible conjunction of completely unrelated events.

"No," said Rexhaj. "They put us purposely in that place."

The refugees, who were living in the open in the mountainous forest about three miles southeast of Korisa, had seen a bad situation get worse as the daylight hours of May 13 wore on.

Most were from Korisa itself, but they had left their homes nearly a month earlier when Serbian paramilitaries began burning them to the ground.

The Serbs knew where they were, according to Ahmetaj, 53, and her cousin, Ismail Ahmetaj, 38. Police and paramilitaries working together surrounded the refugees -- probably about 500 people -- on three sides and began firing over their heads. Kukaj said they realized they had to come down out of the hills.

At the first road they reached, two police officers approached the group and offered to guide them across the border to Albania. "We guarantee we'll send you to Albania," Kukaj remembers them saying, but they demanded 50 German marks -- about $30 -- from each person. The refugees, she said, were suspicious of the offer, but didn't see an alternative and paid the money.

The police officers led the group down to the highway that links Prizren and Pristina, and at that point the refugees' hearts sank. Waiting for them was a contingent of about 50 paramilitaries, according to Sokol Kukaj, 24, who is Sevdije's son.

The Serbs, wearing black gloves, began taunting the refugees, Sevdije Kukaj said. They threatened to kill the babies and rape the women if the Kosovar Albanians didn't hand over all their money, she said.

The refugees complied; her son was relieved of German marks worth about $500.

Then the police told the refugees that the border with Albania, less than 20 miles away, had been closed, and that they would have to go elsewhere. The group was herded down the highway. Just outside Korisa, they reached the building supply depot.

The police ushered them in. The tractors the refugees had with them were parked along the outer walls; the people gathered in the center. Ismail Ahmetaj said he thought the depot was about 100 yards long, and almost as wide.

Rexhaj, Zela Ahmetaj and Sokol Kukaj, who were interviewed separately, said they had seen military vehicles parked in the depot before they fled Korisa, though none was there when they arrived. Other survivors said they had not seen any military activity there.

The police told the refugees they would be moved back into their village the next day, though in fact the houses had been burned down. The police also offered to bring them food, but the refugees declined.

'We were scared'

"We said, 'We don't want any.' We were scared. We wanted to go home," said Sevdije Kukaj.

At this point the doors to the depot were closed. Four officers, who stayed inside, set up a table and began taking down everyone's name, Kukaj said. That took well over an hour.

"Don't worry," she remembers one saying. "Tomorrow you'll be home. You don't have to be frightened of us. You should be frightened of NATO. They might bomb you."

Finally, about 10 p.m., all the police left, locking the doors behind them. The refugees were alone and quickly began to fall asleep.

Rexhaj said she heard planes about midnight. Ismail Ahmetaj said there was no sound or warning at all.

In an instant, there was a flash and an enormous explosion. Tractors burst into flames, and people were drenched with burning fuel. Zela Ahmetaj lost her right leg in the explosion. Rexhaj's right leg was shattered by a piece of shrapnel that went right through it. Sokol Kukaj was gashed on the head and back; his sister's foot was broken.

In their terror, the survivors broke down the doors of the depot. Ahmetaj and Rexhaj were carried out by their husbands. Ismail Ahmetaj said he believes the Serbian police opened fire on the crowd. Others said the police and paramilitaries were nowhere in sight. Rexhaj said she thinks some people might have been electrocuted by downed power lines.

The survivors gathered in a nearby field and tried to hide. "My leg was hurting badly," Rexhaj said. "I was crying out."

Several people died of their wounds that night in the field, the survivors said. Sometime after daybreak, the police approached; those who were uninjured fled back to the mountains, where many of them remained until last week. Rexhaj's baby son and daughter are still there with relatives. The police organized a convoy of tractors to take the wounded to the city hospital in Prizren, about six miles away.

It was there that Rexhaj had her leg amputated. She said her husband came once to visit her there, but the police took him, beat him and sent him to Albania.

At the time, all but two of the doctors at the hospital were Serbs. Some were abusive, she said, but one treated her fairly and correctly. She said the hospital demanded that she pay for blood transfusions.

Today, Kosovo is effectively changing hands. The patients in the hospital are being cared for by Albanian doctors. NATO, which unleashed the destructive power that irrevocably changed their lives, is conducting security patrols throughout the region. Abused, shot at and herded by the Serbs, bombed from above, the survivors are shaken, embittered, exhausted.

Serbs focus of hatred

All their hatred has focused on the Serbs. In their own minds, and undoubtedly in the minds of an ever-growing number of Albanians as accounts of the Korisa bombing spread, the question of whether the Serbs intentionally put them in a place that was to be bombed is no longer an open one. The story, to them, is complete.

"I went to see the place," said Sokol Kukaj one day last week. "Ashes. Burned pieces. Human bones."

Pub Date: 6/20/99

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