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Across the border, apparent massacre could be observed

By Susan Milligan, Globe Correspondent, 04/04/99

For the latest news and background on the conflict in Kosovo, see our special coverage in The Boston Globe's Boston.com.

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RUMA, Albania - The day, eerily enough, started with death.

Most of the men in the tiny Kosovo village of Goden were at the home of a friend, Bajram Morina, whom they had buried four days earlier. In a customary Muslim wake, 20 men of the hamlet, which had only 200 residents in all, gathered at 7 a.m. every day, drinking coffee and talking about their deceased friend, who had lived his entire 75 years in Goden. The women in the village were home, making breakfast of bread, cheese, and milk for their children.

The hillside village consisted of only 20 stone houses, each with a red-tiled roof. Everyone knew one another, and the passing of one of Goden's elders was a somber event.

But at about 9 a.m., the solemnity was violently broken, according to the accounts of about 20 villagers interviewed here after fleeing Kosovo. And almost uniquely among the tales of atrocities told by Kosovar Albanians, much of their story has been corroborated by an independent observer who was watching the village from across the nearby Albanian border.

Serb soldiers, the villagers said, stormed into their houses, brandishing 12-inch knives and machine guns and ordering everyone to get out. They wore green camouflage army uniforms, and a few wore yellow bandannas.

Women, children, and a few men not at the wake were herded into the street. Some were forced to stand in a waist-deep hole. Around them, they could see their homes start to burn.

''We heard them call on the other forces to kill us in the hole,'' said Sabrinje Osmanaj, 50, as she recounted the terror of that Thursday morning 10 days ago. Children cried, screaming for their parents. Frantic women worried what had become of their husbands and brothers.

''They threatened us, saying, `The order is to execute you all,''' said Rokmane Ferraj.

On the other side of the village, which has but a single road, 35-year-old Drita Osmanaj was preparing breakfast when eight children who had been playing in the courtyard raced into the kitchen, screaming that ''the Serbs were coming into the village,'' she recalled.

Moments later, the Serb soldiers were in her house, demanding that she and the children get out. ''We didn't even have time to get our shoes,'' she said.

Marched to the center of the village, Drita Osmanaj saw her husband, Zumer, standing in one of two lines of 10 men each. She couldn't make eye contact with him, but she saw he was pale.

From the corner of her eye, Drita watched as the Serbs lined up the men along the wall of a house owned by a farmer named Hamez Osmanaj, another member of the village's dominant Osmanaj clan. The house was in flames.

The 20, including Hamez, two teachers, and the director of the town's only school, were forced to kneel with the hands behind their heads, facing armed Serbs.

''We were crying, but the Serbs said, `Why are you looking at the men? Just keep moving,''' recalled Drita Osmanaj, who is now staying with a family in Kruma.

The rest of the village was forcibly gathered into a group and taken to a clearing on the outskirts of town. ''The whole village was there, and we could see the whole village in flames,'' said a tearful Fane Osmanaj, 45.

The men were never seen again, the Goden villagers said. The villagers heard shots, dozens of them said, but no screams. They were too far away to see or hear the fate of their menfolk.

''We don't have the slightest idea if they are alive, dead, or massacred,'' said Ferraj, sitting in a bare room with no furniture other than mattresses on the floor.

In contrast to many of the reported atrocities, the attack on Goden had an independent witness, although at a distance. As an observer for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Owen O'Sullivan was looking down on Goden from his observation post on the Albanian side of the border that Thursday, the morning after the first wave of NATO bombs.

From the hilltop vantage point, ''I saw the cleansing myself,'' said O'Sullivan, a former commandant in the Irish military. He saw the women and children being forcibly marched toward a schoolyard. He saw 20 men being marched in a line. He saw the women and children being taken to another part of town, and then the 20 men were taken out of his view.

Then came the shots: ''a sustained burst of gunfire, followed by a silence,'' O'Sullivan said. Finally, O'Sullivan heard staccato-like, single shots, ''as if they were finishing them off,'' the OSCE observer said.

O'Sullivan then saw some Serb soldiers pull away from the village in trucks, which held no prisoners.

By then, the 174 women, children, and a few men of Goden were on their way to the Albanian border, driven along by Serb soldiers. It is only 2 miles from the village, but it took the villagers, some wearing only slippers, hours to walk the only mountain road that was not mined. They reached the border late in the afternoon.

After they left their homes and began walking to a clearing on the way, the Serbs stole the women's jewelry and taunted the travelers. ''We told them we want to stay here, in Kosovo,'' said Fane Osmanaj. ''But they said, `There is no place for you here. For years, you have been asking to join your brothers in Albania. Go - because this is Serb land, not Albanian land,''' Fane Osmanaj recalled.

At the mountaintop border pass, Serb soldiers took their last verbal shot: ''They told us, `Turn your heads back once again and see Kosovo, because you are never going to see it again,''' Drita Osmanaj said.

The story of Goden is typical of the tales told by refugees fleeing Kosovo. And the international community, like O'Sullivan, has watched helplessly from a distance.

Because foreign observers and journalists have been largely kept out of Kosovo and central Serbia, the forced exodus and terrorizing of Albanians can usually only be chronicled after the fact, through the stories of the surviving victims.

''It's a tale of horror,'' O'Sullivan said. ''The consistency of the stories is such that it would be impossible to invent them. The only thing that changes is the time they were forced to leave.''

For the 174 villagers from Goden, the episode is as baffling as it was terrifying. All of the residents interviewed insisted no members of the Kosovo Liberation Army lived in their village.

People were born, schooled, married, farmed, and died within a small region of a few villages. The population ranged from a 2-month-old boy to Morina, who had just died at age 75. A few went abroad to earn money to send home. But for most, life was simple and relatively isolated from the increasingly violent politics of the province.

''I've never even seen a KLA soldier,'' said Ferraj, though she said she occasionally heard the echo of gunfire from battles between Serbs and the rebels.

Some villagers speculated that the Serbs made a brutal error, mistaking the Muslim wake for a meeting of KLA rebels. Last night, a representative with the Dutch-based war crimes tribunal investigating Balkan atrocities said he was probing several incidents in Kosovo, including the possible massacre in Goden.

For now, all the 174 can do is wait, camped out in the cramped homes of host families in the poor town of Kruma. And underlying their misery is dread, the fear that 20 men of the village will never be back.

''I am afraid that the Serbs executed them, and they are in God's hands,'' said 19-year-old Myrvete Osmanaj.

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 04/04/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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