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Bearing witness to the tragedy of Kosovo
Human Rights Center observers tell of refugees’ exile, return in the southern Balkans

topkey  A Village Destroyed: Slideshow; high bandwidth, low bandwidth

The spring of 1999 saw the largest single eviction of a civilian population in Europe since World War II. The refugees numbered 800,000. The place from which they fled — little known to the American public before that time — was the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, in the southern Balkans. Once NATO began its bombing campaign over Yugoslavia, foreign journalists and a handful of human-rights investigators — unable to get inside Kosovo to report on the situation — circulated through the throngs of refugees at border crossings, attempting to gather accounts of what had happened in their villages.


An ethnic Albanian man collects bones and scraps of clothing of his relatives for burial in a village cemetery near the western Kosovo city of Pec. Serb paramilitaries allegedly executed many people when they took control of the village in early May 1999. Gilles Peress photo

Among the observers were two veteran witnesses to the Yugoslav conflict — Eric Stover, director of Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and adjunct professor of public health, and Magnum photographer Gilles Peress, a senior research associate with the center. Only a few years earlier, the two had been in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, documenting war crimes committed against civilians on all three sides of that conflict.

For Stover and Peress, the parallels between the two Balkan emergencies were haunting. This time they stationed themselves for four weeks at Morina, an isolated border station where terrified villagers fled into Albania. (At the height of the panic, more than 23,000 people converged on Morina in a single day.)

Peress compiled a photographic record, focusing often on telling visual details — a suitcase hurriedly secured with rope, a bevy of hands clutching for loaves of bread at a food-distribution point. Stover, meanwhile, interviewed witnesses through a translator. He was especially interested in speaking with middle-aged women, he says. “Women tend to give fewer political speeches. So I would approach them as they crossed the border. I would ask ‘Where are you from? Who’s on the cart? Was anybody hurt? Did you see anyone killed?’”

The two men hoped that their efforts might help the world
understand the unfolding human tragedy in Kosovo, and serve as evidence in an international criminal prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic and other high-ranking Yugoslav officials.

Victims and perpetrators
A collection of Peress' photos from Morina was published in the July 19, 1999 issue of The New Yorker; it was the longest photo essay that magazine had ever published. A more extensive account, including the findings of Human Rights Watch researcher Fred Abrahams, has since been published as a book from University of California Press, "A Village Destroyed: May 14, 1999 - War Crimes in Kosovo."

Text and photos from the book are featured in a website with the same title, developed by Lina Katz, a J-School graduate doing a second master's in international and area studies, with support of a Human Rights Center fellowship.

“Our aim in creating ‘A Village Destroyed,’” says Stover, “was to prepare a document that would illuminate the Kosovo war through many different perspectives, including those of victims, perpetrators, war-crimes investigators, and journalists.”

The first half of the book consists of Peress’ photos from Morina, along with an essay by Stover on the historical context of the crisis and the exile and return of Kosovar Albanians. Stover also writes of the “revenge fantasy” common to many victims, and acts of vicious retribution that many ethnic Albanians committed against their Serb neighbors upon their return to Kosovo.

“The amount of revenge against ethnic Serbs — particularly the elderly — was pathetic and atrocious,” he says.

In his essay, Stover describes, for instance, the murder of 62-year-old Dragoslav Basic, a Serb professor of earthquake engineering who had learned his discipline at Berkeley on a Fulbright scholarship in the late 1980s. Basic had returned to the Balkans in 1990 to teach at the University of Kosovo. On Nov. 29, 1999, a mob of ethnic Albanians dragged Basic, his wife, and his mother-in-law from their car in downtown Pristina. The two women were seriously injured; the professor was shot dead.

Other sections of the book reveal experiences both of victims (documenting a typical massacre in one rural village on one day) and perpetrators of war crimes in Kosovo. The latter, remarkably, are seen through an “album” of snapshots taken by Serb forces and found as undeveloped film in a Kosovo field in summer 1999.

Readers also find excerpts from interviews with Serb military and paramilitary forces conducted by American RadioWorks reporters in September and November 1999.

“We would receive a list of names,” says a man named Marko, who was released from a Serbian prison in exchange for fighting in Kosovo. “‘Bring this person in alive or dead.’ I was assigned to arrest people, and had permission to kill them if necessary.”

“We grabbed two wounded guys who we thought were from the Kosovo Liberation Army and killed them,” says a Bosnian Serb named Milan who belonged to a militia gang called “Munja” (Lightning). “Our job was to cleanse the village…. We burned everything in the village. The whole village.”

Researching war crimes
“ A Village Destroyed” shows, too, how modern technology is changing human-rights reporting. In Kosovo, for example, investigators downloaded photos of Serbian forces onto laptop computers and took them into decimated villages, where survivors were able to identify perpetrators of war crimes.

For those learning about human-rights work, a glossary of terminology — from Command Responsibility to War Crimes — is included. “Students are moving into an increasingly violent world,” notes Stover. “If they go overseas, as physicians, journalists, diplomats, relief workers,” he says, they need to understand international humanitarian law and the language used to talk about it.

The online version of “A Village Destroyed” — featured on the Human Rights Center website (www.hrcberkeley.org) and reached by links from Human Rights Watch, UC Press, amazon.com, and the Crimes of War Project — is amplifying the impact of the print version. The website includes additional interviews and information designed to help convey the complexity of researching war crimes.