Relatives of war victims from the small Kosovo village of Rezalla say the recent discovery of bodies that had been hidden in a mass grave in Serbia has revived traumatic memories of the brutal killings in 1999.
Heavy rain cut short Besim Deliu’s work at the memorial site in the village of Rezalla where he had gone to clean up his father’s grave.
The grave has been left empty for more than two decades while he was waiting for the body of his father Xhelil to be found, and he has often had to remove water that has gathered there during downpours.
Xhelil Deliu was among 98 Kosovo Albanian civilians who were killed by Serbian forces on April 5, 1999 in Rezalla. The day afterwards, the Serbs returned to take the bodies away, transporting many of them to mass graves near Raska in southern Serbia in an attempted cover-up operation.
Until last month, Xhelil Deliu and six others were the last people still listed as missing from the massacre.
Besim Deliu said that he was recently told unofficially that his father’s remains had been found in a mass grave in Kizevak in Serbia during an exhumation in June, after satellite imagery was used to locate the grave site in a remote open-cast mine near Raska.
The Kosovo government has announced that the remains of at least nine individuals were recovered, and that the DNA identification process is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
“We hope that after 22 years, we will finally fill in all of our family graves,” Deliu told BIRN at his house in Rezalla.
‘My brother dug a hole and found his son’s body’
Deliu remembers that it was afternoon on April 3, 1999 when he and some of his male relatives were in the forest near the village and heard shouts and screams.
His six-year-old nephew Bleart and his nephew Lulver, aged 12, were killed by a sniper from the Serbian police forces that had laid siege to the village.
Then the police rounded up the women, children and elderly people, herding them down towards the road.
“Lulver remained dead in the yard. Bleart as well. But my sister-in-law thought that her son Bleart was still alive and took him in her arms. But he was not,” Deliu said.
“When the families reached the neighbouring village of Marine, a Serbian policeman touched the child on the neck and said to her: ‘He is dead. Leave him here!’ She was forced to lay him down by the road and keep walking.”
More than 30 members of his family, including a wounded sister, were locked up that night and for the next day in a small granary in Marine.
On the morning of April 5, the Serbs separated the women from the men. The women were told to go towards the city of Drenas while the three old men, including Besim’s father Xhelil, were ordered to take the road back to the village of Rezalla.
In Rezalla, the men and women had also been separated from each other. While the women were ordered to leave the village, the men were killed in a house. A day later, Serbian troops collected the bodies in two trucks and took them to various locations in Serbia.
More than two months later, the father of Bleart Deliu, whose body had been left behind by the road by his mother, found him buried nearby.
“At the end of June 1999, my brother decided to dig some holes in the fields in the village of Marine and he found his child inside one of them. A bullet had hit him in the heart,” Besim Deliu said.
Two other relatives who were with Xhelil Deliu on the day that he died were found buried with the other victims near the site of the massacre. But Xhelil Deliu’s remains were not there.
Body parts from this primary grave near the site of the massacre were moved to secondary grave sites, and like many other families of missing persons, Besim Deliu said his family is expecting to receive not a complete skeleton but one or two bones.
‘They took them away dead and hid them’
Other families whose loved ones were killed in the massacre in Rezalla and whose bodies were then hidden in Serbia have also waited more than two decades to find out what happened to them.
Granit Deliu now is 22 and he never knew his grandfather Nezir, who went missing in Rezalla in 1999.
“Twenty-two years is a long time. Children or grandchildren of the missing people have grown into adulthood and some have never known them. I am one of them,” he told BIRN.
He travelled to Kizevak in Serbia last month to visit the site where the remains were exhumed.
“It was frustrating for me and my father to see the exhumation. They [Serbian forces] didn’t want them alive here [in Kosovo], but they took them away dead and kept them hidden,” he said.
“Viewing the exhumed remains revealed the final moments of their lives. It sounded to me like I could still hear his voice,” said Nezir Deliu’s son Shaban.
In Rezalla, the sorrow is renewed whenever the remains of someone who was killed in the massacre are brought home.
Salih Ahmeti also is expecting the remains of his mother Shehide, who was 90 years old when she went missing.
She disappeared on April 5, 1999 after Serbian forces ordered women and children to leave the village.
The column of villagers who left did not get far before they heard shooting, and Serbian forces stopped Shehide and a man who was helping her.
“We never knew whether she was killed and sent to Kizevak,” said Ahmeti.
“What a tragic irony – she believed that as an invalid, nothing would happen to her. She was afraid about what would happened to us.”