’Daddy, They’Re Killing Us’

When the blast of the exploding hand grenade stopped echoing inside her head, Vjollca Berisha's first sensation was of a slimy liquid seeping around her as she lay on the floor of the little pizzeria. "I thought they were dousing gasoline on us," she recalled later, "but it was everyone's blood." She took stock of her three children. No sign of Dafina, the 16-year-old girl. She saw Drilon, 13, lift his head, "so I knew he was OK. I said, 'Mosie, are you still alive?' "Her 8-year-old boy, Gramos, said yes. With about 50 other women and children, most of them members of the extended Berisha family, they had vainly tried to escape marauding Serb gunmen last March by hiding under the tables of the Kalabria Restaurant, at a shopping center in Suva Reka, a small town in southern Kosovo. Now the Serbs were closing in for the kill, forming a semicircle just outside the restaurant's shattered glass doors and window, their AK-47s pointed low. Watching from a nearby building, a neighbor heard a child cry from inside the pizzeria: "Tell them not to kill us, Mommy." Another called: "Daddy, please come, they're killing us." A burst of gunfire stopped the cries.

Vjollca, 36, remembers that when the shooting stopped, there was a terrible silence, punctuated only by the chatter of walkie-talkies outside. Her sister-in-law, Shyhrete Berisha, whispered to her four children: "Pretend you're dead." Two of them had already died. Shyhrete, 36, tried to hide her 10-month-old nephew Eron under her legs. But the baby cried, and someone fired a clip into him, killing the child and wounding Shyhrete 11 times. Another nephew, 2-year-old Ismet, had been hit in the stomach, and like anyone who's been gut-shot, he had a sudden, desperate thirst. "Water," he called, "can you bring me water, Mommy?" Firing into the small restaurant from the sidewalk, the Serbs shot him in the head.

Last week, days after peace came to Kosovo, the world began to discover the full, hideous reality of what the Serbs did there. Order was being imposed by NATO troops and by guerrillas of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, who were trying to transform themselves into a civilian police force and local government. The United States finally reached agreement with Moscow on Russia's role in Kosovo, accepting the deployment of up to 3,600 Russian troops--to NATO's 50,000--nominally under the "unified" command of the Western allies. And leaders of the G8 countries met in Germany to discuss the reconstruction of Kosovo. But it will take more than money to repair Kosovo's wounds. British officials said they expected NATO to find more than 10,000 victims at over 100 massacre sites. This is the story of one of them.

In Suva Reka, 21 members of the immediate Berisha family, extending across four generations, were murdered by the Serbs. An additional 25 cousins who lived in the area were missing and feared dead. Three victims played dead and escaped from the pizzeria--Vjollca, her son, Gramos, and her sister-in-law, Shyhrete. Several eyewitnesses among their neighbors also survived to tell about the massacre of the Berisha family and other ethnic Albanians in Suva Reka. Their stories were gathered by NEWSWEEK, starting among refugees who had fled to Albania and Italy during the NATO air war. Investigators from the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague also documented the accounts. The Berisha family victims ranged in age from little Eron's 10 months to Aunt Hava's 65. And that was only the beginning of the Serbs' rampage in Suva Reka.

In three new burial grounds nearby, there are 105 mounds, many of which may hold more than one body. Until the corpses are exhumed, no one can say exactly how many people died. Just before NATO entered Kosovo, in an apparent attempt to make the graves look less like the result of an atrocity, wooden markers were driven into the mounds. Each was given a number; a few also bore names, but most were marked with the Serbian abbreviation "NN," for Name Unknown. But this was no random act of violence against anonymous ethnic Albanians. In a town of 20,000 people, 90 percent of them Albanian, Suva Reka's two communities knew each other intimately. This was a massacre with a personal history.

It wasn't hard to figure out who was the boss in Suva Reka. Misko Nisavic, a 39-year-old Serb, had parlayed a position in State Security, the Serbian secret police, into a provincial business empire called Boss Commerce. Together with his two brothers and their father, he ran the Boss Hotel, the Boss Driving School, the Boss Baby Shop and Boss Car Repairs, among other enterprises. Nisavic and his pal Boban Vuksanovic, a physician and former mayor of Suva Reka, took over the local government after Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic illegally revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. The Albanians responded by creating a parallel society, boycotting Serb institutions and refusing to patronize their businesses.

That hit boss commerce hard; with only 10 percent of the local population, the Serbs couldn't provide enough customers, and it was difficult to hire Albanian workers. After some of his shops were shuttered, Nisavic struck back, according to Albanian leaders, by running a series of extortion rackets. Albanians going abroad reportedly had to pay Nisavic $3,750 for each passport. A driver's license went for $1,600--plus the cost of tuition at the Boss Driving School.

The Berishas had no political power, but their businesses drew plenty of customers. The patriarchs, two brothers named Fajik and Vesel, both in their 70s, ran the enterprise with their five sons and the clan's oldest grandson. The family owned shops, restaurants, photo-finishing stores and travel agencies, one wryly called Refugee Travel. As business boomed, fueled by the earnings sent home by ethnic Albanians working in Germany and Slovenia, the family built bigger and bigger houses around its compound on Reshtan Road, across from the police station. They ran a tour-bus business and hired a Serb named Zoran Petkovic as one of their drivers. Petkovic spoke fluent Albanian and was so trusted that he often came to dinner with the Berishas, who affectionately called him Zoki. "If there was a family to hate, this wasn't it. Even the Serbs liked them," says Muhamet Veliu, Suva Reka's new police coordinator from the KLA. Xhemal Berisha, the only one of the five brothers to survive the massacre, says his relatives thought their friendly relations with people like Zoki would protect them. "How can you eat at someone's home and then kill him?" he asks. What the Berishas didn't know was that according to Veliu, Boss Nisavic, Vuksanovic, Petkovic and his brother, Miki, were all members of the Black Hand, a secret society of Serbian ultranationalists, notorious for ethnic cleansing and murder in Bosnia.

When war broke out between the KLA and the Serbs in 1998, Suva Reka became a dangerous place. "This was a very strong KLA area," says Rufus Dawkins, an American who headed the local office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored a truce negotiated in October 1998. Nationalist Serbs hated the OSCE, and when it rented the Boss Hotel for its headquarters, Nisavic drove a hard bargain: $55,000 a month for the shabby, 20-room building. Soon the OSCE rented one of the Berisha family homes for far less money. "They killed us because Misko lost a tenant," says one of the surviving Berisha cousins.

It was more complicated than that. In the months leading up to the NATO air war, two Serb policemen were killed in KLA ambushes; seven Albanians were murdered in reprisal, and more would have died if the OSCE hadn't intervened. Then OSCE personnel were evacuated, and the NATO bombing began. According to the KLA, about 200 paramilitary fighters allied with a hard-line Serb nationalist party moved into town and took up positions around the police station, across the street from the Berisha homes. The OSCE's Dawkins has interviewed most of the witnesses as to what happened next. He isn't permitted to divulge the details, but he says: "It was a killing spree, killing anyone who had a connection with the OSCE." As for the information given to NEWSWEEK by refugees, he says: "Whatever they told you, go ahead and believe it, because it's true."

Two days after NATO started bombing, a large group of paramilitaries poured into the courtyard of the Berisha compound. They were all masked, but according to five surviving witnesses, everyone recognized the leaders as Boss Nisavic, his pal, Vuksanovic, and the Petkovic brothers. (NEWSWEEK attempted to contact the alleged ringleaders for comment, but they could not be located in Suva Reka, in Pristina, the provincial capital, or elsewhere in Serbia.)

The masked men separated the men from the women. "They told us to go to Albania," recalls Vjollca, who fled to the nearby pizzeria instead. A woman relative named Fatime refused to leave her son and was killed outright. The five men who had been at home--Vjollca's husband, Sedat, his brothers Bujar and Nexhmedin, Fatime's son Faton and her brother Nexhat--were lined up facing a wall. Someone laughingly told them they were free to go, but when they turned around to leave, the Serbs shot them all.

The two Berisha patriarchs were away from town that day and escaped the slaughter. Four of their six living sons were killed in the compound. One of the daughters-in-law, Sebehate Berisha, 25, came back from the pizzeria looking for her husband. According to a cousin named Albulena and her mother, Bekishe, the Serbs gang-raped Sebehate and cut off her arms and legs with knives. "I don't know when she died," says Albulena. "When someone's being butchered, it's hard to see when they die." Another wife, Lirija, who was nine months pregnant, came back from the pizzeria for her mortally wounded husband, Faton. "Take him if you want," the Serbs taunted her, "but you'll have to carry him." She tried to drag him, then gave up. Eventually, the Serbs poured gasoline on her husband's body and the six other bodies in the compound and burned them.

Over in the pizzeria, Vjollca and other survivors lay without moving for about half an hour after the shooting stopped. Then Serbs dragged all the victims--both the dead and the motionless living--out into the street and pitched them into the back of a truck. Vjollca's sister-in-law, Shyhrete, lay there, still alive, holding the body of 11-year-old Altin, the last of her four children to die. "One poor boy was alive, a neighbor's child; I didn't know him," Vjollca recalls. "He said: 'Please take this woman off me, I'm suffocating'." Vjollca and Shyhrete rolled the corpse off the boy. By then, the truck was rumbling down the main highway toward Prizren, the major city of southern Kosovo. "Come on," Shyhrete said. "Let's jump. If we don't, they'll bury us alive." Shyhrete went first, and because of her wounds, she couldn't get up after she hit the pavement. Vjollca asked the neighbor's boy if he wanted to jump, but he was too frightened to try. Clutching her son, Gramos, Vjollca jumped.

Shyhrete was found by Albanian villagers, who carried her to a KLA field hospital in the hills. When her wounds healed, she made her way to a refugee camp in Albania. Vjollca and Gramos walked for hours until they were so desperate that they approached a house and asked for water. "I didn't know it was a Serb house," she says now, but the woman inside was kind to them. She found some Albanian villagers who spirited the mother and son away to a little village called Coparce, where some of Vjollca's relatives lived. The mother and son hid there for the rest of the war, surrounded by Serb forces. Back in Suva Reka, the surviving Albanians hid in their houses until May, when the Serbs scoured the town and drove them all away.

When NEWSWEEK found Vjollca in Coparce early last week, NATO forces had not yet arrived in the area, and villagers denied at first that she was there. A Serb paramilitary post was only 500 yards down the road. But Vjollca was desperate for news of her family and agreed to meet with the journalists. That was when she learned that her husband, Sedat, was dead, and there was little hope her other two children had survived. "I thought some of them had a chance," she said. "I didn't know everyone was dead." She wailed: "I want to die. Where is my husband? I want to die." Her relatives consoled her, saying: "You have a son, you have to live." Vjollca cried for days. Even after German KFOR troops cleared the area of Serbs, she couldn't bear to go back to Suva Reka.

Other relatives did go back, and they found all the signs of a massacre, including bullet holes in walls and the remains of burned bodies. One returning man, Idriz Haxhiaj, burst into tears when he found his grandson Eron's stroller. "He was so little," said the 50-year-old grandfather. "I will be sad all my life." The ruined pizzeria told its own tale: scores of spent cartridges still lying on the sidewalk outside; inside, caked blood on the floor, with walls, floor and ceiling charred and pitted by the grenade explosion. The scene was exactly as Vjollca and Shyhrete had described it--and just as it will remain in their haunted memories.