Letter From Suva Reka

At first glance, it was heartening to see how much things seem to have returned to normal in Suva Reka, the town that experienced Kosovo's most brutal and concentrated series of massacres more than two years ago. Of the 8,000 persons believed massacred by Serbs during the war in Kosovo, 506 were killed here and in surrounding villages in an orgy of bloodletting coinciding with the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign.

On Reshtan Road, where the Berisha family suffered particularly severely, losing 49 members across three generations, the remaining Berishas have returned and rebuilt most of their burned-out homes. The last time I had been on Reshtan Road, in June of 1999, there were still Serbs prowling the neighborhood and NATO troops had not yet secured it. The evidence of the atrocity was still fresh, coinciding with witness accounts I'd already heard: the charred remains of the men, executed and then burned; the splattered blood and spent shell casings.

It started behind one of the Berisha family homes, the one they had rented to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where the first seven to die were lined up against a wall and gunned down. The house was gutted and partially torched. Now that house, and most of those nearby, has been thoroughly restored. Once again it is rented to the OSCE, earning a tidy income for Xhelal Berisha, a primary school music teacher who by dint of survival is, at age 44, the de facto family head. The bus station across the street is filled with buses coming and going. Stores in the mall have reopened. You have to look hard to find any evidence of a recent war. Only the Calabria Restoran, the coffee shop-cum-pizzeria where the Berisha women and children were massacred, has been left in the same ruined state as after the grenade and machine gun attack that finished most of them off. Some flowers are piled on the debris; nearby a pyramid-shaped monument is being built to commemorate the victims.

All is far from normal, though. The massacre left a deep gash in this family where grandchildren and nephews and nieces should have been. It has set one surviving family member against another in bitter disputes that remain unresolved. In a sense, the Berisha massacre continues to claim more victims. Against that backdrop, the news that their particular massacre has been added to the bill of particulars against Slobodan Milosevic is not something that gives anyone in Suva Reka much consolation. They have followed the recent series of revelations about the refrigerator truck Serbs used to take the exhumed bodies of the Berisha women and children in a postmortem odyssey across Serbia, searching for a place to hide them from the world's view. But mainly the family is focused on how soon they might get the bones back so they can prepare the bodies according to Muslim rites and bury them properly.

They have no doubt at all that the bodies in the refrigerator truck, later buried in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica, were theirs. Among their victims were six children under the age of five (Redon, 2, Eron, 1, Ismet, 2, Doruntina, 2, Genc, 4, and Granit, 2), the same number as reportedly were among the corpses from the truck. Another of their victims is Lirija, 26, who was eight months pregnant, and searchers have found the skeleton of a mother and fetus of about that age among the dead.

Among the survivors, most of whom escaped because they happened to be away at the time of the tragedy, the news is mostly not good. In the 13 months after the Berisha massacre on March 26, 1999, the three patriarchs of this closely inter-knit clan all died of heart attacks and other diseases. Those three brothers, Faiq, Vaseli, and Rasim, lost most of their sons and nearly all of their grandchildren. When Xhelal's father Faiq took to bed, he asked his son to nail up pictures of his three murdered sons where he could see them. "His last words were, he died calling out the names of his boys," says Xhelal. "There's no doubt at all that my father and his brothers died of broken hearts." And the two women who survived the actual massacre, their bodies full of shrapnel, still struggle to stay alive, emotionally and physically. "Why didn't I die? Why am I the one to survive?" asks Vjollca Berisha, 38, who with her son Gramos, managed to roll off the truck taking the victims to a mass grave.

The Berishas are hardly in a forgive-and-forget mood toward their former Serb neighbors. The prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, in the thinking of the war crimes tribunal, may individualize the guilt to the person most responsible for what happened in Kosovo and make it possible for ordinary Albanians and Serbs to once again live together. But it will be a long time before that makes much of an impression in Suva Reka, which, once comprised of 10 percent Serbs, now has none.

"I'm not interested in Milosevic," says Halid Berisha, whose brother Geshar was among the victims. "Someone did the actual killing and he should be tried. It's not Milosevic's fault, it's all the Serbs' fault. If someone ordered me to kill somebody I wouldn't do that." Between Vjollca Berisha and Shyrete Berisha (the other woman who jumped off the truck) and non-Berisha neighbors who watched the massacre in their homes, there is no shortage of people who witnessed the killings. But the arrests of those directly responsible would still not be enough for many of the Berishas. "There were 1,200 Serbs who put uniforms on here, many of them our neighbors, and there were only 2,000 Serbs in the entire district," says Halid. "And now the [NATO KFOR] authorities are telling us they all have to come back." Vjollca's perspective is less vengeful, and more personal. "Every time I read in the paper about the bodies in Belgrade, I know they're not alive but I still have this hope they'll find them." The body of her husband, Sedat, was found not far from her house. But her children, Dafina, 15 at the time, and Drilon, who was then 13, are among the missing Berisha women and children. She never actually saw them die, and still feels guilty at jumping off the truck with only Gramos, her youngest, who is now 10. She knows Drilon was on the truck; she saw him shot but doesn't know if he died.

Last week, The Hague's investigators were back in Suva Reka, rechecking facts and taking additional testimony from witnesses. As one of the survivors who saw the killers up close and knew them personally, Vjollca's testimony is likely to be a key part of the case prosecutors make against Milosevic in the Berisha massacre, and against the actual killers if they're ever tried. For such an important witness, her life remains hard. Unable to rebuild the burned-out family home, Vjollca lives with her sister-in-law in a two-room apartment in Suva Reka that shelters nine people. There are still pieces of shrapnel in her body from the grenade blast, and she suffers from severe headaches. Gramos is with her, and doing well after a difficult time initially.

While they were in hiding from the Serbs and recovering from their wounds, Vjollca and Gramos stayed with distant cousins hidden in a rural hamlet. She worried that something had happened to his tear ducts because he was unable to cry. Then, after NATO forced the Serbs out and life returned somewhat to normal, he began to cry and could scarcely stop. It went on for months. "Sometimes he cried so hard that his nose bled," Vjollca says. Finally it stopped and he went back to school. "The first day [my son] said, 'It's such a long way, will you be here when I get back?'" she recalled last week. "He said, 'Mommy when I get home I want you to open that door, I want you to be the first person I see.'" Now she worries because he steadfastly refuses to talk at all about what happened, or about his father and siblings before the massacre. "My daughter in July will be 18 years old. Every day I'm seeing her friends, they're going to school, leading normal lives. I see the friends of my son Drilon, of my husband, and on the one hand I'm happy when I see them, I want to hug them, but on the other hand I want to cry."

For her friend Shyrete, the other survivor, it's even worse. All four of her children and her husband were killed. She has 11 pieces of shrapnel still lodged in her body, and is in and out of hospitals in Italy, where she lives with a sister. She wanted to come back to the home she had lived in with her husband and children before the war, the one that was later-and is still-rented by the OSCE. "She had nothing left at all, all she wanted was to be in her own home with the memories of her children around her," says Vjollca. But when Shyrete got there, she discovered that her brother-in-law Xhelal had rented it again. He claimed ownership on the grounds it was his father's before it was his brother's. By Albanian Muslim tradition, property passes down the male bloodline-not to wives, he said. Shyrete claimed that under Yugoslav law, it was her home. The dispute is now in Kosovo's renascent court system, and it has left a bitter legacy of misunderstanding among the family's survivors.

"I'm very sorry about all this dispute," says Xhelal. "We wanted Shyrete to come back and to live with us in our house." During the war he had vowed that he and his wife would try to have another child and give it to Shyrete to rebuild her family. They weren't able to, but instead, Xhelal says he told Shyrete he could give her one of his boys. He has three sons, aged 16 to 10. "Choose whichever one you want and he will be your son," he told her. But all she wanted was her own house back, and she left Suva Reka in a fury, vowing to return only if she regained the house. "I said she could have one of my sons and I heard that she said, 'I would rather live with a cat.' I don't care what she's said. There's always a place for her here. We keep telling her, 'Come back here and stay with us, you should be with us.'" It just doesn't make sense for her to live alone in such a big house, and anyway it was his father's, not hers, he says.

Shyrete's family has a different version. "When she came back from Albania, they said to her, 'Your children are all dead, there's nothing for you here now.' She said, 'But I'm a Berisha now,' and they said 'Go from this place,'" recalled her mother, Sabrie Shala. Other family members said Xhelal's offer wouldn't mean much, since both his son and Shyrete would be living under his roof. And, added one, "that would mean his son would inherit the house." Meanwhile, he gets the rent from the OSCE. (Xhelal says the agency hasn't paid him in a year, while the dispute is in the courts.)

Xhelal seems as sad as Vjollca when he talks about all of this. The deaths of their brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews and nieces, grandparents and grandchildren, is still, nearly two-and-a-half years later, on everyone's minds. "There isn't a minute that goes by that we don't think about it," he said. "Sometimes we say, 'Why didn't we die so we don't have to stay alive and suffer?'" But the bitter dispute with his sister-in-law often seems to overshadow everything else, even the trial of Milosevic and the discovery of the truck that carried the Berishas' bodies. "This too," says Xhelal, "is the fault of the Serbs." That, at least, is one thing the Berisha family can all agree on.