What’s the Story?

Published in London Review of Books on 27 May 1999

Audrey Gillan tries to find the evidence for mass atrocities in Kosovo

Ferteze Nimari had lost two of her brothers and her husband was forced to bury all the dead in one grave. Later, packed into a stifling bus with sixty fellow Kosovars, the couple held onto each other as he clutched a strap suspended from the ceiling. The bus stopped in the Stankovac I refugee camp in Macedonia and they told their story. ‘The tank came to our village of Sllovi. The Serb neighbours said not to worry – it was just there to observe us. But by lunchtime the next day a teenage girl lay dead in the street. Then another 15 people were killed. They told us to run into the woods and they started shooting us.’

I asked them so many questions about what they had seen. ‘What happened when your brothers were shot?’ ‘How many people did you bury?’ ‘How do you feel now?’ When they said the Serbs had forced an old woman into a tent and burned her alive I looked at them doubtfully and asked how they knew she had been alive. Someone from her family had seen it happen, they said.

The Nimaris had arrived at what they thought was a safe haven, but I pursued them, and I did so unsparingly. I got on the bus when the driver opened the doors for air. They had stood for hours on that malodorous bus. I felt sorry for them: but not so sorry that I stopped the questions. They had yet to step down to the misery of the camp the British press has taken to calling ‘Brazda’. All they had was a bottle of water passed to them through an open window – and my questions. Ferteze, eight months pregnant, caught me glancing at the watch on her wrist when Remzi, her husband, said all the women in the village had been robbed of their jewellery.

Earlier that day, Ron Redmond, the baseball-capped spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stood at the Blace border crossing from Kosovo into Macedonia and said there were new reports of mass rapes and killings from three villages in the Lipljan area: Sllovi, Hallac Evogel and Ribari Evogel. He spoke to the press of bodies being desecrated, eyes being shot out. The way he talked it sounded as if there had been at least a hundred murders and dozens of rapes. When I pressed him on the rapes, asking him to be more precise, he reduced it a bit and said he had heard that five or six teenage girls had been raped and murdered. He had not spoken to any witnesses. ‘We have no way of verifying these reports of rape,’ he conceded. ‘These are among the first that we have heard of at this border.’

Other UNHCR officials later told stories of women being tied to the walls of their houses and burned, 24 bodies buried in Kosovo Polje. Another report, again from Sllovi, put the dead at a hundred. Mr and Mrs Nimari were adamant that it was 16. Truth can be scarce at the Blace border and in the camps dotted around Macedonia, but you are not allowed to say that during a war like this, where it may be that bad things are being done on both sides, just as you are not allowed to doubt atrocity. It’s as if Nato and its entourage were trying to make up for the witlessness of the past: trying to show that whatever we do, we won’t be turning a blind eye. But the simple-minded reporter in me wants to ask a question: is there any real evidence for what is being said?

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