On the Trail of Kosovo’s Most Wanted
By sheer luck, Gjoke Sokoli, who comes from the village of Meja, survived what has been called one of the most notorious killings of the Kosovo war.
Even though the conflict was ongoing, Sokoli continued his daily routine on April 27, 1999. Around seven o’clock in the morning, he left his house and went to work in the nearby town of Djakovica/Gjakova. But this was to be the last time he would see his three brothers and nephew alive. Just an hour after he left, they were killed by Serbian forces which that morning surrounded the small Catholic village of Meja, north-west of Djakovica/Gjakova.
As a result, more than 300 Kosovo Albanian men ranging from the ages of 14 to 60 were killed.
“They were tortured in front of our mother,” said Sokoli. The other villagers were expelled.
As soon as he heard that the village had been attacked, Sokoli went to meet his family – they were already in a refugee convoy with thousands of evicted ethnic Albanians from the villages between Djakovica/Gjakova and Junik, an area known as Reka e Keq. But as soon as he has reached his family, Serbian forces who were accompanying the convoy forced him out of the column of refugees and handcuffed him.
He was pushed to the ground and police opened fire in his direction.
“I waited a few seconds, stretched and realised that no bullets had hit me,” Sokoli told BIRN.
He said that he stayed lying there for four hours, not daring to move because of the Serbian forces were still around. Finally, an elderly shepherd released his hands from the cuffs and Sokoli took shelter in an apartment in Djakovica/Gjakova.
He only met his mother again after the war ended in July 1999, when she returned from a refugee camp in Albania. The remains of his brothers were found two years after in a mass grave at a police training centre in the Batajnica neighbourhood of the Serbian capital Belgrade.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague has convicted six senior Serbian officials over the crime in Meja and the surrounding villages, and last week Interpol issued ‘red notices’ calling for the arrest of 17 Yugoslav Army fighters for conveying and executing the attack orders, including a current Serbian ruling party MP, Momir Stojanovic.
The notices, the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, were issued as a result of two-year-long investigation by the EU rule-of law-mission in Kosovo (EULEX) into what happened on April 27 and 28 in the villages of Meja, Korenica, Orize and others in the Reka e Keq area.
“It’s good to have this started because it will be a relief for people,” Sokoli said.
A revenge operation
According to the ICTY verdicts, the attack on the villages was part of a wide-ranging operation by the Yugoslav Army and police, referred to in military documents as Operation Reka (River).
“In the ICTY verdict, the units which took part in the operation are listed, such as 549th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army, then a special police unit, the 52nd battalion of the military police, which were directly subordinate to Momir Stojanovic and to the commander of 125th brigade, Dragan Zivanovic,” Sandra Orlovic, the director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, told BIRN.
Stojanovic, who is among the men on the Interpol list, is currently head of the Serbian parliamentary committee for security. He was linked with the April 1999 attacks for the first time during the genocide and war crimes case against late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY.
According to Nike Peraj, a former Yugoslav Army officer who also testified at the Milosevic trialas an insider witness, Stojanovic was among those who issued an order to his subordinates to carry out the ethnic cleansing operation in the Djakovica/Gjakova area.
Peraj, who now lives in Kosovo, says that Stojanovic, once his good friend from the army, ordered the killing as retaliation after Kosovo Liberation Army murdered five Serbian policemen in an ambush near the centre of Meja on April 22, 1999.
Peraj says he was present at a meeting when Stojanovic said that there should be “at least 100 heads eliminated and all the houses burned” as a punishment for the attack.
Stojanovic, now a lawmaker with the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, has denied the allegation, saying that the Interpol red notices were just intended to frighten Serbs so they don’t return to Kosovo.
According to Peraj, besides Stojanovic, Nikola Momicilovic, the former head of the Djakovica Military Department, who is also on the Interpol list, was also present at the meeting when orders for the Operation River were given.
“The village of Meja was surrounded a day earlier. Naturally, there were orders for this action and of course, everything was done as ordered,” Peraj told BIRN.
The ICTY trials for the Kosovo war crimes also revealed a secret army document signed by now-retired general Dragan Zivanovic, in which it said that the Operation River, in which his units participated, was completed “successfully” on April 28, with only one of his men killed.
Most of the 17 men listed on Interpol were identified by Peraj and other protected witnesses at the ICTY. Some of them were also mentioned in 2001 report by international campaign group Human Rights Watch. Three witnesses told HRW that they saw Milutin Novakovic, known as Stari, who was a policeman at the time, at a checkpoint near the village when the killings took place on April 27. HRW was also told that his brother Miladin was there.
Sanctuary in Serbia?
Although Interpol issued the red notices a week ago after a request from the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), so far only one arrest has been made.
A former Serbian reservist, Miras Gegovic, aged 68, was arrested on February 19 in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. He has been placed in extradition custody for 30 days but because he has serious health problems, he is currently in the prison hospital in Podgorica.
The other men who were listed on the Interpol list are currently in Serbia. However, they are protected from extradition by the Serbian constitution.
Serbian police told BIRN that although there is a signed agreement with Interpol, the constitution instructs the police not to extradite its own citizens to other countries for war crimes.
In the case of the Djakovica/Gjakova war crime suspects, according to the police, the case is even more complicated because “Serbia does not recognise Kosovo, although it cooperates with EULEX and UNMIK in various fields”.
The men could be however arrested if they try to leave Serbia.
“Any country that is cooperating with Interpol can make an arrest, while a country’s authorities make further estimates about extradition, like in the case of Montenegro,” a police source said.
Peraj, a crucial witness, remains sceptical about the process and fears that it could be dragged out years.
“Why are these people not arrested? Why give them time to escape, or to interfere with witnesses? They should be arrested and start trial,” he said.
Commenting on the Interpol notices, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told media that he personally doesn’t believe that his party member, Momir Stojanovic, is a war criminal.
“I believe there is nothing serious in the indictment, but the authorities need to examine that. I believe Stojanovic didn’t do anything,” Vucic said on Friday.
If the rules and agreements between Serbia and Kosovo don’t change, the only way for the men to be tried is for the Serbian authorities to prosecute them.
The Serbian war crime prosecution has so far cooperated with EULEX and UNMIK in 87 cases, but has never acted on indictments issued by international institutions in Kosovo.
According to the prosecution, in order to issue an indictment on the basis of the EULEX evidence, Serbian prosecutors would need to check each piece of evidence listed and then write their own indictment, which doesn’t have to include all the names listed on the red notice.
Orlovic said that so far there have been no official investigations in Serbia related to the crimes in Meja.
“It is a big question why until now this case has not been prosecuted even though we had announcements from the Serbian prosecution they would open a case. Without any doubt, on the basis of documents and statements from The Hague, there were enough elements to open the case,” she said.
“The sensitivity of this case is that due to the number of units involved, the investigation would lead to the responsibility of currently high-ranking officials,” she added.
The long road to justice
Sokol Tetaj from Orize, the village right next to Meja which was also attacked on April 27, 1999, does not believe that the high-ranking figures responsible for the attack will ever be convicted.
“It’s always been like this. The little ones will always get punished,” Tetaj told BIRN.
His closest relatives survived the massacre, but others in his extended family did not. His uncle Gjon Hasanaj, his uncle’s son Shyt and Shyt’s son Luan were all killed.
“Can you imagine this? Three generations wiped from the face of earth,” Tetaj said.
Vlora Ymeraga from Djakovica/Gjakova also lost her husband during the attacks in April 1999.He went missing and has never been seen again.
“All the criminals are known by name and none of them have been asked about the bodies of our men,” she said.
Ymeraga said that she hopes that the investigation will bring her the truth about what happened to her husband and the other victims.
“At the least, we want the bones, and to end this nightmare,” she said.