Magazine article The Christian Century

The View from Kukes

Magazine article The Christian Century

The View from Kukes

Article excerpt

HOW COULD it happen in Europe? And how could it happen in Europe at the end of the 20th century? And how could it happen that Europe did not see what was occurring and intervene sooner? And, most important, what can be done now, to stop even more killing?

These are the questions that occupied the thoughts of my companions and me as we sought to make sense of what we saw around us in Kukes, the small town on the Albania-Kosovo border that has become the first safe haven for refugees fleeing from Kosovo. To us, as to everyone else we met, whether refugee, relief worker or reporter, it was no longer a question of whether genocide was happening but how genocide might be stopped.

The stories would have been monotonous in their similarity if they had not been so horrible in their content. The Serbian police knocked on the door of a young Kosovar woman as she was nursing her baby. "You need to leave now," they said. "Let me pack my bag," she said. "No, leave now," was the reply. Down the hall she heard gunshots and was told that her neighbor had been killed for not moving more quickly. When I met this woman at Kukes, she had not eaten for five days.

Several other women came from the same village. The police had come to their doors and said that all Kosovars had to gather before the village school. Quickly the police separated the men from the women and the children. Then, while the women and children watched, the men were shot. The soldiers said, "Now it's time for you to leave." The women begged for time to bury their husbands and fathers and sons. "No," the police replied, "leave now, or we'll shoot you too." So they started walking.

Eighteen hours later they arrived at the border and told their story to an Englishman, John Campbell, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He telephoned the War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and reported who these women were and what they had told him, since they now were not only mourners but also potential witnesses for the War Crimes Tribunal.

Another woman told how the men from her village were gathered in a schoolhouse which was then set ablaze. Those men who tried to escape from the flames were shot.

So it happened over and over again. Almost shyly someone would come up to me and begin to tell her story. Soon many others would gather around. There was no reticence. Each one wanted to say what had happened to her husband, her son, her father or herself. I saw few tears, perhaps because most of those I talked with were too weak to cry, not having eaten for days, or having had to sleep on freezing mountain hillsides without adequate clothing. Or perhaps they were just numb from what had happened. Even so, hungry, cold or numb, they wanted to tell what had happened to them.

I knew the question would seem preposterous to those I asked, but I wanted to ask anyway, to be able to report the answer later: Did you leave because of the bombing? "The bombing?" they asked. No one I spoke with had even seen any bombing. They had heard airplanes overhead. Some had seen fires they understood had been caused by bombing. The idea that they had left because of the bombing was ludicrous to the refugees with whom I spoke. "You want to know why I left?" said one woman who appeared to be in her early 20s. "I left because my husband was murdered." An older woman, who looked very tired, said, "We left because the police came to our door and told us we had to." A teenage girl said, "We left because all the inhabitants of the next village were killed."

A young man, one of the relatively few adult men at Kukes, said, "I left because I saw the police coming to my house and I ran out the back door before they could find me." Another young man said, "I left because when I came home from a friend's house, my house had been burned."

In spite of all the stories we had heard of men being shot singly in their apartments, or in groups in public places, or burned in schoolhouses or blown up in cars, we were even more struck by the number of women who did not know the fate of their men. …

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