Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Anger, tears from Kosovo victims

DJAKOVICA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) -- Slobodan Milosevic's forces robbed Ferdone Qerkezi of her husband and sons, spawning a desire for justice that was not extinguished by his death.

Qerkezi last saw her male relatives alive in 1999, when Serb policemen took them from a basement hide-out during Milosevic's campaign to rid the province of ethnic Albanian separatists.

"He should have been dragged through streets of towns and thrown into a bottomless pit so no one could ever find him," said the 52-year-old Qerkezi. "For what he has done to us, there is no punishment on earth that befits him."

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians did not mourn Milosevic Sunday, and many were disappointed by his death a day earlier, feeling the former Yugoslav president escaped justice before a verdict in his war crimes trial at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.

"He has drained the blood out of my family," Qerkezi said. "He could never have suffered the way I do."

Her house in the western town of Djakovica is now a shrine to those who do not live there any more; her husband and four sons -- the youngest aged 14, the eldest 23. She wears the golden wedding rings of two of her sons' widows, who moved away after they realized their husbands would never come back.

Her life in ruins, Qerkezi wavers between sorrow and rage at the thought of Milosevic dying peacefully.

"No matter his death, he should be sentenced," Qerkezi said, waving her hands uncontrollably, her eyes reddened. "His family should not be able to see him even dead in the next 500 years."

Her brother-in-law Kasim Qerkezi's 18-year-old son, Vegim, was taken by Serb police on the same date -- March 27, 1999 -- days after NATO started its aerial bombardment of Milosevic's forces in an attempt to stop the crackdown. Kasim Qerkezi was equally bitter about Milosevic's death.

"He was like a snake that always slips away," he said. "He died without paying back a fraction of what he owed to all of us."

It was in Kosovo that Milosevic shot to prominence, whipping up Serbs' nationalist fervor with a 1989 speech in Kosovo Polje, near Pristina, where Ottoman forces defeated a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar in 1389.

And it was for alleged crimes committed during his crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels in Kosovo that Milosevic was first indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in 1999.

The tribunal eventually charged the former president with 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. He was extradited to the U.N.-court in June 2001.

In Kosovo, the prosecution accused him of direct responsibility for crimes including the deportation of 800,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murders of about 600 individually identified ethnic Albanians.

For more than six years, Qerkezi' searched in vain for her husband and four sons. Then, in August 2005, officials told her they had found the bones of her youngest son, Edmond, and her oldest, Artan, in a mass grave.

Today the two are buried in a hillside graveyard overlooking the town of Djakovica, along with 86 residents killed during the war. Qerkezi's husband, Hilmi, and two other sons -- Armend, 22, and Ardian, 18 -- were never found.

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