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The Investigation

Cuska, July 18, 1999. Two months have passed since the massacre. Nine Albanian soldiers snap to attention, raise their assault rifles to the blue, summer sky, and fire three sharp volleys. As the shots crackle through the war-scarred village, Albanian mourners rush the burial mound in a desperate lurch. Women in black head-scarves and their children wail fiercely. One woman, whose two sons and husband were killed, tries to throw herself onto the grave, shouting, "I must be with you."

The ceremony is part of a grim reckoning across Kosovo, as returning Albanian families gather to re-bury their dead. On this day, mourners are honoring the men murdered in Cuska on that stifling morning in May.

Akif, the Albanian farmer, stands among the mourners dressed in a simple black suit, starched white shirt, and black tie. His expressionless gaze betrays none of the anguish he feels as one of few men in the Cuska who survived the massacre. "This is where they gathered us," Akif says quietly, motioning to the small cemetery. "Before they took us men away."

Situated in the fertile cropland along the Bistrica River, Cuska sits on a flat plain shadowed by the rocky peaks of the Accursed Mountains, which form the border with neighboring Albania. Like many of Kosovo's Albanian villages, the place is latticed with dirt roads and the traditional, high stone walls which surround each family compound. The village is considered a suburb of Pec, a city that was emptied and half-burned by Serbian forces.

By mid-July, 1999, Serbian forces were gone -- driven out of Kosovo by NATO troops. NATO helicopters now patrolled Kosovo's skies, and peacekeeping troops guarded the uneasy truce below. With NATO came investigators from the UN war crimes tribunal and from human rights groups. In their effort to piece together what happened in Kosovo and who did the killing, these investigators came to Cuska, too.

When Fred Abrahams arrived at Cuska for the massacre commemoration, he had already visited similar atrocity sites across Kosovo. But something was different here -- accounts of survivors like Akif and Lule were more detailed, for one -- so Abrahams decided to investigate further. Abrahams is an Albanian-speaking researcher for the United States-based Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental group that investigates war crimes and other human-rights abuses. During and after the war, Abrahams traveled in Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo, interviewing Albanians about the Serbs' three-month campaign of murder and deportation that was the focus of NATO's air war and led to war crimes indictments against Slobodan Milosevic and four aides. Western governments estimate that some 10,000 Albanians are dead or missing, though fewer than 3,000 bodies have been recovered so far. But what drew Abrahams to Cuska was not so much the brutality of the massacre but rather the executioners' utter recklessness. The fighters were sloppy.

"The remarkable thing about Cuska," Abrahams says, "is that in each of these three houses there was one survivor. Three people who can tell us very precisely how the execution took place."

Abrahams found another detail that distinguished Cuska from other massacres in Kosovo; In their haste to pull out of the province in June -- just ahead of NATO's ground force -- some of the Serb fighters left behind a record of what they had done. Returning Albanians found military documents and even snapshots showing Serbian fighters in action, flaunting guns and posing before burning buildings. These photos provide unusual clues for war crimes investigators like Abrahams and the opportunity to finally unmask the men behind the killings.

Abrahams got hold of a series of color photos from the office of the Pec prefect, a former KLA commander now in charge of running the city. They show Serbian fighters in full combat gear.

"The photographs clearly have a weekend warrior, Rambo-esque aura about them," says Abrahams. "They're quite remarkable. They showed local Serbs in various military poses in front of burning homes with automatic weapons in full uniforms. Apparently these individuals were somehow proud or interested in showing off their large guns and sharp knives."

Abrahams scanned the photographs into his laptop and went back to Cuska, where he powers up the computer screen for Akif and his 27-year-old niece, Lule. As the image emerges, Akif and Lule react immediately, pointing at the screen, exclaiming, "That's him!" Lule begins to shake as she recalls how on May 14, the fat, dark-haired man in the photo, wearing the same gold cross and gripping a machine gun, pulled her away from the other villagers and threatened to kill her family unless she followed his orders.

"It's the same guy," Lule says. "Nobody else. If I saw him ten years from now, I would still recognize him. He's the one that took me aside and threatened to rape me. He was the commander."

Seven villagers told American RadioWorks that the barrel-chested man posing so proudly with his machine gun in the photograph was one of the militia commanders who led the attack on Cuska. They say other gunmen called him by a nickname -- Burdush -- the name of a heavyset, Balkan television entertainer. The villagers say Burdush ordered the three groups of unarmed men to be taken away for execution.

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