The Massacre | The Investigation | Bloody History | Putting Names to Faces | Lightning Strikes
From Prison to War
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Bloody History

So who was this man called Burdush, who appeared to give orders to the other gun men. And who were his commanders? What kind of men would order such a cold-blooded massacre, and why? Does the killing of unarmed men bother these "triggermen"? Can justice really cope with the aftermath of such heinous crimes, or does violence of this order feed itself in an unending cycle?

Important clues lie not just in the events of May 14, but in the distant past.

For many Serbs, Kosovo is sacred land, soaked in the blood of martyrs and eulogized in folk songs. The fields of Kosovo were the heart of Serbia's medieval empire and the site of the Serbian nation's defining moment, a legendary defeat to the Ottoman imperial army at a place called the Field of Blackbirds.

By the end of the 20th century, Kosovo was still a Serbian province but populated mostly by ethnic Albanians. Serbia's leader, Slobodan Milosevic, waged a ten-year campaign to impose a Balkan-style apartheid to enforce Serbian control over the Albanians and to boost his own political power. At the same time, Milosevic fought wars in Croatia and Bosnia in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and deported. In 1997, a shadowy Albanian independence group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army struck back, launching a guerrilla war. KLA fighters assassinated Serbian government officials, police officers, and so-called Albanian collaborators.

As the insurgency widened, Milosevic rushed more military and police forces to Kosovo, targeting suspected rebels and their village strongholds. Many of Milosevic's fighters were veterans of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. But Western investigators say the Serbs killed thousands of unarmed civilians without troubling to find direct evidence of KLA connections.

Jon Cina, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that is collecting war-crimes data in Kosovo, says Serbian attacks incrementally expanded in scope and brutality from the early clashes with the KLA in 1997.

"If you compare it to a tree, initially they were trying to lop off the branches, then they decided to hack away at the trunk," he says. "Finally they decided to dig up the garden, which obviously is going to remove the tree, but it's also going to cause a hell of a lot of collateral damage, as they like to call it."

To this day, Serbia's leadership and many of its citizens deny that the police and army committed atrocities in Kosovo. They insist the war was a legitimate effort to destroy anti-government guerrillas, and they dismiss atrocity stories as NATO and KLA propaganda that exaggerates the excesses of a few rogue units.

Dennis Milner, one of the UN war crimes tribunal's lead investigators in Kosovo, rejects official Serbia's view of the war.

"What do they call a rogue element?" he asks. "Are they talking about a whole (army) corps as a rogue element? Is one of their generals a rogue element? It defies all common sense."

Human rights investigators contend massacres like the one in Cuska, in which Serbian forces murdered unarmed civilians who offered no resistance, are textbook examples of war crimes. Yes, Cuska is the home village for the KLA's top commander, Agim Ceku. And Ceku's father was murdered on May 14, but several Serbian fighters say his killing was not the primary aim of the attack. "There's no evidence to suggest that Cuska had any KLA activity whatsoever," says Abrahams. "All of the villagers said that while some of them had been members of the KLA and fought in other areas, Cuska during the war remained quiet."

Why Cuska? The key seemed to lie in the identities of the gunmen, especially the commander called Burdush. Through them it might be possible to learn who planned the operation and, more importantly, why. None of the survivors at Cuska knew Burdush's real name. But Lule, the young woman he threatened to rape, says no one in Cuska will forget his face, nor the crimes they say he committed.

"Do you see these hands?" Lule asks trembling. "With these two hands I collected the bones of my uncles, my cousins, and my father. I found my father's remains last, but just parts of him. I didn't find his legs or his head. Just his torso. And with these hands I placed him in the earth. As for those Serbs, the ones who killed him, they have their hands covered with blood. They belong in The Hague."

Next: Putting Names to Faces