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In one of our many conversations about the Kosovo War, the late village representative, Kadri Dellova, told me: “The massacre of Krusha e Madhe is still fresh in my mind as though it had only happened yesterday. All these years later, I keep seeing the horror, the violence. Believe me, it looked like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our village was so very much destroyed. Massive killings, rape, stealing women’s jewellery, people’s throats were slit with knives – this is all part of the history of Krusha. You cannot imagine how a normal human being can do something like this.” It is difficult to imagine. But just as difficult is trying to imagine what it must have meant to survive such cruelty – what it must have been like to suffer the unthinkable, to experience life and death together. I have never stopped imagining – and the upcoming anniversary of the massacre pushes me once more to reflect on the memories survivors have shared with me of what happened to them, to their families and to their community at that time.

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It was mid-March 1999, I was told, when the Serbian forces edged closer to Krusha e Madhe. Rumours of great brutality preceded their arrival and villagers started to leave their homes with the few things they could carry in order to hide in the surrounding hills and marsh. Frightened and anxious they huddled together awaiting the inevitable attack. From lookouts, they could see the tanks approaching and watched with horror as their homes were shelled. Krusha was burning.

On 26 March their hiding spots were discovered by the soldiers and paramilitaries. Herding the villagers together at gun point, the soldiers systematically separated the men from women and children. They then robbed the women of money and jewellery before sending them with their children to the village mosque. Meanwhile, the men were ordered to lie face down on the ground, whereupon paramilitaries walked up and down the column tapping certain individuals with sticks. Those who had been tapped were taken away and never seen again. The others were ordered to follow the women.

Since then, the mosque is a place that produces feelings of ambivalence. One of worship and community yet one that also harbours memories of the utmost fear and horror. In the court yard, the men were ordered to congregate apart from their women and children. They were allowed to look at each other one last time before the women and children were forced to leave under the bellowing commands of the soldiers. As they started walking, they heard machine gun fire and immediately knew that their fathers, husbands and sons had been killed in cold blood. Remembering this fateful day, Arieta[1] told me in her soft voice, “I saw how difficult it is to die. After they shot them, their bodies were still bouncing up and down.”

Carrying the gruesome images and sounds of death with them, one group of survivors fled to the village of Rogova while others went to the neighbouring village of Nagavc, each experiencing their own anguish and pain. The group who made their way to Rogova was stopped, interrogated and terrorized by Serbian police at the bridge leading into the village. As an unmarked marker of memory, the bridge is a powerful reminder of the terror of the war. It continues to hold within its grasp memories of the horror and so evokes feelings of anxiety and distress among the people. As Sphresa and I were driving over it several years later, in 2007, she slowed down, lit a cigarette and began to tell me how the police had stopped the fleeing group to harass them. A policeman had approached and suddenly snatched her three-month old son from her arms. With the baby in his arms he had stood in the middle of the bridge threatening to throw him into the river below. Shpresa and her daughter had panicked and screamed at the top of their lungs until the policeman returned the baby. Since then, she reflected, her daughter cries at police stops and military checkpoints.[2]

In Nagavc, on the other hand, the villagers sought refuge in homes of family members and acquaintances. Yet, they were soon discovered and terrorized by the Serbian military. Sihana recalled during an interview how she was ordered to step outside the house with her children. In the yard, she saw her husband with other men lined up at gunpoint. “They asked our men to raise their hands. They pointed a gun at my husband, but shot a dog instead” Sihana told me. While nobody got killed, the police threatened the families that if they should attempt to leave the premises, they would shoot all of them. The threat was not an empty one. Several days later, on 2 April, a plane could be heard at around two in the morning followed by bombardment killing around fifty people and destroying much of the village. Great panic ensued as 20,000 villagers and refugees fled the village making their way toward Krusha and from there, over Prizren, to Albania.

What they saw in Krusha came as a shock to many. The entire village had been burned and they discovered that a large-scale massacre had occurred. Serbian troops had killed 241 civilians, among them five women, seven children and many of the older people. Serbian forces had also destroyed most houses, burned the mosque and cultural centre and demolished the school and various monuments. Strong evidence exists that Serbian police attempted to conceal evidence of their deeds by burning and removing bodies. Reportedly, they had arrived with bulldozers, a truck and some army vehicles to collect corpses and carry them away to dump some into a nearby river and others into mass graves scattered all over Kosovo and Serbia. The bodies continue to be returned to the village for identification and proper burial until this very day. Inadvertently, together with people’s memories and the many unmarked markers of memory, they are a powerful means against forgetting, letting go, or severing the cord with the past.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names of women are anonymized to protect their identity and privacy.

[2] In 2007 and 2008 cars were regularly stopped by KFOR and Kosovar police due to the tensions leading up and in the aftermath of Kosovar’s declaration of independence on 28th February 2008.