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Serbian armed forces systematically attacked villages in the municipality of Rahovec, expulsing civilians, shelling and destroying homes and properties, and killing livestock. Carrying their children and supporting the elderly, many escaped toward the village of Pastasel where the inhabitants offered them shelter. By then, two thousand people from the surrounding villages and the municipality of Klinë had gathered there awaiting their fate with fear and trepidation.

On 31st March 1999, the armed forces closed in on Pastasel. The villagers and refugees wasted no time fleeing to the nearby hills. Most of the men hid separately from the women and children in order to protect them from the violence that the men were sure to attract. However, Njazi’s father decided to return to their house to let the cows out so that they would not burn to death. Njazi was not to see his father again. He told me about the last time he saw him: “He was with his cows and was carrying a water bottle in his hand. He told me to go as he would return to the family – my mother, my sisters, and the others.” Njazi, on the other hand, joined about thirty other men in the hills above Pastasel where they watched and waited. Through his binoculars he could see grenades being launched in the direction of the village. Njazi and his companions emerged from the hills and together they moved slowly and steadily toward the village. Although it was dark, he could make out that many men had been killed. He told me, “I said to my friend that the Serbs have killed all of them and then I collapsed and don’t remember anything else. When I woke up, my friend told me that we had to move.”

While the young men were hiding in the nearby mountains, the families were discovered by the Serbs. An old man recounted to me what happened: “At four in the afternoon Serbs came here. And they came to us with tanks. Some of us older men took white cloths to tell them that we want to give up. We were so many people including women, children, and elderly. But they didn’t care.” Ignoring the symbolism of the white flag as a unifying sign of surrender and, as such, the men’s appeal to common humanity for mercy, the Serb forces herded the families into the valley toward a creek where they separated men from women. Women told me how the soldiers and paramilitaries searched them stealing their money and gold. One woman showed me the torn holes in their ears – an injury from when the Serbs had ripped her earrings out. She said, “Serbs kept us women and we were not allowed to move; not even our hands. They approached us with knives and guns – we expected them to kill us. Now, when I go somewhere I forget why I went there. I lost my memory.” Intense remembering of extreme fear and violence was, among several women, connected with a sense of memory loss. It was as though there no longer existed sufficient space in their minds for retaining the mundane activities of the everyday that would have once been so routine – adding salt to the soup, putting sugar into the coffee, or remembering where one was going with a story. Yet, the stories of the war were never far from their minds and would seep into our conversations about the commonplace events of the everyday transporting us, as though in a time capsule, into the past.

At the creek, the families lived through indescribable fear. Anduena[1] tried to put her feelings into words telling me, “The Serbs approached us like dogs with rabies and saliva dripping from their mouths. Women and children started screaming. Men were separated and women and children were told to go to Albania. It was three in the afternoon. We walked for two hours to Radkoc. The children and old ladies could hardly walk, they were tired and hungry.” As the women walked with their children away from the site, they heard their husbands, sons, and fathers being shot. The sound of machine gun fire ringing in their ears, they carried on walking from one burnt down village to the next, carrying their children, helping the old women, many of whom had begun to lose their strength and were struggling to keep on walking. An old lady told me, tears running down her cheeks, “You know, they cared about us old ones. When we were walking, I was so weak. I fell so many times. They always waited to pick me up again and waited for me to follow them. They could have left me right there to die.”

Male survivors of the massacre told me how they had first tried to save themselves by handing over money to the soldiers. One of them said, “We gave them the money but they wanted more. They undressed us to look for more. A Serb hit me on my back and told me to give him money. I told him that I gave him everything I had. I started to undress and told him that I don’t have anything else. He let me be.” Serbs also confiscated the men’s identification documents – one of the survivors reported to Human Rights Watch that he was told, “You won’t need any ID where you’re going” as he handed over his papers. Pleading for their lives with all they had, the men were further humiliated and forced to shout three times, ‘Serbia, Serbia, Serbia’ – words that they would not repeat, words which would have killed them anyway.

The men were further separated into four groups and sent to the creek, where each of the groups was lined up and shot. After the soldiers finished firing, they walked amongst the bodies looking for possible survivors and shooting them from close range. From the four groups, 14 men survived and 106 men lost their lives.

The following day, Serbian forces reportedly removed about twenty of the bodies and transported them to a house where they burned them beyond recognition. When abandoning the village on the same day, they left the remaining bodies where they had been shot. Returning villagers made their way to the gruesome site and started to haul the bodies to a field near the village mosque where they hastily wrapped them in woollen blankets and covered their faces with white tissues to bury them. Before they were able to complete the task, however, Serbian paramilitary returned to Pastasel, interrupting the task as the villagers were once again forced to retreat into the hills. The burial continued after the Serbs had left.

On 11th April 1999, NATO released imagery taken by an aerial reconnaissance flight two days earlier revealing the burial site in Pastasel. Yet, only about two weeks after the release of the photographs, Serbians forces returned to the village once more with trucks, exhumed the bodies and threw them into mass graves far away from Pastasel. A villager is reported to have told Human Rights Watch, “Not to know where the bodies are hidden is, for us, as if they’ve been killed again.”

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names of women are anonymised.