By Patrick Markey
LJUBENIC, Kosovo — Odd shoes and tattered clothing lay scattered along the stony roadside. A wallet sits nestled in the patchy grass. A few feet away, a strand of red and white striped tape keeps visitors out of the rubble-filled entrance to the charred remains of a large family house.
Through the doorway, in an overgrown courtyard, lie the yellowed, skeletal remains of two people — decaying evidence of the violence villagers say the Serbian military carried out with swift efficiency here a few months before NATO’s air campaign ended the war in mid-June.
Villagers say in April Serbian troops surrounded Ljubenic and began shelling the farms and homes. Witnesses tell a tale of harrowing familiarity: As columns of families fled, Serbian troops separated men from women and children before gunning down 80 men against a wall.
Italian KFOR troops and international investigators working in this region say they have discovered a number of grave sites around Ljubenic, and villagers claim as many as 350 people may have been slaughtered here, many in the surrounding mountains and ravines.
But in this quiet rural village it is impossible to escape the signs of violence — the sweet decaying stench from the family home where the two corpses lie; the family members hunting through clothing left on the street in the vain hope that a torn shirt or tattered shoe might yield a clue to the fate of a lost loved one.
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Zoje Rrustemaj, 30, lives in a house that faces the site where villagers say their men where gunned down.
"They separated the men from the women and children when we got to the corner there," she said. "We didn’t want to leave without our husbands. But they told us it’s best we go or they would kill us and the children, too. When we got to the main road we heard the gunshots."
Taking a reporter into her backyard, Rrustemaj pulled back part of a haystack to reveal a yellowed skull and what appeared to be a thigh bone. She has no idea who it is. But she knows luck was with her the day they fled. Her husband, Gani, managed to slip past the soldiers and join the fleeing families. But Serbian police caught up with him in the column of refugees in Dakovica.
"They recognized him at the checkpoint. But he changed his jacket and held a child in his arms, so he managed to escape before they could find him again," she said.
Maxhun Alimehaj returned to Ljubenic 10 days ago. He, too, is fortunate to have made it out. The 57-year-old said he was one of the batch of men pulled to the side of the road when the Serbs opened fire. Hit twice in the legs, he tumbled under the bodies of three other men, and acted dead until the Serbian troops moved away, he said.
"One of the soldiers was asking us if we had guns. One of the villagers wanted to tell them we are all civilians, that we have no problems with Serbs," he recalled.
"They didn’t let him finish. They just shot him all over his body."
The commander ordered his troops to open fire again. Eight men fell. The villagers were ordered to lie on the floor and then the troops opened fire again, he said.
Alimehaj waited for two hours beneath the corpses until he couldn’t stand hiding beneath the bodies any longer.
"I crawled away about 10 meters. I saw another man from the village and we helped each other into a house, climbing to the top floor and waited," he said.
"At night we moved from house to house until we got to the mountains."
There he met Kosovo Liberation Army recruits who helped him, cleaned his wounds and gave him enough food to carry him over the border into Montenegro. Villagers said only eight men survived the shooting in Ljubenic. Only four bodies have been recovered.
"I want to wait here to tell this story. I had a chance to leave and go to Switzerland, but I want people here to know and I’m a witness," Alimehaj said.
On the way back from Ljubenic to Pec City, a river runs parallel to the gravel roadway. Hidden from view beneath undergrowth two corpses lie sprawled in the shallow water. Villagers discovered them five days ago. Their clothes drenched to paled flesh and limbs skewed at unnatural angles, they have been left as testimony for international investigators to identify and register.