Listen: Massacre at Cuska

An American RadioWorks/Minnesota Public Radio/NPR News documentary project titled “Massacre at Cuska,” which looks into a mass killing during Kosovo War and it’s aftermath. In 1999, Serb death squads attacked the Albanian village of Cuska, and within hours, left 41 unarmed civilians dead.

This is part of the documentary series “The Promise of Justice,” which examines the machinery and insidious legacy of war crimes, and the struggle for justice in societies convulsed by mass violence.


2001 Alfred I. DuPont Columbia Award, The Gold Baton for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism category

2000 Overseas Press Club of America Lowell Thomas Award for Best radio news or interpretation of international affairs

2000 Scripps Howard Foundation Jack R. Howard Award, Journalistic Excellence in Electronic Media - Large Market Radio category

2000 ICIJ Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting


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DEBORAH AMOS: From Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News, this is an American RadioWorks Special Report, Massacre at Cuska, Anatomy of a War Crime. I'm Deborah Amos.

SPEAKER: The soldiers had face paint, and some wore bandannas for masks.

SPEAKER: There were special orders to bring in certain individuals dead or alive.

DEBORAH AMOS: In March 1999, Serbian security forces under the command of Slobodan Milosevic, swept into Kosovo to crush a rebellion by ethnic Albanians.

SPEAKER: They were like dogs of war who kill without thinking about it.

SPEAKER: It's harder to watch the separations of men from their families than to do the actual killing.

DEBORAH AMOS: On May 14th, 1999, Serbian troops killed dozens of unarmed civilians in the Western Kosovo village of Cuska. American RadioWorks goes inside the Serbian militia units to talk with the men who pulled the triggers.

In the coming hour, Massacre at Cuska, a Special Report from American RadioWorks. First, this news. I'm Deborah Amos. With a Special Report from American RadioWorks, Massacre at Cuska.



DEBORAH AMOS: July 18th, 1999, Western, Kosovo, the village of Cuska, an honor guard of the Kosovo Liberation Army fires a funeral salute at the sky with their Kalashnikovs. A sobbing woman drops to her knees, grasping handfuls of dirt from the burial mound.

Grieving families have assembled to honor the 41 unarmed men executed here two months earlier.


Human rights groups say the attack on Cuska was a war crime. They say that the men responsible for the massacre must be punished. The May 14th assault on Cuska was a particularly bloody episode in a 10-week campaign by Serbian security forces to defeat the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and to drive ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

SPEAKER: Yet, another trainload of Kosovo Albanians has been dumped near the Macedonian border by Serb forces.

DEBORAH AMOS: In May 1999, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Serbia's leader Slobodan Milosevic and his four top lieutenants. Meanwhile, NATO waged a ferocious air war against Yugoslavia.

SPEAKER: United States forces acting with our NATO allies have commenced airstrikes against Serbian military targets in the former Yugoslavia.

SPEAKER: I'm demanding the stopping of the bombarding of our state.

SPEAKER: And NATO is demanding the stopping of ethnic cleansing.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: For more than 10 years now, he has been using ethnic and religious hatred as a path to personal power. That is what he did first in Bosnia and Croatia.

SPEAKER: Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic stands accused of war crimes.

SPEAKER: Specifically murder, deportation, and persecution, and with violations of the laws and customs of war.

SPEAKER: You are not juridical institution. You are a political tool.

DEBORAH AMOS: The trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague is the biggest war crimes trial in Europe since the prosecution of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. In this Special Report, American RadioWorks takes an extraordinary look inside the machinery of a war crime.

We tracked down and talked to the men who committed deportations and murder at Cuska. Correspondents Michael Montgomery and Steven Smith will also trace the line of control from Slobodan Milosevic to the killings at Cuska. One note, the names of victims and perpetrators are changed in some instances to conceal their identities.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is Stephen Smith. Cuska is a large farming community just two miles from Peja, Kosovo's second largest city. Its 200 houses are surrounded by rich cropland on a flat plane shadowed by the rocky peaks of the accursed mountains.

Like many of Kosovo's Albanian villages, the place is latticed with dirt roads and the traditional high stone walls that surround each farmyard. When the sun rose above Cuska on May 14th, it was one of those humid airless mornings that warns of a feverish day ahead.

27-year-old Lule was dozing in her father's house. She woke to gunfire.


INTERPRETER: I ran outside in my pajamas. I saw the men of our village running. I also saw smoke and flames. My neighbor said the Serbs were killing and burning. So I woke my parents, and my uncle, and the children.


INTERPRETER: DRAGAN: We waited all night for the signal to attack. Just before dawn, we got a go ahead.

STEPHEN SMITH: Dragan is a young Serb militiaman who took part in the attack on Cuska that morning.

DRAGAN (INTERPRETED): We went house to house clearing people out. We concentrated on killing rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army. If we decided a guy was KLA, we often executed him on the spot.


INTERPRETER: The soldiers had face paint and some were bandannas for masks. They were wearing a mixture of uniforms. Some were police officers, and some were the Yugoslav army.

STEPHEN SMITH: This man is Akif, Lule's uncle, a wiry 57-year-old farmer with graying hair. Akif tells us Serb gunmen had come to Cuska weeks before looking for KLA fighters and menacing the villagers. But on those earlier visits, the Serbs assured villagers that if they worked their land and lived peacefully, they'd be safe. This visit was different.


INTERPRETER: They took us to the village cemetery. They separated the men from the women, the men they thought could fight. Then they started burning houses and shooting at people's feet to scare them.


INTERPRETER: We were rough, even with kids or women. There was no mercy.

STEPHEN SMITH: Dusan also took part in the Serbian attack on Cuska.


INTERPRETER: At one house, an Albanian came out with bread and salt, which is a traditional Serbian way to welcome guests. We were insulted. So one of our guys hit the Albanians wife with his rifle, then kicked the guy's child, then that Albanian guy was taken away.


INTERPRETER: They divided us men into three groups and took us away. There were 11 men in my group. They took us inside a neighbor's house and lined us against the living room wall.

They cursed us, then demanded more money. But we had already given them all the money we had.


INTERPRETER: We took 11 or 12 men to one house. We concluded that some of them were KLA. You know, the kind of interrogation fists and the rifle butt to the head, cut them with a knife, so they'd confess something.

STEPHEN SMITH: We go with Akif to the house or what's left of it.

INTERPRETER: The soldier to come to the door.


INTERPRETER: And he said--


INTERPRETER: In the name of Serbia, you will all be killed.


INTERPRETER: And he opened fire.


INTERPRETER: Who was killed?


INTERPRETER: He said one. The commander said, guys, let's finish them off. Then we fired. One minute, two minutes, just firing into the group and then into the pile of bodies. I shot without really looking at where I was shooting.

STEPHEN SMITH: A bullet ripped into Akif's thigh, but he was saved by the bodies of his brother Halil and a neighbor with a bad heart.


INTERPRETER: When he say in the name of Serbia, you will all be killed.


INTERPRETER: He had a heart attack and he fell dead in front of him.

STEPHEN SMITH: So two men fell on top of him, really?


STEPHEN SMITH: Before the killers left, they tossed a cushion soaked with gasoline into the room where Akif lay hidden by the bodies of his family members. The fire was meant to destroy the evidence, especially the bodies.


INTERPRETER: The door outside was on fire. But fortunately, there was a window. I jumped from the window and ran bleeding into a grassy field. And that's where I hid.

STEPHEN SMITH: Two other groups of men from the village were forced into separate houses, gunned down, and set on fire. 41 Albanian men died in Cuska that day, ages 19 to 69. That same morning, the security forces attacked two adjacent villages, driving out the women, children, and elderly, and killing a total of 72 people. One young woman was kidnapped and never seen again.


STEPHEN SMITH: It is August 1999, three months after the massacre at Cuska. The Serbs are gone now driven out by NATO. NATO helicopters now patrol the skies.

Human rights investigators from the UN war crimes tribunal and from human rights groups have arrived with their cameras, tape recorders, notebooks, and questions.


FRED ABRAHAMS: All right, first can you tell me your full name?

HAZEL: Hazel.


HAZEL: Hazel.

STEPHEN SMITH: It's time to find out what happened in Cuska and who did the killing.


FRED ABRAHAMS: How many times did the police--

STEPHEN SMITH: Fred Abrahams is a researcher for the US-based Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental group that investigates war crimes and other human rights abuses. He's one of scores of investigators gathering evidence on the Serbian campaign of murder and forced deportation in Kosovo.

Western governments estimate that some 10,000 Albanians are dead or missing. Fred Abraham says he's drawn to this place, in part, because the Serbian death squads were so sloppy here.

FRED ABRAHAMS: The remarkable thing about Cuska is that, in each of these three houses, there was one survivor.

STEPHEN SMITH: This means one eyewitness in each house who might identify the killers. Another thing makes this case different. In their haste to pull out of Kosovo in June, some of the Serb fighters left behind snapshots, showing themselves flaunting guns and posing before burning buildings. These photos provide unusual clues for war crimes investigators like Abraham.

FRED ABRAHAMS: The photographs clearly have a weekend warrior rambo esque aura about them. They're quite remarkable. They showed local Serbs in various military poses in front of burning homes with automatic weapons in full uniform.

STEPHEN SMITH: Abraham scans the photographs into his laptop then fires up the computer for Akif, one of the three execution survivors and his niece Lule.

FRED ABRAHAMS: We got these photos from the local prefect from KLA from local Serbs who were active in various paramilitary units, one called Lightning. So they'll look now to see if they can recognize any of the faces.

STEPHEN SMITH: The photographs startle Akif and Lule, who immediately pointed the screen and exclaimed that's him. Lule begins to shake as she recalls how on May 14th, the fat, dark haired man in the photo, wearing the same green fatigues, wooden cross, and hunting knife, had pulled her away from the other villagers and threatened to kill her family, unless she followed him into an empty house.

LULE: It's the same guy, nobody else. If I saw him 10 years from now, I'd still recognize him. He's the one that took me aside and threatened to rape me. He was the commander.

STEPHEN SMITH: Seven villagers say this bearded barrel chested man, posing so proudly with his machine gun, was one of the militia commanders who led the attack on Cuska. They say the other gunmen called him by a nickname, Badush, the name of a heavyset Balkan TV entertainer.

Badush, villagers say, ordered the three groups of unarmed men to be taken away for execution. So where did Badush get his orders? And why was Cuska targeted for such a brutal attack? The answers may lie in geography and in the past.


For many Serbs, Kosovo is sacred land, soaked in the blood of martyrs and eulogized in folk songs, like this one. 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 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. Slobodan Milosevic waged a 10-year campaign to impose a Balkan-style apartheid over the Albanians and to boost his own political power.

In 1997, a shadowy Albanian independence group calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army launched a guerrilla war. As the insurgency widened, Milosevic rushed Serbian military forces to Kosovo, targeting suspected rebels and their village strongholds.

But Western investigators, including John Cina, of the International Crisis Group, say the Serbs killed thousands of unarmed civilians without troubling to find direct evidence of KLA connections.

JON CINA: Compare it to a tree, initially, they were trying to lop off the branches. Then they decided to hack away at the trunk. And finally, they decided to dig up the garden, which, obviously, is going to remove the tree. It's also going to cause a hell of a lot of collateral damage, as they like to call it.

FRED ABRAHAMS: There's no evidence to suggest that Cuska had any KLA activity, whatsoever.

STEPHEN SMITH: Again, Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch.

FRED ABRAHAMS: All of the villagers said that, while some of them had been members in the KLA and fought in other areas that during the war remained quiet.

STEPHEN SMITH: But Cuska is the home village for the KLA's top commander. Is this what provoked the massacre? If we can find out more about this Serbian militia commander named Badush, we may learn who planned the operation and why.

None of the survivors at Cuska know Badush's real name. But Lule, the young woman he threatened, says they'll never forget his face, nor the crimes they say he committed.


INTERPRETER: Do you see these hands? With these two hands, I collected the bones of my uncles, my cousins, 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.

DEBORAH AMOS: Coming up after a short break, a villager in Cuska identifies one of her alleged Serbian attackers by name. American RadioWorks tracks him down.

SPEAKER (INTERPRETED): On an earlier visit, he recognized me and asked what I was doing here. He asked how many children I had. I was afraid to tell him I have a son. So I told him I have five daughters.

DEBORAH AMOS: This is Deborah Amos. You're listening to Massacre at Cuska, a Special Report from American RadioWorks, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News. Our program continues in just a moment from NPR, National Public Radio.

This is a Special Report from American RadioWorks, Massacre At Cuska. I'm Deborah Amos. From his jail cell in The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic insists that the Serbian police and army did not commit large scale atrocities against Albanian civilians in Kosovo.

Milosevic dismisses such stories as propaganda that exaggerates the excesses committed by a few rogue units. But prosecutors say they have powerful evidence to the contrary, evidence showing that Milosevic and his senior officials had direct command over Serbian security forces involved in executions and forced deportations. This is the story of what happened at the village of Cuska in May of 1999.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: This is correspondent Michael Montgomery. To understand who was behind the attack on Cuska, we tried first to figure out which militia and army units took part in the massacre.

We obtained dozens of snapshots that Serb fighters took of themselves in combat gear and then, apparently, left behind. We showed the photographs to villagers. And one man stands out in the pictures.

A woman named Albana points to him, saying she saw him in Cuska on May 14th, wearing combat fatigues. The man's face is easy to recognize in the photos because one eye drifts sharply off course from the other.


INTERPRETER: I saw Zvonko's face. It was only for a few moments. And then, in the blink of an eye, they took our men away and started burning houses.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Zvonko, do his last name, his family name?



MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: And how do this Zvonko Cvetkovic How did you recognize him? Why did you recognize him?



MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Albana says she grew up with Cetkovic in the same neighborhood in nearby Peja. Abana says she saw him in Cuska on two occasions in the month before the massacre also with Serbian security forces.


INTERPRETER: On an earlier visit, he recognized me and asked what I was doing here. I said, I live here now. He asked how many children I had. I was afraid to tell him I have a son. So I told him I have five daughters. Then he asked if the KLA was in Cuska, I said no.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Two other villagers identify photos of Zvonko Cvetkovic confirming that he was in Cuska in combat gear on May 14th. They knew him because Cetkovic was a vehicle inspector in the nearby city of Peja, where Albanians said they had to bribe him to get approval for their cars.

This is the office of Patrons, the trucking company.

We went to the state run truck depot, where Cvetkovic had worked. It is now abandoned and thoroughly looted, except for a file cabinet holding employee records. Here, we found Zvonko Cvetkovic personal dossier.

The records say he was born in 1953, got mediocre grades in school, and had a bad eye because of a work accident. But there's no evidence that he might have been a militia commander or police reservists. Still, if we find Cetkovic, he might talk about who did conduct the massacre at Cuska.


MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: After weeks of chasing down leads, we locate Zvonko Cvetkovic in Andrijevica, a grimy town in the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro. So we make the drive.

Andrijevica is just 25 miles from the Kosovo border. We arrive unannounced at a grim apartment block with firewood stacked in the dirt courtyard and a bit uncertain about the kind of man we'll find.

When the militias abandon Kosovo, they kept their guns. Some local Serbs linger outside the place, sipping brandy and sharpening knives. They're preparing to slaughter an enormous hog.


MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: We greet Cvetkovic in Serbian. Flanked by his family, he offers his coffee in his small apartment and agrees to talk. He is an average sized 46-year-old with graying hair and that distinctive meandering eye the villagers remembered.

Alongside thousands of other Serbs, Cvetkovic and his family fled Kosovo soon after the NATO arrival, fearing reprisals by the Albanians. Cvetkovic was eager to deny reports he'd seen in the local papers that Human Rights Watch and news organizations had linked him to war crimes in Cuska.


INTERPRETER: Listen, all I was interested in was going to work in the morning and coming home in the afternoon. I was never in Cuska. I was never in the militia. I never took up a gun.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: The reason I mentioned Cuska is that several people said they saw him in Cuska on that day.

ZVONKO CVETKOVIC (INTERPRETED): Let me tell you if my own brother had been involved in something like this, I would say so. These were dogs, not men who did this kind of work in Cuska.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Still, Cvetkovic knew precise details about the militia units and their Commanders, but he did not explain how he knew so much. Cvetkovic's wife and daughter insist he's not only innocent of war crimes allegations, but actually helped Albanians escape from Kosovo. Cetkovic implores us to go to Peja to speak with several Albanians whom he says will back up his story. So we do.

Sure enough, we hear from several Albanians in Peja that, during the war, Cvetkovic had escorted their families past Serbian checkpoints on their way out of Kosovo. They included Luka, and Bessa, and their young son. But it turns out a few other crucial details Cvetkovic told us don't quite check out.

For example, his claim that he never wore combat gear or carried a machine gun. When he went with you in the car, was he in uniform at the time?

SPEAKER: Yes. Yes, I'm sure.


SPEAKER: Yes. He was in uniform. Yes.


SPEAKER: And he had an automatic with him.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Meaning an automatic weapon. This contradicts Cvetkovic's repeated statement to us that he never donned combat clothes and never took up arms. It turns out he helped the Albanian family because his brother-in-law was a close friend of theirs. And the Albanians say Cvetkovic did so grudgingly.

Another Albanian that Cvetkovic told us to visit says he saw Cvetkovic armed and in uniform weeks before the raid on Cuska. Finally, a third Albanian man Cvetkovic told us would vouch for him, a former coworker called Dardan, suspects Cvetkovic was collaborating with the militia gangs in Pec.


INTERPRETER: He would always come right over to talk to us, but he was a real extremist. He would say, we need to kill all the Albanians, take bulldozers, and flatten the villages, just expel them all. I don't know. Maybe they were just words.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: It seems clear to us that Cvetkovic joined up with the militias in the assault on Cuska but was also probably an insignificant foot soldier in the operation. So we searched instead for some of the militia commanders he and many Serbian fighters say were most active in the area.

In fact, Cuska was the unfortunate target of Serbia's most elite police, army, and militia units, troops closely directed by Slobodan Milosevic's senior generals. Among the militias-- the Frenkies, a commando unit named for Franko Simatovic, one of Milosevic's most notorious agents. There was the OPG, or Operativna Grupa, an elite Serbian police unit that proudly called itself "Fog" because it supposedly left no trace.

Fighters told us the OPG was behind an earlier massacre in a village named Racak that drew international condemnation and spurred the UN tribunal's Kosovo investigation. And then there was the feared militia gang Munja, or "Lightning."


INTERPRETER: I was recruited into a militia group called Lightning. I was told our task was ethnic cleansing, you know, expelling people from their houses. But there were other jobs to do, not just cleansing.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Bronco is one of 17 Serbian fighters we interviewed in Montenegro. A thick-set, middle-aged man, Branko grew up in Pec and joined Lightning three months before the NATO air war began.

BRANKO (INTERPRETED): We were also targeting the influential Albanians and eliminating anyone who supported the idea of an independent Kosovo.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Serbian authorities have long denied any connection to militias like Lightning. But the Serbian fighters we spoke with say the militias, including Lightning, were special units within the army and police. One of the most widely known and feared lightning members was actually a Serbian police officer. His name was Vidomir Salipur, and he died in a KLA ambush in April 1999.


In fact, his obituary is posted on the official website of the Serbian National Police in the section for slain officers. By most accounts, Officer Salipur's death left lightning in the control of a convicted felon named Nebojsa Minic. Such were the peculiar bedfellows engaged in Slobodan Milosevic's war on Kosovo. Cops and criminals fought side by side.

Minic is a 38-year-old Serb who calls himself "The Dead" and is said to sport a large tattoo of a corpse on his chest. Branko, the former Lightning member, says during the war, Minic killed dozens of Albanians in and around Pec.


INTERPRETER: He was extreme from the beginning. He was a man on the edge, always. He was full of hatred for Albanians. He had done criminal activities with them, and he was strict. So he was full of revenge. He would murder an entire family-- a mother, brother, or sister-- just for that.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Several witnesses identify Nebojsa Minic as one of the militia commanders in Cuska on May 14. With Minic was the heavyset man from the snapshots, Burdus, whose real name is Srecko Popovic. Another lightning member, Petar, says Minic and Popovic were field commanders in Cuska. But Petar insists the battle plans and the execution lists came from senior army and police officials.


INTERPRETER: We were given lists from the police commanders of those Albanians who were loyal to the KLA or had links to them. The aim was to cleanse the village. We were ordered to separate the women and children from men. We took any man more than 15 years old.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: When the guys were separated from the women, what did he what did he think in his head was going to happen to the guys?

PETAR (INTERPRETED): I knew how it would end for them. They would die. And the women and children were all crying. But I just gave myself up to the stream of events.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Several fighters say the assault on Cuska was planned in a meeting of army and police commanders in Pec on March the 11th. A Yugoslav army logbook signed by the regional military commander, an army colonel, appears to confirm that troop reinforcements were sent to Cuska three days before the attack.

This document and the statements from the fighters we talked to refute Yugoslav army assertions that its units were not involved in attacks on civilians. According to Serbian police sources, the lists of whom to kill came from local army and police commanders and also from higher up.

An officer of an elite Serbian secret police unit told us he relayed detailed orders for arrests and deportations directly to police and militia commanders in Western Kosovo, including Lightning. He said these orders originated in the Serbian Interior Ministry headquarters in Belgrade.

SPEAKER (INTERPRETED): The order to move Albanians out came from Belgrade, from the very top. Our initial focus was on areas where the KLA had support, like Pec.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: But this officer also says that what began for him as a legitimate battle against Albanian terrorists, the KLA, quickly descended into a total war against Albanian civilians. It was a war in which any able-bodied Albanian man was considered a potential terrorist.

SPEAKER (INTERPRETED): Once the airstrikes began, everything got worse. We became more dependent on the militias and special units because our army recruits were not doing the job. Everything got turned upside down. Here I was, a cop, having to work with criminals who should be in jail.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: In fact, many of the Serbian militiamen got sent to Kosovo from Serbian prison cells. We spoke with several men who fought in Kosovo in exchange for their release from jail. One ex-prisoner we meet is Marko, a muscular underworld figure decked out in gold medallions, designer sunglasses, and Bermuda shorts.

Marko says he was serving a five-year sentence in Serbia for armed assault when he was released, trained in a Yugoslav police camp in Serbia, given a gun, and sent to Pec to conduct special operations.


INTERPRETER: My orders were to arrest people and bring them in. Then there were special orders to bring in certain individuals dead or alive. I liquidated five or six people that way. We arrested important people, political types, functionaries.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Marko and other militia members say their units were sponsored by Serbian gangsters with close connections to Slobodan Milosevic's secret police. These warlords paid the fighters as much as $3,000 a month and arranged for weapons and ammunition from the army in exchange for a large cut of the stolen Albanian property.

FRED ABRAHAMS: There were strong criminal elements involved all the way, from the army through the police and paramilitaries. And that is a reflection of the Serbian and Yugoslav state.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Again, Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch.

FRED ABRAHAMS: We're talking about a gangster regime. We're talking about a country that is run by people who are deeply involved in all kinds of illegal and illicit activities. So if that takes place on the top, on the level of ministers, then it certainly will take place on the level of street thugs and local policemen.


MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Sunrise, May 14, 1999, the village of Cuska. Here's what we now know-- assembling outside the village, Serbian police, the Yugoslav army, militia units, including Lightning and Fog, field commanders, Nebojsa Minic, Srecko Popovic. Dozens of fighters surge in, armed with guns, maps, two-way radios, and lists of names.

Some Albanian villagers scatter to the woods. Others gather at the village center, too afraid to run. Witnesses see Minic and Popovic taunt the unarmed civilians, firing machine guns at the feet of children to terrorize them. Looking at the photos, Besim recalls Popovic ordering the separation of Albanian men to be executed.


INTERPRETER: He would stay in the center and give orders. The rest of the soldiers would go to the houses and round up men, all the while as Popovic was screaming at us, "You asked for NATO, we'll give you NATO now! You Albanians will never be free unless you kill all 11 million Serbs!"

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Another survivor of the shooting, Skender, also identifies Popovic in the photos.


INTERPRETER: I noticed he had a cross around his neck. He had a military green T-shirt. He gave the orders for us to divide into two groups and sent us to the houses.

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: In separate interviews, witnesses say Popovic led Skender and nine other men at gunpoint to an empty house. There the Albanians are cut down with machine guns. Skender survives by leaping out a window just seconds before the killers open fire.

Meanwhile, Nebojsa Minic is hunting more lucrative prey. Minic grabs 51-year-old Chaush Lushi, widely known as one of Cuska's richest men. Minic's men also seized Lushi's 20-year-old son, Arian, demanding keys to his car. Chaush Lushi offers to get the car and some money, hoping the Serbs may spare his son's life.

According to witnesses, Minic marches Chaush Lushi away to his house. Lushi's wife, Ajsha, stays with the group, watching in horror.


INTERPRETER: Chaush brought all the money he had, everything to save our son. When he returned to the cemetery, he saw that his Arian had been taken away. "Where is my son?" he asked. And they told Chaush, "You may be a rich man, but we still killed your son."

MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: The son, Arian, was shot with 10 other men minutes before his father returned. Chaush Lushi was last seen alive with Nebojsa Minic, the Lightning commander. The next day, Ajsha Lushi discovers her husband's body sprawled in an outhouse.


INTERPRETER: He was lying face down, and there was blood everywhere. It was difficult to see. There were so many flies. He had been stabbed in the throat, and his hand was nearly cut off. I think they did that to steal his watch. Then I cried and said to him, "Chaush, we have no men in the house now that you are gone. Where is our son? Without you, we have no home."


DEBORAH AMOS: You're listening to a special report from American Radioworks, "Massacre at Cuska." After a short break, we'll hear from the killers at Cuska and look at the trial of the man accused of masterminding war crimes in Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic.

VASO (INTERPRETED): I think the generals created a project a plan of some kind to fill us with pure hatred of the Albanians.

PREDRAG (INTERPRETED): I didn't want to see people die, to see blood all around me. But I got used to it.

MICHAEL SCHARF: You've always got to bear in mind that the tribunal was never set up and never intended to take on the actual prosecution of ground-level perpetrators.

DEBORAH AMOS: To see pictures of Burdus and other Serbian militia members described in this report and their Albanian victims at Cuska, log on to our website at You'll also find more about the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. That's at

Major funding for American Radioworks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This program was made possible in part by grants from the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Glazer Family Foundation. This American Radioworks special report, "Massacre at Cuska," continues after a short break. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

You're listening to "Massacre at Cuska," a special report from American Radioworks. I'm Deborah Amos.

In 1999, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic justified his war on Kosovo's ethnic Albanians as a legitimate fight against antigovernment terrorists. Western nations rejected the claim, and Milosevic became the first head of state to be indicted for war crimes while still in office. But will UN prosecutors succeed in convicting Milosevic for crimes like the killings in Cuska? And what will happen to commanders who led the attack and fighters who did the killing? In this final section of our report, we'll examine the prospects for justice in Kosovo.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is correspondent Stephen Smith. Here in the Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, an untold number of Serbian men who fought in Kosovo now make their living in construction, in business, in the army, the police, or in crime. Montenegro is an uneasy place for suspected war criminals. The government here says it's cooperating with the UN War Crimes Tribunal.

We found 25 men in Montenegro who fought in the Kosovo War. They spoke to us only after we promised to conceal their voices and real names. Most of them admitted attacking Albanian civilians. Most of them volunteered to fight, but for a variety of motives.


INTERPRETER: I was in a special army sniper unit, and I was willing to fight to defend Serbia from the terrorists. It wasn't just for the money. I did it in good will.

Towards the end of the war, we were cleansing the villages, and I took part in that for patriotic reasons, too.

STEPHEN SMITH: Vaso is a slender man in his 30s, born and raised in Serbia. Once a Yugoslav army soldier, Vaso was unemployed when he signed up to fight in Kosovo. As he watched others in the security forces killing Albanian women and children, he grew troubled. But, Vaso says, he obeyed orders.

VASO (INTERPRETED): We were armed with some kind of a patriotic sense of duty, especially with the intensity of the war. We were soldiers. We were like dogs of war who kill without thinking about it. That was us.

I think the generals created a project, a plan of some kind to fill us with pure hatred of the Albanians.

STEPHEN SMITH: But others, especially the men in the militias, were fueled by different passions.

MILAN (INTERPRETED): I went to Kosovo to take their money. And so that's what I did. I took their money.

STEPHEN SMITH: Milan is an unshaven young man with darting troubled eyes and an extensive criminal past. We meet him at an outdoor cafe. Milan says he belonged to the militia unit Lightning, the kind of place where a Serbian patriot could also be a state-sanctioned kidnapper.

MILAN (INTERPRETED): Early on, the Serbian secret police were transporting Albanians safely to the border by hiding them in the trunk. They charged them $2,700. When the guys in my unit heard about this, we started doing it too.

Later, after the NATO bombing got worse, I wouldn't bother taking the Albanian to the border. I would just take their money and kill them. I couldn't care less for the Albanians. None of us cared. They're less than human. They're shit.

STEPHEN SMITH: As far as we can tell, Milan did not participate in the attack on Cuska. So we go to see a guy called Predrag. He wears a black Versace T-shirt, black jeans, and has the menacing build of a bouncer at a bar.

Predrag insists in meeting us in the basement of a grungy seaside tourist hotel. Throughout our conversation, Predrag sits on a chair with a nickel-plated Magnum tucked under his crotch, pistol grip at the ready.


INTERPRETER: First, I'm not talking to you because I like to talk. I've just had it up to here. I'm fed up. Some things I can no longer keep inside.

Whether or not you wanted to, you had to work for the police. You had to have money to live on. Factories weren't running. Nothing was working. I didn't want to see people die, to see blood all around me. But I got used to it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Predrag's eyes look tense and haunted. He agrees to meet us in part out of anger towards Milosevic's regime and because his family and friends in Serbia refuse to believe the stories of what he saw in Kosovo. Predrag wants someone to talk with.


INTERPRETER: Brother, it's harder to watch the separations of men from their families than to do the actual killing. There's nothing worse than when you see the faces of the mothers, sisters, children, how they wail when their fathers and brothers are taken away. One woman approached me, maybe 50 years old. She had six or seven children. The militias took away her husband.

She offered $3,000 to me if we would let him go. In her eyes, I saw my own mother begging for my life. I wanted to help. But if I tried to, I'd just get killed myself. At night, that woman's face tortures me.

STEPHEN SMITH: Several Serbian militiamen tell us the same thing. The memories of Kosovo, especially the anguished women and children, trouble them. So how could guys like this kill so many people and kill them so methodically? Just following orders?

We asked these questions of another man who was at Cuska, Dragan. He's a young former Yugoslav army soldier who volunteered for a militia unit calling itself the Czar Dusan brigade, named after a medieval Serbian conqueror. Dragan fiddled nervously with his cigarettes as we talked in a cafe about the attack on Cuska.

Dragan knows exactly who shot the aging farmer Akif and 11 other Albanian men, his own Czar Dusan brigade.


INTERPRETER: All sorts of things happened in that village. You would find a guy and apprehend him. Then he'd start crying. He'd lie down. He'd even offered to pay you to save him. But our unit didn't allow bribes, and our main motivation in Cuska was revenge.

STEPHEN SMITH: Dragan explains that several comrades in his militia unit had died in recent clashes with the KLA. So when they attacked Cuska, the surviving members of his brigade were starving for vengeance. And as Dragan's story unfolds, it becomes clear he did more in Cuska than just watch.

DRAGAN (INTERPRETED): There were around 12 of them that we decided to interrogate. We'd already finished clearing the Albanians from our sector. So we took the men to an empty house.


INTERPRETER: They took us inside a neighbor's house and lined us up against the living room wall.

DRAGAN (INTERPRETED): We determined that men from that village had been part of the earlier attack on us. So our commander ordered us to kill them.

AKIF (INTERPRETED): One of them, a young soldier, came and told us to wait until he talked things over with his comrades.

DRAGAN (INTERPRETED): It was clear that some of them were in the KLA. We found some were wearing green T-shirts under their peasant clothes and green socks, military green. That was their mistake. We took revenge.


INTERPRETER: I don't know what they talked about. But it only took a second. Then he came back and said--


INTERPRETER: --"In the name of Serbia, you will all be executed."

DRAGAN (INTERPRETED): I told him we were doing this in the name of Serbia. I alone did the shooting. There was no need for anyone else. Why waste the bullets?

STEPHEN SMITH: Dragan's admitted role in the summary executions and deportations at Cuska clearly rank him as a potential war criminal. But experts on international justice say he and others like him will probably go unpunished. Indeed, Dragan and other ground-level militia members may have the least to fear from the UN's War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

DENNIS MILNER: You've always got to bear in mind that the tribunal was never set up and never intended to take on the actual prosecution of ground-level perpetrators.

STEPHEN SMITH: That's Dennis Milner, one of the tribunal's chief investigators. Milner confirms that in addition to Slobodan Milosevic and the four other top Serbian leaders already indicted, the tribunal will generally focus on the highest links in the chain of command, not the trigger men at the bottom.

DENNIS MILNER: We will assert, obviously, that the guys right at the top who have orchestrated this whole campaign are the ones who are responsible. And they, by implication, have pulled the trigger.

STEPHEN SMITH: By punishing top suspects, like Slobodan Milosevic, prosecutors say they hope to individualize the responsibility for war crimes and remove the stain of collective guilt attributed to Serbs, a key ingredient if there's to be reconciliation in Kosovo. But Serbian fighters remain suspicious about the UN tribunal. Some dismiss the court as anti-Serb while others question why ethnic Albanian leaders are not being prosecuted for crimes they committed against Serbian civilians.

Nevertheless, Vaso, the former Yugoslav army soldier who was at Cuska, admits that some of his own commanders are war criminals.


INTERPRETER: Those people should be punished. I think this was a mistaken policy. And Milosevic, as the person who created this policy, belongs in The Hague. I didn't know what was going to happen when I went to fight. But the leaders calculated everything that happened.

SPEAKER: Case number IT9937I, The Prosecutor versus Slobodan Milosevic.

STEPHEN SMITH: The indictment against Slobodan Milosevic for Kosovo charges the former Serbian leader with four counts of crimes against humanity. Milosevic is charged separately for war crimes and genocide allegedly committed in earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Under the Yugoslav Constitution, Milosevic was commander-in-chief of the Serbian security forces during the war in Kosovo, including the elite police units that attacked Cuska on May 14, 1999.

That's why Milosevic is charged with what prosecutors call "superior authority" for the alleged killings and deportations of ethnic Albanians.

MICHAEL SCHARF: It is by far the biggest international war crimes trial since Nuremberg.

STEPHEN SMITH: Michael Scharf is a war crimes expert and professor of international law at the New England School of Law. Scharf says the Milosevic trial is the first time a civilian leader has been prosecuted for command responsibility for war crimes.

MICHAEL SCHARF: At Nuremberg, Adolf Hitler was not around. He had already committed suicide. And so you only had his second-in-command, Goering. Here you've got the president himself, the architect of ethnic cleansing and genocide himself.

STEPHEN SMITH: But to make a convincing case, Scharf says un prosecutors must prove that Milosevic had more than just constitutional authority, that he had effective control over his troops in Kosovo.

MICHAEL SCHARF: In order for them to prove that Milosevic had effective control, you're going to have to allow the judges to have a look inside the black box of the Yugoslav National Security Council and find out how decisions were made. What was Milosevic saying during those meetings? How was that being interpreted?

STEPHEN SMITH: In what could be a major breakthrough, tribunal prosecutors say they will call some 30 former Serbian insiders to testify against Milosevic. Those witnesses may include former members of his secret police, possibly men involved in the killings at Cuska.

But these would be consistent with an automatic--

Cuska, August 1999. A Danish police forensics team working for the UN tribunal pries bullets from the filthy outhouse where Chaush Lushi was shot and slashed to death.

How many bullets did you find?

SPEAKER: We just found two bullets in here.

STEPHEN SMITH: If the man who killed Chaush Lushi can be identified, he would, according to the UN's plan, be tried in local Kosovo courts, not before the international tribunal in Holland. But the local justice system faces staggering obstacles. First, virtually all of the suspects have fled to Serbia, though, under local laws, a suspect can be tried in absentia.

Second, postwar legal and police systems barely exist in Kosovo. And third, there's a new wave of ethnic violence to cope with.


STEPHEN SMITH: Kosovo's Serbs also had graves to dig. For months after NATO troops arrived in the province, ethnic Serbs and other minorities were murdered by ethnic Albanians, apparently in retaliation. Many of these Serbs were elderly.

The UN estimates that more than 500 people, many of them Serbs, have been killed in Kosovo since the war ended. Yet UN legal experts say the tribunal is unlikely to investigate this surge of violence because UN jurisdiction covers only crimes committed in wartime.

So tribunal prosecutors could turn many of these cases, along with the evidence they've gathered, over to local Kosovo courts. Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch worries that these local courts are overwhelmed by the number of crimes against Serbs and Albanians.

FRED ABRAHAMS: These courts are hardly in a position to deal with pickpockets, let alone war crimes. So it is very doubtful that people will be held accountable through that mechanism. And unfortunately, that leaves us in a difficult position regarding justice and reconciliation.

I want to see war criminals behind bars. There's no question. And it's frustrating to see that that will probably not take place.

STEPHEN SMITH: On a late fall afternoon in Cuska, Akif, the Albanian farmer who escaped the execution, hauls material to rebuild his house on a clattering horse cart. We now know who shot Akif and the 10 men who died at his side. We know who led the assault on Cuska and the chain of command behind it, leading to Belgrade and Slobodan Milosevic.

We know the fighters were motivated by vengeance, greed, duty, and fear. But there remains the question of timing, why the attack happened on May 14 and not earlier in the Kosovo War. Only Milosevic's top police and army commanders know that answer.

One possibility-- Cuska's name finally came up on the list of targets. Survivors of the attack on Cuska, including a 35-year-old geography teacher named Ali, insist that the executioners and their commanders must be caught and convicted.


INTERPRETER: I want to tell the world that we need justice like a wound needs medicine. If you leave a wound open, if you never close it, it never heals.

STEPHEN SMITH: And, Ali says, another generation will grow up in hatred.


STEPHEN SMITH: This is Lule. She survived the massacre to bury the bones of her father and dozens of other men in two communal graves at the village cemetery.

LULE (INTERPRETED): Every day, a three-year-old girl calls for her father. She asks her mother, "Where is Daddy?" The mother replies, "Just go outside and call his name three times. Soon, he'll be here."

The little girl tells everyone else her dad is away in Germany buying her a bicycle. One day, she goes with her mama to the cemetery to learn what happened. The little girl asks her mother, "Is this where my father is?" Her mother admits, "Yes. Daddy is buried here."

The little girl is crying and says, "My dad is here, killed by the bandits and the Serbs." Then this three-year-old girl starts digging at the grave with her hands, saying, "Let's get my daddy out and take him to the hospital. Maybe he'll get better."


DEBORAH AMOS: "Massacre at Cuska" was produced by Stephen Smith and Michael Montgomery, additional reporting by Adriatik Kelmendi, editor Deborah George, technical direction by Stephen Smith and Craig Thorson, coordinating producer Sasha Aslanian, associate producer Stephanie Curtis, project coordinator Misha Quill. I'm Deborah Amos.

You can listen to this program, see maps and photographs, and find more on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic on our website, Major funding for American radioworks is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This program was made possible in part by grants from the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Glazer Family Foundation.

American Radioworks is the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio and NPR News. This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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