The annual wheat harvest season is the most difficult time of the year for Slavica Popovic.
Wherever she goes during these days, she cannot help but remember the murders of four close relatives who were killed while they were out in the field harvesting their wheat.
On the night between July 23 and 24, 1999, she was woken up by the ringing of her phone. On the line was her uncle, telling her that her father Momcilo, her 17-year-old brother Novica and two of her uncles had been killed.
They were among 14 Serbs killed in the village of Gracka e Vjeter/Staro Gracko, 20 kilometres from Kosovo’s capital Pristina, while out in a field harvesting their wheat, just weeks after the Kosovo war was officially over and the country came under United Nations and NATO control in June 1999.
Popovic remembers how she asked her uncle again if her brother Novica was in the field, not wanting to believe he had been killed. Her uncle answered: “Yes.”
“It had been three months since I had seen them. I was living here in Gracanica with my husband and children and we couldn’t move. They were at home in Staro Gracko. The war had ended and we hoped we could [still] live here [in Kosovo],” Popovic told BIRN in her office at the Gracanica municipality building, where she works on the administrative staff.
Alongside her father Momcilo Janicijevic, brother Novica and two uncles, Slobodan Janicijevic and Momir Janicijevic, her neighbours Milovan Jovanovic, Jovica Zivic, Radovan Zivic, Andrija Odalovic, Stanimir Dekic, Bozidar Dekic, Sasa Cvejic, Ljubisa Cvejic, Nikola Stojanovic and Miodrag Tepsic were also shot dead in the massacre.
They were executed within earshot of British NATO peacekeeping troops in what was one of the cruellest attacks on Kosovo Serb civilians after the war ended. None of the perpetrators has ever been convicted.
‘No return to normality’
Just after the war ended, many Serbs were targeted by armed groups, and many fled Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks after NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign forced Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his troops and police to Serbia.
Popovic said that as well as their closest neighbour, an ethnic Albanian called Muhamed, her father Momcilo and their family had many other Albanian friends.
“All through wartime, my family wanted to hear the truth about what was going on, true stories of atrocities by both sides. And at the end, we understood that [the war] had already changed our life,” she said.
“War was terrible for many people here. At the end of it we were trying to see if things would return to normality. But for many like us, they didn’t,” she added.
On the day of the attack, Popovic’s neighbour Stevo Lalic heard shooting from the direction of the fields and asked his other neighbour, Dragan Odalovic, to go with him to the western part of the village and see where the noise was coming from.
When they approached the scene, they saw a stationary threshing machine, and almost didn’t notice that there was a body on it. Then they ran to the nearest UN police station a couple of kilometres away in Lipjan/Lipljan.
One week before the massacre, the residents of Gracka e Vjeter/Staro Gracko, fearing an attack, had asked for military protection from NATO’s Kosovo force, KFOR, but Popovic said no patrols were deployed.
“KFOR made [the killings] possible because they didn’t respond to the request from the residents,” she alleged.
KFOR’s commander in Kosovo at the time, British general Mike Jackson, described the massacre as “a horror”. He confirmed that the patrols were scheduled to begin on July 24 – but the killers struck the day before, raising questions about the NATO force’s ability to deal with potential revenge attacks.
KFOR’s British contingent said in a statement at the time that there were at least five suspects at the crime scene. Four people were arrested two days later in connection with the killings, but were released soon afterwards.
Through her tears, Popovic said that the victims were shot and then some of them were mutilated. “Some of pictures we saw later show some of them with heads cut off and eyes burned,” she said.
She said that every year she and her mother have to endure four days of sorrow, from the anniversary of the killings to the day that would have been her brother’s birthday.
“It was Friday night when he was killed, on July the 23rd. On Tuesday the 27th, he would have turned 18,” she recalled.
Since the day of her father and brother’s funeral, Popovic said she has not felt safe enough to go to the cemetery without a police presence.
‘Let us not forget’
In the two decades after the war, the demographics of the village have changed and there are now many new houses owned by Albanians who left the city of Presevo in southern Serbia in recent years.
At his home in Gracka e Vjeter/Staro Gracko, Lazar Zivic wears a white T-shirt on which the names of all the 14 people killed in July 1999 are listed. Above their names are the words: “Let us not forget the bloody harvest.”
His father, Jovica Zivic, was one of the Serbs who was killed, when his son Lazar was only five years old. Zivic and his sister did not want to talk to BIRN, saying only that “every anniversary [of the massacre], media and politicians speak about Gracko and then nothing else happens”.
Police from the UN’s Kosovo mission, UNMIK, arrested an ethnic Albanian man called Mazllum Bytyqi from the nearby village of Hallaq i Madh/Veliki Alas in 2007. But he was released two months later due to a lack of evidence.
In 2010, UN prosecutors handed over the case file to the EU’s rule-of-law mission, EULEX. In 2017, the case was closed.
Popovic said that the day when they were told the case had been closed by EULEX was “worse than their murder… It was another attack on us.”
UN and EULEX prosecutors who worked on this case, including the US prosecutor Charles Hardaway who decided to terminate the case, declined to comment.
But one of the international investigators close to the case told BIRN that the murders were “part of a wider pattern of ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo Serbs.
He said that other revenge attacks using grenades had also been registered.
“The people involved with Staro Gracko were also involved in other attacks to force out Serbs. There was information in the intelligence file,” he added
Now the case is in the hands of international prosecutors at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the so-called ‘Special Court’ established in the Netherlands to investigate and try crimes committed during and after the Kosovo war.
The Specialist Chambers also declined to give any details, and only confirmed that the case lay within its jurisdiction.
Two decades on, Popovic hopes that at least the new court will reveal the truth about the massacre.
She said she thinks that the “time has come for both sides to send criminals before the court” – or there “will never be reconciliation and normality” between Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians.
“I never see all Albanians as culprits. But those who committed crimes should be delivered to justice. Let’s see if the new court will bring any hope,” she said.