Could Kosovo Ex-Commander Reveal Fate of Missing Serbs?

Dečak srpske nacionalnosti iz Orahovca posmatra podelu humanitarne pomoći 29. oktobra 1999. godine. Foto: Nenad Kojadinović/EPA
A Kosovo Serb boy from Orahovac/Rahovec watches the distribution of humanitarian aid on October 29, 1999. Photo: Nenad Kojadinovic/EPA.

Written by: Filip Rudic BIRN Belgrade

Families of people who disappeared in Orahovac/Rahovec during the Kosovo war hope that Sabahajdin Cena, a former guerrilla commander recently questioned by prosecutors from The Hague, could reveal vital information despite denying any involvement in kidnappings.

Marko Vitosevic was watching over his family home in the town of Orahovac/Rahovec when he was taken away by armed men in Kosovo Liberation Army uniforms on June 16, 1999, along with three of his neighbours.

The war had ended just a few days beforehand and Belgrade’s forces had retreated to Serbia. The remaining Serbs in Kosovo were now a minority unprotected by the military might of Belgrade, and the Vitosevic family feared for their safety.

Marko Vitosevic’s wife and one of his sons had left the house only a day before and moved to the part of Orahovac/Rahovec where Serbs lived, but he had stayed on to keep an eye on the premises.

Marko’s other son, Zvezdan, who was already living in another part of town, said that witnesses told him that KLA fighters went from house to house, tying people up and escorting them out.

“They crammed them into a car and drove off in an unknown direction,” Zvezdan Vitosevic said.

He said he later learned from another Serb, who was seized alongside his father, that the KLA tortured them at their headquarters at the local Fire Department, then took them to the outskirts of town in the evening.

The other Serb said he escaped when the KLA fighters untied his hands. While running away, he heard the fighters shooting.

“He heard gunfire, but didn’t see the executions. Since then there has been no trace [of my father],” Zvezdan Vitosevic said.

In order to investigate alleged crimes by KLA guerrillas during and after the 1998-1999 war for independence from Serbia, the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague started interviewing former KLA commanders this month.

One of the eight who has been interviewed so far is Sabahajdin Cena, a leading KLA official in the Orahovac/Rahovec area during the war.

Locals in the area believe that Cena might be a useful witness for the Hague prosecutors because he allegedly has information on at least 30 Serbs who disappeared in Orahovac/Rahovec during and after the war.

Cena said that he spoke to the Hague prosecutors on January 14 and 15 in Pristina. “I was interviewed about the kidnapping and disappearances of Serb civilians in the Rahovec region,” he told BIRN.

He said he was interviewed as a suspect, but denied any wrongdoing: “The truth is that I didn’t kill anyone. Personally, I was never involved in any crime… It is true that some Serbs were killed, but I don’t know by who or in what circumstances,” he insisted.

Kidnapping allegations

Angelina Antic, a Kosovo Serb, told the Humanitarian Law Centre NGO during the war that her brother was kidnapped by the KLA in 1998 in Orahovac/Rahovec along with another Serb and taken to the house of someone called “Sebajdin Cena” – the Serbian spelling of Cena’s first name.

“We found out that they were taken to the household of Sebajdin Cena, whose house – I guess – served as a temporary prison, then to Malisevo,” Antic told the HLC in 1998.

The Amsterdam-based newspaper Trouw in December 1999 quoted a Serb woman from Orahovac/Rahovec, identified only by her first name, Mirjana, as saying that a man called Sebajdin Cena, her former teacher, was involved in seizing Serbs.

“My parents and I were at his wedding. My father gave him his first job. He was recognised as one of the organisers of the kidnappings last year [1998],” the Dutch newspaper quoted Mirjana as saying.

But Cena denied that his house was used as an improvised jail for kidnapped Serbs: “There were many rumours that the place where Serbs were kept or killed was my property. It is a well-known fact that this place was a state-owned property used by the KLA,” he said.

“I explained to the prosecutors that I didn’t have any information about crimes committed against Serbs,” he added.

The situation in the Orahovac/Rahovec municipality in July 1998 was tense. KLA forces attacked the town on June 17, and the nearby villages of Retimlje and Opterusa/Opterushe the following day.

Five Serb civilians were killed in the attacks, while dozens of Serbs and Roma were imprisoned. Many would be released, but 36 Serbs, three Roma and one Montenegrin remained missing.

The remains of almost all of them were found in two mass graves in the villages of Volujak and Malisevo in April and May 2005.

The kidnappings continued in 1999. A confidential report from 2003 by the UN’s Kosovo mission UNMIK about the KLA’s alleged involvement in human organ-trafficking quoted an Albanian witness who said he delivered some Serbs to Albania from the villages of Retimlje and “Ocerusa” – probably a misspelling of the name Opterusa/Opterushe.

The report also said that two Serbs kidnapped in Orahovac/Rahovec in 1999, Sinisa Vitosevic and Gradimir Majmarevic, were seen in detention facilities near the northern Albanian village of Tropoje in late July or early August 1999.

According to the report, from mid-1999 or before that, between 100 and 300 people, mostly Serbs, were abducted and taken to detention facilities in the northern Albanian towns of Kukes and Tropoje.

Some of the captives were transported to the infamous ‘Yellow House’, a private home near the town of Burrel that was set up as a makeshift clinic, where “medical equipment and personnel were used to extract body organs from the captives, who then died”, the confidential UNMIK report said.

Secret prisons

The Kosovo Memory Book, compiled by the Humanitarian Law Centre NGO, records 950 war-related deaths, murders and kidnappings in the Orahovac/Rahovec region from 1998 to 2001.

The civilian death toll was 831, and the overwhelming majority of the victims were ethnic Albanians – 724 of them. Of the 107 Serb, Roma, Ashkali, Bosniak and Montenegrin victims, 38 are listed as still missing.

Some of those who were taken reportedly ended up in Albania, where the KLA operated secret detention sites, abused Serb and Albanian prisoners and allegedly harvested organs from some of their captives, according to a report issued in 2010 by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty. Some of the prisoners ultimately disappeared, the report said.

Olgica Bozanic, the secretary of the Association of Families of Kidnapped and Missing Persons, told BIRN that her two brothers from Orahovac/Rahovec were kidnapped and killed, as were many more of her relatives.

Bozanic, who was born in the village of Retimlje in the Orahovac/Rahovec municipality, remembers Sabahajdin Cena before the war as a teacher who occasionally stood in for her own professors in high school.

After she started working at a pharmacy in Orahovac/Rahovec, she said she would see Cena at “every protest” that local Albanians held after clashes with the Serbian army and police.

“I don’t know him as a bad man, I know him as an intellectual, and I didn’t expect for something like that to happen to my relatives, but it did. Just like it happened to many Albanians who didn’t expect something like that would happen [to theirs],” Bozanic said.

Cena became a professor of Albanian literature in the 1960s. But due to his nationalist stance, he was barred from teaching at the Orahovac/Rahovec high school, so instead he took a lower-profile job working in the school administration.

In the 1990s, he became a member of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the LDK, a party established and led by former Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, who advocated peaceful resistance to Serbian repression. But Cena obviously changed his mind about armed struggle, because in 1998 he joined the KLA.

Since the war, he has been a member of Democratic Party of Kosovo, the PDK, which was founded by current Kosovo President Hashim Thaci. But he has kept a low profile within the party, and worked until recently as a lecturer at the University of Prizren.

Cena believes that the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which will try suspects indicted by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office for wartime and post-war crimes, is a biased institution: “I can say that this court is political and is a mono-ethnic mechanism against Albanians,” he said.

Hope fades

Forenzičari UN-a otkrili su masovnu grobnicu Srba iz Orahovca u Mališevu. Foto: Valdrin Džemaj/EPA.
UN forensics experts uncover a mass grave of Serbs from Orahovac/Rahovec in the town of Malisevo. Photo: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA.

Serb families who have lost loved ones also doubt that the Kosovo Specialist Chambers will deliver the justice they have been waiting for over the past two decades.

Olgica Bozanic said she has put her hopes in various prosecutors over the years, and worked to find witnesses for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, but all to no avail.

“The witnesses have since died, without anything being accomplished in the meantime,” said Bozanic.

Zvezdan Vitosevic is bitter about the fact that the UN mission UNMIK and the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, did not protect Serbs from kidnappings after Belgrade’s forces pulled out at the end of the war in June 1999.

“[The KLA] worked publicly, driving people to the Fire Station [in Orahovac/Rahovec] – not to private homes but to public buildings, while KFOR and UNMIK were stationed [in the town],” Vitosevic said.

Vitosevic has also lost hope that the culprits will be finally brought to justice by the new Hague court, whatever information Cena might have given to the prosecutors.

“I expect nothing from the Specialist Chambers,” he said.

Balkan Insight

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