The bodies lay stacked in coffins Wednesday on the edge of a sloping field thick with mud, where Serbian police using a bulldozer had covered the corpses the night before with a thin layer of dirt.
Villagers gathered throughout the frigid day to recover the mangled bodies, identify those who could be identified, and place them, one by one, back into the ground.
Fifty-two mounds of chopped earth formed three neat rows, a piece of wood planted on each grave to serve as a tombstone. When the villagers ran out of wood, they used broken tree limbs.
Six hours after they started, ethnic Albanians from several nearby villages finished the task of burying 52 men, women and children killed in the deadliest spasm of violence to wreck Serbia’s restive Kosovo province since World War II.
The ad-hoc gravediggers were careful to turn each body’s head toward the Islamic holy site of Mecca, in keeping with Muslim tradition. Other elements of the Muslim ritual, such as the cleansing of the body, were left undone in the haste and chaos of the burial. Most Albanians are Muslim.
“This time we used coffins,” said Xhafer Murtezaj, a local official. “Normally we wouldn’t (in Muslim burial), but these are the circumstances.”
Over the objections of victims’ families, Serbian police had retrieved the bodies from a makeshift morgue Tuesday night and dumped them in the shallow mass grave here in Prekaze, a village that was at the center of last week’s deadly police crackdown on Albanian separatists.
Police, who claim that women and children among the victims were killed in the “cross-fire” between police and guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, wanted to quickly dispose of the bodies. The families initially had sought autopsies by international forensic experts to prove their belief that many of the dead were tortured and executed. People who had inspected the bodies say several bore signs of close-range attack.
The mass burial by police further angered the Albanians, who saw it as a cruel indignity heaped atop the violence. Under the watch of police who manned bunkers inside the village and periodically drove by in royal-blue armored personnel carriers, hundreds of Albanians arrived on foot Wednesday to give proper burials to their dead.
“We are today burying our martyrs,” Zekirja Cana, a white-haired teacher, said after calling for a minute of silence. The villagers bowed their heads, then shouted: “Honor!”
“We are today burying children. Babies. Old women. Old people,” Cana continued in the brief ceremony. “A terrible massacre as a civilized world watches.”
Most of the nearly 2 million Albanians who make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population have for years bitterly resented the Serbian police authority imposed on them and want an independent state. The crackdown by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has only deepened the rage and alienation, making a political solution more elusive.
Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the Albanians’ largest political party, expressed outrage. “We consider this a second violence against these innocents,” he said. “They were not allowed to have a decent funeral.”
Rugova refused to say whether he would enter into talks with Yugoslav authorities who had made a belated offer of dialogue the day before. But Rugova stuck by his demand for nothing short of full independence for the province. Most Western governments say that position is unrealistic and the best that Kosovo’s Albanians can hope for is broad autonomy, a status they held until 1989.
In Washington, D.C., the Clinton administration dismissed as “woefully inadequate” Milosevic’s offer of a dialogue and accused him of a coverup for what it labeled his “outrageous decision” to order the mass burial before forensic investigations could be completed.
Milosevic maintained that last week’s attacks were necessary to clamp down on Albanian separatists.
After Wednesday’s burials, villagers walked in a long procession to inspect the ruins where 21 people were killed. Sadik Shute, 62, inspected the ruins of his nephews’ homes. Uneaten meals were rotting on the dining table, near which a trembling dog cowered.
“I worked in the mines for 25 years to help build Yugoslavia,” Shute said, “and now Yugoslavia is killing my children.”