One of Kurt's Last Stories from the Balkans

23Mar2000 YUGOSLAVIA: FEATURE-Kosovo family remembers death of father.
By Kurt Schork

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, March 23 (Reuters) - Pools of congealed blood were hardening on the garden soil on that May morning and a lone brass shell casing lay nearby.

There was no mystery about how Isuf Hajdari, a member of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, had died. The question was why.

"My father was an ordinary man, a man of ordinary virtues. He had a family, a house and a job as a transport worker. And then the Serbs murdered him for no reason," 29-year-old Besmik Hajdari, the dead man's son, recalled this week.

"It was May 12, 1998 and just getting light. He heard gunfire in the street and stepped outside (into a walled yard) to see what was happening."

"A Serbian policeman shot him dead in the garden. There was never an explanation, never any apology. It was two weeks before they gave back the clothes my father was wearing that morning.'

The war in Kosovo began a year ago when NATO commenced air strikes against the Serbian security forces who controlled the province.

Isuf Hajdari's death was just one incident in a decade of ethnic conflict in the Balkans that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands. Most victims were civilians, not soldiers.

Next door to Hajdari's house in Pristina was a small residence that had been used by groups of students for years.

Turnover was high, so the Hajdari family never paid much attention to who was there at any given time.

But on that morning the police had word that Agron Rrahmani, a ranking member of the then shadowy Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was holed up in the student's house. They surrounded the area and attacked in a blaze of gunfire.

Rrahmani, badly wounded, managed to escape through a maze of steep, narrow streets but died of his injuries later that day.

The police, enraged that the KLA commander had slipped through their cordon, shot Isuf Hajdari without provocation.

The dead man's body was washed on a makeshift wooden table in the garden that afternoon and wrapped in a white shroud, in keeping with Moslem tradition.

Carried through the streets of Pristina to the main cemetery on the hills north of the city, he was trailed by a growing entourage of mourners.

There, this father of five was buried before sundown.

The battle between KLA guerrillas and Serbian security forces that was rattling through rural Kosovo with increasing intensity suddenly had surfaced in Pristina.

Ethnic Albanians in the provincial capital began to speak openly of the war that quickly engulfed them all.

When NATO air strikes began last March all the members of Hajdari's family fled to Macedonia.

"Our experience was the experience of every (ethnic Albanian) family," said Nurie Hajdari, Isuf's 83-year old mother.

"We stayed in our house until the pressure from (Serb) paramilitaries became so great we had to leave. I drove out of town with my granddaughter and a friend and the Serbs stopped us, robbed us and shattered our car windows."

When the family returned to Pristina after the air war was over and NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping troops had entered Kosovo they found their house ransacked, but still standing.

"Our fate in Kosovo has always been linked to some foreign power, first the Ottomans and then, since 1912, the Slavs. Now Kosovo is ours. Now we have a chance to control our own fate," said 46-year old Hasan Bunjaku, the dead man's brother in-law.

Many non-combatant Serbs died at the hands of the KLA in 1998 and 1999, their deaths as violent, ignominious and unjust as Hajdari's: postmen kidnapped on their rounds, their eyes gouged out; farmers shot in their fields; watchmen disappeared.

Politicians, statesmen and soldiers of various stripes waged the war here. They get the credit and the blame. Ordinary people, remembered only by their families, did most of the dying.

There is a street plaque commemorating the death of the KLA commander, Agron Rrahmani on that May morning. Isuf Hajdari's name is nowhere to be found.