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The death of Ludovik Ukaj

A devastating blast makes the 12-year-old the first child in Kosovo killed by a mine.

Mane Ukaj, third from left, and other women from Djakovica touch the coffin of her son, Ludovik Ukaj, who was killed after stepping on a mine. [Times photo: Jamie Francis]

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 1999

DJAKOVICA, Kosovo -- What was 12-year-old Ludovik Ukaj thinking as he ran after the cow on a golden summer evening? What a fine day it had been? How proud he was to help on the farm? Certainly not that he was about to die.

The explosion was loud enough to be heard in town more than a mile and a half away. Ludovik's father rushed toward the meadow, but relatives held him back.

A parent should not see a child who has just been killed by a land mine.

The youngest member of an ethnic Albanian family, Ludovik had survived a brutal war against Serbia and the destruction of his house by NATO bombing. But on Monday, a week after the fighting ended, he became the first child in Kosovo to die from stepping on a land mine. The blast was so powerful it killed not just Ludovik but also the 700-pound milk cow he had chased into an unmarked Serbian minefield.

Authorities warn that mines and booby-traps set by the Serbs pose a huge danger to the thousands of ethnic Albanians who are either returning home or venturing freely outside for the first time since March. In the past nine days, at least six people have been killed by land mines and more than 15 others injured.

But who could have imagined that a child's life would come to such a horrific end on such an idyllic first day of summer?

As a golden light suffused the sky Monday evening, happy little reunions were taking place all over Djakovica. About half of the town's 100,000 residents had fled during the war, but now they were coming home and excited to run into friends and relatives they hadn't seen in months.

The evening was so clear and balmy that many were still outdoors when they heard the muffled boom from up in the hills. That was the high ground from which Serbian forces had terrorized the town, raining down mortar shells that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.

What was that noise? people wondered briefly, then turned back to their conversations.

But up in those hills, Ludovik Ukaj's father feared the worse.

For two years, the Ukajs and several dozen other families had been held virtual hostage by the Serbs, who refused to let them leave because they lived so close to a Serbian military base. The Serbs clearly hoped that if NATO ever attacked, it would not strike the area knowing civilians were there.

It was a false hope. On April 10, a NATO bomb destroyed the Ukajs' home and almost everything they owned except a milk cow. The family moved in with a relative nearby, and one of Ludovik's chores was to put the cow safely into the barn each night.

But on Monday the cow got away for the first time. Ludovik chased it through the woods and into a vast field that the Serbs had vacated only a week before.

Ludovik's foot landed squarely on a mine hidden by the tall grass. It was precisely 7:30 p.m., a half hour before sunset on the longest day of the year.

Three of the boy's grown cousins got there first. His father was not far behind, but the cousins would not let him look, so ghastly was the sight. Instead, they wrapped the remains in a sheet and took them to a relative's house nearby.

In a poor, war-torn place like Kosovo, there are many bodies but no fancy coffins, even if people have money to buy them. Ludovik's father helped with the measurements as the cousins quickly pounded together a coffin out of wood from an old pine desk.

Their first inclination was to bury the boy as quickly as possible, to get this horror behind them. But they felt they needed to show the body to someone in authority, so the world or at least NATO would know of the barbarous thing that had happened to a total innocent.

The cousins called the local headquarters of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the paramilitary force that has been helping Italian NATO troops patrol Djakovica. The KLA in turn said it would call the Italians and arrange for a military doctor to photograph and autopsy the body.

Then the cousins put the coffin in their little red Opel and drove to the only place they could think of, the town's sole hospital. At 9:15 p.m., a KLA officer burst into the tiny emergency room and said:

"A kid stepped on a land mine, they're bringing him in now"

The doctors looked startled, then began to gather their instruments and supplies.

"No, no," the KLA officer said. "He's dead. He's out there in the car."

Where were the Italians? Although the Italian NATO base is only a three-minute drive from the hospital, 10 minutes stretched into 30 minutes and then an hour. Only their translator, another KLA member, arrived. He was clearly angry.

"They're not interested -- he's just a kid.

"The first priority of NATO, as I understood it, is to clear mines so refugees can come home," he continued. "The Italians have been here five days and they haven't cleared a single mine, even though we've given them a list of 300, 400 places where people have reported mines. Maybe by tomorrow they'll begin clearing this minefield which they knew was there but they were just waiting for the first victim."

Then the translator looked at the Opel.

"He shouldn't be left like a dog in the back seat of a car. We should show him to the Italian soldiers so an incident of this kind will not happen again. The military doctors should know what kind of mine we're dealing with, not just say, "Okay, he's dead.' We're soldiers and we knew the risk when we fought but a child is never guilty."

At 10:30 p.m., a senior KLA commander stormed up the hospital steps. He too was angry -- not just at the Italians but also at the doctors for allowing Ludovik's body to remain in the parking lot.

"The boy deserves his own room," he said. At his command, the cousins carried the coffin inside and set it on a table behind a white curtained screen.

It was shortly before 11 p.m. -- more than two hours after they were called -- that the Italians finally arrived. They lifted the coffin lid, pulled back the sheet and took a few photographs. The KLA took its own photographs. Then they put the lid back on, and everyone left. No autopsy, no attempt to determine what kind of mine had caused the wounds. The whole thing took less than five minutes.

Ludovik's cousins drove his body home, three miles up a dark, narrow, winding country road. They took the coffin inside the house, then one of the cousins drove three miles back down to the hospital, this time with Ludovik's mother. She was so distraught the doctors had to give her a shot to relax her. The funeral would be at noon, just 12 hours away.

Wednesday dawned cool and stormy. Dozens of neighbors and relatives began arriving at 7 a.m. The women took their shoes off at the back door, entered a homey, wood-paneled room and arranged themselves around Ludovik's mother. She kept her hands on his little pine coffin, now covered by a white linen cloth edged in lace and embroidered with flowers.

The men took their shoes off at the front door and, depending on their age and status in the village, made their way to either a big room or a slightly smaller one. Ludovik's cousins served Turkish coffee and tiny glasses of homemade wine, while a director of his school passed around the few photos the family had managed to save from their bombed house.

The pictures showed a sandy-haired, brown-eyed boy, looking perhaps older than his years.

He was going into fifth grade, loved soccer, did his chores well, had a good heart, the director said. He was the baby of the family and the only child still at home -- two adult brothers and a sister moved to Croatia six months ago because they feared the Serbs would kill them if they stayed in Kosovo.

They didn't know Ludovik was dead. The phones haven't worked in Djakovica since the NATO bombing began March 24.

At precisely noon, the priest arrived. Although most ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are Muslim, a sizable minority like the Ukajs are Roman Catholic. The priest said a few prayers around the coffin. Then the cousins removed the white cloth, gently lifted the plain pine box and carried it to the waiting red Opel.

Most of the mourners followed on foot, a boy about Ludovik's age leading the way with a wooden cross. It was slow going in the rain, down the rocky, muddy road from the house and up a narrow path lined with wildflowers. But at last they reached the little graveyard, where Ludovik's grandparents lie under a large stone monument.

The service was short. The priest said a few more prayers, thanked everyone for coming and sprinkled holy water on the coffin and in the muddy hole next to the monument. As one of the cousins began to hammer the lid into place, Ludovik's father leaned forward and made a gesture as though he wanted to open the casket.

The cousins gently restrained him. It was better he remember his youngest child some other way.

As the rain stopped, the coffin was lowered into the hole. The cousins quickly shoveled in the muddy clots of dirt, and then it was time to go. Most people headed back the way they had come, but this time they looked at the ground a little more carefully.

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