Prisoners of war

A Kosovar town waits for news as thousands of young men are still missing, and believed to be in Serbian custody.


Laura Rozen
June 25, 1999 5:00PM (UTC)

Emond Shtaloja, 21, is most likely dead or in a Serbian jail.

For his friend, Fisnik Risvanolli, the war will not be over until Shtaloja is found. "When I see my friend, then I will be OK, then the war is really over," he said Wednesday. "Then I will taste freedom."

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Risvanolli does have some reason to believe that his friend is still alive. As many as 3,000 Kosovo Albanian men, arrested as political prisoners by the Serbs, are believed to have been transferred from Kosovo to Serbian jails in the past few weeks as Serb forces were withdrawing. On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross asked Yugoslav authorities for access to some 2,000 to 3,000 Kosovo Albanian political prisoners taken out of Kosovo by Serbian forces, but have so far been turned away.

Shtaloja is just one of the young men of fighting age who remain unaccounted for as Albanians return to their homes in Kosovo. International human rights monitors are particularly concerned about the fate of Albin Kurti, a 24-year-old student activist from the Kosovo capital, Pristina. Kurti was arrested by Serbian forces earlier in the conflict, along with his brother and father. They were imprisoned in Lipjan, Kosovo, and then believed transferred to Serbia earlier this month. His father and brother have been released.

Alice Mead, a human rights activist involved in Kosovo, says Kurti could face trial in Serbia and could be put to death if convicted for being part of the KLA, which he was not. "The other possibility is that the Serbian officials might be willing to arrange a trade for his release. In either case, it seems that access to Albin is highly restricted and it appears that he has not seen a lawyer or medical worker."

Human rights activists say the international community still has the leverage over Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to gain the release of Albin, Shtaloja and the thousands of other men for whom the war is not over.

"We should insist not only that they be accounted for, we should insist on their release," Kurt Bassuener of the Washington advocacy group, Balkan Action Council, said Thursday by telephone. The international community "should condition humanitarian aid to Serbia on their release. No rebuilding generators, no blankets, no nothing until these people are released."

Bassuener added, "Their lives are in the balance. And if people forget about them they are as good as dead."

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Risvanolli is determined to keep up the search for his friend. The 22-year-old, clean-cut electrical engineering student is dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, sitting in a cafi with his two friends, all of them still slightly stunned after three months spent hiding from the Serbian forces who terrorized this city. He describes how on May 10, Serbian forces took their friend Shtaloja from his house on a street in the Cabrod neighborhood of Gjakova along with 100 other fighting-age males. The men were taken away from their families in the days following heavy fighting between forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army, based in the hills west of here. Though the three friends insist Shtaloja had nothing to do with the KLA, Serbian troops apparently suspected otherwise.

"The Serbs came here with tanks, then the paramilitaries separated the men from the women, and they took Emond and the other men away," one of the friends, Florent Bakija, 20, a medical student, explained. "The men got moved to the prison in Istok, Dubrava. The Serbs released some of the men after a week, mostly old men. But every man from here is not back," he says pointing from the destroyed mosque to the hills where the KLA and Serbian forces clashed.

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"I hope they are alive," Florent adds. "People get killed in a war. We can accept that. But these missing people, we don't know if they are alive. It's just a void," he says, shaking his head.

A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed two men who had been among 13 Kosovo Albanians in a truck being transported to Serbia from Prizren June 13. They were freed when a German NATO officer, Major Volker Shafer, stopped the truck and demanded the Serbs release them.

"[The Serbian guards] tortured me for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Abdyram Spahiu, 43, one of the rescued men, told Human Rights Watch. "The first thing they did to me when I arrived was beat me using rubber police batons. They hit me on the palms of my hands and in my groin," and made the Kosovo Albanian prisoners sing Serbian songs.

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"The possibility that Kosovar Albanian detainees have been shipped out of Kosovo to Serbia, as these former detainees suggest, is an alarming one," Human Rights Watch wrote this week. "While the precise number of missing Albanian men from Djakovica has yet to be determined, it appears to be sizeable ... ranging from hundreds to well over 1,000 missing men who they fear may be detained in Serbia. [We] are deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of these detainees."

Before the war, this was a town known for its beautiful gardens and houses mysteriously hidden behind fantastic wooden doors and white mud walls. Now it will be known as the site of some of the most intense killing by Serbian forces in all of Kosovo. The town sits at the crossroads of a corridor on Kosovo's western border with Albania and southern border with Macedonia. The corridor stretches north from Gjakova to the towns of Decan and Pec, and east to the medieval Ottoman city of Prizren, a corridor dotted with villages whose names are becoming known as sites of massacres and mass graves.

Florent points up the street to a house where the raped and murdered body of an 18-year-old girl named Julka was found by her family on Tuesday. He points to a wooden door where they say people built a tunnel going house to house so they could escape Serb forces if they knocked on the door, coming for them. There are still only a few people on the streets of Djakovica. Though the Serbian troops are gone, it is still a town haunted by horrible memories and racked with uncertainty.

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Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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