Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

For Kosovo's Political Prisoners, The War Continues

While most Kosovo Albanians celebrate an end to the war, the agony goes on for more than 2,000 Kosovo Albanians held in Serbian jails.
By Laura Rozen
Albin Kurti knew he was in danger. The 24-year-old student activist took precautions, varying his route to the unheated brick offices of the independent student union of Pristina's underground university where he was co-president, speaking in code on his mobile phone, and frequently sleeping away from home. But he always suspected that if the Serbian security service wanted to get him, it would.

He was right. Kurti, his father, Zaim, and brothers, Arianit and Taulant, were arrested by Serbian special police in the Pristina home where they were hiding on April 21. His father and brothers were eventually released after being beaten. But Albin, after serving time in the Lipjan prison, was moved to a prison in the Serbian city of Krusevac, where it is reported he is currently being held.

Albin Kurti made a powerful impression on the dozens of human rights' activists, diplomats, students and journalists he met. His long dark dreadlocks, gentle smile, and treasured library of books by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Carnegie Commission on International Peace reflected his passionate and articulate commitment to pacifism and social justice. But his pacifism and personal gentleness were challenged by the conflict overtaking Kosovo.

In the summer of 1998, the war raging in Kosovo's rural Drenica and western regions was drawing Kurti closer - not without some reservations - to the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), then led by the long-time dissident politician Adem Demaci. Fluent in English, Kurti served as Demaci's spokesman, and by extension, as spokesman for the KLA's political wing.

By the end of the failed Rambouillet peace talks, Demaci was replaced as KLA political leader by 30-year-old Hashim Thaci, who in his student days in the early 1990s had also led Pristina University's anti-Milosevic protests. But by the end of Rambouillet, Serbian forces were already moving reinforcements into place in Kosovo, and subtleties and job titles no longer mattered. Kurti's name was on a list of key Albanians to be detained.

Another name on the Serbs' list was that of pediatrician and human rights' activist Flora Brovina. Like Kurti, Brovina was arrested on April 21, by Serbian special police who, her neighbours say, were waiting outside Brovina's Pristina home when she came back from her parents' house. A friend says that Brovina spent the war running an emergency medical centre for displaced people and women in labour. Brovina is now believed to be held in a prison in Pozarevac, Serbia. Her son Nick Brovina says she has become partially paralysed as a result of her treatment.

Brovina and Kurti are two of more than 2,270 Kosovo Albanians held as political prisoners in Serbia, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Another 1,500 Kosovo Albanians are still missing after the conflict, including 800 from the south-western Kosovo town of Djakovica (Gjakova) alone. Many of their families suspect they are being held in Serbian jails.

For the families of Kosovo's imprisoned and missing, the agony of the Kosovo war goes on. Crowds of relatives gather outside the UN headquarters in Pristina almost daily, to appeal for help in freeing their loved ones. But watching their lonely vigil outside the UN offices, it often seems that no one is listening to their pleas.

Officials in international agencies say that they are aware of the problem and are working on it. But to date they have failed to explain to the relatives what exactly they are doing or how long they will have to wait.

Brovina's friend, fellow doctor and human rights activist, Vjosa Dobruna, head of Kosovo's Centre for Protection of Women and Children, has been working to get international officials to take up the case of Brovina and the thousands of other Kosovo Albanians transported out of Kosovo as Serbian forces were withdrawing and taken to Serbian prisons.

"I dont think there are any avenues I haven't pursued," Dobruna said in a telephone interview, en route from Washington to Pristina. "I have talked to US Under-Secretary for Human Rights Harold Koh and NATO secretary general Javier Solana. I have contacted all the agencies, the ICRC, Human Rights Watch, for months since the beginning."

Dobruna and other human rights' activists are angry that international officials signed a peace agreement with Belgrade that failed to grant amnesty to the thousands of Kosovo Albanians imprisoned by the Serbs for political reasons - a clause included (but not honoured) in last October's Holbrooke-Milosevic cease-fire agreement.

But in the past week there has been some progress. Three Kosovo Albanian lawyers were able to meet with several of the political prisoners in Serbian jails. The lawyers report that conditions for the prisoners, who have been denied contact with their families, are "bad", but not as brutally terrible as those under which Serbian forces held Kosovo Albanian prisoners during the conflict.

Natasa Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, organised the lawyers' visits.

"My lawyers from Kosovo have succeeded in tracking and finding some 30 to 35 Kosovo Albanians from the missing list in the prisons. All of them are from Djakovica and were arrested in April and May," Kandic said by telephone from Belgrade. "It is good news. But the list of the missing is long. From Djakovica alone, some 800 are missing. And I believe that maybe we shall find more people from the missing list in the prisons."

In addition to the 1,500 missing Kosovo Albanians, and 2,270 in Serbian jails, the Humanitarian Law Centre has complied a list of more than 250 missing Kosovo Serbs. Despite the fact that no provisions were made for the missing and imprisoned in the Military Technical Agreement signed between NATO and the Yugoslav Army at Kumanova, Macedonia, Kandic believes the Serbian authorities may be willing to negotiate a post-war deal.

"Based on some rumours here, I believe that the Serbian authorities will say, the people arrested during the NATO bombing, should have the status of prisoners of war. But after the arrival of KFOR, the missing Serbs and Romas and Albanians should have the status of disappeared. I think the Serbian authorities and the UN civil administration should begin to clarify now the issue of prisoners and missing persons."

What leverage the international authorities have over the Belgrade government to negotiate the release of the imprisoned Kosovo Albanians is unclear. But Kandic said the fate of those missing and not in Serbian prison is worse.

"You know, everybody in Serbian prisons is good news for their relatives," Kandic said. "Because, unfortunately, those on the missing lists who are not in Serbian prisons, are probably dead."

Laura Rozen has been covering the Balkans for English-language media since 1996.

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