Life Behind Bars

IWPR journalist Miroslav Filipovic, released from prison after an appeal against his conviction for espionage, recalls his first few days of prison life.

Life Behind Bars

IWPR journalist Miroslav Filipovic, released from prison after an appeal against his conviction for espionage, recalls his first few days of prison life.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

I still had no idea what was happening to me. They took me out of the court and handcuffed me. I looked like a real criminal. As I was walking to the police van, I saw my wife Slavica and the kids. My brother and his wife were there too. Ivana my daughter was crying and my son Sasa was holding his chin up bravely. I felt dreadful for them, seeing me in handcuffs.

We exchanged a few brief words. I got into the waiting van and we drove off. We stopped outside the prison. The streets were crowded with people coming back from work. It felt as if all of them were looking at me. I was ashamed. I was admitted to the prison, searched, and put in an empty cell.

My prison life was about to begin. Although I had been awake for twenty-four hours, I couldn't sleep. My mind was a mess. I felt as if I was going mad. I recognised one of the guards. He opened the door of my cell. He passed on a message from Slavica and told me the whole world had been informed of my fate.

It was from him that I found out about the international reaction. My colleagues and organizations for the defence of journalists and citizens' rights were protesting, as well as the United Nations, the European Union, and the British Foreign Office. I was trying to take it all in. "Don't worry about anything," he said. "You must hang in there. Your wife and children need you to be strong."

I thanked him, racked by worry for my family. I didn't know what they would live off, whether my employers would help them financially. I tried to believe that everything would be all right, but was torn by overwhelming uncertainty.

Suddenly, I was summoned. Apparently, the doctor had arrived for a routine check-up. Each new inmate had to be seen by the doctor. To my surprise, he turned out to be Dr Velja, an old friend of mine. He looked at me quizzically. "What are you doing here?" he asked. I shrugged my shoulders, "I wrote some stories."

Back in my cell, the little window on the heavy metal door opened and an inmate working in the corridor stuck a paper bag through it. It was full of fruit: fresh strawberries and cherries - a present from the adjoining cell.

I asked one of my Albanian cellmates Nedzmedin how they knew I was there and he said, "Ha, my dear Filipovic, here everyone knows everything." He and some others were reading newspapers my wife had sent me. Nedzmedin had a Danas story in front of him. It was a piece about a Serb village in Kosovo that had been burnt to the ground. Even the dogs were shot dead. He asked me whether I wrote it.

"Yes, why do you ask?" I said. "Oh, no reason," he said. "It's true, our lot did burn the village, but your lot burnt all of our villages."

"Nedjo, it was neither our lot nor your lot that did it, they were nobody's lot." I said.

"You're right," he said, "those were the devil's lot."

It was time for supper. We each got a piece of pork, a quarter of a slice of bread and something they described as tea. The Albanians dipped the bread into the tea. 'Bon appetite!' said Semsudin.

Nedzmedin was listening to a Radio Free Europe broadcast in Albanian. He said that they were talking about me and about the international protests over my arrest. I was still unable to take it all in. I just knew that I felt awful and didn't know how I was going to make it out of here.

Just as I was getting to sleep, I heard a noise. A cellmate was banging on the door, wanting to go to the toilet. No one was replying. The guards couldn't hear - or ignored- the banging.

Nedzmedin and Semsudin got up too. They'd all eaten some mutton and it had upset their stomachs. As no one responded, they noisily relieved themselves on the cell floor. All three of them. The cell stank like a cesspit the whole night. In the morning, the boys washed the floor, tears streaming down their face.

After breakfast, we sat and talked. I asked them what prison life was like, how the days went by, what one did. Nedzmedin said, "You get up at half past five, you have a few minutes to wash, then you have breakfast.

After that, you sit down on your wooden chair. You sit like that until one. That's when you have lunch. After lunch, you sit on your chair again until six, when you have supper. After supper, you go back to your chair. You do the same the next day, and the next. That's what life is like here."

Miroslav Filipovic was convicted of espionage and spreading false information after exposing human rights abuses in Kosovo and Serbia. He was released last month by a military court pending a new trial.

Serbia, Kosovo
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