Serbs Free Some Ethnic Albanian Men
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 24, 1999; Page A1
KUKES, Albania, May 23 – When Serbian prison guards came to Gazmend Az emi's cell Saturday morning, he thought it was his turn to die.
"They said they were taking us to Albania," Azemi recalled. "I said: They're taking us to the border, and they're going to shoot us. We're going to be massacred."
But that afternoon and in a second wave today, Azemi and more than 1,000 other Kosovo Albanian men walked across the border – an unprecedented release of military-age men rounded up by Serb-led Yugoslav forces several weeks ago. Many had been feared dead or locked away in camps or held by government security forces for use as "human shields" against NATO airstrikes.
The men, some so weak and emaciated they had to be carried by their comrades, wept in each other's arms after walking the last four miles to the Albanian border. A few smiled, cheered and waved from open trucks and buses as they were driven through this frontier town to a temporary refugee shelter.
All of the men had been held at a prison in the Kosovo town of Smrekovnica, about 20 miles northwest of Pristina, the provincial capital. Many said they had gone days without food and told of beatings by Serbian prison guards during their weeks-long imprisonment in crowded and sweltering cells.
"They were in pretty pitiful condition," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U. N. refugee agency here in Kukes, where most Kosovo refugees spend their first night in Albania. "It was the worst group we've seen here by quite a long way."
Most of the freed men – 583 crossed the border Saturday, 419 more by late today, according to U.N. figures – are in their late teens or early twenties. They said about 2,000 more men were still being held at the Smrekovnica prison.
Since Yugoslav troops and Serbian police began driving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in late March, the whereabouts of great numbers of young Kosovo Albanian men has been a mystery. Thousands of women, children and old men who fled Kosovo for neighboring Albania or Macedonia brought stories of how their husbands, sons and brothers were ordered from their homes or from refugee convoys and forced at gunpoint to stay behind.
Human rights workers here knew little of their fate, but they feared the worst. "We have been extremely concerned about reports of people being removed from convoys, particularly youngish men detained at Smrekovnica," said Brendan Paddy, an official with the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. "We were very relieved to see a significant number of them cross the border. . . . Sometimes it's nice to be wrong."
They had good cause for concern. Many human rights officials point to an April 27 incident near the southern Kosovo town of Djakovica, in which Serbian militiamen pulled more than 100 men from a convoy of fleeing ethnic Albanians and made them kneel in a nearby field. Their families were ordered to move on but reported hearing gunshots about a half-hour later. That same afternoon, people in another refugee convoy reported passing the field and seeing numerous bodies lying there.
International aid officials here say they are baffled by the release of the men. "One possible explanation" said one, "is that the Serbs want to undermine NATO propaganda that they are taking men off of convoys and just killing them.
"Some of the [freed men] said they had been given a haircut and a shave, which seems to support the idea that this was a gesture of goodwill. Even though they had been starved, they looked presentable."
Belgrade officials also have apparently changed their minds again on Kosovo refugees in general, as up to 14,000 thousand flowed into Macedonia Saturday and today after week in which Yugoslav authorities were said to be preventing them from leaving. "Obviously, with this number of people coming out, conditions inside Kosovo can't be very good," said U.N. spokesman Ron Redmond.
Macedonian border police kept reporters away from the new arrivals, but Redmond and other relief workers said they spoke of food shortages, of being forced from their homes several weeks before, of surviving by moving between mountain shelters and abandoned villages and of trying several times to leave Kosovo before being allowed out.
Here in Kukes, U.N. refugee officials said they were particularly concerned that the newly freed men would be targeted for recruitment by the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting for independence for Kosovo – a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
As the men stood outside their tents Saturday night, many asked for the location of the local KLA headquarters. This morning, KLA officials exchanged sharp words with U.N. workers trying to register the new arrivals; at one point, KLA recruiters tried to sign up a busload of men for the guerrilla force, but Albanian police stepped in and persuaded the rebels to leave.
All of the released men had similar stories to tell in interviews with reporters and aid workers. Many had been taken from their homes during raids on villages around the city of Kosovska-Mitrovica by Serbian security forces about three weeks ago. Most of the rest said they had been in custody for about a month after being pulled by police from a large refugee road convoy.
According to Azemi – who said he had studied computer systems in London, owned a clothing boutique and worked as an English translator before the war – the convoy stretched about 2½ miles and was made up of thousands of people lugging their belongings toward Albania. He said Serbian police followed the convoy and looted it and that seven older refugees who could not keep up died on the trek.
Azemi, 23, said he, his father and three sisters had shuffled along with the convoy for nearly a week when, on April 25, just outside Djakovica, Serbian police pulled him aside. "I was scared," he said. "I thought they were going to shoot me."
His father knew one of the policemen, and, crying, he begged the officer not to take his son, Azemi said. The policeman replied that he should not worry, the young man would only be questioned for a few hours and released. "They finally told my father to just keep walking or they would shoot me in front of him," Azemi said.
Initially, Azemi said, he and 53 other men were held for four days at the town jail in Kosovska-Mitrovica. "It was very, very bad," he said. "There was no air to breathe. They did not feed us the first two days. We had to go to the toilet outside, but you got beaten if you asked to go there. For three days we did not sleep because it was too hot, but you got beaten if you asked to open the window. You got beaten just because you were Albanian."
During interrogations, he said, police beat his legs with a plastic stick and slapped him in the face. "They asked everybody the same thing: 'Do you know anyone in the KLA? Are you in the KLA? Do you support them? Have you given them money?'‚"
On April 29, the group was moved to a school in the town of Serbitza, where they were held for about 10 days with about 180 other men, Azemi said. It was a fortunate move, he said, because the day after they left the Kosovska-Mitrovica jail it was bombed by NATO planes. On May 9, he said, the men from the school were moved to the prison at Smrekovnica, where dozens were crammed into tiny cells and given little food.
Now that he is free, Azemi, said: "I'm going to sleep for three days, then figure out what to do. I want freedom in my country. I don't want freedom in Albania."
Staff writer David Finkel in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company