One Town's Women Ask: 'Where Are Our Men?' |
By Peter Finn
DJAKOVICA, Yugoslavia, June 16 Rukije Bytyci carried a suitcase as she struggled through this ruined Kosovo city in the house dress she has worn for a month. She stopped and rested her hand against a standing wall and broke down again in heaving sobs.
"We just want the boys to come back," she said. "I just want my boy to come back."
Bytyci's 21-year-old son, Avni, was arrested on May 12 during a four-day sweep through Djakovica by Serbian police. He was one of hundreds of men who had stayed here through a Belgrade government campaign to purge Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority and who are now missing after being rounded up in the sweep.
As their relatives scoured the city today seeking news of their whereabouts, a recently freed prison inmate said that some of the men were taken out of Kosovo Saturday the day NATO troops began arriving in the Serbian province and are now being held in Serbia proper. The account by Zef Rrosi, 60, who was imprisoned in the Kosovo city of Pec, adds to mounting evidence that mistreatment of ethnic Albanians including killings, expulsions and detention by Yugoslav and Serbian authorities continued after the end of NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia on June 9 and the arrival of foreign peacekeepers in Kosovo.
According to Rrosi, Serbian authorities used buses to transport 436 ethnic Albanian men including many from Djakovica from the Pec prison prior to the withdrawal from the city of Yugoslav Serbian forces. Rrosi, who was freed Sunday with five other men, said three more buses carrying 160 men from a separate prison joined the convoy in Pec and that prison guards told him that all were being taken to Serbia proper.
Few if any of the men missing from Djakovica were members of the separatist ethnic Albanian rebel force that has been fighting Serb-led Yugoslav forces, according to relatives. They said the men were simply hiding in their homes and were all known to Serbian authorities, who had forced town residents to register with the police.
Why the men were targeted for the police sweep was never explained to their relatives, although some live near areas on the edge of the city, where the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army was strong and which Serbian authorities may have wanted to clear of military-age men.
Rrosi said the men may have been taken out of Kosovo because they had been used as work crews to bury bodies of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian police or paramilitary units. Rrosi, who said he spoke to the men when they returned to the Pec prison from work details, added that many of the prisoners were beaten until they fainted and that they were fed only every other day during their last week in Pec.
The absence of the men touches almost every family that remained in this city, which was largely emptied and burned by Serb-led forces as their terror campaign began in late March. Person after person on the streets today talked of a missing husband, father or brother. Many had hoped that with NATO forces in Kosovo the men would already be home.
Instead, after living in the basement of her sister's house for a month, Bytyci said that liberation brought her only more anguish as she trekked across the city to pick through the rubble of her destroyed home to salvage a few belongings and put them in her suitcase. But the dream she turned over and over in her head during the last month of darkness that Avni would somehow be there, waiting for her, smiling, holding her did not come true.
"Where are our men? Where is Avni?" she cried. "Please ask NATO to tell me where they are."
The police sweep here began on the morning of May 10. They came into Haki Sahatcia's home at 8 o'clock and ordered him, his wife, three daughters and son onto the street. The street became full of people as the policemen moved from house to house; the crowd was then marched to the center of the city, where younger men were separated from women, children and the elderly.
"We thought they were going to kill the men," said Aferdita Pruth, 41, whose husband, Fatmir, was also arrested on May 10. "Our children ask every day when is he coming, and I say, 'Tomorrow or next week.' " As she spoke, her mother-in-law, Kbale Pruth, 69, rushed from the room crying; Fatmir is her only child.
The women, children and old men who had been forced into the street were taken to a factory on the edge of town where they were held for 30 hours before being sent home. Many went to local Serbian authorities to ask about their men, but their inquiries were dismissed.
"One policeman said to me, 'They are gone to be judged,' " said Aziz Brovina, 72, whose 44-year-old son, Sulejman, and 41-year-old son-in-law, Falmur, are missing. "When I last saw them I said, 'May you have a long life.' That is an Albanian wish."
Haki Sahatcia, 58, said he was ordered to go with the women and children, but he stayed with his son, Petrit, 25. They were taken to a police station for a few minutes before being marched to an abandoned woodworking shop. There, 240 men were crowded into a large storage area, while 70 more were packed into two 9-by-9-foot rooms. They sat hunched together for five days, taking toilet breaks at gunpoint and being fed every 48 hours. Some of the men were beaten with rifle butts and kicked, Sahatcia said.
After five days, about 140 men were released. Two days later, Sahatcia and one other man were released. And he hasn't seen his son since. "I asked them to let me stay with my son," he said, breaking into tears that his wife wiped away. "They just said, 'Get out of here.' "
Qemal Guta and his six sons also were seized. Guta, however, was released after four days' detention. As he was hustled out, one of his sons said to him, "The bastards are going to kill us." Guta said he did not believe that and was certain they would return when NATO troops arrived.
"I ask Bill Clinton to make a speech that they must be released, and then they will be back in two days," he said today, standing suddenly to make his point. "America promised that the second thing they would do is release the prisoners."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company