On a trail of rain-soaked misery, 200 residents of the southern Kosovo city of Djakovica wandered through Pristina today seeking someone from any organization -- the United Nations, NATO, the Red Cross -- who could help free male relatives seized by Serbian police more than six weeks ago.
"Help me get back my son please," read the sign carried by Sabrije Bytyqi, 52, an ethnic Albanian whose 31-year-old son, Jeton, was arrested in Djakovica May 11 and is believed to be in a Serbian prison somewhere across the Kosovo border. Bytyqi and the others, who walked forlorn and wet from the office of one international group to another here in the Kosovo capital, departed for home this evening on three buses knowing no more than they did when they left Djakovica this morning.
"We've been protesting for two weeks" in Djakovica, said Visar Dobruna, 29, whose younger brother, Burim, was arrested on a city street May 9. "We came here to get some international help, but no one seems to know what can be done."
Thousands of ethnic Albanian men were imprisoned before and during the Serb-led Yugoslav government's all-out military campaign against separatist guerrillas in Kosovo and the ethnic Albanian population from which they drew their support. Most were bused out of the province in the days immediately before NATO peacekeeping troops arrived on June 12 and are believed to be held in prisons across Serbia -- in the cities of Leskovac, Nis, Pozarevac, Valjevo and Kraljevo, among others.
Belgrade has "said nothing" about the prisoners, said Francois Zen Ruffinen, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross. "It is silent. As soon as we ask indiscreet questions they say, `Mind your own business.' "
The prison population in Kosovo was known to be about 3,000 in late March, just before the government offensive began. Hundreds -- possibly thousands -- more were arrested in succeeding weeks. The Djakovica residents, for instance, presented the Red Cross with a list naming 706 people, most of whom were seized between May 7 and 13, when Serbian police and paramilitary units raided a city neighborhood. Another 800 people are missing from surrounding villages, and in numerous other communities across Kosovo, families are reporting missing men daily.
"We receive [families] one by one," Ruffinen said, "and all the requests are connected to this situation: `I want my husband,' `I want my son,' `I want my father.' So we open files."
On the night the peacekeeping force entered Kosovo, NATO troops entered the province's principal prisons and found them empty, Ruffinen said. In some, the soldiers found blood-stained walls and other evidence of brutality.
Ruffinen said the Red Cross has been in touch with the Yugoslav Ministries of the Interior and Justice but that a promised list of ethnic Albanian prisoners has not materialized. He said the ministries acknowledged that they had at least 2,000 prisoners 10 days ago but said they need time to produce a complete list before giving it to international organizations or inmates' families.
Once the list is received, Ruffinen said, the Red Cross will contact prisoners' families. In an agreement with the Belgrade government, the Red Cross was to have been permitted to visit prisons and relay messages between inmates and their relatives, but the agreement has not been honored since the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia began on March 24. Ruffinen said former senator Bob Dole will take part in a meeting in Vienna Friday to discuss the prisoners but that so far very little diplomatic pressure has been brought to bear on Belgrade over the issue.
Last Friday, Belgrade authorities released 166 prisoners, who were transported back to Kosovo by the Red Cross. Among them was Ilir Bajraktari, 17, a high school student who was arrested in a village outside the western Kosovo city of Pec on May 13.
Bajraktari said he and other prisoners were routinely beaten until they lost consciousness while they were held in a Pec jail. He said men who appeared to be doctors examined them during beatings, sometimes stopping the assault and sometimes telling prison guards they could continue a little longer.
Some of those released have reported that a number of prominent political prisoners, including physician and human rights activist Flora Brovina, have been subjected to torture. "We hear she is in very bad condition and paralyzed," said Ruffinen, adding that the reports are unconfirmed. Brovina -- a beloved figure in Kosovo who organized political rallies here -- was arrested during the government offensive and is believed to be imprisoned in the town of Pozarevac.
On June 12, as NATO troops began pouring across the Kosovo border, Bajraktari said the entire population of the Pec jail, about 450 men, was transferred by bus convoy to a prison in the Serbian town of Zajecar. Along the way, he said, police continued to assault prisoners, and, in the city of Vranje, Serbian civilians were allowed to board the buses and attack the prisoners. But when they arrived in Zajecar, Bajraktari said, all the prisoners were examined by physicians, and the beatings stopped.
Many released prisoners said that the police had demanded to know if they were members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian rebel force in the province. Bajraktari said he was never a member of the group and does not know why he was arrested.
CAPTION: Ethnic Albanians are mourning their dead across Kosovo, as in the village of Djakovo, where a young girl weeps for children said to have been slain by Serbs.