Viewing Abuse of Albanians From a Kosovo Jail Cell

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I spent four days in a Kosovo jail last month, a prisoner of the Serbian government. It was a prime opportunity to learn about human rights abuses against Albanians - exactly what the Serbian regime was trying to discourage by jailing me and five of my colleagues from Peaceworkers, a California volunteer organization.

We were in Pristina, Kosovo to monitor human rights and advocate non-violent conflict resolution, but we were abruptly jailed after a week, on the pretext of not having registered with local police.

Kosovo is a southern province of Serbia with a population of 2 million people - 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and 10 percent Serbian. Since President Slobodan Milosevic took power in Serbia in the late 1980s, the rights of Albanians have been drastically curtailed.

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During my stay in the Pristina jail - a somber pile of one-foot-thick concrete walls within which all is silent save the occasional shout of a guard - I saw a distilled version of the repression that prevails on the outside. The image of my seven brutalized Albanian cellmates was vivid. Their heads were shaved, and I soon learned that the police had used nightsticks to beat two of them below the belt, where a doctor wouldn't see if he even bothered to make an examination.

One man, a miner from a nearby village, was beaten for not making his bed in the required military style. A high-school student was beaten for not knowing the Serbian language. All had been arrested for minor infractions such as having a lapsed driver's license, and cutting wood in a forest without a permit.

My jail time filled out the picture I'd begun to put together in our meetings with Albanians. We learned how teachers had been locked out of their classrooms, doctors and nurses removed from hospitals on threat of beating, and that most Albanian workers were fired from their jobs in the early part of the 1990s.

I visited the only women's charity clinic in Kosovo, located in a small house in the poor section of Pristina. There, women who have given birth must leave after two hours because of lack of space. In the underground high-school system, pupils study in classes held in private homes.

Albanians have not been allowed access to the library of the Pristina state university for seven years, and students study as best they can in "classrooms" located in storefronts and basements.

In the nine years since the Serbian government removed Kosovo's autonomous status, repression has steadily increased. Albanians have feared to protest their loss of rights. Indeed, random violence against Albanians is the rule. A young dental student I met was recently taken off a city bus by a policeman and beaten on the street for possessing a library card, evidence of his attendance in the unofficial university system. Human rights workers there have documented many instances of police and paramilitary attacks on villages - smaller scale versions of last month's massacres in the central region of Drenica in which more than 80 ethnic Albanians were killed.

Kosovo's underground Albanian government, led by Ibrahim Rugova, has successfully advocated a non-violent response - and this in a region where the blood feud was practiced until recently. But his leadership has been passive and the Albanians' patience has not been rewarded. In response, small groups of Albanians in the countryside have armed themselves. It's doubtful that they have any chance of beating the better-equipped Serbian police and army. The Kosovo Liberation Army is unlikely to gain the necessary sympathy and support from the outside world, other than Albania, to defeat the Yugoslav People's Army. The West will intervene militarily only if there are many more Drenicas, and by then it will be too late.

However, since last fall an active non-violent protest movement has sprung up, led principally by students. Demonstrations of as many as 200,000 Albanians of all ages and walks of life have filled the streets of Pristina as well as other Kosovo cities. And in the wake of Drenica last month, demonstrations have increased in size and frequency. The presence of journalists and other international observers in Kosovo has encouraged Albanians to express themselves.

But it will be no surprise if Albanians lose their faith in non-violence and take up arms against continued Serbian abuse. We can help the situation by voicing our support for the students and other newly-active leaders of the non-violent option. Kosovo needs the presence of international human rights observers and more journalists. Negotiations involving international mediation - without preconditions - must be established between the Albanian leadership and the Serbian regime.

Ultimately, Kosovo should become a demilitarized area, but that will not happen while Milosevic is in power.

* Peter Lippman, a Seattle building contractor and human rights activist, has been translating and working in refugee relief in Bosnia since last fall.

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