In 1982, they were arrested, beaten, and jailed for belonging to the Kosovo People's Movement, a coalition of underground groups in a campaign for greater political rights for Serbia's ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo.
Now, Bardhyl Mahmuti, Jashar Shalihu, and Bilall Sherifi have abandoned peaceful protest for armed struggle, one the United States and other powers are scrambling to keep from erupting into a war that could engulf the region.
The trio is helping run international fund-raising for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), funneling cash from Albanians in the US, Europe, and elsewhere to buy weapons for rebels fighting for Kosovo's independence from the iron-fisted rule of Serbia, which with Montenegro is all that remains of Yugoslavia.
The three spoke openly for the first time in an interview with the Monitor about the KLA's strategy, views, and the support from Albanian communities around the world. Added to interviews with KLA sympathizers in the US, the information provides one of the most comprehensive pictures to date of the world's newest ethnic insurgency.
They scoff at an arms embargo slapped on Yugoslavia March 31 by the United Nations at the behest of the US, European allies, and Russia in a bid to keep a lid on the crisis.
The KLA, they say, is buying arms in Serbia and Montenegro, flush with weapons from the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Arms are also known to flow in from Albania.
The interview with the three former political prisoners was arranged by their main US operative, an immigrant from Kosovo who has relatives in the KLA and meets regularly with their leaders in Europe. It was held late last week in Aarau, a village 30 miles from Zurich, at "The Voice of Kosovo," a newspaper published by members of their party who were given political asylum in Switzerland in the early 1990s.
The office was adorned with large photographs of a KLA leader named Adem Jashari, his brother, and father. All three were killed in a Serbian police crackdown on the separatists in February and March in which more than 80 ethnic Albanians were slain in the Drenica region.
In the pictures, Mr. Jashari poses in a camouflage uniform and wields a machine gun. His father and brother are clad in traditional Albanian garb and clutch rifles.
To Belgrade, the US, and other powers, the Jasharis and other KLA fighters are "terrorists" who have killed postmen and other civilian minions of Serbia's colonial-style rule of Kosovo, including Albanians loyal to Belgrade. But as a result of brazen KLA attacks on police stations and the Serbian crackdown in Drenica, ethnic Albanians inside and outside Kosovo have now come to revere the rebels as freedom fighters.
"The UCK has killed only members of the repressive state structure," said Mr. Mahmuti, using the KLA's Albanian-language acronym. "One thing must be clear, the repressive state structure is formed by officials in uniform ... and without uniform."
He and his associates say they funnel to the KLA cash raised by sympathizers in the large Albanian communities in Western Europe, the US, Turkey, and Australia. Enraged by the slaughter of women and children in the Serbian assaults, these communities are donating sums that Mr. Salihu puts at "tens of millions of dollars.
"It [money] is coming from everywhere," says Salihu, who has piercing dark eyes and a bushy moustache.
A rising threat
Indeed, even senior US officials acknowledge that the Serbian crackdown has brought fame and funds to the KLA, making it a serious threat to international efforts to push Belgrade and moderate ethnic Albanian leaders into talks on restoring the province's autonomy.
The KLA fundraisers reject any accord short of independence for the province, where ethnic Albanians, 90 percent of whom are Muslim, outnumber Christian Orthodox Serbs 9-to-1. "The only legitimate negotiations can be to arrange the borders between Kosovo and Serbia," declares Mahmuti. "Anything else signed will be good for nothing."
The KLA was founded in 1993 by former ethnic Albanian political prisoners and young activists disillusioned with the peaceful non-cooperation movement launched by Ibrahim Rugova, the unrecognized president of a self-declared Republic of Kosovo, after the province's autonomy was revoked in 1989, the Swiss-based sympathizers say.
The rebels, they say, do not intend to go head-to-head with the 20,000 Serbian police and troops in Kosovo; instead, when ready, they will begin a guerrilla-style war that will be so costly that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will have to relinquish the province.
"Firstly, morale is on our side. The Albanians have nowhere else to go, while the Serbs have to come from Belgrade to fight in Kosovo," explains Mahmuti, who appears to be the group's ranking member. "Secondly, we are trying to equalize our differences. We don't intend to buy tanks, but we have to have antitank weapons. We have no airplanes, but we are trying to buy antiaircraft weapons."
"When we have those weapons," he continues, "Serbia will sue for peace."
The decision to resort to violence was prompted, he and others said, by the international community's failure to halt onslaughts against Bosnia's Muslims by Serb forces armed by Mr. Milosevic in his attempt to create a "Greater Serbia." They worry that the same outcome awaits Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
"The international community will do nothing for Kosovo," asserts the KLA's main US operative, who spoke in Brooklyn, N.Y., on condition of anonymity. "The only time that the international community will intervene is when we go on the offensive. The basis of this whole thing is that we are Muslim. The international community does not want a Muslim state in Europe. They will let the Serbs butcher us."
Once loyal to Mr. Rugova and his Democratic League of Kosovo, this operative and other Albanian-Americans say they switched support to the KLA after the Clinton administration bowed to Milosevic's refusal to address Kosovo in the 1995 Dayton peace accords on Bosnia. At that point, they say, Rugova failed to adopt a more confrontational approach.
"If Rugova and our leaders there [in Kosovo] had stood up, it would not have come to the point that Albanians have to take up arms," says Agem, another Kosovo native and KLA sympathizer living in New York, who asked that his last name not be used to protect relatives in the province.
At the moment, however, the KLA does not yet appear ready for anything other than guerrilla-style encounters.
Mahmuti and other KLA collaborators say the rebels had intended to build up slowly, and were unprepared for the outpouring of support they have received since the Serb police actions. As a result, they are having to turn away volunteers, including ethnic Albanians returning from Europe, because of a shortage of arms. But they assert that the deficit will be bridged.
"We gather money and send the money to Kosovo. The economic situation in Serbia is so bad that in the middle of Belgrade you can buy all the weapons you need," says Mahmuti. He adds that arms are also being obtained outside Montenegro and Serbia, but he declines to elaborate.
While it was not possible to confirm those claims, well-armed KLA fighters in Kosovo now sport new walkie-talkies and uniforms. Furthermore, it was common during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia for enemies to sell each other weapons.