The facts known about the missing father are scrawled with an orange ink on the back of a scrap of cardboard: "9:15 am, Tuesday, 26 May," it reads. On that day Isuf Syla was arrested by Serbian policemen in Kosovo.
Or was it earlier? As one son holds the cardboard, another says the day was actually May 19. Neither date was a Tuesday.
Understandably, there was a quicksilver quality to nearly every facet of life here during 11 weeks of NATO airstrikes that coincided with a brutal assault by Serbian forces against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. An estimated 10,000 died. And as many as 5,000 - like Mr. Syla - are still unaccounted for, and are perhaps held in Serbian prisons.
"The fact is that nobody knows how many there are," says Daloni Carlisle, of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "People are desperate to know, so they are willing to believe anything to not believe that a relative is dead. It takes awhile for people to accept, and they are looking for instant answers."
This is the story of one family and how it copes with the difficult uncertainty of a member who is still missing more than two months after NATO troops deployed. As ethnic Albanians who cherish the idea of "family" as a sacred institution, they have found the experience to be a tough roller-coaster ride marked by peaks of great hope and valleys of despair.
In recent days, the family had begun to accept that their father might never come home. But hope is suddenly back again: Syla may have been identified by the ICRC in a prison in Serbia proper.
"The family, we are really close now," says Mefail Syla, a son, holding his own two-year-old boy, Leutrim, or "Born Brave" in Albanian, among the fruit trees of the family's front yard. "It's the hope that keeps us together."
While some of the details are hazy, no one in the family doubts that Isuf was arrested by Serbian policemen while buying milk. He was with his youngest son, Asllan, 13, who was ordered by the Serbs to go home. "They said I could go, and nothing else," he recalls - except that he had to get rid of his earring.
Asllan returned alone to a small hay barn connected to the main house, where all 17 of his relatives were hiding to evade frequent searches by Serbian units. The family was heartbroken. They waited anxiously all day, hoping that Isuf would be let go after an interrogation. He never came.
"I would rather have my house burned than my father kidnapped," says Fidail Syla, another son, who had three days' growth beard and wore a leather belt with silver studs. "We felt like never before and had emotions impossible to describe. We didn't know if he was alive or dead."
Complications mounted as NATO bombs fell and Serbian forces continued their campaign. Fidail's wife, Valbona Shala, gave birth to a son - their first child - in a manger. They muffled Valbona's screams with blankets so that Serbian forces would not be alerted. They named the baby Clirim, which means "Liberation." But the new boy died a month later.
Unable to reach a cemetery because of Serbian patrols, Fidail dug a two-foot-long makeshift grave on the edge of the property. A proper funeral would have to wait - and Fidail wanted his missing father to be there for it.
When NATO forces arrived and Serbian troops withdrew in June, the sons began to search for Isuf. A neighbor said he heard that the father had been held in a prison in the Kosovar town of Lipljan. Several sons went to the place, but locals told them that no prisoners at all had been held there.
On one list, not on others
But a fresh burst of hope arrived when Isuf's name appeared on a list of missing people held in Serbian prisons published in the newspaper Koha Ditore. Then, however, the first official ICRC list of such prisoners came out - and Isuf's name was not to be found. Nor did it appear on subsequent lists.
"It was so emotional. There was hope that he was in a prison," says Fidail. Because of the mixed messages, another brother went to a prisoner release held in the place his father was thought to be. He carried a picture of his father, but not one of the released men had seen Isuf.
It's a drama that plays itself out every day in Kosovo. Activists charge that some 7,000 ethnic Albanians disappeared during NATO airstrikes, most of them arrested by Serbian forces and transferred to prisons in Serbia proper. The Yugoslav Justice Ministry has given the ICRC details for nearly 2,000 Kosovar prisoners, but others who may have been taken by the military might not appear in that system.
If the conflict in Bosnia and Croatia earlier this decade - in which 18,000 people are still unaccounted for - is any standard, then answers in Kosovo may take years, if they can ever be found. One problem in Kosovo is that neither the agreement with NATO nor UN Security Council resolutions mention the missing, much less require a solution.
"That's a big stumbling block for families in Kosovo," says the ICRC's Ms. Carlisle. "Who will negotiate for them?"
There are daily demonstrations across Kosovo calling for prisoners to be released. Bernard Kouchner, the UN's chief envoy here, joined a large one last week. "We must make tremendous pressure to get the lists of the missing persons, because I know the sorrow of the families waiting for news," he said. "It is against all the laws of human rights and the Geneva Conventions not to tell these families about their relatives. This is a barbaric way to treat people."
Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade and a Serb herself, works with three ethnic Albanian lawyers scouring Serbian prisons 10 days a month. They see as many as 50 prisoners a day, to find the "missing" among them.
"We came to the conclusion that [the missing] are not hidden by the Yugoslav government, but were civilians who were transferred to Serbia [proper] without documentation," she says in a Belgrade interview. She counts more than 2,000 missing and often travels to Kosovo to gather new information. "Every day the list of missing people is bigger," Ms. Kandic says. "It's a strange story: Relatives do not find any evidence about killing, so where are the people?"
Steps toward moving on
Unable to find Isuf's name on ICRC lists, the Syla family took the first step, psychologists here say, towards accepting that he was gone.
"We decided to go to villages and check mass graves near the prison. We accepted him as dead by going there," says Fidail, staring at the cardboard scrap in his hand, while sitting in the morning sun not far from the hay barn.
"We visited hospitals and morgues. We still have hope, but deep down ..." Fidail says, then stops.
Instead of finding him, the family took another step 10 days ago: to re-bury baby "Liberation." Symbolically, they knew, this funeral was for both their child, and their father.
"They have to face the reality, because if you don't see the body, you have to face it and understand," says Ava Kurteshi, a psychiatrist working with families in Pristina. "One thing that helps people is pride - that they died for a new Kosovo, for freedom. This helps make it easier."
But then hope emerged again, though it may be as uncertain as the date on the bit of cardboard. Last week, Isuf Asllan Syla's name may have appeared on the ICRC list of missing persons. Held in Serbia proper is a man whose name the ICRC spelled "Sulaji Asllan Isuf."
The family prays that it is a match and will soon send Mr. Sulaji a letter through the ICRC. "After all these months," says son Mefail, "if I don't see him alive in this front yard in this house, I won't believe anything."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society