While hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were preparing to return to Kosovo last year at the end of NATO's three-month bombing campaign, Islam Gashi was headed in the other direction, deeper into Serbia and farther from home.
Serbian police arrested Mr. Gashi, a retired miner, at his home in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, last May. They beat him with truncheons, he says, and took him to a prison outside the city.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, just two days before NATO-led troops entered the province, they transferred him from Kosovo to a prison in Serbia proper, as they did with thousands of other detainees. There he sat for 10-1/2 months, never charged with a crime, while his family tried to win his release.
In April, they finally succeeded. Gashi's son Enver says they paid a Serbian lawyer 30,000 German marks ($14,300) to buy his freedom. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had brought Gashi soap, towels, and other articles in prison, provided a jeep ride back to Kosovo. He was pale and had lost weight, and sorry that his freedom had cost so much. But he was glad to be out all the same. "Now I'm feeling a little bit alive again," he says.
Gashi knows he is one of the fortunate ones. More than 1,200 Kosovar Albanians detained before and during the NATO bombing campaign remain in Serbian prisons. While many have never been charged with any offense, others were sentenced to long prison terms on the basis of what human rights advocates consider flimsy evidence.
Their imprisonment not only has brought pain to their families, it has worsened relations between Kosovo's minority Serbs and majority ethnic Albanians, and left Albanians increasingly frustrated with the West. Kosovo technically remains part of Serbia, which is the dominant partner in Yugoslavia.
"Without a solution to this problem, it's impossible to have peace and stability in Kosovo," says Kosovare Kelmendi, a lawyer for the Humanitarian Law Center in Pristina. "Right now it's the main issue in Kosovo. They are our people. We want them here."
Mass trial yields convictions
The problem flared up again last week, when a Serbian court sentenced 143 ethnic Albanians, including a teenage boy, to prison terms ranging from seven to 13 years. The prisoners were convicted of terrorism in Yugoslavia's largest-ever mass trial. Western officials condemned the verdicts, and Amnesty International, the New York-based human rights group, called them "blatantly unfair."
From Kosovars, the move provoked fresh outrage. "This is like a new bombardment of Kosovo, by Serbian forces," says Halil Matoshi, a magazine editor who spent eight months in a Serbian prison. "With this case, the problems between Serbs and Albanians will grow worse and worse."
By the end of the NATO bombing campaign last June, Serbian police held more than 2,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Some had been in custody for years, but most were detained during the 18-month armed struggle between Serbian security forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group.
The Serbs accused the prisoners of supporting the KLA, but Albanians say most were innocent civilians.
Not on NATO's radar
To the United States and its allies, ending the war was more important than resolving the fate of the prisoners. The issue was left out of both the peace agreement between NATO and Yugoslav commanders and the United Nations resolution that authorized the international takeover of Kosovo. Many observers see this as a fundamental mistake.
"It's really a disgrace that [the Serbs] were allowed to leave with thousands of prisoners who are really hostages," says Louis Sell, a former American diplomat who heads the Kosovo office of the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization. "While these people were languishing in jail, they just weren't on the screen. But it's poisoning the atmosphere here."
Many Western officials have publicly criticized Yugoslavia for its treatment of ethnic Albanian prisoners. Bernard Kouchner, the UN's top official in Kosovo, says he has written "hundreds of letters" to Belgrade, with few results.
Ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, have become increasingly critical of what they see as Western indifference. In April, the biggest in a series of protests virtually shut down the center of Pristina for three days.
After the latest sentences, Western officials tried to sound reassuring. A special UN envoy is being appointed to deal with Belgrade, not only on the detainee issue but also on the 3,500 people still missing from the war and presumed dead.
But many remain skeptical. "What can an envoy do, especially one from the UN?" Mr. Sell asks. "That's not to say they shouldn't try. But he or she will have a very tough row to hoe."
One of those sentenced last week was Mirxhin Zhubi. The verdict caught his fiance, Mirlinda Batalli, by surprise. "I thought he would be released on Monday and we would be married in the summer," she says. "Now I don't know how long he will be in prison."
The anguish of loved ones is only a part of the intense emotion that the issue evokes in Kosovar Albanians.
Holding up Serb returns
"We are still not free until they are here," Ms. Batalli declares angrily. The implications of this anger became clear this spring as Serb leaders and American officials began to discuss how to bring back Serbs who fled Kosovo last summer. Many ethnic Albanian leaders have said they cannot support Serb returns without progress on bringing back the detainees.
Meanwhile, the families of prisoners are doing what they can to secure the release of their loved ones.
Albanian officials say most of the 870 prisoners freed in the past year were ransomed for sums ranging from a few thousand dollars to more than 10 times that amount. The transactions are made through Serbian lawyers on the Kosovo border.
Gashi's family sold a piece of land to raise the money for his freedom. Since his return, he has regained some weight, although the scars on his face, which he says are from beatings, have not yet healed.
Gashi says he thinks often of the men he left behind. "I hope God will help them," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society