The Washington Post
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — The three young American men had their hands tied with wire. Their heads were covered by black hoods, and they were dressed in civilian clothes. They were each shot at close range, and their bodies were dumped in a pit dug in the Yugoslav national forest near the Serbian town of Petrovo Selo.
The men — all brothers of ethnic Albanian origin — had worked with their father as painters and made pizzas on Long Island before going to fight in the Kosovo war with the so-called Atlantic Brigade, a group of about 400 Albanian Americans who volunteered to join the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. But they disappeared into a Serbian prison 17 days after the end of NATOs bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, when hostilities had ceased.
For nearly two years, neither their family nor the U.S. government was able to learn their whereabouts. Then, last week, their bodies were discovered in a mass grave by Serbian police investigators. Together with officials of a Belgrade-based human rights group, the police have begun to assemble a picture of how the men, born in Illinois, lost their lives amid the violence that raged in and around the Serbian province of Kosovo in the spring and summer of 1999.
Serbian officials and others monitoring the probe say the three — Ylli, Agron and Mehmet Bytyqi, ethnic Albanians age 24, 23 and 21 at the time of their death — appear to have been murdered by policemen. Then their bodies were placed in the grave with 13 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, not far from a special police training center 120 miles east of the capital of Belgrade. A second grave nearby contains 59 bodies, and investigators suspect many others will turn up as they begin to probe the forest more carefully.
The Bytyqis are the first Americans to turn up in a Serbian mass grave.
Believe me, this is going to be a very important case for us, the U.S. chief of mission in Yugoslavia, William Montgomery, said in a telephone interview. We need to get real information from the Yugoslav authorities. We are going to insist they do a full investigation.
Montgomery said he and other U.S. officials had sought information about the Bytyqis from the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry several times since the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in October, but the ministry only acknowledged they had been imprisoned after the war ended.
Circumstantial evidence unearthed so far raises the possibility of a revenge slaying by policemen, possibly motivated by anger over the leading role that the United States played in pressing for Western intervention in Kosovo to halt human rights abuses committed by Yugoslav security forces against Kosovos ethnic Albanian majority.
They were killed because they were American citizens, said Bajram Krasniqi, a lawyer in Pristina, Kosovos provincial capital, retained by the Bytyqi family to press for information about the case. There were people in that prison who were in (the rebel army) … and they were eventually released. This is the only case where someone was arrested, taken to court, tried, released out of the prison and then executed.
This crime was planned, ordered and conducted without any judicial act, and it was done by Serbian officials in cooperation with officials at the prison, Krasniqi said. Hopefully, the Serb authorities will now arrest these people and they will be brought to justice.
The mens mother, Bahrije Bytyqi, and their father, Ahmet Bytyqi, had moved their family from Illinois to Kosovo in 1979 and later separated. Ahmet moved to New York and Ylli, Agron and Mehmet each joined him when they reached age 17.
Bahrije was expelled from Kosovo during the war by security forces but later returned to the southern Kosovo city of Prizren. She has been distraught and sedated since learning last week of the discovery of her sons bodies in Serbia, and could not be interviewed Saturday. When her 22-year-old son, Fatos, a resident of Prizren, was interviewed Saturday, he initially lied about his brothers wartime activities, later explaining he had been advised not to discuss their membership in the Atlantic Brigade.
But members of the brigade told special correspondent Christine Haughney in New York that the brothers had been enthusiastic — if naive — volunteers in the unit. They had different personalities: Ylli was quiet, Agron an outgoing partier, Mehmet a hard worker. But all three left New York on the brigades charter flight in the spring of 1999 and tried to join the same rebel unit — only to be told by rebel leaders that they had to fight separately.
They had that youthfulness that exploded in their faces, said fellow rebel Arber Muriqi in New York.
In mid-June 1999, when NATO forces deployed inside Kosovo to police a cease-fire, the brothers escorted their mother back into the province. Roughly two weeks later, the brothers told Fatos they were going to Pristina. Their mission, he said, was to visit some ethnic Albanian friends from New York who had fought with the Atlantic Brigade.
Amid the postwar chaos — and seething tensions between ethnic Serbs and Albanians — they headed north in a Volkswagen Golf on June 26. An ethnic Roma neighbor of Bahrijes, Miroslav Mitrovic, has told the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center, an independent group, that the three brothers offered him and two other Romas a ride out of Prizren and into southern Serbia, but Fatos says the brothers never mentioned the plan and he cannot confirm the tale.
There is a dispute between Fatos and Mitrovic over why the brothers did not have their U.S. passports with them on the journey; in any event, Fatos and the family lawyer say, the brothers carried other identification that clearly indicated they were American residents, including New York state drivers licenses. Around their necks, he said, were medallions bearing the seal of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The brothers were detained at a Serbian checkpoint in the village of Merdare; the Romas were allowed to proceed, Mitrovic told the law center. A magistrate in the nearby town of Kursumlija sentenced them to at least 15 days in jail for illegally crossing the border between Serbia and Kosovo, a Serbian province. The next day — June 27 — they were transferred to a prison in Prokuplje, in southern Serbia.
There, according to documents and testimony obtained by the law center, the three brothers were interviewed by a police inspector named Zoran Stankovic, whose specialty was cases involving foreign citizens. Four days before the end of their sentence, Stankovic came to the prison and told the warden to release them into his custody, the law center said it had learned.
Fatos said he was told by a prison official, whom the family bribed for information four months ago, that the three brothers were taken to the back door of the prison and handed over to two plainclothes police in the company of the uniformed patrolmen. They were driven away in a white car and never seen alive again.
Their family became so desperate that at one point they persuaded their lawyer, Krasniqi, to write a letter to Milosevic, pleading for information about her sons; their mother also went to the prison in Serbia to demand answers. They were very hopeful that the boys would return because once they were in prison, Serb authorities would be aware that they are American citizens, Marin Vulaj, vice chairman of the National Albanian American Council, said.
The law center made inquiries in August, September and October 1999, after Mitrovic contacted the center to express his own concern, but only received a copy of the brothers prison release order.
I was hoping they were alive, Fatos said. We were very shocked. We had no idea how they could have gotten to the mass gravesite in Petrovo Selo. In a statement issued on Saturday, the law center demanded that the Serbian government tell the mother the truth.
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