Kosovo Liberation Army maintained a network of prisons in their bases in Albania and Kosovo during and after the conflict of 1999, eyewitnesses allege. Only now are the details of what occurred there emerging.
In a run-down industrial compound with shattered windows and peeling plaster in Kukes, Albania, chickens rummage for food and two trucks sit idle in a courtyard surrounded by rusted warehouses and a crumbling two-story supply building.
In the middle of the compound stands a cinderblock shack that was once the office of a mechanical plant that produced everything from manhole covers to elevator cages.
But, during the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia, from March to June 1999, this facility took on another purpose. It was occupied by a guerrilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, as a support base for their operations across the border in Serbian-ruled Kosovo.
But the factory was not merely the headquarters for guerrillas fighting the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to secure the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.
It assumed more sinister purposes: dozens of civilians, mainly Kosovo Albanians suspected of collaboration, but also Serbs and Roma were held captive there, beaten and tortured. Some were killed, their remains never recovered. The men who allegedly directed the abuses were officers of the KLA.
At least 25 people were imprisoned in Kukes, witnesses say. Amongst them were three Kosovo Albanian women. In the camp at least 18 people were killed, while others were later rescued by NATO troops.
It appears that Kukes housed one of a number of secret detention centres in Albania and Kosovo, and that prisoners were transferred from one facility to another.
Even after the NATO interventions, a camp was maintained in Baballoq/Babaloc in Kosovo, holding around 30 Serb and Roma prisoners, whose current whereabouts are unknown. Other camps in Albania may have held Serbs kidnapped in Kosovo after the war, according to four sources.
The names of several alleged perpetrators have been known to UNMIK for some time. One of them is still holding a high position in the Kosovo judiciary, Balkan Insight understands.
Bislim Zyrapi, an official of the Kosovo Interior Ministry, who was responsible for KLA operations in Kukes, told Balkan Insight that there were no people killed, either at the base or outside of it.
Two of the KLA’s former top leaders rejected the allegations in separate interviews with the BBC.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, who was then the political director of the KLA, and Agim Ceku, former Prime Minister and former chief of the KLA headquarters, told the BBC they were not aware of any KLA prisons where captives were abused or where civilians were held.
Thaci said he was aware that individuals had “abused KLA uniforms” after the war, but said the KLA had distanced itself from such acts. He added that such abuse was “minimal”. Ceku said that the KLA fought a “clean war”.
However, Jose Pablo Baraybar, the chief of the Office of Missing Persons and Forensics within UNMIK for five years, says: “There were people that are certainly alive that were in Kukes, in that camp, as prisoners. Those people saw other people there, both Albanians and non-Albanians. There were members of the KLA leadership going through that camp. Many names were mentioned, and I would say that that is an established fact.”
Baraybar tracked missing citizens in Kosovo and across the border in Albania.
Karin Limdal, spokeswoman for the EU rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, told Balkan Insight that the mission is aware of the allegations concerning the Kukes case, and that prosecutors are looking at the evidence to see if they can bring indictments.
YELLOW MERCEDES OF DEATH
These grave allegations about the Kukes camp, in the north west of Albania, are based on interviews with several sources: two eyewitnesses – one former inmate and one member of the KLA, records from a cemetery in Albania and UN documents that we have gained access to, which detail the testimonies of people ill-treated in Kukes.
Together, they paint a portrait of a brutal prison regime that is at odds with the claims of former KLA leaders, who say they adhered to international human rights conventions and never detained civilians.
The abuses in Kukes may not have been isolated events. According to former KLA fighters who talked to us, as well as independent testimony provided to UN investigators, the KLA maintained a loose network of at least six secret jails in the dozen or so bases they operated in Albania and the two they had in Kosovo during and after the 1999 war.
Those jails were used for interrogations that routinely included torture, according to sources interviewed for this story.
Most former KLA soldiers we interviewed are proud of their war with the Serbian forces, whose bloody actions forced the mass flight of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians from their homes in 1999.
But some said they felt shamed by what some KLA commanders and leaders had done under the cover of war.
“It didn’t seem strange at the time,” one former KLA soldier, who witnessed the events, said. “But now, looking back, I know that some of the things that were done to innocent civilians were wrong. But the people who did those things act as if nothing happened, and continue to hurt their own people, Albanians.”
Another eyewitness, a Kosovo Albanian, says he was held at the KLA base in Kukes on the pretext of being a Serbian spy, an allegation he vehemently denies.
This man, who did not wish to be named, described witnessing KLA soldiers abusing and torturing prisoners at the base for weeks, often under the supervision of KLA officers.
“I saw people being beaten, stabbed, hit with batons,” he said. “I saw people left without food for five or six days. I saw coffins being thrown in graves. I’ve seen people killed.”
This man claimed most of the captives held at Kukes were non-combatant civilians, mainly Albanians accused of working for the regime, and some Roma. There were also some KLA soldiers, imprisoned for disciplinary measures.
According to both sources, three prisoners were Kosovo Albanian women. Two were Roma from Prizren. The rest were young Kosovo Albanian males, aged between 20 and 27, all accused of collaborating with Serbian forces. The inmate said he also heard shouts in Serbian from prisoners who were being tortured a short distance away from the compound.
The inmate said that he heard “people crying and yelling at being tortured, and I could specifically distinguish native Serbian being spoken there.”
He said some Kosovo Albanian prisoners were shot or beaten to death on the base, while others were driven off in a yellow Mercedes. One Kosovo Albanian prisoner died in front of him and five other inmates, after being shot in the calf by his interrogators and then left untreated.
The records of the cemetery in Kukes shed light on the man who died after being shot in the calf.
According to cemetery records, he was buried on June 6th 1999, four days before Serbian forces pulled out of Kosovo, in a plot reserved for Kosovo Albanians who died in Albania during the conflict ,.
“Every time I saw the yellow Mercedes, someone was taken in that car and then I would never see that person again,” he said. “They were never found.”
The same former inmate said he believed the people had been taken captive for various reasons, which included revenge and greed, as well as allegations that they were Serbian spies.
One prisoner had worked as a policeman in the western town of Gjakova/Djakovica under the Milosevic regime. He was taken away in the yellow Mercedes and has not been seen since.
Another had been a teacher, whose apparent offence was to have a license to carry a gun issued by the Serbian authorities.
The inmate said he believed that more than 25 people were held there from March to June 1999, from the start of the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia until NATO forces moved into Kosovo.
The inmates were mostly from the city of Prizren and surrounding villages. The KLA had apprehended them after waves of Kosovars entered Kukes during the NATO bombing. At least one was arrested as far away as Durres, or Lushnja, in central Albania, according to both sources.
Our source, who was an inmate, recalls another inmate, a Kosovo Albanian, yelling from the barred windows to the troops in the yard, telling them that if they killed him, he had six brothers who would avenge him. “What would you do about them?” he challenged them.
According to the same two sources, and UNMIK documents from their investigation into the case, some of the survivors were transferred in the aftermath of the war to detention cells at the police station in Prizren, in Kosovo.
On June 18th, they, and other people detained by the KLA in Prizren, were released by German KFOR troops, who stormed the building.
The same sources estimated that as many as 18 captives may have been killed in Kukes.
The source who was a member of the KLA said: “I understand that they had cooperated with the Serbs and had done a lot of harm. This would make people mad when one thinks of the massacres happening across the border. But their treatment was brutal. At times, I was sorry for them.”
The former inmate we spoke to was sceptical about whether any of the captives had actively collaborated with Serbian death squads.
“But even if they deserved punishment, no-one had the right to do that [torture] to someone [else],” he said. “No-one has the right to do such things to other human beings.”
A NETWORK OF CAMPS
Kukes was an important strategic location for the KLA. Weapons, uniforms, cash and fresh recruits all flowed through the warehouses and storage buildings at the site.
The base was also important for the KLA military police, which reportedly rounded up suspects from among the mass of civilians who fled to Albania, or were expelled by Serbian forces.
A unit of the Albanian army, stationed at the base in Kukes, assisted the KLA to set up its military police operations, according to several policemen we interviewed.
It appears that Kukes was one of many detention centres in Albania and Kosovo, and prisoners would be transferred from one to another.
Two captives were brought to Kukes from a similar KLA facility near the town of Burrel, where the KLA ran a barracks for training soldiers during the last two months of the war, said the former inmate.
“They told us about people being killed there, people put into lime pits there,” he said. “I could also see what was going on in Burrel from the state [in which] they were brought in… They’d been tortured badly.”
According to the UN documents, the interviews with KLA members and the inmate, other captives were transferred to Kukes from KLA facilities in at least two other places – Durres, and after the war, Prizren in Kosovo itself.
The KLA had intelligence units and military police in most bases they maintained in Albania.
Halil Katana, a military journalist from Tirana, in his authorised biography of Kudusi Lama, the commander of the Kukes division, ‘Kudusi Lama: War General’, writes: “Those units [of the KLA military police] played an important role in establishing the discipline in KLA groups trained in the Kukes area, and in seizing Serb agents who entered the country amongst refugees from Kosovo.”
These units maintained detainment cells in Babine, a logistics centre near the border region of Tropoja; in the training camp of Burrel and at a KLA base in Durres, according to our third source, another member of the KLA.
Bislim Zyrapi, currently an official at the Interior Ministry of Kosovo, was responsible for the KLA operations at the base in Kukes from early May to the end of the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia on June 10th.
He says that the people detained at the jail in Kukes were soldiers with disciplinary problems, and that there were no people killed at the base, or outside of it. But he added that he found the KLA in disarray, with armed soldiers and individuals who wandered freely in town and elsewhere in Albania. “One of the first things I had to do was to discipline them,” he said.
PERPETRATORS AT LARGE
According to eyewitnesses, two Albanian citizens involved with the KLA took part in these interrogations.
One man, described as having long black hair, was especially brutal to the Roma from Prizren, according to one source.
One source said KLA fighters coming back from fighting in Kosovo sometimes took out their rage on the inmates.
The other said the prisoners were tortured into admitting they had cooperated with the Serbian state security forces, UDBA. The interrogators wanted to record the prisoners confessing collaboration with the Serbs.
The same sources that witnessed the base in Kukes, told us that the interrogators in Kukes were KLA officers who had been involved in the capture of suspected collaborators.
Both our sources concerning the base, identified several KLA officers involved in the abuses at Kukes.
One of them is currently in a top position in the judicial system in Kosovo.
We have withheld names of the alleged perpetrators, so as not to endanger our sources.
Some men involved in the abuses at Kukes were also involved in abducting Kosovo citizens after the war, according to former KLA soldiers we interviewed.
Their targets were not Albanian ‘traitors’, but Serbs or Roma who had remained in Kosovo after NATO troops entered the territory.
One Kosovo Albanian who returned to fight in Kosovo after spending many years abroad, told us he saw nearly 30 Serbs and Roma held in a KLA camp in Baballoq/Babaloc, near Decan in western Kosovo, after the war, in summer 1999.
He said he heard screams from the location and assumed the inmates were being tortured. When NATO patrols passed through the area, the prisoners were hidden in a workhouse, the same source added.
This former KLA fighter said he suspects the group was taken over the border to Albania and killed. “I never saw them again, never read anything about them in the newspaper,” he said. “So they probably disappeared into the mountains.”