War In The Balkans: Montenegro - Albanian refugees tortured by Serbs

"I THOUGHT I was dead. Not a hundred per cent sure - a thousand per cent," says Idris Murtezaj quietly describing how he was pushed hands up against the wall in a Serb prison, a cocked gun at his head. "The gun clicked, and nothing happened. They did that to me five or six times during those days. Sometimes against the wall, sometimes down on the floor. We were so afraid. I thought, `That's it'."

This terrifying experience did not start in Kosovo, but in the supposed haven of Montenegro where Idris and his family thought they had finally reached safety. His sister, his 78-year-old mother, his wife and six young children had made the snowy crossing over the mountains from Kosovo down into the little town of Rozaje, a poverty-stricken community that has provided a threadbare welcome for tens of thousands of refugees.

From Rozaje, Idris went with three friends to pick up an injured friend sheltering in a nearby village but soldiers captured them on the way. The soldiers, including Serb reservists, were liberal only with their violence. "They put handcuffs on us, and took us to Novi Pazar [across the border into Serbia]. They broke three of my friend's ribs. They hit my head against the wall. It hurt for five or six days. We did not get anything to eat for two days."

Idris did not approach me to give his story, and spoke hesitantly when he gave details only in response to persistent questioning, showing none of the familiar fluency of story- embroiderers.

He says he was handcuffed all the time as the soldiers abused them aimlessly. Despite questions such as, "Did you beat Serbs?", this was no interrogation. This was simply a chance for these soldiers and Serbian police to drive home to helpless refugees their absolute and absolutely violent power over them.

After two days, Idris and 300 others were suddenly bundled into buses and driven into Montenegro, and dumped, to make their way back to Rozaje. Idris's family had already given him up for dead.

There is an increasingly common incidence of random, sanctioned brutality. Galimeta Bogeskaj tells how eight men in masks and military uniform came on Monday night to the Montenegrin house where she and her family had found refuge. "They beat up one man. They demanded money, they took 1,200 marks (about pounds 450, a fortune in Yugoslav terms) then they told us, `Get out of here. Get out, and don't come back'."

The family fled down the mountainside to the relative safety of Rozaje, where the local authorities are supportive, though tiny Montenegro, with a population of 650,000, which theoretically still forms part of President Milosevic's Yugoslav federation.

Like Idris Murtezaj and his family, Galimeta and her children now sleep in primitive conditions on the floor of a disused factory. Nearby fields house a tent city.

Earlier this month, six Kosovo Albanians were killed by Yugoslav soldiers near Rozaje, an incident that outraged the increasingly powerless Montenegrin government. Jiri Dienstbier, former Czech dissident and foreign minister who is now the United Nations investigator for the region, visited Rozaje yesterday and said he regretted that the international community had offered "so little help" to Montenegro with its refugee crisis, and he called for a full investigation into the army killings.

The chances of such an investigation are slim. The Serb-dominated army does not answer questions. There is a widespread perception that pro- Belgrade forces are deliberately destabilising authority. The local police station is sandbagged against possible attack. A couple of miles from Rozaje, soldiers arrested a French television cameraman and his translator who had been accompanied by a Montenegrin police escort. The Frenchman faces trial for espionage, and a sentence of up to 10 years.

Montenegro itself is a brave attempt at the multi-ethnic federation of Yugoslavia which Slobodan Milosevic has long since destroyed. Tolerance is still its watchword, and many of its Muslims are fiercely loyal to the government, with its Orthodox Christian traditions.

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