War In The Balkans: Refugees - Expelled - despite his campaign to end bloodshed

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The Independent Online
BAYRAM KURTI, a geography teacher in more peaceful times, was determined to end bloodshed in Kosovo long before the current crisis. He led a movement to abolish the centuries-old blood feud law among all ethnic Albanians under which families of murder victims are obliged to take revenge on the family of the killer.

Yesterday, Mr Kurti, 57, walked out of Kosovo with nothing but the clothes on his back and a tiny piece of bread in his pocket. He was pale, starving and gasping for water after hiding in his home for 10 weeks and being imprisoned by Serb police for five days.

"Prizren [his home town in Kosovo] is just one big prison," he said as he walked across several hundred yards of deserted road on the Albanian side of the border. "Albanians are hiding in their homes, surrounded by Serbs, and can't get even bread or water. If someone doesn't get food to them soon, many will die."

Mr Kurti said he had hidden in his home in Prizren since the Nato bombing of Serbia and Kosovo began in late March, hoping the Serb police would think he had fled with his family. They had crossed into Albania in the initial exodus after the Nato bombing. He did not realise then that the Serbs' systematic arrest of Kosovo men would prevent him from going out for food.

He thought about trying to escape but changed his mind after seeing three of his neighbours slaughtered by Serb forces on 24 March. He was not sure if the killers were soldiers, policemen or paramilitaries.

"They raped a girl in the garden, an 18-year-old, the little sister of my neighbour, Osman Butuci, while he, his father and his grandfather were forced to watch. Afterwards, they shot her.

"Then they executed the three men, Osman, who was 35, Bayram, who was 56, and Fasli Butuci, who was 93. The bodies lay there for three weeks before the Serbs took them away."

Last Thursday, Serb police finally forced open Mr Kurti's door, ransacked his home and locked him up in a local police station until yesterday morning - five days in all - without giving him a morsel to eat.

He believed they were upset by a book he had published, The Blood of Freedom, in which he lists atrocities by the Serbs from the early Eighties, when ethnic Albanians demonstrated for independence, until the mid-Nineties when the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, was trying to crush their culture.

"They took all the books on my shelves, more than 500, all my video cassettes, all my tapes, all my notes for further books," he said before heading for the town of Kukes to seek refuge in a camp and look for his family. "This is all I have now." He had pulled a piece of bread from his jacket pocket.

"Some of the soldiers were decent to me as I walked to the border," he said. Police had driven him from Prizren to Zur, a few miles from the border post. "The soldiers said they were tired of the destruction and wanted to go home to Serbia."

Mr Kurti said the Serb police were also angered by his leadership of the Anton Ceta Reconciliation Movement to abolish the traditional gjakmarrje (bloodshed) law, known in Albania as the Lek Dugagjini law, dating from the 15th century but still adhered to by Albanians.

The law was written by the Albanian hero Lek Dugagjini and has led to endless chains of killings between Albanian families in Kosovo and Albania. If someone kills a member of another family, someone from that family is obliged, under the law, to kill a member of the family of the murderer.

"Our movement had done great things. We brought peace to around 1,000 families in our region alone that would otherwise have been trapped within the cycle of killing," Mr Kurti said. "But the Serbs preferred things the way they were. They preferred to see us killing each other. It saved them bullets."

In Kukes, Mr Kurti's son, Shkumbin, found him amongrefugees in the town's main square and the two men embraced in tears. Shkumbin had not heard of his father for two and a half months and feared he was dead.