War in the Balkans: Torture: Albanian doctors singled out for Serbian brutality

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The Independent Online
OF ALL the cases documented by Luan Jaha, none was so brutally symbolic as the death of Dr Lec Ukaj. He was with a group of patients when they came for him, so there were several witnesses to what happened. His clinic, in the Kosovan town of Gllogoc, had been destroyed by Serb shelling weeks before, and like many Albanian professionals - lawyers and teachers, as well as doctors - he had taken to practising in a private house. The police arrived last September with a photograph of the doctor. After they had identified him, they asked him a strange question. Which hand did he use to operate on his patients? Dr Ukaj held up his right hand. "Then they grabbed him and they cut off his fingers," says Dr Jaha, an investigator for the organisation Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). "Later they killed him. The rumour was that they also put out his eyes, although that we never confirmed." Nothing could serve as a better illustration of the attitude of the Serbian regime towards the ethnic Albanian medical profession.

Among all the tales of violence and persecution, the stories told by Albanian doctors are especially telling. Apart from the suffering of the individuals, they illustrate one of the most fearful features of Serbian policy towards Kosovo's Albanian population - its systematic nature, targeting not just individuals, or even an ethnic group, but entire institutions. Ever since Albanian nationalism began to stir in Kosovo, the Serbian government has attempted to deprive the province's medical establishment of its eyes and hands.

Since widespread fighting got underway in Kosovo in spring last year, at least four other doctors have died in circumstances similar to Dr Ukaj. Last November, Nuredin Zejnullativ, a specialist in internal diseases was shot dead in his house by masked men. In February this year, Xhevdet Gastri, was found shot through the back of the head after being abducted from the same town, Pec. By PHR's reckoning, at least 28 doctors have been arrested, and numerous others have been invited in for euphemistically titled "informative talks". "They call you in and they intimidate you, usually with the use of force," says Dr Jaha. "They have done everything to prevent the creation of medical care, especially in the areas controlled by the KLA."

Dr Jaha's own story is a fine illustration of the policy, which began long before the Nato bombs began falling. In 1995, like thousands of teachers, lawyers and civil servants in Kosovo, he was sacked from his job as a vascular surgeon in a state hospital in an ongoing purge of ethnic Albanian professionals - between 1990 and 1998, some 2,000 medical workers lost their state jobs. So he opened a private clinic in the town of Rahovec, an area dominated by the Kosovo Liberation Army, where fierce fighting took place last summer. For three weeks, he worked in a KLA-controlled area, one of six doctors tending to 70,000 refugees as well as wounded guerrillas. As the fighting intensified he escaped to Prizren where he was arrested.

He was charged with treason and terrorism, crimes subject to 20 years in jail or a death sentence. "I was not a member of the KLA," he says. "I worked only as a doctor, but that in itself was enough." Two Serb nurses testified in his support and, thanks to bribes and connections, he was released after three months in jail. He returned to find his clinic destroyed and many of his patients arrested. It was then that he began to work for the Boston-based PHR, before escaping with his family to Skopje in Macedonia after the airstrikes began.

Doctors in Kosovo have been the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence. Dr Jaha's group has recorded 103 cases of abuse of patients in medical care, the cruellest of them directed against suspected KLA fighters. A wounded soldier named Yll Morina died after four operations. According to testimony gathered by the group, he had cigarette butts stubbed out on his skin and police truncheons poked into his wounds.

In February, Serb artillery shelled KLA positions from the grounds of a mental hospital, a serious violation of conventions of "medical neutrality".

Doctors have been turned against doctors. Refugee doctors in Macedonia speak wryly of "Turbo-Specialists" - young Serbian physicians who have achieved lightning promotion thanks to the expulsion of their Albanian contemporaries. "The Hippocratic Oath doesn't have anything to say about that, does it, about selling your brothers?" says Dr Jaha.