Among Kosovo's disappeared, the lucky are in Serb prisons

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ALBIN KURTI made a powerful impression on the dozens of human- rights activists, diplomats, students and journalists he met. His long, dark dreadlocks, gentle smile, and treasured library of books by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Carnegie Commission on International Peace reflected his passionate and articulate commitment to pacifism and social justice.

But in the summer of 1998, the war raging in Drenica and Kosovo's western regions was drawing Mr Kurti closer - not without reservations - to the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), then led by the dissident politician Adem Demaci. Fluent in English, Mr Kurti, 24, served as Mr Demaci's spokesman, and by extension, as spokesman for the KLA's political wing.

By the end of the failed Rambouillet talks in February, Mr Demaci was replaced as KLA political leader by Hashim Thaci, 30, who in his student days had led anti-Milosevic protests. But by then, Mr Kurti's name was already on a Serbian list of key Albanians to be detained.

Mr Kurti, his father, Zaim, and brothers, Arianit and Taulant, were arrested by special police in the Pristina home where they were hiding on 21 April. His father and brothers were eventually released after being beaten. But Albin, after serving time in the Lipljan prison, was moved to a jail in Krusevac, Serbia, where he is still thought to be.

Another name on the Serbs' list was that of paediatrician and human-rights activist Flora Brovina. Like Mr Kurti, Dr Brovina was arrested, on 21 April, by Serbian special police outside her Pristina home, her neighbours say. She is now believed to be held in a prison in Pozarevac, Serbia. Her son, Nick Brovina, says she has become partially paralysed as a result of her treatment.

Dr Brovina and Mr Kurti are two of more than 2,270 Kosovo Albanians held as political prisoners in Serbia, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Another 1,500 Kosovo Albanians are still missing after the conflict, including 800 from Djakovica alone. Many of their families suspect they are being held in Serbian jails.

That would be good news, says Natasa Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade. "Unfortunately," she said, "those on the missing lists who are not in Serbian prisons, are probably dead." A mass grave containing 97 bodies was discovered this week near Istok in western Kosovo. The remains are said to be those of Kosovo Albanian prisoners from the Dubrave prison.

Crowds of relatives gather outside the United Nations headquarters in Pristina almost daily to appeal for help in freeing their loved ones. But it often seems that no one is listening. Officials in international agencies say that they are aware of the problem and are working on it. But they have failed to explain what exactly they are doing or how long it will take.

Dr Brovina's friend and fellow doctor and human-rights activist, Vjosa Dobruna, head of Kosovo's Centre for Protection of Women and Children, has been working to persuade international officials to take up her case and those of thousands of other Kosovo Albanians transported out of the province as Serbian forces withdrew.

"I don't think there are any avenues I haven't pursued," Dr Dobruna said. "I have talked to [United States'] under-secretary for human rights, Harold Koh, and Nato secretary-general, Javier Solana. I have contacted all the agencies, the ICRC and Human Rights Watch."

Dr Dobruna and other human-rights activists are angry that international officials signed a peace agreement with Belgrade that failed to grant amnesty to the thousands of Kosovo Albanians imprisoned by the Serbs for political reasons - a clause which was included (but not honoured) in last October's Holbrooke-Milosevic agreement.

But in the past week, there has been some progress. Three Kosovo Albanian lawyers were able to meet with several political prisoners in Serbian jails. The lawyers reported that conditions for the prisoners were "bad", but not as brutal as those under which Serbian forces held prisoners during the conflict.

Ms Kandic organised the lawyers' visits. "They have succeeded in tracking and finding some 30 to 35 Kosovo Albanians from the missing list in the prisons. All of them are from Djakovica and were arrested in April and May," she said. "It is good news. But the list of the missing is long."

In addition to the 1,500 missing Kosovo Albanians, and 2,270 in Serbian jails, the Humanitarian Law Centre has complied a list of more than 250 missing Kosovo Serbs. Although no provision was made for the missing and imprisoned in the Military Technical Agreement signed by Nato and the Yugoslav Army at Kumanova, Macedonia, Ms Kandic believes the Serbian authorities may be willing to negotiate a post-war deal.

"Based on some rumours, I believe that the Serbian authorities will say the people arrested during the Nato bombing should have the status of prisoners of war. But after the arrival of [the peace-keeping force] K-For, the missing Serbs and Romas and Albanians should have the status of disappeared. I think the Serbian authorities and the UN civil administration should begin to clarify now the issue of prisoners and missing persons."