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Helsinki Commission Hearing on Kosovo’s Displaced and Imprisoned

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

106th Congress, Second Session

Mr. Speaker, this week the Helsinki Commission held a hearing to review the current situation in Kosovo and the prospects for addressing outstanding human rights issues there. More specifically, the hearing focused on the more than 200,000 displaced of Kosovo, mostly Serb and Roma, as well as those Albanians, numbering at least 1,600 and perhaps much more, imprisoned in Serbia. Witnesses included Ambassador John Menzies, Deputy Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Kosovo Implementation; Bill Frelick, Director for Policy at the U.S. Committee for Refugees; His Grace, Bishop Artemije of the Serbian Orthodox Church; Andrzej Mirga, an expert on Roma issues for the Project on Ethnic Relations and the Council of Europe; Susan Blaustein, a senior consultant at the International Crisis Group; and, finally, Ylber Bajraktari, a student from Kosovo.

The situation for the displaced, Mr. Speaker, is truly horrible. In Serbia, most collective centers are grim, lacking privacy and adequate facilities. While most displaced Serbs have found private accommodations, they still confront a horrible economic situation worsened by the high degree of corruption, courtesy of the Milosevic regime. The squalor in which the Roma population from Kosovo lives is much worse, and they face the added burdens of discrimination, not only in Serbia but in Montenegro and Macedonia as well. There is little chance right now for any of them to go back to Kosovo, given the strength of Albanian extremists there. Indeed, since KFOR entered Kosovo eight months ago, it was asserted, more than 80 Orthodox Churches have been damaged or destroyed in Kosovo, more than 600 Serbs have been abducted and more than 400 Serbs have been killed. The situation for those Serbs and Roma remaining in Kosovo is precarious. Other groups, including Muslim Slavs, those who refused to serve in the Yugoslav military, and ethnic Albanians outside Kosovo, face severe problems as well, but their plights are too often overlooked.

Meanwhile, the Milosevic regime continues to hold Albanians from Kosovo in Serbian prisons, in many cases without charges. While an agreement to release these individuals was left out of the agreement ending NATO’s military campaign against Yugoslav and Serbian forces, with the Clinton Administration’s acquiescence, by international law these people should have been released. At a minimum, the prisoners are mistreated; more accurately, many are tortured. Some prominent cases were highlighted: 24-year-old Albin Kurti, a former leader of the non-violent student movement; Flora Brovina, a prominent pediatrician and human rights activist; Ukshin Hoti, a Harvard graduate considered by some to be a possible future leader of Kosovo; and, Bardhyl Caushi, Dean of the School of Law, University of Pristina. Clearly, the resolution of these cases is critical to any real effort at reconciliation in Kosovo.

This human suffering, Mr. Speaker, must not be allowed to continue. Action must be taken by the United States and the international community as a whole. Among the suggestions made, which I would like to share with my colleagues, are the following: First, get rid of Milosevic. Little if anything can be done in Kosovo or in the Balkans as a whole until there is democratic change in Serbia; Second, bring greater attention to the imprisoned Albanians in Serbia, and keep the pressure on the Milosevic regime to release them immediately and without condition; Third, rein in extremists on both sides, Albanian and Serb, in Kosovo with a more robust international presence, including the deployment of the additional international police as requested by the UN Administrator; Fourth, find alternative networks for improved distribution of assistance to the displaced in Serbia; Fifth, consider additional third-country settlement in the United States and elsewhere for those groups most vulnerable and unable to return to their homes, like the Roma and those who evaded military service as urged by NATO.

Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Helsinki Commission, I intend to pursue some of these suggestions with specific legislative initiatives, or through contacts with the Department of State. I hope to find support from my fellow Commissioners and other colleagues. Having heard of the suffering of so many people, we cannot neglect to take appropriate action to help, especially in a place like Kosovo where the United States has invested so much and holds considerable influence as a result.

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