A former prisoner and survivor of the prison massacre committed by Serb forces after NATO raids returns to recount the tragedy 17 years later.
Reshat Nurboja, a former prisoner and survivor of the Dubrava massacre returns to the site after 17 years. Walking around, Nurboja recounts the 1999 Dubrava prison massacre, where 99 people were killed by Serb forces after NATO bombed the detention facility.
In his book, I, testimony of time the author recounts his experience as the massacre survivor and his travails in other prisons in Kosovo and Serbia.
A survivor of the atrocities committed against ethnic Albanian prisoners, Nurboja returns to the place of carnage and systematic torture to face his demons for the first time. We met him there.
After Serbia revoked Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989, tens of thousands of Albanians were fired en masse and education in Albanian was banned. Kosovo Albanians organized parallel structures and assumed a strategy of peaceful resistance as wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina erupted.
After the Dayton peace accord for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina was signed with no mention of the Kosovo issue, in Kosovo an armed resistance, calling itself the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), appeared.
As a young man Nurboja became involved in the Albanian resistance against the Serb and joined the Emergency Council in Peja, a clandestine ‘organisation’ that assisted the KLA. On July 25, 1998, Nurboja was arrested.
Nurboja was first sent to the Peja prison and later transferred to Mitrovica. After being sentenced by the Serb authorities who considered the KLA and its supporters ‘terrorists,’ he was moved to Dubrava, where he experienced what he calls “the most macabre massacre against innocent and vulnerable people.”
On March 24, 1999 NATO alliance began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, after the western powers failed to reach an agreement between Milosevic and the representatives of Kosovo Albanians in France. The campaign targeted military posts and other important infrastructure in Serbia and Kosovo.
“There were NATO jets flying above us at the isolated Pavilion C, a place designated for prisoners who were supposedly more dangerous,” explains Nurboja.
“We would watch them fly from our window and there were prisoners who begged them to bomb us and free us from this nightmare,” Nurboja recalls. “Two days later, two pavilions were bombed.”
When his pavilion was under fire, he recounts, the Serb prison guards locked them in the cells and fled.
“Some of the cell doors were blasted open by the powerful detonations, and we tried to open the rest of the cells and help each other. Half an hour later, the prisoners from Pavilion B came and opened the large iron door using pickaxes,” Nurboja recounts.
Nurboja says that after they were freed they checked all the cells for survivors.
“I went to every cell to check whether people were alive and afterwards went to an observatory room where the guards stayed and thought it would be reasonable to get [the bodies of the dead prisoners] out. After I did so, the ex-chief of security staff from Peja came and ordered me to carry them back in and told me ‘Do you see what your American friends are doing to you? They want to kill you all!’” he explains.
According to Nurboja there was a plan to execute all ethnic Albanian inmates.
“On the 20th [of May] we were freed because the Serbian guards did not dare enter because they were afraid of the bombings. They told us we could us we could do whatever we want and eat whatever, etc. They came only when they wanted to commit massacres and kill.”
When the bombing was resumed on the May 21, killing and wounding many prisoners in the process, Nurboja explains, the prisoners started looking for ways to flee.
“When we started running in order to flee a few seconds after the bombing, hunks of debris would come flying towards us, severing people’s limbs or decapitating them; many people died from the NATO bombings, though the bombs were directed at the prison, not us,” he says.
Tortured and maltreated
Nurboja recalls that the Serbian guards were merciless. He explains how the guards forced them to sing Serbian nationalist songs while beating them and mockingly calling them “chetniks,” after the Serbian WW2 guerrilla force that exercised terror against the non-Serb populations in the Balkans.
In fact, the infamous hymn of the Serb chetniks, “Ko to kaže ko to laže, Srbija je mala (Who says, who lies, Serbia is small,” was the song that the guards wanted the Albanians to sing most.
He says that some of his friends committed suicide because they could not endure the torture.
“One of these prisoners – I won’t mention his name – killed himself at the pavilion,” Nurboja says while pointing at the cells where the event occurred.
He says that the Dubrava massacre lasted more than a few days: according to him, the tortures, which he calls ‘worse than death itself’ happened from the first day that prisoners were brought in.
He recalls that the Serbian forces ordered them to huddle together at the sports hall to be prepared because they were going to be moved to another prison ‘due to security reasons’.
“Before we started lining up, they started firing rifles and throwing hand grenades from across the wall. We turned back, trying to escape, but a lot of people were killed. I was wounded there and crawled and fell. Afterwards my friends helped me. As far as we know, 99 people died that day.”
Nurboja sustained an injury to the leg but fortunately the wound was curable. He says that during those days everybody was trying to find a way to escape. Some of his friends even entered the prison sewers.
“Individuals were unimportant at the Dubrava prison. But there, every prisoner was a real life hero. They preserved their Albanian identity even under dangerous sniper fire and they risked their lives to help the wounded and care for them and the food simultaneously,” Nurboja recalls.
Authorities deployed to guard the prison were afraid to enter, he says, coming back only to commit killings.
“The guards were cowards, the Serbian police never dared to enter the prison unless armed, then they came and killed.”
After that day, Nurboja remembers that the Serbian guardians told them to group up at the sports hall where, he says, they treated them surprisingly well.
“We were staying close to the windows and listened when they spoke on the radio and said that Belgrade ordered them to abort the action. The ones that were there disagreed but their chief convinced them and they aborted the action. From that moment on, their attitude changed: they told us to disperse and that they would call us tomorrow to transfer us to other prisons,” says Nurboja.
A day later he was sent to another prison in Lipjan where the beatings and torture continued.
“They moved us to Lipjan through the Bullatoviqi street and the supervisors would tell the drivers, ‘If NATO attacks, find a cliff and jump out of the bus, they cannot remain alive’. But it was pleasing to see the military policemen be ten times more afraid than we were [while] the NATO jet followed us on our way from Dubrava to Lipjan,” Nurboja continues.
After staying at the prison in Lipjan, some of the prisoners were sent to prisons in Nis and Pozarevac in Serbia, and according to Nurboja,the Serbian prison guards allowed civilians to enter the vehicles transporting prisoners to insult, spit on and beat them. He says that the tortures ended with his release from the Serbian Sremska Mitrovica prison on July 26, 2000.
The survivor insists that the Dubrava massacre should be investigated and justice should be served to the culprits, appealing to Kosovo and international institutions to shed light on the tragedy.
“We cannot silence the Dubrava massacre, it can happen again somewhere else. The criminals need to be put to justice, it is a genocide committed towards the prisoners because it was organized and executed by the state. Unfortunately, we are silent for global and state interests but we cannot silence this massacre,” he stresses.