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By Gerry Boyle '78
Sevdie Ahmeti was in mid-sentence during an interview in her Lovejoy office last month when somewhere in the corridor a door slammed. It had been two years since the bombing of her native Kosovo and three years since Ahmeti jumped a wall to escape capture by Serb soldiers, later enduring beating and torture at the hands of marauding paramilitaries. Still, when the door slammed in the corridor, the Albanian human rights activist gave a visible start, lowered her head and sighed. And then, just as she refused to abandon her mission to publicize rape and torture during Kosovo's decade-long turmoil, Ahmeti forged on with her comments.
"I am a human rights worker," she said. "I leave to save my skin? It is moral to save your skin and interview people from a distance? It is moral when you're out of the country, safe, and you go to the borderline and say, 'What happened inside? Who's killed? Who's raped?'"
The co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Protection of Women and Children in Prishtina, Ahmeti, 56, is at Colby for the fall semester as the 2001 Oak Human Rights Fellow. Her work, conducted single-handedly through the worst years of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, focuses on protection and documentation of ethnic Albanian victims of war crimes.
And there were many.
Ahmeti and her colleagues estimate that 13,000 ethnic Albanian women were raped in Kosovo before the conflict ended with the NATO intervention in 1999. Ahmeti's involvement in human rights work in the country had started almost a decade before, after she and other ethnic Albanians were dismissed from their jobs by Serb officials. She began writing political commentary for magazines, an effort that resulted in her arrest and the arrest of the editor of the magazine that published her work. Ahmeti continued to write and to publish her commentary on the Internet and to send reports to world leaders. But when war broke out in 1998, Ahmeti went to the war zones.
"In March 1998 until March 1999, until two days after the air strikes started," she said. "I would write every day what was happening in Kosovo. I would visit women and children. I would see them living out in the open, no food. No shelter. No hygienic supplies, nothing. For weeks and months in the cold and in the rain. So I would go interview. I would publish different interviews on Internet."
Already a public figure, her reporting brought Serb soldiers to her door. Her husband, Sebahudin, former minister of health for Kosovo, was tipped off by neighbors and ran home to warn his wife.
"He said, 'Run. Run out the back side," Ahmeti said. "We opened the window, I jump. I hear them break the door of the house. I jump the wall. Desire. Desire to live.
The soldiers took her papers, her computer, her photos and notes. They threatened that they would kill her husband if they came back and found Ahmeti, and then they would kill her, too. For the next three months, Ahmeti was in hiding, slipping from house to house, hidden in attics and cellars, sleeping in barns.
"Everyone was in danger. How can I describe these three months. They were all terror. One minute of terror was as long as twenty-four hours. You can imagine how long a day was. Are they coming to kill you? To rape you? To butcher you? To order you deported?"
Eventually Ahmeti was caught, and she and her relatives were beaten and tortured by Serb paramilitaries. "Fortunately it was those who were after money, after gold," she said. They did not know who they had in their clutches.
By the time the war ended in 1999, eight members of Ahmeti's family had been killed. In her birthplace, the city of Gjakova west of Prishtina, 1,658 people were missing, 673 killed, more than 400 detained. Kosovo Liberation Army forces found a group of raped women in the mountains and brought them to Ahmeti for treatment and to have their stories recorded. These and other reports by Ahmeti and her colleagues have been used as evidence by the International Criminal Tribunal of Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
But conviction of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and others accused in the Kosovo massacres will not mean an end to Ahmeti's work. She and others who work in the nine branches of the Centre of the Protection of Women and Children know the victims of rape and other abuse have long-term needs.
Did you ever see any raped woman who has taken to the streets and protested?" No, she said, because they are too ashamed, and the hurt they feel remains with them.
"It's a degradation that is there," Ahmeti said. "It's a bullet that can never go off."
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