Bringing Out the Dead

Almost a dozen of us meet outside Bear Stearns’s offices at 46th and Park. Richard Lukaj, a handsome, dark-haired 31-year-old banker dressed in chinos and a summer sport coat, leads us to a black two-seat Jaguar convertible parked around the corner. It’s 3 p.m. on a hot July Friday, and we’re headed to the Hamptons. But this is no ordinary summer-house convoy. The two cars behind us are filled with young Albanian-American men who fought briefly with the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serb forces during Yugoslavia’s 1998- 99 crackdown on Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian majority. Among them are a restaurant manager and former platoon leader; a student and former sniper; and a journalist and former infantryman. Lukaj, the chairman of the National Albanian American Council, and the men are going to pay their respects to Ahmet Bytyqi, 54, a Hampton Bays housepainter whose three American-born sons were found dead recently in a mass grave in Serbia. They had been executed shortly after the fighting ended in June 1999.

It is two days since a Serb newspaper, The Reporter, published a human-rights group’s account of the discovery of the bodies. Until then, family and friends had hoped that the brothers – Ylli, 24; Agron, 23; and Mehmet, 21 – were jailed somewhere in Serbia along with hundreds of other ethnic Albanians, and that their status as U.S. citizens had kept them alive. Instead, it is likely that their status – as Americans and as ethnic Albanians – made them targets for murder by Serb police following the U.S.-led nato bombing campaign that had forced Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia, to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.

The Hamptons-bound convoy pulls up to a modest bungalow where Shefki Mati, a hulking 46-year-old contractor with an American flag and an Albanian flag tattooed on his well-muscled arm, lives with his beautiful young wife, Teuta, and their two small children. The backyard – quiet and lush, with a tiny vegetable garden in the middle of the lawn – is filled with men smoking and drinking cups of thick Albanian coffee. They sit around a picnic table and share stories about the Bytyqi brothers’ exploits during their two months with the KLA.

“If my sons died in combat, I’d have no complaints – they were volunteers,” says Ahmet Bytyqi, the enormity of loss etched on his face. “But they were taken after the war, kidnapped from Kosovo.” Since learning about the deaths of his three sons, Ahmet has barely been able to sleep. He has splitting headaches and swollen feet, though he refuses to show his sorrow. “I’m never going to cry, not one tear,” he says. “I’ll never forget what my sons did.”

Ahmet moved his family from Kosovo to the U.S. in 1972. Though Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet were born in Chicago, the family moved back to Kosovo in 1979 to look after ailing grandparents. By 1993, the trio, with their older brother Ilir, had returned to the U.S.; their father was already back here, and their mother and two youngest siblings stayed in Kosovo. When the conflict began in 1999, the brothers felt a patriotic duty to defend their motherland as well as their mother and siblings.

“It was their choice to go,” says their father. “I wish I’d gone myself. We can’t sit here like couch potatoes. We had to go or we would have felt like we weren’t men. We went to fight for humanitarian reasons – not just for Albanians.”

Later, when the visitors leave, the male mourners stand in a traditional receiving line in order of their closeness to the brothers. The line is headed by Ahmet, followed by Ilir, 28, the eldest of his two surviving sons, and other relatives and close friends. The only woman present is Teuta.

The brothers had joined up with the Atlantic Brigade, 400 Albanian-American volunteers who fought with the KLA. According to Dusan Mihajlovic, Serbia’s minister of the interior, they were tried in Prokuplje, a Serb town just north of Kosovo, on June 27, 1999, and sentenced to fifteen days in prison for illegally crossing into Yugoslavia from Albania, a misdemeanor. But on July 8, four days before the sentence ended, an inspector in charge of foreigners, Zoran Stankovic, requested the brothers’ early release. They were handed over to two plainclothes policemen. That was the last anyone saw of them until they were discovered, blindfolded, their hands bound with wire, in the grave.

Albanian-American community leaders want to find out what information American intelligence sources may have had about the danger the brothers were in. “The U.S. had a lot of resources on the ground,” says one community leader. “If the government was negligent in revealing what they knew, then they should be held accountable. It’s the basis of a lawsuit.”

Last Monday, U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia William Montgomery met with Mihajlovic, and called on him to launch a thorough investigation. Facing mounting pressure, the Serb interior minister agreed, later telling reporters in Belgrade, “It’s clear that we’re dealing with an extremely grave crime.”

But Martin Vulaj, the Bytyqi family’s lawyer and the vice-chairman of the National American Albanian Council, says the family is skeptical of such statements. “The Serb authorities were responsible for the boys’ deaths,” Vulaj says. “It is disingenuous to believe they can conduct an independent investigation.”

Between themselves, the brothers had agreed that Ilir would stay home to look after the family in case anything happened.

“They were all so young, enthusiastic, and full of life,” says Arber Muriqi, Agron’s 31-year-old platoon leader. “The youngest brother, Mehmet, he was the tallest and very good-looking. He wore an American flag like a bandanna. They were extremely proud of being Americans and displayed it openly. One shoulder badge had the American flag and the other had the Albanian flag.”

Last Thursday, Ilir, a chef, went to Kosovo to comfort his distraught mother and two remaining siblings. He will also identify the bodies. “I will be the one to bring them home,” he says. “They are my brothers by blood, but they are America’s sons, too.”

Bringing Out the Dead