Freedom no closer for POWs

Jesse Jackson brings 3 U.S. soldiers tapes from families, prayers

Release `not on agenda'

Last-ditch appeal to Milosevic today

War In Yugoslavia

May 01, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Amid hope, prayer, tears and an air raid siren's wail, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson met three captive U.S. servicemen yesterday but appeared no closer to winning their release from Yugoslav authorities.

The dramatic and at times heart-breaking encounter inside the Military Court of Belgrade provided the first publicly visible evidence since their capture March 31 that the soldiers are in good health.

Jackson is due to make a last-ditch appeal for the soldiers' freedom during today's scheduled meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

But Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic played down chances of their release while NATO intensifies its bombing campaign.

Bearing Bibles, religious icons, candy bars and tape-recorded messages from their families, Jackson met Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Texas; Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles; and Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich.

Dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and boots without laces, the men entered a small room, one by one, their moods and faces providing stunning images of wartime imprisonment as they sat in armchairs like eager job applicants during the 25-minute meeting.

Stone appeared tired and almost haunted. He had dark circles under his eyes and a faded bruise on his left forehead that he said was "a mark from our capture" along the Macedonia-Albanian border.

Gonzales appeared relaxed, and even smiled.

How was he feeling?

`Um, OK, considering the circumstances," he said.

Ramirez appeared healthy yet dazed by the commotion as Jackson persuaded the authorities to let the meeting continue.

Jackson described the soldiers as living in "a vacuum."

"They appeared to be healthy," Jackson said. "They are eating balanced meals. They are not listening to the radio, watching television or reading newspapers. They were hoping against hope."

And at one point Jackson declared, "America will be proud of them. They are strong. They will survive."

Jackson sought to boost the soldiers' spirits, telling them that like the biblical apostles and South African leader Nelson Mandela, they could make the best of a bad situation in jail.

"You'll come out a stronger person," he told Ramirez.

The soldiers also spoke of love and hope to their families in messages filmed by a television crew.

Stone's face grew red and his eyes filled with tears as he told his wife Tricia and 4-year-old son, Ryan, "I love you."

U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich, an Illinois Democrat who was in the room, broke the tension when he told the soldier he would get a very big pay raise.

Gonzales said, "I love you, Mom and Dad. Sorry I put you through so much pain and agony." He also thanked "everyone for all your thoughts and prayers."

"They're needed," he said. "I really miss home."

Ramirez was teary-eyed as he said, "Hello, Mom," and later added, `Hopefully I'll get to see you guys soon."

The meeting was tightly controlled. Jackson and Blagojevich were accompanied by two pool reporters. A man identified as a Yugoslav military court chairman cleared all questions and was joined by a military translator and camera man.

Still, the soldiers provided nuggets of their daily lives.

Stone said, "We live in a one-person cell. We have a bed, a small table."

He indicated he was awakened "just before or after sunrise."

Eating breakfast, showering and shaving are part of a daily routine that includes a visit with a senior Yugoslav officer "to see if we have any problem or need anything."

He said the soldiers "have no contact with each other."

"We got to walk today," Gonzales said. "I do push-ups on my own."

He added, "I'm feeling a little mentally drained. It's been a long time we've been here."

If Jackson had his way, the soldiers would be quickly released. But the man who arranged prisoner releases with Cuba's Fidel Castro, Syria's Hafez el Assad and Iraq's Saddam Hussein may find Milosevic the most unmovable of all.

"We're trying to gain their release so their families can see them, so America can see them," Jackson said of the unofficial mission that was staged over the objections of Clinton administration officials, who feared the effort might send mixed signals to Belgrade.

In any case, Assistant Foreign Minister Nebojsa Vujovic said the prisoners' release was "not on the agenda."

Jackson made a quick tour of war-damaged Belgrade and also met with Yugoslav religious and political officials yesterday, as he sought to get some movement in the direction of peace.

Touring the area where a NATO bomb had hit the previous night, Jackson watched an elderly man stumble through the wreckage of his house and poke through kitchen pots and jars of pickled vegetables somehow untouched by the blasts.

"Bombing cannot be a solution," said Jackson, visibly affected by the destruction. "But the same goes for the forceful displacement of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo."

Jackson said the soldiers' release "could be a strong diplomatic gesture."

"While everyone says they are not bargaining chips, they are in the center of this thing," Jackson said.

Clearly, he was moved by the meeting.

Jackson prayed with the soldiers before parting, grasping Gonzales and Ramirez by their shoulders as Stone stood on the side.

"Help is on the way and hope is in the air," Jackson said, his head bowed. "And soon, very soon, we'll know peace and family, love and joy."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/01/99

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