Wounded KLA rebels are spoiling for revenge

Albania `hospital' patches them for return to Kosovo

War In Yugoslavia

May 13, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

TIRANA, Albania -- The first shot did not stop him. Neither did the second or the third. But by the 23rd bullet, Agron Berisha was on the ground, awake and waiting to die.

Now the 22-year-old soldier is recuperating in the six-room apartment where, for the past eight months, the Kosovo Liberation Army has sent its wounded to heal. Scores of foot soldiers and a few KLA officers have been treated at what they call "the hospital," where most of the medicine is dangerously outdated and the intravenous stands are rusty with age.

KLA doctors visit daily, but surgery and other serious medical procedures are performed at the Albanian military hospital on the outskirts of the capital, Tirana. The one-bathroom apartment is for afterward. Some soldiers stay for days, others for months. With two dozen beds pushed against every available wall, they sometimes have to double up.

The soldiers smoking on the long, narrow balcony or just staring at the walls inside insist they do not mind. To them, the spare but clean apartment is a place to ready themselves to fight again. Even Berisha, injured nine months ago in an attack where the Serbs outnumbered the KLA 2-to-1, hopes to return to the battlefield. For now, he is on crutches.

"I hope that I'll be OK, and when I am OK, I am going right back to fight," said the soft-spoken Berisha, who joined the KLA last spring. "I'm really mad now. When I get better, I am going right to Kosovo to get my revenge."

Their commander, whose chiseled cheekbones and crinkly eyes could get him cast in that role in a Hollywood war movie, ordered them not to discuss plans, weapons or anything else that could help the Serbs. But as they spoke through a Kosovar interpreter, the soldiers appeared to have few secrets to give away.

Sitting on the beds that are the apartment's only furniture, they spoke openly of being outnumbered but remaining optimistic, of watching comrades die and greeting newcomers to war.

From the conversation, fatalities appeared to be high, injuries higher, although no one could offer any numbers. Several said at least 30 KLA fighters are being treated at the local military hospital at any time.

Soldiers said reports from Kosovo indicate fighting in every corner of the province. No road, they said, is safe for the civilian Kosovars stuck there and the fighters who choose to stay, some of them women. Many of the soldiers have had no word of their families for a month and have been unable to get word to them that they are alive.

Mustafa Bajraktari, the most veteran soldier among the wounded and also the oldest at 40, said two of the four soldiers traveling with him were killed during a January ambush by Serbian police.

Shot three times, he was treated in the field, went back to fighting and waited two months to come to Tirana to see what could be done about his left arm. From shoulder to elbow, the bone is shattered and the arm connected only by muscle.

"There were 32 soldiers in my group, and I want to get back to them," said Bajraktari, who described his rank as something like a sergeant. "I have been fighting a long time and very proud of how many people want to fight with us now."

The soldiers said they would like the chance to fight alongside U.S. troops, and they urged President Clinton to send them. As Osman Musliu, a 30-year-old who suffered a severe concussion and other injuries when he fell during a skirmish, put it: "We want American ground troops to finish this war once and for all."

The soldiers seem an unlikely, disorganized band. No two described a similar training regime, with one saying he had four months' worth and another saying he taught himself to shoot using his own gun. They agreed that the recruits coming from as far away as the United States are spending as little as 15 days in KLA training camps around Albania.

"This army is all volunteer; no one orders us there," said the self-trained Shefqet Gashi, 28, who joined the KLA last May, was injured in September when he fell during a firefight, and is recovering from knee surgery. "We can fight because it comes from the inside."

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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