PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Hands on their hearts, thousands of ethnic Albanians gathered Wednesday around the coffins of three American brothers killed execution-style in 1999 in the chaotic aftermath of Kosovo's war. Their bodies were found in a mass grave.
Forming a circle around the coffins draped in the American and Albanian flags, the crowd embraced the Bytyqi family as they came to take home the bodies of their sons, who were put to death by Serb forces nearly three years ago. A phalanx of former fighters held back weeping women, children clutching flowers and former guerrillas as they pressed forward to place red and white roses on the three coffins.
"They were trying to ... rescue some people who were under threat," said former U.S. diplomat William Walker just before the ceremony.
"These were noble young men."
Yll, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, who ranged in age from 21-24, left their jobs making pizzas in New York to fight with 400 other Americans of ethnic Albanian origin in a unit called the Atlantic Battalion.
The unit joined guerrillas fighting against Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998-1999.
Described as inseparable, the brothers insisted they must fight together to make Kosovo free.
"They saw pictures of Kosovo burning," recalled their father, Ahmet.
"They told me they wanted to go and fight, not because they were Albanians, but because they were human beings."
NATO's 78-day air campaign forced Milosevic's forces to withdraw from the southern Yugoslav province, but it took time for the alliance to step in and establish law and order. Some ethnic Albanians took advantage of the security vacuum to take revenge against Serbs, Gypsies and other minorities they saw as being the foundation of a decade of oppression under Milosevic's rule.
Amid the confusion, the Bytyqi brothers returned to their ancestral home in the southern town of Prizren, about 60 miles from the province's capital, Pristina. Their relatives told them how their Gypsy neighbors had helped the Bytyqi family during the war, according to Arber Muriqi, a former comrade.
"The neighbors were scared because of the anarchy at that time, so they asked for help to reach another country," Muriqi said. "The brothers accepted a humanitarian mission."
As usual, they went together.
Not much is known about how they were captured. It is believed they strayed outside of Kosovo's unmarked boundary and into an area that remained under the control of Milosevic's forces.
The Gypsies, also known as Roma, were released, but Serb forces imprisoned and sentenced the brothers to 15 days in jail for crossing the boundary without a visa. Just four days before their sentence expired, two uniformed Serb policemen removed them from jail and put them in a white car.
Never seen again
"They were never seen alive again," Muriqi said.
Their bodies, hands bound behind their backs with barbed wire, were found last June in a mass grave in Petrovo Selo, 120 miles east of Yugoslavia's capital, Belgrade. The FBI forensic team that identified their remains also discovered their U.S. passports in the pit.
The United States is also conducting an investigation into the deaths of the brothers, the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
For now, their father Ahmet is waiting for answers, comforted only by the fact that unlike many in Kosovo, he at least has remains to bury.
As Bytyqi came to the main square, Walker offered a comforting bear hug, and then led him to the coffins.
The father stood quietly, his eyes transfixed.
"My boys were humane," Ahmet Bytyqi said. "They wanted everyone to have freedom -- just like in America."