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Will There Be a War in Kosovo?

1.

The fighting has subsided in Kosovo for now, but the waiting has begun. Villages blockaded by the Serbian police are silent, almost deserted, but the police are under fire from snipers. In a hamlet I visited in the Drenica hills, frightened Albanians told me they cannot leave. “If we pass the police checkpoint they’ll arrest us and say we’re terrorists,” an Albanian named Agim said. A crowd of peasant farmers gathered around him to tell their tales of woe and fear.

In the valley below, on a muddy bank in the village of Donji Prekaz, are the fifty-three freshly dug graves of the Jashari clan. On February 28 Albanian guerrillas killed four policemen and wounded two others on the road to the nearby town of Klina. The police, convinced that their attackers were Jasharis, took their revenge on members of the clan. Their houses now lie in ruins; their blood, congealed and dark, stains the walls.

Here the tradition of revenge, the obligation to match blood with blood, runs deep. For now, the blood of the Jasharis—and that of twenty-four members of the Ahmeti clan killed in a neighboring hamlet—remains to be avenged. In the nearby town of Glogovac the streets are empty, and the sense of menace, the creeping feeling of threatening violence, is pervasive. Two of the four policemen who died near Klina set out from here. Today each of their colleagues goes to work knowing that this day could be his last.

Throughout the Drenica region, where last month’s fighting took place, the police are digging in. They are hauling sandbags, scanning the horizon, and fixing arc lamps over the road. They walk about in their flak jackets, uncomfortable and cold. They say the armed Albanians, guerrillas, terrorists—who knows for sure—are somewhere “over there,” taking potshots at them, sometimes firing wobbly flares at night.

Serbia’s southern province is now being called, in the old cliché, the “Balkan powder keg,” even though the powder is still damp. There is still time to avert the long-awaited explosion, but it is slipping away. In principle the Kosovo problem is relatively straightforward. Kosovo is the province of southern Serbia that the Serbs claim as their Jerusalem, the spiritual and historic heartland of their people. In that case, the ethnic Albanians who live here reply, the Serbian heart is lodged in a foreign body, for of Kosovo’s population of two million barely 200,000 are Serbs. All but a few of the rest are ethnic Albanians. Either descendants of ancient Illyrian tribes or of migrants from Albania, they speak Albanian. Many have family connections in Albania, and, as with other Albanians, most of them are Muslims. They demand independence. The Serbs—who make up some six and a half million of the approximately ten and a half million citizens of the Yugoslavia ruled by President Slobodan Milosevic—say they cannot have it.

For years it was predicted that if violent conflict broke out in Yugoslavia it would start in Kosovo. It did not happen that way, but the conflict between Serb and Albanian nationalism that began here did in fact precipitate the destruction of the old Yugoslavia. As Noel Malcolm writes in the first line of his excellent book, “The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo.” Miranda Vickers says much the same thing.

During the 1980s, as an autonomous province of Serbia, Kosovo was ruled by its own ethnic Albanian Communist leaders. But the Albanians demanded more. They argued that it was unjust that they should be regarded as a “national minority” in Yugoslavia when, for example, there were three times more Albanians than Montenegrins, who had been given the right to their own republic. Tito’s 1974 constitution was unclear about a republic’s right to secede. But four Yugoslav republics that asked for international recognition got it, in 1992. Today NATO and other foreign powers insist that the Albanians of Kosovo must stay locked in a country they despise because their territory is just a province.

Albanians were, of course, not the only malcontents in Kosovo during the 1980s. The province’s Serbs were also deeply unhappy and many migrated to central Serbia in search of new lives. They went not only because Kosovo was poor but also because they felt persecuted by the Albanians; and they thought their children had no future in a territory ruled by Albanians. It was the genius of Slobodan Milosevic, then the secretary of the Serbian Communist Party, to exploit this discontent and encourage a revival of Serbian nationalism as part of his bid to secure full power. He succeeded and in early 1989 crowned his success by stripping Kosovo of its autonomy and sending in police to place it under harsh Serbian rule.

The triumph proved short-lived. Alarm at Milosevic’s behavior in Kosovo did much to set off the spiraling nationalism in the rest of Yugoslavia which was to culminate in its violent destruction. And Milosevic’s failure to face up to the Kosovo problem has returned to haunt him ever since.

In 1991 ethnic Albanians declared their own Republika e Kosoves an independent state. Ever since, they have built up their own parallel schools and clinics; but the province remains under tight Serbian control. The abuses of Serbian police, whether in arresting or in beating up Albanians, are probably the worst in Europe today. One question arises, as the Serbs continue to dismiss Albanian demands for statehood: Is war inevitable? The answer is: perhaps, but not necessarily. Kosovo is not Croatia or Bosnia. It is a looking-glass world all of its own.

2.

As night falls over the Serbian monastery church of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo the monks chant their evening prayers. It has been like this since the 1330s. Every Thursday the monks open the sarcophagus of their patron saint, King Stefan Decanski, to ask for his help in times of trouble. They say that when the sarcophagus is open, the church fills with the smell of roses. When Serbs say that Kosovo is the spiritual heart of their nation, they have such symbols in mind.

In 1992 the Church hierarchy decided to rejuvenate the monastery of Decani. The old men were sent elsewhere and a new generation of monks were installed. They are young, vigorous, and well-educated. They guard the bones of their holy king and dream of a Serbian “Empire of Heaven.” Father Sava is thirty-two years old. He speaks flawless English and has been to Washington twice in the past two months to argue the case for dialogue and compromise with the Albanians. If Serbian leaders had all been as capable and as sincere as Father Sava, the old Yugoslavia would today be yet another boring ex-Communist country. Unfortunately they were not like Father Sava.

Milosevic,” Father Sava told me, “is playing a wicked game with the emotions of Serbs here. He saved them at a bad moment; he bandaged the wound but he has left it to fester.” Father Sava says that a compromise deal must be struck soon. If not, “Kosovo’s Serbs will pay the price for Belgrade’s behavior.” They do not have to look very far to see their worst fears confirmed. In every town in Serbia, including Kosovo, bedraggled, pathetic communities of some of the 200,000 Serbs expelled from Krajina in Croatia in August 1995 provide a sad example of a people who once placed their faith in Milosevic and then were driven from their homes.

Apart from his visits to Washington, Father Sava has taken the local Serbians’ cause into cyberspace. As another brother explained to me: “It is our ‘obedience.’ One day we might be told to chop wood, the next to work in the stables, and the next to work on the computers.” But the brutal truth is that Decani’s web page and its e-mailing monks can do little to appease the fears of their flock. Barely twenty-five souls turn up to worship with them on Sunday. Father Sava says that local Serbs are frightened: “For us monks it is different. We think about death every day.”

Ilija, aged thirty-two, the father of a two-year-old daughter, is very frightened indeed. The foundations of his family’s house are even older than those of the monastery. He can remember when half the population in his village were Serbs. Now, he said, there are sixty-three of them left living among 1500 Albanians. “Nonsense,” his wife, Mirjana, interrupts. “Half of those sixty-three have left in the last few weeks and half of the rest are old grannies.” With odds like these against him, Ilija does not even pretend that he is going to fight for the house of his ancestors.

A mile down the road Albanian men drink coffee at the Edona café, ignoring three Serb policemen at a corner table. The police pick up their machine guns and leave, followed by stares of silent, distilled hatred. Toni, who has worked “in construction” in New York for twelve years, now feels free to express his anger at the police. “You can hardly even drive around here. They stop you, and just rip you off, demanding money for whatever they can think of. They come into your shop, take stuff, and say they’ll pay you tomorrow. Of course they never do.” Toni says he has come home to protect his family. He believes that a compromise with the Serbs is still possible, but “if they wanna war we gonna win.”

The Albanian border is barely ten miles from here. Piled on the backs of donkeys, guns are coming across, just as they have done for hundreds of years. The police snare some of these weapons, but only if war begins for real will we be able to estimate how many donkeys slipped through in the dead of night.

In the nearby town of Pec the owner of the Prince café shows me the house next door whose windows were shattered by a hand grenade. “It’s Serb terror,” he says. “Someone chucked it from a car because he knew that we’d all been to the demonstration”—a demonstration against Serb rule. There is, however, another version of the tale of the hand grenade. Albanian political leaders have far more control over daily life than many visitors realize. Just after the Jashari killings, Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of Kosovo’s Albanians and president of the phantom Republika, ordered a day of mourning. But, as several people told me, the owner of the Prince café failed to shut his doors. It is possible that an enforcer was sent out to remind him just who is the boss. Everyone here knows that in both Croatia and Bosnia the very first casualties of war were the cafés, because they were easy targets and also gathering places of men from “the other side.”

3.

When the wars began in Croatia and Bosnia, one of the problems journalists and others faced was that there were no up-to-date, modern histories of the region. The loud debate over whether “ancient hatreds” were the source of the conflict was strangely uninformed. American and European politicians—such as Lawrence Eagleburger—argued that there was not much point in intervening since Balkan peoples had hated one another for many hundreds of years and were now indulging in more bloodletting, as they had done every few generations. Their opponents argued that the peoples of the Balkans had, for hundreds of years, shown themselves capable of tolerance and interethnic peace, and that evil and aggressive politicians were mainly responsible for the wars. Of course both these arguments were wrong. Yugoslav politicians inflamed murderous passions that had long been smoldering.

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