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Impasse in Kosovo

1.

In the little town of Orahovac, in central Kosovo, I saw a young Albanian woman clearly in shock carrying a baby whose skin had turned white. Her husband was dead and she had been wandering in the woods for days. An old man showed me where he had buried his wife—in a cornfield. In a tiny village in the hills children’s shoes still lay on the road. Six people, including a pregnant woman, had died when a single Serb shell or rocket hit the group.

In the town of Malisevo, once the bustling heart of Kosovo’s “liberated territories,” cows rooted for food in smashed-up shops. Along the roads thousands of houses had been burned, put to the torch by the Serbs. In the fields cows were trampling the wheat and eating the corn. In the village of Klecka, the Serbs unearthed the remains of twenty-two civilians, including children, whom they said had been murdered by the Kosovo Liberation Army. As usual, civilians are paying the price of war.

When the conflict began in Serbia’s southern province in early spring, it appeared that there was still a chance that reason might prevail. Although fewer than 10 percent of Kosovo’s population of roughly 1.7 million are Serbs, the NATO nations and Russia ruled out the possibility that its ethnic Albanians—Kosovars—could be granted independence. Although Ibrahim Rugova, the president of the Kosovars’ self-declared shadow republic, had never backed down from his demand for independence, it was thought that maybe he would compromise and accept virtual statehood within a new Yugoslavia of three republics—Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

The “three republic solution” seemed to address Serb concerns too. After all, if the Kosovars remained part of the Serbian republic, then they, too, would have a voice in determining the future of the Serbs. The solution also had the beauty of not setting unwelcome precedents for Macedonia and Bosnia. If Kosovo could be independent, why should Serb- and Croat-controlled regions stay part of that American creation, the Bosnia established in November 1995 at peace talks in Dayton, Ohio? And why should the quarter of the population of Macedonia that is ethnic Albanian wish to remain part of that Slav state, for which they have shown little enthusiasm? Still, reason did not prevail.

At the last count, the war in Kosovo has displaced some 265,000 people from their homes. Most, but not all, are ethnic Albanians. Some are in Albania, some are in Montenegro, but most are in Kosovo itself. They are packed into the homes of friends or relatives, but some 50,000 are miserably sleeping in the woods and in the rain. In a few weeks the snow will begin to fall. Many would go back to their houses and villages if they could—but the Serbs have already burned them.

Why did reason fail? Because, at least on the Albanian side, euphoria took hold. Ever since 1989 Kosovo Albanians have lived in a virtual police state imposed on them by Slobodan Milosevic, then Serbia’s leader, now the president of Yugoslavia. When the armed uprising began last spring entire regions simply tumbled into the hands of the KLA, a guerrilla force that appeared to have sprung from nowhere. The Serbs withdrew to the main roads and then began to lose those too.

By the middle of July a third of the province was in KLA hands. Why talk about peace and possible autonomy if things were going so well? And in their way the Serbs helped too. Their brutal and clumsy assaults led to Western threats—hollow threats from Washington, among other capitals—that unless Serb forces withdrew, NATO would launch the same kind of devastating air raids that brought them to the negotiating table at Dayton. Jubilant KLA spokesmen began talking of how, when Kosovo was liberated, they would go on to free the Albanians of Macedonia and Montenegro—and perhaps even formerly Albanian-inhabited lands in Greece as well.

On July 5 I went to a fund-raising evening in London. Five hundred Kosovars packed the hall. In front of a KLA flag Jashar Salihu, the man who manages the KLA’s fund-raising activities abroad, told them that they should not worry whether foreigners objected to their aims. “We don’t care what the Americans and England think. We should unite with deeds not words. We don’t care what Clinton and other devils think, we are going to tell the truth!”

The problem was that, even if the devil Clinton himself was not listening, others were. Reports from Kosovo indicated that if NATO jets hit Serb targets then disaster could follow not only for Serbia but for the long-term policies of NATO powers as well. The logic was simple. There were two lessons from the Bosnian bombing raids of the summer of 1995. The first was that the Serbs were indeed driven to the negotiating table. The second was that, with their military organization in disarray, the Serbs fell back and the Bosnian Muslims and Croats surged forward. That was exactly what Richard Holbrooke, the man then running US policy, wanted because, when the fighting stopped, both sides controlled roughly the amount of territory which it was proposed they should have under any peace deal.

In Kosovo things were very different. If bombs fell the Serbs would retreat again and those parts of the province not yet under KLA control would rise in rebellion. The KLA would take over everywhere. If this happened Kosovo would be independent, internationally recognized or not; that would be precisely the opposite of what Western leaders wanted to achieve, namely a compromise solution within Yugoslavia’s borders.

On the ground, Serb policemen were seething. Hiding behind sandbags, they were being sniped at and picked off, they said, like “clay pigeons.” They claimed they could finish off the “terrorists” in days. But why were they getting no orders to do so? People in Belgrade began to believe that Milosevic had lost his touch. Perhaps, momentarily, he really did not know what to do. Gradually, though, the picture cleared. Almost everyone in Kosovo believes that, when the KLA kept announcing to whoever would listen that its aim was a Greater Albania, Milosevic was given a “green light” by the NATO powers to finish them off. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that Milosevic now saw his opportunity. Madeleine Albright and Tony Blair, to name only two, were not going to call in NATO planes to challenge the Serb army and police. Since Western policy makers began to fear that any action they took might lead to a KLA victory, it was, they decided, perhaps better to say nothing while the Albanian guerrillas were at least cut down to size.

At the end of July the Serbian police and army began moving into high gear. The guerrillas have plenty of rifles and small weapons but they do not have anything with which to fight tanks and artillery. So they pulled back; most of the people in the areas where they had been fled with them. The police then advanced into the villages armed with their most devastating weapons of all—cigarette lighters. You don’t need a high-tech weapon to burn down a village.

2.

From the village of Padesh in the mountains of northern Albania you can look down into Kosovo. From here, too, you can see houses burning in the distance. I came here to talk to members of the KLA and find out about their arms supplies and the men who, working in Germany, Switzerland, and underground in Kosovo itself, created their organization. Their rear logistics base has been the region around the village of Tropoja, close to Padesh and the border. The Albanian government has no visible control here, and the KLA are well dug in. Coincidentally Tropoja is the birthplace of Sali Berisha, the former Albanian president who lost power following the spring 1997 uprising in Albania, which was provoked by his failure to protect people’s savings lost in pyramid investment schemes. There are those in power in Albania today who fear that, if things continue to go badly for the KLA, then Berisha may try to rally its troops and persuade them that to liberate Kosovo they must topple his enemies in Tirana first.

The driving force behind the creation of the KLA was a formerly obscure political party set up in 1982. It is called the Levizja Popullore e Kosoves (LPK), or Popular Movement for Kosovo. Mr. Rugova’s party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, known as the LDK, gathered in many former Yugoslav Communist Party members and announced a policy of nonviolence. The LPK was formed around former political prisoners, many of whom went into exile when they were released. Even in the early 1980s the LPK’s message was that only an armed uprising would free Kosovo from the Serbs. Most Albanians thought this notion ridiculous and, during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, were happy to follow Mr. Rugova when he told them that war would bring only disaster and ethnic cleansing. It was better, he argued, to wait quietly for independence, which would surely come. The problem was that it did not come. Until last year, however, the possibility of going to war was theoretical anyway, since there was no way to import large numbers of weapons into Kosovo.

What changed the strategic equation was the chaos in Albania caused by the pyramid-banking scam. The angry popular uprising against Mr. Berisha in the spring of 1997 meant that the Albanian army disintegrated, the police ran away, and the country’s armories were thrown open. Suddenly a million Kalashnikovs were on sale for $15 each. The KLA, which had been formed in 1993, began to act, collecting money among the 400,000- 500,000 Albanian “guest workers” in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and elsewhere, and among the Albanian communities in the US.

When the Kosovo uprising began in March, things moved far faster than the KLA leaders had ever anticipated, though. The clandestine network they had been secretly organizing in the villages came into action and men trooped over the mountains to Tropoja to collect arms. But the pace of events meant that there was scarcely time to consolidate an efficient military structure. A high command of eight men, plus four regional commanders, is believed to meet once a week at different locations, but who exactly these men are is not known. What has become clear, though, is that no commanding officer has emerged to give the KLA a clear military direction—and this lack of direction has led to disaster. In June one commander tried to take a strategic coal mine; then another tried to take Orahovac. Both attacks led to catastrophe. They were the product of months of euphoria rather than weeks of military planning.

Until then, during the KLA’s days of early summer glory, almost every Albanian you met would say, “We are all KLA now.” Now things are not so clear. On the hard earth playground of Tropoja’s school I found 160 men from the border village of Smolnica who had just been driven out by the Serbs. They had flopped down, exhausted, defeat etched on their faces. The men had walked all night before managing to slip across the frontier. “None of us are going back to fight like that,” said one. “If we have the right military equipment, then we’ll go.” Another said: “It’s useless to fight the Serbs with old guns and Kalashnikovs.”

When I met Jashar Salihu in London he was carrying a briefcase and a mobile phone. When I met him again in Tropoja, he wore fatigues and had just walked back across the mountains from Kosovo. He spoke calmly about the Serb offensive: “There is no point in being disappointed. It’s normal that in a war the percentages go up and down.” But he admitted the obvious too: “There was a kind of euphoria. Now we realize that this war is going to last for years.”

Xhabir Zharku, whose code name is “Blind,” is the man in Tropoja whose job it is to deal with emigrants coming back to fight and send them across the border. He is a soft-spoken thirty-three-year-old, a former political prisoner who, until January, was the manager of an insulation company in Stamford, Connecticut. Like Salihu, he sees the recent defeats only as battles lost—not the end of the war. He has a nine-year-old son. “If I don’t do this job today, I know that my son will have to do it tomorrow. Let’s finish it now.” In the courtyard of the house he uses as a command post ammunition is stacked up high and the satellite phone rings softly with calls from the front and from abroad.

It takes this sort of determination to win a war and everyone knows that the price will be high. Indeed growing up in Communist Yugoslavia everyone had it drummed into them that victory comes to those who are prepared to sacrifice the most. Tito and his Partisans emerged as winners of the last war, in part, because they were prepared to challenge the Germans to burn villages and take heavy reprisals against civilians. The more houses destroyed, the more children killed, the more difficult it was to consider any option but fighting.

After the Serb offensive in August the morale of Milosevic’s police and soldiers is higher than it was—but still the basic situation has not changed. This is that there are not very many Serbs left in Kosovo. In 1991 there were believed to be some 200,000 Serbs in the province and perhaps 1.8 million Albanians. Even if, say, 300,000 Albanians have since gone abroad to work or have fled, the rest still heavily outnumber the perhaps 100,000-150,000 native Serbs who remain. There are reported to be 50,000 Serb police and troops in Kosovo, few of whom, obviously, come from the province. Serbia is bankrupt, so it does not take a genius to work out that the Serbs will have a hard time keeping up an extremely expensive and dangerous operation in which their forces will have to face guerrilla harassment every day.

I met Radovan Urosevic, who directs the Serbian media center in Pristina, the provincial capital. Yes, he said, anyone could see that things were better than they were a month ago. I asked him about the future. “For that,”he said, “we need a million Serbs.”

3.

Since a million Serbs are not clamoring to come and live in Kosovo, the KLA is making plans for the long haul. Up in the hills they are plotting their new strategy. When the Serbs burn a village, in most cases they cannot hold it because they do not have enough men to stay on. So they move out and in some cases the KLA move back in. In general, though, the new strategy is to carry out classic guerrilla hit-and-run operations, rather than try to hold on to “liberated territory.” The Serbs try to break the bonds between the people and the guerrillas by burning the villages of any areas in which the KLA operates. In the short term they can create disillusion; but, if the KLA can keep its forces intact and its arms and ammunition coming across the border, the Serbs cannot in the long run win the war. So KLA members can remain reasonably confident, despite the dark days that undoubtedly lie ahead. They are well aware, moreover, that when the Serbs burn villages and their shells kill civilians, this attracts international attention and TV coverage to the plight of Kosovo and the KLA. The suffering of ordinary people can thus be put to the service of the greater good, the liberation of Kosovo.

At the beginning of September the Serbs tried to redress this balance with allegations that, in the village of Klecka, the KLA had executed twenty-two Serb civilians, including children. Some 130 more Serbs, mostly civilians, are still missing, presumed dead, but in the international point-scoring their fate will soon be forgotten. When the Russian collapse fades from the television screens, the thousands of Kosovar families freezing in the snow will be a valuable publicity weapon in the Kosovar arsenal, perhaps the most valuable weapon of all.

In the meantime the diplomats are shuttling back and forth. British, Russians, Americans, and Austrians (Austria is the current EU chairman) are pushing for some sort of deal which will help avert a humanitarian disaster and, even more importantly, make sure that a threatened NATO intervention—of whatever type—need not take place. The omens are not good, but they are not utterly hopeless. Chris Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia, a man close to Richard Holbrooke, now the US ambassador- designate to the UN, is the most important man in the diplomatic dance that still continues.

Mr. Hill complains that he “cannot find the KLA’s telephone number”; that is to say, he cannot find out who is really important in the organization. That may reflect less its habits of conspiracy and more the fact that it still has no single leader. In the middle of August the KLA leaders appointed Adem Demaci, a man who had spent twenty-eight years as a political prisoner, as their civilian representative in Pristina. Whether Mr. Demaci can exert influence over the disparate officers of the guerrilla army is far from clear. At the beginning of September Mr. Hill claimed he had made a breakthrough because, he said, both the Serbs and the Albanians represented by Mr. Rugova had agreed to talk about an “interim” solution. This would involve “a certain degree of self-administration” for a provisional period of between three and five years. After that time the parties would “review” Kosovo’s political status. Since this proposal was immediately rejected by KLA spokesmen as “rubbish,” and fighting has continued, it was hard to see where it would lead.

In London, Pleurat Sejdiu, who speaks for the KLA, points out that for the Albanian militants it is far too late to stop fighting. “They could not give up their guns now, since probably 30 percent of those fighting would immediately be imprisoned.” Indeed, arrests have already started, and most worryingly of all, they have included the separation of unarmed male refugees from their families. John Shattuck, the assistant secretary for human rights, said on a trip to Kosovo on September 6, “These reports are very disturbing. They are reminiscent of similar reports from the Bosnian war.” It was just such separations which preceded the massacres at Srebrenica in 1995.

One of the problems that has beset diplomats looking for negotiators and weakened the Albanians themselves is the extraordinary intensity of the antipathy not between Serbs and Albanians—that is taken for granted—but between Albanians and Albanians. Sensibly, foreigners such as Mr. Hill suggest that the Albanians should have a broad-based negotiating team. In fact, what this means is that you may have in the same Albanian negotiating group a man who was a political prisoner for years and the very man who put him there. He will not be a Serb, but an ethnic Albanian politician active during the years of Kosovo’s autonomy, which lasted until 1989.

The antipathy among Albanians is not only about the past, of course. Since all Kosovars want independence, the relative political strength of any one faction is important in determining who will run postwar Kosovo. This political struggle—involving, among others, supporters of Demaci and supporters of Rugova—is being waged just as bitterly as the shooting war out in the countryside.

By himself Mr. Hill does not have the power to push through any negotiation. The British say they have no idea how to solve the Kosovo problem and agree in this with Nikolai Afanasyevsky, Russia’s deputy foreign minister. When I met him in Kosovo and asked him for his ideas on how to end the conflict, he replied: “If you have an idea, I’ll give you a million dollars.” In fact, Western diplomats say that they have been shocked by just how obstructive the Russians have been when various ideas for dealing with Kosovo have been discussed. This is nothing to do with any pan-Slavic love of the Serbs though; it is simply an attempt to demonstrate to the West that Russia believes it has interests here and is not an irrelevance in world affairs.

Meanwhile, whether you see him in the mountains of Albania or while he raises cash for the KLA abroad, Jashar Salihu says that no compromise is possible; to believe in one is to delude oneself, he says. When I asked him whether there was not some small chance of a deal with the Serbs, he replied by citing Edgar Allan Poe: “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.”’

September 8, 1998

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