On the hill near the Serbian village of Drsnik in central Kosovo I counted smoke billowing from eight houses. Or at least I thought they were houses. Some proved to be haystacks. For Albanians taking revenge, even Serbian haystacks must now be burned.
In the northern town of Mitrovica I sat on a wall with Meli Uka, a pretty, twenty-two-year-old student. We sipped Coke as we watched a column of fleeing Serb families packed into cars and tractor-trailers. They looked no different from the Kosovars I had seen who had been expelled from Kosovo a few weeks earlier. Meli was smiling and said: “They wanted Albanians out and now this is our revenge. I am very happy about it and I never want them to come back. Now we are free.”
Forty-five minutes later I saw the Serbian village of Samodreza on fire. Two Albanian brothers, Naim and Namun Bala, were watching it burn. The Serbs had left two hours earlier. “The Kosovo Liberation Army did it,” they said. “These Serbs were our neighbors. We never had any problems with them. We grew up with them, played with them, and ate with them. But when the Serbian police came and burned our houses they turned their backs and said: ‘Fuck you!”’ Namun said: “There are twenty-eight of us in our family. We asked the KLA not to burn the houses because we could live in them, but still they went ahead and did it.” Cars full of KLA fighters drove past waving happily and tooting their horns in triumph.
In the town of Vucitrn, Albanian families swarmed through the Serbian Orthodox priest’s house. Mothers maneuvered sofas down stairs, children roamed about smashing religious pictures with hammers while others piled food, church candles, and anything else they could carry onto wheelbarrows. When they were done they moved to the church. A girl with a manic expression on her face smashed the windows. Women tugged on dark red velvet altar cloths and precious icons crashed to the floor. A man struggled to wrench the chandelier from the ceiling.
Outside two French soldiers from the Kosovo Force, KFOR, the newly arrived international peace force which has NATO at its core, looked on amiably. Up the road a Gypsy house was on fire. Albanians accuse many Gypsies of having “collaborated” with the Serbs. At that moment the local French commander drove past. According to the sticker on his jeep his regimental motto was “Avec le sourire.” He said: “Our job is to reassure the population.” I said it didn’t look as if he was reassuring the few remaining Serbs. He replied, sans sourire: “The orders are to let them pillage.” I said: “That’s mad.” He said: “Of course it’s mad, but those are the orders, from NATO, from above.”
As everywhere else in Kosovo, Serbs in Pristina, the provincial capital, live in terror. I rented a flat and soon Mileva, the Serbian woman from next door, came by. Almost whispering, she said: “What am I going to do? Someone’s stuck an Albanian name on my door. It is a message that they want me out.”
The next day British KFOR troops were rummaging through Flat 42 upstairs on the tenth floor. The neighbors reported that the Serb family who lived there, and whose two soldier sons had already left, were armed. It was true. Among other weapons the British confiscated a World War II- era machine gun which can fire up to seven hundred rounds a minute. My guess is that that family are by now long gone.
The following day three Serbs, an economics teacher, a porter, and a canteen worker, were murdered at the university. British troops played cat and mouse in a shopping center trying to control the looting. Whenever they left, the looters came back. There are still no police in Kosovo.
The NATO-led KFOR has got off to a rocky start. The Yugoslav army and the Serbian police fulfilled their side of the agreement made at Kumanovo on June 9 and pulled out of Kosovo on schedule. What KFOR is finding hard, even impossible, to cope with is the overwhelming popular desire for ven- geance among the Kosovars driven out and persecuted by the Serbs during NATO’s bombing campaign.
Their anger is easy to understand. Wherever you go Albanian villagers will show you graves. Thirty-seven killed by the Serbian police or paramilitaries here, a family there (baby bottles and children’s boots left where they were killed)… The final total of innocent civilians murdered during the two and a half months of NATO’s bombing campaign, which began on March 24, will certainly be in the thousands. In the June 10 issue of The New York Review I reported that refugees arriving in Albania on April 27 told me that Serbian security forces had, a few hours earlier at a place called Meje, hauled off as many as two hundred men from a convoy of people being expelled from their villages. Later they were seen dead in a field.
I found the field. Glasses, watches, tobacco tins, and bone fragments littered the site. The earth was stained with dark crusty patches which locals said was blood. A putrefying corpse lay in a hedge. A leg lay by the side of the field. Villagers said that after the massacre all the other bodies had been taken away but they did not know where or how they were disposed of.
A great evil was done here, in Meje and across the rest of Kosovo. Still, there can be no escaping the fact that evil is being repaid in kind. Thus far, NATO has been unable or unwilling to prevent ethnic cleansing in reverse. Sometimes revenge is being exacted by KLA men, but much of it is spontaneous. A car for a car, a house for a house, a life for a life.
As of June 28, that is, sixteen days after the NATO-led force arrived, 340,000 Kosovars were reported to have returned from the refugee camps of Albania and Macedonia. Tens of thousands had also returned home from the hills and forests.
Kosovars are resourceful people with strong extended family networks. Where houses are burned, some are making do in one or two cleaned-up rooms until the rest are made habitable again. Others are staying with relatives in houses that are still intact. Many are bringing home the tents they lived in in the refugee camps and are sleeping in them in the garden while they rebuild their houses. In towns, of course, others are also moving into Serb houses or buying them at rock- bottom prices.
By the same token, also by June 28, more than 70,000 Serbs had left after the NATO-led force arrived. Since as many as 30,000 Serbs are thought to have fled to Serbia proper during the period of the NATO bombing, people I spoke to in Belgrade believed that as few as 25,000 Serbs remained in Kosovo. Yugoslavia is also home to some 600,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia.
On June 28, 1989, Slobodan Milosevic, who had recently taken over as president of Serbia, commemorated the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, at which, legend has it, the Serbs lost to the Turks. Then there were more than 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo. At the site of the battlefield he told the assembled throng of one million people: “Six centuries later, again we are in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet.” Since then Milosevic has led the Serbs into defeat after defeat.
Bones of some of the knights who died at that battle lie in the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani, a twenty-minute drive south from Pec. In 1941 Albanian fascists wanted to burn it down but Mussolini’s regular Italian troops prevented them. Today, the Italians are back. In the late afternoon, black-robed monks venture out to serve Turkish coffee to the soldiers, who sport designer sunglasses and lounge on top of the Leopard tank that stands guard outside Decani’s great wooden doors.
The monks here have waged a long campaign against Slobodan Milosevic, who they believed was ruining any chances the Serbs had of coexistence with Albanians. Their leader is Bishop Artemije, who, in the spring of last year, predicted what has now come to pass. He said then: “The chances of a dialogue have been missed. What remains is what the gentlemen in Belgrade have chosen—the loss of Kosovo, just like the Krajina, in war.” Krajina was the self-proclaimed Serb state in Croatia. When it fell in August 1995, the Croats cleansed its entire population of some 200,000 Serbs. According to the UNHCR only about 3,000 have returned.
Bishop Artemije’s right-hand man is the urbane Father Sava, often dubbed the cybermonk for his deft use of the Internet and e-mail to spread the monastery’s message of peace and reconciliation. (At the moment they are cut off. There is no phone line.) He says that, for the Serbs, Kosovo now has the same destiny “as Asia Minor, once full of wonderful Christian sites and now all ruins and ash. Or Constantinople, now a Muslim city. Or Palestine, which once had flourishing Christian communities.”
He is undoubtedly right. In a month or two KFOR, by then up to full strength with 55,000 men, may be able to protect Serbs. But by then not many of them will have remained and, as in Croatia, few will be willing or able to return. So with Kosovo (and its Albanian population of up to 1.8 million) now lost to the Serbs, both it and Serbia will paradoxically become model European nation-states. That is to say, countries which are basically monoethnic with small minority groups rather than multiethnic ones.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was the interim head of the United Nations administration of Kosovo until July 15, when Bernard Kouchner, the well-known French health official and founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, took over. The elegant Brazilian told me: “If we let ourselves be discouraged by the early signs and by intolerance, I don’t think we’ll succeed.”
Kosovo is a tiny place, about the size of greater Los Angeles. It also has a small population—no more than two million before the war. Still, such statistics mask the enormity of the job that the UN now has to do. Since the Serbian administration here has simply evaporated, the UN must hurry to set up its own structures. The situation it finds itself in is, however, unprecedented. While Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 10 reaffirms the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yugoslavia—of which Kosovo is of course a part—it also calls for the UN to organize “provisional institutions” and move toward elections in Kosovo.
The contradictions in all of this are immediately obvious. The UN is to run part of a country whose status under international law is unclear. Who, for example, will collect customs and taxes, and where will that income go? What law will apply? Who will issue passports? Will Yugoslav currency still be legal tender? (The German mark and Albanian lek are already pushing out the Yugoslav dinar.) “The sovereignty question is very delicate,” says Mr. Vieira de Mello, adding, “There are a thousand questions; we have thought of them all and we are trying to find answers. However, when we relate the present status of Kosovo to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—sometimes the two are not compatible.”