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Cry, the Dismembered Country

Once upon a time there was a country called Yugoslavia. It was a medium-size country in the southeast of Europe, and more than 23 million people lived there. It was not democratic, but it had a fair name in the world. Its king was called Tito. Being both largely rural and socialist, this country was not rich. But it was getting a little richer. Most of its children grew up thinking they were Yugoslavs. They had other identities, too, and strong ones. Slovenes already talked of the “narrower homeland,” meaning Slovenia, and the “wider homeland,” meaning Yugoslavia. Its Albanians were always Albanians. But still, it was a country.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, this European country has been torn apart. At least 150,000, and perhaps as many as 250,000, men, women, and children have died in the process. And how they have died: with their eyes gouged out or their throats cut with rusty knives, women after deliberate ethnic rape, men with their own severed genitalia stuffed into their mouths. More than two million former Yugoslavs have been driven out of their homes by other former Yugoslavs, many deprived of everything but what they could carry in precipitous flight.

In this former country, the grotesque spectacle of a whole village burned, looted, and trashed has become an entirely normal sight. “Yeah, the usual story,” says the journalist, and drives on. A few people have grown rich, mainly war profiteers, gangsters, and politicians—the three being sometimes hard to distinguish. The rest, save in Slovenia, have been impoverished, degraded, and corrupted. Real wages in Serbia are estimated to be at the level of 1959—in the rare event of your actually being paid a wage. In Kosovo the killing, burning, plundering, and expelling went on throughout the summer of 1998, even as West Europeans took their holidays just a few miles away. It went on though the leaders of the West had all repeatedly declared it would never, ever, be allowed to happen again. Not after Bosnia.

If you look at a current political map of Europe, you may conclude that the former country is now five states:Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (known to diplomats as the FRY, pronounced as in “French fries”). But the reality on the ground is at least nine parts. Bosnia is still divided between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a Croat-Bosniak Federation, which itself is effectively divided between Croat-controlled and Bosniak (or “Muslim”)-controlled areas. The FRY is divided between what may loosely be called “Serbia proper,” Kosovo, and the increasingly independent-minded republic of Montenegro. But even “Serbia proper” should be disaggregated to notice the northern province of Vojvodina, with its large Hungarian minority, and—a delight to the diplomatic historian—the still partly Muslim-settled Sandjak of Novi Pazar. Perhaps one should also distinguish the Albanian-settled areas from the rest of Macedonia. That makes twelve ethnically defined parts to be going on with.

It’s not just we in the West who are largely indifferent. Most inhabitants of most of these dismembered parts themselves live in growing indifference or active antipathy to each other. In Ljubljana, a cultured Slovene woman tells me sadly that her children cannot enjoy the wonderful work of Serbian writers, because they no longer read the Cyrillic alphabet. Why, she exclaims, they don’t even understand Croatian! In Sarajevo, a local veteran of the siege says, “You know, if I’m honest, we watched the television pictures from Kosovo this summer much as I suppose Westerners watched the pictures from Sarajevo.” But the feeling is reciprocated. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, a leading representative of the mainly Muslim Albanians tells me, “We don’t feel any fellowship with Muslims in Bosnia, because they are Slavs.” In fact, the two groups have diametrically opposed goals: Bosnian “Muslims” want to keep together a multiethnic state, Kosovo Albanian “Muslims” want ethnic separation.

Across this landscape of extraordinary ethno-linguistic-religious-historical-political complexity crawl the white and orange vehicles of an international presence which, in its different, political-bureaucratic way, is just as complicated. SFOR, OHR, UNHCR, MSF, CARE, OSCE, USKDOM, EUKDOM, RUSKDOM: international alphabet soup poured over Balkan goulash. Americans may be the new Habsburg governors here, but French deputies contend with British ones for priority at court, while earnest Scandinavians get on with laying the phone lines. At Sarajevo airport, I sit next to a man whose shoulder badge proclaims “Icelandic Police.” Perhaps that Icelandic policeman will now be sent to Kosovo, to keep peace among the dervishes of Orahovac?

Faced with such complexity, it’s no wonder that newspaper and television reports have largely stuck to a few simple, well-tried stories: bang-bang-bang, mutilated corpse, old woman weeps into dirty handkerchief, ruined mosque/ church/town, US envoy Richard Holbrooke meets Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, NATO bombers at Italian air base, preparing not to bomb. Yawn. In truth, it needs a whole book to do justice to each single part. Here, I shall confine myself to reporting some of what I saw this winter in just three closely related parts of the post-Yugoslav jigsaw: Kosovo, Macedonia, and Belgrade. But then I shall draw a few larger conclusions and reflect on what Western policy should be now.


Kosovo. The fresh red blood on the fresh white snow looks unreal, like a new avant-garde exhibit at the Tate Gallery in London. But it is entirely real. This is the blood of two dead Serb policemen, shot at dawn, almost certainly by the soldiers of a tough local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), violating the October 1998 cease-fire. The blood lies, symbolically, just beneath a ruined mosque, in the middle of an Albanian village which those Serb forces have systematically destroyed. Now the women of one of the few Albanian families daring to remain here are telling us how the Serb police beat them up after the assassination.

Two days earlier, we drive through the town of Malisevo, which has been called the most dangerous place in Europe. This summer it was the bustling unofficial capital of the KLA’s “liberated” heartland of Drenica. They even had their own KLA license plates. Now Malisevo is completely ruined and deserted, its shopping center reduced to rubble and pulverized glass. The only people visible are heavily armed Serb police, behind their sandbags in a makeshift, fortified police station. Instead of shoppers, there are large packs of dogs scavenging, as many as ten or twenty together, presumably domestic animals gone feral. You see these dogs wherever you go in the province, and their corpses on the roads.

Further down the empty highway, we find a solitary Albanian farmer trying to rescue his car. As we stop to help him, we face a surreal sight. A large, orange-painted armored car, of the American type known colloquially as a Humvee, slowly and silently approaches. But right behind it trundles a long convoy of blue-painted armored vehicles, packed with blue-uniformed, heavily armed Serb police. In the middle of the convoy there are some very nasty-looking men in an unmarked white jeep. The farmer is terrified: “If the Americans weren’t there, the police would beat us up.”

Later he shows us his farmstead. Behind the high rough walls with which the Albanians surround the property of an extended family, we find two substantial houses, both blown up and looted. The families huddle together in one small basement room. “We can’t come back here while the Serbs are in the police station,” they say. “We can’t live under Serbia.”

Further on, we turn into the village of Dragobilje. Just a hundred yards off the main road patrolled by the Serb police, we find the KLA in their brown and green camouflage gear. A thick-set, bearded man, with hand grenades slung in a belt round his chest, speaks with us on behalf of the “122nd Brigade.” When we ask his identity, he gives his code name: “Journalist.” He explains that he actually was a journalist in Pristina before the war. The KLAforces are currently respecting the cease-fire, he says, but they are ready to fight again at any time, for a free Kosovo. Meanwhile, several carloads of men in KLA uniforms come bucking down the muddy back lane, dodging the horned cattle. It’s their own local version of a Ho Chi Minh trail.

As we drive out of Dragobilje, we see the same orange-painted Humvee halted at the roadside. Beside it, a burly American monitor is talking to a local leader. “Don’t let your guys in uniform be visible from the main road, because that will provoke them [i.e., the Serbs],” says the American. When the local leader starts talking about the bitter past, this quiet American says, “All you can do is look ahead, just look ahead.” And he offers help to get their school and hospital open again. “What do you need? Plastic? Just tell us what you need.”

Another day, another ruined village in the snow, another guerrilla stronghold: Lausa to the Serbs, Llaushe for the Albanians. This was where the KLA first showed its face in public, on November 28, 1997, when two uniformed soldiers unmasked themselves and delivered a liberation speech at the funeral of a local schoolteacher shot by the Serbs.1 Now two of the Geci brothers contemplate their devastated homestead. It was once home to seven brothers and their families, some thirty-five people in all. Most are now refugees in Albania. Those who remain are living on aid. Their own crops have been burned; their cattle killed or lost. “The KLA is our self-defense,” they say. “The soldiers are all local people.” Can they imagine ever again living together with Serbs in Kosovo? No. The grandmother gestures to a bare wire dangling from the ceiling: “How can you live with those who hang people from light fixtures?”

Our knowledge of the KLA is still fragmentary, partly because this guerrilla army is itself quite fragmentary. It has, as one Western military observer politely puts it, a “rather horizontal” command structure. Each region is different, and regional commanders behave like local bandit chiefs. Nonetheless, we can establish a few significant things about its history, leaders, and support.

First and foremost, its emergence is the result of Kosovo Albanians despairing of the nonviolent path which they adopted after the province was robbed of its autonomy by Milosevic in 1989, and Yugoslavia began to fall apart during 1990 and 1991. Under their officially elected “President of the Republic of Kosova,” Ibrahim Rugova, they organized an extraordinary alternative state, with its own taxes, parliamentary committees, private health service, and, most impressively, unofficial education system, from primary school to university. To the frustration of Western policymakers, Rugova was unbending in his commitment to the goal of independence. To their relief, he was equally unbending in his attachment to nonviolent means. How did he propose to square the circle? By the “internationalization” of the Kosovo problem.

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    This and much other valuable information is to be found in two excellent reports by the International Crisis Group, Kosovo Spring and Kosovo’s Long Hot Summer, both available from their web site: http:// www.crisisweb.org.

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