Migjen Kelmendi was in hiding for a week in Pristina. Because he is a well-known Kosovo Albanian writer and journalist, he feared that after NATO’s bombing campaign started in Yugoslavia he might be marked for execution by Serbian death squads. Then the Serbian police began clearing out Pristina, the Kosovar capital. Kelmendi borrowed a baby and pretended to be part of a family. Others huddled around him so that he was less likely to be recognized. Then, at three in the afternoon on March 31, he began a journey he could never have imagined.
The police, going from house to house, ordered everyone to leave. They gathered a group of two to three thousand people in the street and then prodded them in the direction of the railroad station. “They were driving us like cattle. The children were screaming and the elderly were very slow,” he told me. They marched down Pristina’s main street, past the theater and the Hotel Grand. “The saddest bit was that along the way I saw bunches of people, Serbs. They looked at us with complete indifference. It was unimaginable.”
Then they got to the station. There they found that there were already 25,000 to 30,000 people. When he asked several people what was going on, they replied: “We are waiting for the train to take us to the border, to Macedonia.” By this time it was four o’clock. During the next few hours three babies were born and two old men died. Just before midnight the huge crowd heard the noise of NATO planes wheeling across the night sky.
“People began to clap. They were shouting ‘NATO! NATO!’ and saying ‘They will help us.’ Then we heard shooting very close to us. Everyone fell silent immediately.”
I met Kelmendi in Tetovo, in western Macedonia, a town inhabited mainly by ethnic Albanians in which many of Pristina’s academics, journalists, and politicians have found shelter. Afterward I went to see Chris Hill, the US ambassador to Macedonia, who for nine months had been trying to come up with a deal to head off the catastrophe that has now taken place. During one meeting Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia, said to him: “Of course we could just drive all our Albanians out, but we won’t do that—we’re not Nazis.”
At one o’clock in the morning the train arrived. It was an ordinary passenger train with twenty carriages, each divided into cabins. At that moment says Kelmendi, “the animal instinct in everyone, including me, came out.” Everyone surged forward, fighting and shoving. “The strongest got on and then got their families in through the windows.” In each cabin there were thirty people and the corridors were packed too. There was little air and no water. Children were crying while parents were hunting for the ones they had lost. Kelmendi estimated that between seven and ten thousand people were crammed on board.
After a couple of hours the train began to move and the motion put some of the exhausted children to sleep, but the train kept stopping and starting. Apparently people kept pulling the emergency communication cord. So the train stopped at Kosovo Polje, close to the legendary battlefield where the Serbs had fought the Turks in 1389. There police stood on the platform while exasperated Serb railwaymen worked their way down the train with a key that turned off the emergency brake system.
While they were in the station the police ordered everyone to get off. “There was panic. No one wanted to get out. They were afraid that they would be separated.” In other words, that the men would be shot. So no one got off and after five minutes, according to Kelmendi, the police said, “Stay there and be quiet!”
The train lurched off into the dark again. An hour later it stopped. People got off to get water for their children. “The police hit them in front of their families.” Then everyone was ordered out and told to walk down the tracks. This took them across the border into Macedonia.
As soon as he crossed the frontier Kelmendi turned on his mobile phone. He had been far too frightened to use it while he was hiding. It rang immediately with a call from his wife in Montenegro. She was crying: “You’re alive, you’re alive!” Of course, the Kelmendis are lucky.
Through the night of April 27 I stood on the border between Kosovo and Albania at a place called Morine. The people on the first tractor-trailers that came through seemed calm; that morning they had been ordered from their homes at gunpoint and then saw them being torched. This group, about two thousand people, came from a cluster of villages near the western Kosovo town of Djakovica. They said that the Serb police there were angry and shouted that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had, a few days earlier, killed five of their men.
A woman on one of the first tractor-trailers said that they had started their journey with thirty-seven people packed on the trailer but that at the crossroads of a hamlet called Meje the police took ten of the men off. A fifteen-year-old boy was then ordered to drive. A middle-aged man who was still on the trailer said: “I have a bad leg. One policeman said ‘get out’ and the other said ‘stay in.”’ They left a blind man, too, and a very old man, still cutting a fine figure with his traditional felt cap and curly gray mustache. The people on the next couple of tractors said much the same thing. Many of their men had been taken off at Meje and they had seen them sitting in a field under police guard.
Looking across the border I could see the lights of more tractors as their engines grumbled along and they began to roll into Albania from Kosovo. A minute later their drivers stopped and stared, uncertain what to do when they saw the dozens of aid workers and Albanian officials. Television camera lights loomed at them out of the darkness.
“Did you see the men in the field at Meje?” I asked. The first tractor was still moving. These people were in shock, their eyes red from crying. “They killed them, they killed them,” shouted a woman as she passed. I ran to catch up. “In a field…in a field…more than a hundred…they took two from us… they’re dead, they’re dead.”
A hundred meters away the old man, the blind man, the lame man, and the women and children sat on their trailer. A drunken Albanian soldier was shouting at them. “Stop crying, stop moaning…. Why did you leave your kids behind?” They still did not know what the Kosovars coming behind them knew.
Everyone I talked to on the next tractors to cross had seen the bodies, perhaps as many as two hundred, but no one had actually seen the killing. Hasan Shabani, aged seventy-three, sat on a sack waiting for his wife. He and his wife had been walking, but a tractor-trailer picked him up while his wife was hauled onto a horse-drawn cart, which then got left behind.
He said he had seen the men taken from the convoy at Meje lined up. “They were punched and kicked.” Women were rushing forward, crying, trying to get to their sons and husbands, but the police and paramilitaries, some of them wearing masks, were firing in the air, swearing at them and ordering them to get back on the convoy.
In the distance, over Mount Pastrik, there were flashes and rumbles. It sounded like thunder and lightning or artillery, but it was NATO bombing the Serbs for the fifth week running.
Early this past February I went to see a friend who works in the British Foreign Office. He was engaged in putting the final touches to documents to be presented to the Serbs and Albanians who had been summoned to begin talks two days later, on February 6, at Rambouillet castle just outside Paris. The document was the result of nine months of shuttle diplomacy largely carried on by Chris Hill.
The agreement envisaged almost complete autonomy for Kosovo, whose population of perhaps 1.8 million was overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian. It also envisaged protection for the small Serb minority (some 10 percent of the province’s population), the removal of most Serbian security forces, and the disarming of the KLA. Kosovo would have remained inside Yugoslavia and, as my friend put it, “implicitly” inside Serbia. In other words, Serbian honor and Yugoslav sovereignty would formally be preserved while Kosovo would be substantially self-governing. The plan would be in effect for three years, toward the end of which new talks would be convened to consider the question of the province’s final status. A sine qua non of the Rambouillet package was that the autonomy agreement had to be backed up by a NATO-led force of up to 30,000 men. It was feared that without this anything agreed to at Rambouillet would remain a worthless scrap of paper.
I was surprised by what my friend had to say. He had been at Dayton when the Bosnian peace deal was struck in November 1995. Just before Rambouillet, the conventional wisdom, among well-informed and well-connected Serbs too, was that Milosevic would bargain to the very last minute but, given a few face-saving concessions, would agree to the package.
But my Foreign Office friend was far from optimistic. Surely, I asked, even Milosevic would not run the risk of being bombed by NATO—for this was the threat that hung over him for any rejection of the deal. He said: “Don’t forget that there were three failed peace plans before we got to Dayton.” And, he added, by the time the three sides did get there they had already had more than three years of war. “Everyone was ready—they were all exhausted. The problem is that here we are trying to get them to agree to a deal before the war has really started.”
At the time this statement seemed surprising. After all, I thought, the war between the Serbs and Albanians had already begun. It was, of course, already tragic that the armed conflict had started last spring, because, ever since 1990, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo had abstained from violence in favor of passive resistance. In this they had been led by Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of the main ethnic Albanian political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, the LDK. As the old Yugoslavia dissolved into war, Rugova restrained his people. To start an insurrection, he said, would only bring disaster. “We would have no chance of successfully resisting the army,” he cautioned in 1992. “In fact the Serbs only wait for a pretext to attack the Albanian population and wipe it out. We believe it is better to do nothing and stay alive than to be massacred.”