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.”
Rugova thought that since there were so few Serbs left in Kosovo, independence was inevitable. Besides, the “international community” would soon see the justice of the Kosovars’ cause and reward them. But the international community, in particular the Western nations, did no such thing. After the Dayton agreement the European Union countries recognized the borders of what remained of Yugoslavia—that is to say Serbia and Montenegro—thus seeming to lock Kosovo into Serbia forever. At last, the hard-liners among the ethnic Albanians had their chance. For years they had argued that Rugova’s politics would lead nowhere and that an insurrection was their only chance. With the collapse of law and order in Albania itself in 1997, the possibility of making something of that chance became real. With the opening and looting of the Albanian state armories, they could acquire as many weapons as they could afford.
The driving force behind the formation of the KLA was a tiny political party formed in 1982 called the Levizja Popullore e Kosoves (LPK), or the Popular Movement for Kosovo. In Kosovo it had a secret cell structure, each cell kept apart from the others; the members were called upon to help produce and distribute radical leaflets. During the 1980s it claimed to be a radical leftist organization which took its inspiration from the Stalinist Albania of Enver Hoxha.
Now in exile in London, the Kosovar journalist Daut Dauti sums up these so-called Enverists succinctly: “The Marxist-Leninists of the LPK were for an armed uprising in the 1980s. They had no idea what Enverism was—they just wanted to get rid of the Serbs.” Many of them went to jail in Kosovo for political agitation and, as they came out, many of them then went abroad. Bardhyl Mahmuti, one of the founders of the LPK and then the KLA, told me: “It was not a question of ideology. [It was] rather Leninist theory on clandestine organizations.” Not to mention the fact that making the right revolutionary noises secured at least a little help and money from Tirana.
For militants such as Mahmuti, war had been declared when, on January 17, 1982, three Kosovar activists were assassinated in Germany, presumably by the Yugoslav secret services. They were the brothers Jusuf and Bardhosh Gervalla and the journalist Kadri Zeka. For the tiny group that advocated the armed uprising, this was a defining moment of their lives. Blood had been spilled. Still, until 1995, there was little they could do about it all. Living mostly in exile, LPK members agitated with little success among the exile and Gastarbeiter communities of up to 500,000 Kosovars who lived in Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
The KLA itself was formed from a nucleus of LPKmembers in late 1992 and early 1993, but it was so small that it did not take its first armed action, an ambush of a group of Serbian policemen, until 1995. Still, significantly, the men it did have on the ground in Kosovo included a new generation of LPK members who were in their twenties and had grown up remembering the demonstrations and widespread resentment that accompanied the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy by Milosevic in 1989. Among them was Hashim Thaci, then twenty years old.
To the amazement of many, including most Kosovo Albanians, who had never heard of him, Thaci emerged from the hills to lead the Kosovo Albanian delegation to Rambouillet. He had become the leader of the KLA’s loose-knit organization by being one of the most zealous members of the minuscule group that founded it. Indeed, he was so dedicated that he began military training in 1992, before the KLA was founded. His link to the older exiles like Mahmuti, in Switzerland, was money. They collected it and funneled it to Thaci and his colleagues in Kosovo. The connections between the émigrés and the members of the new generation became more solid when the young men made periodic visits abroad. Thaci, for example, spent some time in 1994 in Zurich, studying politics and international relations.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of the KLA as a group made up only of men whose main purpose in life has been the liberation of their homeland. While these people have provided the leadership, many of its field commanders are local men, sometimes peasants, whose families have a historic tradition of uprisings against the Serbs. Coincidentally, some of them have dubious gangster connections too, rather like the first men to take up arms to defend Sarajevo in 1992. The footsoldiers of the KLA are generally ordinary men who have armed themselves to defend their villages and their families.
This fact is important. For at Rambouillet the diplomats, while pleased that the fractious Albanians were capable of gathering together a single delegation, were not impressed by Thaci. He was deemed to be a likable enough man but not one who could provide decisive leadership. The crux of the deal being offered was that while the Serbs had to accept a NATO military force, the Albanians would have to give up on their demand that there be a referendum on independence after three years. The diplomats told Thaci that there could be no credible pressure on the Serbs if his delegation did not sign. Thaci was torn, not knowing what to do. Adem Demaci, who was sometimes called the Mandela of Kosovo because of his twenty-eight years as a political prisoner, and who was then the KLA’s “political representative” in Pristina, was constantly on the phone yelling at Thaci that he must not sign the deal. He told him that the KLA commanders in the field would never accept anything short of independence after three years. One diplomat who was there says that Thaci, uncertain what to do, “was almost in tears.”
All the while Milosevic was building up his forces on the borders of Kosovo. Under the agreement he had negotiated in October with Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, the Serbs were to cut back these forces in Kosovo and their departure was supposed to be monitored by an unarmed mission of two thousand observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But by the time the negotiators got to Rambouillet in February that agreement was in tatters. In areas from which the Serbs had pulled back after their summer offensive—which had displaced more than 200,000 people from their homes—the KLA had returned. The Serbs had killed Albanian civilians and Serb civilians had been killed and driven from their homes by Albanians as well. The KLA had also been killing Albanians it regarded as collaborators—even low-level employees of the national forestry service. The KLA had been boasting that a spring offensive was coming (as had the Serbs) and was organizing for it fast. It was clear that something should be done to stop things from spinning out of control.
While the Albanians dithered at Rambouillet, did the delegation sent by Milosevic ever have any serious intent to accept the Western proposal? In retrospect, this seems doubtful in view of the evidence that Milosevic was already preparing for the offensive he has now put into effect. Chris Hill thinks that Milosevic wanted to try to make a political deal but to avoid the NATO military force that came with it because “he felt that the true intention” of the NATO force “was to eliminate him—and/or detach Kosovo from Serbia. In fact there was nothing in the political agreement which was unsellable to Serbs. The agreement reiterates the sovereignty of Yugoslavia.”
What of the then-current theory that Milosevic was prepared to accept a military force so long as it was not overtly a NATO one? Hill says this is simply not the case. The Rambouillet negotiators—Hill himself, Wolfgang Petritsch for the EU, and Boris Mayorski for Russia—would have been happy to agree to any suitable disguise for the force, but the Serbs simply “would not engage” on the question. He adds: “If the Serbs had said yes to the force but no to the independent judiciary—and insisted on all sanctions relief [i.e. on the West dropping all sanctions]—do you think we could have bombed?”
If ever a war started because of stupid, ignorant miscalculations, it was this one. Both NATO and Milosevic drifted into conflict relying on false assumptions that were based on incompetent intelligence. For example, it was widely assumed that if bombing began Milosevic would give up after a day or two. Indeed, intelligence assessments passed on to President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright echoed what amounted to little more than gossip that Milosevic might even welcome “a little light bombing” because he could then back down after having made a suitable show of defiance. There were also real hopes that Milosevic would be overthrown in Belgrade in the event of a NATO attack. In a Rambouillet café an American diplomat told me: “If it comes to bombing, it’s going to be heavy, not pinprick stuff, and I seriously doubt whether Milosevic is still going to be there at the end of it.”
Milosevic’s intelligence was clearly little better. He believed—so all the available evidence suggests—that either NATO’s threats were a bluff or, if they were not, the Greeks and Italians would cause such problems that the alliance would split or become paralyzed. With equal lack of judgment, he also believed that the fear of some form of Russian reaction would force a NATO climbdown. Another of Milosevic’s Rambouillet calculations may have been that if he accepted the deal his power—the only thing he cares about—would have come under threat from the extreme nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, whom Milosevic has kept on his side by appointing him Serbian deputy premier.
Once the bombing started Milosevic then decided to put into action his plans for clearing Kosovo of as much of its population as he possibly could. As we can see by the way the deportations have been organized, it is clear that those plans were meticulous. That is not to say that carrying them out was inevitable. It seems most likely that Milosevic thought he could, at Rambouillet, maintain the status quo. That is, he thought both that he could avoid a military force and that the plan could never be implemented without one. If it had been clear to Milosevic that there would be no such force, he might not have pressed the button to start what is believed to be called Operation Horseshoe. Milosevic always has several options he can choose from; he has no long-term vision, and will change his plans to suit the situation.
Still, the scale of the Kosovo catastrophe, the huge destruction of Yugoslavia’s infrastructure being brought about by NATO, the increasing number of Albanian and Serb civilian deaths, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees suggest that Milosevic’s actions can’t be explained simply as bad diplomatic chess playing. Hill says that when you talk to him there is a sense of being “in another world. He tries to present himself as a model of ethnic tolerance and he points out that the test of democracy is not what it does for the majority but what it does for the minority.” There is, says Hill, “a high bullshit quota there.” In his view, “Either he is very poorly informed or he is a terrible liar. But it is clear that wishful thinking has encroached on his sense of reality.”
Another element seems at work here. If Milosevic had died two months ago his record, from a Serbian point of view, would hardly have been glorious. First he wanted to dominate the whole of the former Yugoslavia—instead he presided over its breakup. Then he wanted to create a Greater Serbia from the wreckage. That failed too, and, all the death and destruction apart, resulted in 600,000 Serb refugees in Yugoslavia alone. Milosevic came to power in the 1980s promising to secure Kosovo for Serbia and for the 200,000 Serbs who lived there. Two months ago, before the bombing started, it seemed unlikely that more than 100,000 Serbs remained. And Serbia, thanks to him, is now Europe’s pariah, impoverished and isolated. Perhaps Milosevic wanted after Rambouillet to change his place in history. After all, the epic myth of Kosovo, passed down from generation to generation, is that Tsar Lazar knew he would lose his fight against the Turks at Kosovo Polje on June 28, 1389, but chose to fight anyway rather than submit and become a vassal. As Lazar is supposed to have said, “It is better to die in battle than live in shame.”
It might seem absurd to say that a European leader in 1999 makes decisions based on something that happened in 1389. However, this Lazar complex, if it might be called that, has already affected the course of history three times in this century. In 1914 the Serbian government stood up to Austria-Hungary, rejecting its ultimatum, which essentially demanded that its police inspectors be allowed into Serbia to investigate the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In 1941 Serbian army officers overthrew the royal Yugoslav government, which had unwillingly submitted to Hitler’s pressure and signed the Axis Pact. And, although he was not a Serb, Marshal Tito stood up to Stalin in 1948—and got away with it. It would not be surprising if the weight of this history had its effect on Milosevic’s way of seeing things.
Anyone who tells you confidently what is going to happen next in Kosovo is either a fool or a liar. Several things could happen now. Months from now there could be an invasion of Kosovo by NATO. Milosevic’s forces could withdraw and he could seek a diplomatic settlement, perhaps one involving the partition of Kosovo. Or the West could arm the KLA and give it air support.
For the KLA leaders, the lack of weapons is clearly a problem, and so is the looseness of their organization. Thousands of Kosovars who have been working in the West are flowing into Albania to fight—but they have hardly any military training. The KLA has camps around Krume, Kukes, and Bajram Curri in northern Albania, but it lacks sophisticated modern weapons. That may be less of a problem, since Serb military capacities are getting weaker as the result of NATO bombing. In the short term, arguments are raging in Western governments and among the Kosovo Albanians themselves about how best to proceed. There are those who fear there is an authoritarian streak in the KLA and do not want a KLA military dictatorship to ride to power on the back of NATO tanks. There are others who cite Afghanistan as the textbook case for not arming guerrillas—especially if their aims are not the same as yours. So far, Western policy remains that independence for Kosovo is not just unacceptable but also could open the way to the creation of a destabilizing Greater Albania comprising Kosovo, Albania, and predominantly ethnic Albanian western Macedonia. And indeed the KLA has now said that it renounces the Rambouillet accords and is again committed to full independence. These arguments are far from over but, in the meantime, it is clear that NATO is already keeping the KLA alive. If it were not for NATO’s air strikes there is little doubt that the KLA would have been largely eradicated by now.
Likewise, Albanian politicians are squabbling among themselves. As the Rambouillet meeting drew to a close the Albanian delegation agreed among themselves to set up a provisional government. The ministers were to be chosen by Hashim Thaci and they included members of Rugova’s LDK. But the LDK leaders refused to accept their appointments. This was a serious development because it was a sign that a fierce power struggle has broken out among the Albanian leaders. All sides are working on the assumption that Kosovo will sooner or later be liberated and thus it is essential to be in the best position now so as to be able to take power when the time comes. On the one side are the leaders of the KLA and on the other the leaders of the LDK, and more specifically Bujar Bukoshi, the man Rugova appointed as his prime minister in exile after he declared Kosovo’s “independence” in 1991. Despite the breakdown in the relations between the two, Bukoshi has remained premier, continuing to perform his main job, which has been to raise money from Kosovars abroad. No one knows how much money he and his government-in-exile have, but the KLA regularly denounces him as a traitor for refusing to hand it over to them.
Bukoshi and his supporters have been muttering that a future KLA-dominated government would be a “Cuba in Europe.” Rather bizarrely they have also picked up the vintage Serbian propaganda line that the KLA are in fact little more than glorified drug dealers. It is true that Kosovars are prominent in the Zurich heroin trade and control some drug-trafficking routes, and it is also true that these gangsters certainly make hefty contributions to KLA funds. The KLA has also used the mafia connections of these gangs to buy arms. However, to make the leap to saying that the KLA leaders are drug traffickers themselves is about as convincing as claiming that the US government, too, is a drug trafficker because, at times, the CIA has worked with various drug barons.
Meanwhile there are those who are beginning to whisper that Kosovo’s Albanian politicians are morally bankrupt. Peaceful protest failed, and Rugova’s own political future is uncertain following his surprise release by Milosevic from house arrest on May 5. That he called, from Rome, for an international peacekeeping force with NATO troops may mean that his political career is not yet over. Still, as Migjen Kelmendi says: “People are angry and their attitude is that no one has any legitimacy anymore—including the KLA, because they could not defend them.”
One contender for power in any future Albanian-run Kosovo is noticeably absent from the cafés of Tetovo—to which many of Pristina’s intellectuals and politicians appear to have been exiled en bloc. That man is Veton Surroi, the editor of the Kosovo daily paper Koha Ditore, now publishing again in Tetovo. The highly ambitious son of a Yugoslav diplomat who died in a suspicious car crash, Surroi acted as something of a cheerleader for the KLA this past year by exaggerating its power in his newspaper.
Surroi is suave, urbane, and speaks flawless English with an accent picked up at an American school. His offices in Kosovo were frequently visited by foreign diplomats and his paper had backing from George Soros’s Open Society Institute. He was also an important member of the Rambouillet delegation, one of two “independents.” According to some reports, he has taken a calculated risk. He has stayed in Kosovo, having sent a message that he wanted to “remain with his people.” (Other reports say that he is now trying to leave.) If he lives, he stands a strong chance of being able to make a bid for power based on his having remained at home during Kosovo’s darkest hours, while also having been a longtime critic of Rugova and not a KLA man. He will also be able to claim Western support.
In the meantime two things seem extremely likely, although many months may pass before they occur. The first is that Milosevic and the Serbs will eventually lose Kosovo to the Kosovo Albanians. Such thoughts occurred to me on the 150-seat hydrofoil I took from Bari in Italy to get to Durres in Albania. On board there were twenty-three Kosovars returning from London alone to fight in the KLA. The minute we left Bari they all changed into uniforms, which they had bought with their own money, and so keen were they that some of them began applying camouflage face paint there and then.
On the same day I spoke to a friend in Belgrade. She said everyone there was nervous that a NATO ground force might invade Kosovo soon—in which case her husband and all his friends would have to go into hiding to avoid being drafted into the army. Kosovo may be sacred to the Serbs, but it is the Albanians who are going to fight and die for it.
No one, in any case, should entertain any notion that any future Kosovo, whether run by Albanians or by an international protectorate, is going to have any Serbs in it. Too many Serbs took part in the eviction of their neighbors, and Kosovo is nothing if not a land of revenge. Even if most Kosovo Serbs are not guilty of anything, their fate is tied to Milosevic’s. The Krajina Serbs who believed in him were driven out by the Croats in August 1995, and the same will more than likely happen to the Kosovo Serbs. Still, with tens of thousands of people dead, and many more missing, Milosevic will be able to claim that, like Lazar before him, he lost Kosovo honorably.
—May 12, 1999
June 10, 1999