Europe’s War

Jeremy Harding

Hour after hour the foreign press lined the raised road on the Macedonian side of the border, gazing at the thousands of refugees from Kosovo massed in the field below. It was a vigil in which the brief condolences of the powerful nations – with their digital cameras and telephoto lenses – were extended yet again to the weak. A German television engineer squatted in the road with his head down over a piece of equipment, silently crying. You could see the results of this botched internationalism on CNN or BBC World in the hotels of Skopje, although the electronic images of Blace caught little of the place itself: a triangle of low land between a river and a frontier road; a railway track running by the river, the near bank lined with willows; poplars in the middle ground. Until it was suddenly emptied one night in early April, to the dismay of the foreign press corps who had not been present, every aid agency and media outlet had its own idea of how many people were camped on that ground – forty thousand or more – or queuing to get out of it. Everyone also thought they knew the death toll.

What could not be reckoned with the same assurance were the numbers waiting behind the frontier to get out of Kosovo. Lines of cars stretched back for fifteen kilometres, some said; or twenty-five, or forty. And if the condition of the tens of thousands in the field was bad, one could only imagine how much worse it might be for people who were still queuing – who had been queuing for a week.

People were enfeebled and ruined, their clothes were often filthy, they were clearly terrified. They had been robbed or ‘taxed’ by Serbian police and paramilitaries on the way. Yet some had managed to contact their relatives in the diaspora on mobile phones, with the result that young men from Germany and Switzerland waited with the press at border crossings, knowing that their families were somewhere in the crowd. Others had kept hold of their money; a Macedonian soldier had been offered 6000 DM – roughly 2.8 to the pound – by a group of refugees in the field to let them through the security cordon. But the most painful contradiction of Blace was the one you find everywhere in emergencies: the agonising pace at which the situation worsened for the refugees – tens of thousands treading water – and the frenzied urgency with which the television companies and aid agencies went about their business, tearing up and down the shoreline with pennants flying, shortwave aerials quivering, horns blaring.

The BBC and CNN were hard on the Macedonian Government for its reluctance to accept Kosovar refugees. The independent daily, Dnevnik, like most of the papers and almost every Macedonian of non-Albanian extraction who has anything to say about the war, opposes the Nato bombings, and concurs with Ljubco Georgievski, the Prime Minister, in thinking that the networks have been too quick to condemn a country of such slender means for baulking at the prospect of sixty to a hundred thousand new ethnic Albanians. A cartoon published during the second week of bombings showed TV monitors with the CNN logo racing across the sky like warplanes. To Macedonians, CNN is simply the propaganda wing of the Nato alliance.

The refugees tell of the Serbian and Macedonian authorities at the border colluding to slow things up, of obstruction and callousness on the part of Macedonian border police. You could see this at work in Blace when the field was full and you can see it in some of the camps that have been set up since, where the refugees are yelled at by lines of Macedonian soldiers and police reserves on the perimeter before they reach the sanctuary of Nato supervision in the long lines of tents. And with the perfect symmetry that is now evident in almost every dimension of the war, except the air campaign itself, the refugees resent the Macedonian authorities, seeing them as stooges of Serbia, and Macedonian public opinion resents the refugees, seeing them as the creation of Nato.

Macedonian panic and ill-feeling are founded in quite proper concerns. Without financial help from the Nato members, the country simply cannot accommodate the number of refugees who have been herded in. The Government has invited the Western European states and the big multilateral lenders to conduct an audit of its books and assess its costing of the refugee crisis. Nato has taken on logistical responsibility for at least five camps; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is pouring in resources, but the Macedonians are still not happy. There will have to be large pay-offs for their uneasy acquiescence in this war. The tip of the dangling carrot is already visible; within days of the bombings the World Bank began reconsidering the release of $40 million for a railway project it had flatly opposed when first submitted. Brazen gestures of this kind compound the sense in Macedonia that this is a war of the rich prosecuted in the realms of the poor. They will wring every financial and aid concession they can from the West before it is over.

Yet no amount of World Bank credits or bilateral loans will wipe away their anxieties. The sovereign state of Macedonia is less than eight years old. It achieved independence amid dark remonstrations from Greece and profound fears that the ‘national’ question in the former Yugoslavia might be replicated within its own borders. There are plenty of Macedonians who regard their country as a creation by default, the unsatisfactory outcome of the demise of the old Yugoslavia, whose federal identity kept ethnic sensibilities in a state of suspension. The composition of Macedonia’s two million inhabitants is as sensitive as any in the region: the majority, about 65 per cent, are Macedonians proper, predominantly Orthodox, claiming a historical affinity with their neighbours in Serbia. The next largest group are Macedonian Albanians – about 25 per cent of the population – concentrated in the west of the country, along the borders with Kosovo and Albania. It is the Albanian presence, rather than the plethora of other ethnic minorities – about twenty-five, including nearly forty thousand Serbs – that underlies the Government’s fear of a large Kosovar influx.

The Nato bombings and Milosevic’s campaign of expulsions from Kosovo have simply heightened the misgivings that were present at Macedonia’s inception. One concerned its fragile sovereignty. That has been confirmed both by the fact that Nato is swarming all over the country against the wishes of most of its inhabitants, and by the West’s decision that the sovereign status of neighbouring Serbia can be flouted in the matter of a deeply contentious province with an Albanian majority: it would seem that ‘sovereignty’ counts for as much or as little as Washington deems appropriate on a case by case basis. The other, and by far the bigger, worry is Albanianisation. Long before the bombing was underway, there was a feeling in Macedonia that it would sooner or later face its own ethnic fissuring. The disproportionate growth of the two largest communities – Albanians increasing more rapidly than Macedonians – seems to the majority to bear this out. As it was in Kosovo, so it will be in Macedonia. Thirty years from now, Albanians may well have become the majority. Nothing in the last ten years of furious upheaval in the Balkans indicates that this change will occur without violence.

One of the ugliest sights of the last few weeks has been the donning of masks by Macedonian police and officials processing the refugees. On 6 April, the evening paper, Vlechar, complained in a banner headline of ‘The Smell Spreading from Blace’, as though the refugees had wanted to keep their infants in stinking diapers, to refrain from washing, to defecate in whatever place they could, to spend hours jostling and pleading so that the dead could be fetched out of the crowd. There is nothing wrong with the police wishing to guard against the spread of infection, but the masks were more like the livery of Macedonia’s threatened sovereignty – a superstitious show of horror in the presence of the foreigner bearing pestilence and disorder. When Nato member states consented to the Macedonian proposition that refugees be driven to Skopje airport and shoved on aeroplanes to unknown destinations, airport officials donned their masks before the refugees were even off the buses. When they came through the metal detectors and the young men were frisked, the officials added surgical gloves to their repertoire of insults. As one busload were processed, an Albanian-speaker in the small contingent of journalists began shouting questions at the refugees, and established that some had been separated from their families. The authorities were angry and rounded on the press, who responded by informing one woman in the ragged line that she was bound for Turkey. It was the first she had heard of it, and it came as a terrible shock. To deport such desperate people in such summary fashion, one needs an unambiguous sense that danger is close at hand. That sense is palpable in Macedonia and, as the Macedonian press and government officials argue, if prosperous countries are loath to offer temporary settlement to Kosovars, why should they?

B y the second week in April, with the Nato camps operational, the bitter scenes at the airport had stopped. But the model of the rich countries waging the rich man’s war by the rich man’s rules persists in Macedonia and so this conflict may, by degrees, be envisaged as one that pits an aggressive capitalism, spearheaded by Washington, against a vestigial socialist redoubt, in the form of Serbia. This interpretation was brought home to me most forcefully in a series of conversations with two young Macedonians working with the correspondent for L’Humanité – the French Communist newspaper (still owned by the Party) – with whom I took up in Macedonia and Albania.

Kristjan and Daniel were not press fixers by trade. Kristjan had been at the American Embassy in Skopje when the watchman’s block was burned and the windows smashed in a demonstration of anti-Nato feeling at the start of the bombings. He rescued a French television crew from a trouncing by the crowd and his name was passed on by the crew to the man at L’Humanité, which strongly opposes the Nato bombardments. So do, of course, Kristjan and Daniel.

They are also of the view that a ‘Macedonian Kosovo’ has long been on the cards. They had reached this conclusion well before 24 March and, accordingly, were taking steps to leave the country – not now, but in five or ten years’ time. To do this they had applied for Croatian citizenship, on the grounds of their father’s origins. They regarded themselves as loyal Macedonians, and a loyal Macedonian looks back with some regret at the demise of Yugoslavia. They would not forgive Germany for recognising Croatia’s claim to independence, feeling that this had set the whole disaster in motion. Their Croatian ‘identity’ meant nothing to them, but it was, they said, far easier to travel on a Croatian than a Macedonian passport.

Both brothers resented the Partnership for Peace, conceived in the early Nineties as a means of funnelling Eastern countries into the Nato alliance; they were opposed to the first Macedonian Government for having pursued the Nato option and to any dwindling enthusiasm for it in the present regime. Somewhere in their minds’ eye, in their very disposition, was an enduring distrust of the West’s capacity to project its power like a searchlight across the political debris of the Eastern bloc. They were hard-working, hard-living people with an affection for Western popular culture – pirate CDs, The Simpsons, good, fast cars – and an ambition to live in the manner to which the West has grown accustomed, but they believed that America had ‘taken everything’ and would never share what they saw as a finite set of resources with poorer nations. They were at the wrong end of globalisation and there the West intended them to stay.

Milosevic was to their minds a figure who kept up a symbolic resistance to Western ambition and Western power. They didn’t much like him and, if pressed, they would ridicule him, but they would sooner throw in their lot with what he stood for – a mangled corruption of the multi-ethnic Federation combined, of course, with the defence of Serbian values (which they thought worth defending) against the ruthlessness of Western capitalism – than with the howling and baying and force majeure that Nato stood for. Or indeed with the fantastic capital accumulation that underpinned it – so vast as to be inconceivable in a country like Macedonia. The price of an F-117 ‘stealth’ bomber proved their case.

But the oddest twist in this argument concerned the Albanians, in some sense the bridgehead of capitalist penetration. For Kristjan and Daniel, comparative poverty in the global scale of things was the price of a conscientious solidarity against the West – precisely what Albania had relinquished. Albanians were poorer than Macedonians, that was clear, but they were also more committed to self-enrichment. Forced abroad by their poverty, they earned hard currency in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Britain and the US, and sent home remittances. And in due course they returned to drive better cars and build bigger homes. They were selling the pass by thinking only of their own; they had no civic conscience; they wanted their own universities, their own untaxable businesses, and – in the end, so Kristjan and Daniel presumed – their own autonomous region in Macedonia. Kristjan, who expressed these concerns with far more frankness than his older brother, could accuse his neighbours of being poor and, in the same breath, of being rich. His thinking, it seemed to me, was perfectly balkanised.

The outline of an anti-Nato, anti-capitalist resistance headed by Milosevic is filled in by the president of the Democratic Party of the Serbs in Macedonia, Dragisa Miletic, a man in his forties with the regulation beard, longish hair, denims and patent leather shoes, a fiery speaker whose party took one seat in the first Macedonian Parliament and now has none. Outside the DPSM headquarters in Skopje, men sip homemade rakiya. Built into the bottle with the same mysterious ingenuity as a miniature clipper, is a wood carving of the Serbian emblem – a cross with four Cyrillic letters assigned to each angle: like four Latin Cs, each one with its back to the upright. You can find this symbol sprayed on the walls of a hundred burned-out villages in Kosovo. It is an acronym for the current well-worn watchword: ‘only unity can save the Serbs.’ Dragisa Miletic drinks from the same bottle: his party is four-square with Milosevic and he insists that since 24 March, membership has risen from twenty to fifty thousand. The claim is excessive, but party militants were much in evidence at the demonstrations outside the US and British Embassies in March and they are in the vanguard of anti-Nato sentiment in Macedonia.

M iletic regards the Nato alliance as a ‘fascist axis’. He used the term three or four times in the space of an hour. Loosely speaking, he meant a group of expansionist powers with a common ideology that they wished to impose on Serbia by encirclement, occupation and eventually partition. The axis, which had manufactured a refugee crisis to destabilise Macedonia, had convened to serve Washington’s unscrupulous purposes, under the nominal leadership of a disturbed but malleable liar placed in the White House by the CIA. The European allies were Washington’s puppets – Britain in particular, whose Foreign Secretary spoke and looked ‘like a Martian’. What cut Miletic to the quick was the jejune character of the US. ‘There is nothing in America,’ he said, ‘as old as a single tree in Serbia.’

He was not slow to issue threats. He spoke of a ‘new organisation’ in the Balkans that would launch ‘a worldwide anti-fascist resistance’. More specifically, he warned of attacks on Nato troops in Macedonia. These would not be organised, he hastened to add. They were likely instead to be a matter of irresistible local feeling. What would he have to say to his members if they were drawn into violence against Nato: would he condemn, would he condone, or would he keep his peace? ‘It is impossible,’ he replied, ‘to control the will of any single individual. When Nato came to Macedonia, there was no referendum, no consultation. I think it’s a problem. Such questions are resolved by the will of the people.’ Two men from the Skopje party branch said much the same. If Nato launched a ground war, its armies would never come back through Macedonia unscathed. Many ‘pure’ Macedonians would join the struggle. There were Macedonian Serbs, they said, who had already returned to defend the Serbian homeland – no groups as yet, but individuals. The longer the war lasted, the clearer the ‘honourable duty’ of every Macedonian Serb to take up arms.

One of the Skopje men, Novica Milanovic, had just been at the border, hoping for news of his brother’s family in Kosovo. He was unable to cross and had returned two hours earlier with no information. ‘We know they’ve been bombed,’ he said, ‘because the phone lines are dead. But that is all we know.’ He was worried for one of his nephews in the Serbian Army. The rakiya was served. We drank together. The men spoke of the old anti-Axis struggle and the British SOE contingents parachuted into Serbia during the last European war. Milanovic recalled that the Partisans had saved the lives of several hundred British pilots. He couldn’t believe that some of their descendants might be on bombing missions over Serbia half a century later. ‘It’s a betrayal we’ll never forget.’

At the bottom of the stairwell in the party headquarters a stack of placards which the members had devised for the big anti-Nato demonstrations in March – ‘Kosovo is our Jerusalem’ – set off an obscure procession of half-remembered arguments and dicta from the Cold War era. One of them was a strange remark Louis Althusser made a few years before his death about the kind of world he had hoped for, a place brought into being by an immaterial combination of desire and labour – a ground without ‘shadows’. Kosovo is a ground almost entirely overshadowed by two conflicting paradigms: the anti-Axis war with its alliances now brutally dishonoured, and the Cold War, whose rusting ideological armour is juddering back into service.

Between the columns of the liberal left press in Britain and the ante-rooms of militant Serbian politicians, the only common thread seems to be that we are still sleeping through the nightmare of history, that this is all a delirium of precedent. That the collapse of Yugoslavia might have been the wake-up call; that we dozed uneasily through Srebrenica and Gorazde and that we are now somewhere substantially different – off our beds, you could say, but still very much in history – is an idea that most observers in the West find very difficult.

It does, however, have its proponents among Kosovar Albanians and their kin in adjacent states: which is to say, nearly two million people originally in Kosovo, now rapidly dispersing, about three and a quarter million in Albania and close on half a million in Macedonia. As you head for Tetovo, 40 kilometres west from Skopje in the long border-belt populated by Macedonia’s Albanians, you leave behind one anachronistic style of graffiti (Nato followed by a swastika) and encounter another (‘Democratic Party of Albanians = Kosovo Liberation Army’). The DPA’s sympathies for the armed movement in Kosovo strike an old-fashioned chord, and that movement itself has unmistakable echoes of liberation movements in other parts of the world thirty or forty years ago. But these sympathies exist alongside a readiness to live with the newer, far less mythical phenomenon of globalisation: the process by which wealth is supposed to accrue to the less advantaged without the inconvenience of political struggle, but which in fact means that the poor must follow the money.

Albanians are conspicuous for having done this (at a rate of 200,000 to 350,000 a year before the collapse of the country’s pyramid investment scheme in 1997). What is true of Albania is also true of Kosovo and Macedonia, where a high proportion of young men from the ethnic Albanian communities have uprooted, travelled and worked for long periods in the wealthy economies, largely buying in, on unfavourable terms, to the new ideology of the free-for-all. The DPA in Macedonia, and its leader Arben Xhaferi, look to the West both for the prosperity of the Albanian minority and for a stand against the persecution of the Kosovars.

The picture of an ‘axis’ pitted against an ‘alliance’ is one that Xhaferi shares with his fellow citizens in the Serbian party in Skopje, but the position is flawlessly reversed. The axis is headed by Milosevic, whose crusading pretensions are far greater even than those of Nato; he sees himself with a zealous satisfaction in every anti-Nato demonstration from Paris to Ankara. One more implicit reversal: Milosevic, not Nato, is the fascist, the bunkered dictator, the man who has pursued a series of not quite final solutions against non-Serbian ‘nationalities’ in Yugoslavia in a bid to dominate the western Balkans. ‘The difficulty for Milosevic,’ Xhaferi argued, ‘is that he can’t achieve this. What he can do is emphasise ancient animosities in our region.’ The DPA is currently the junior partner in a three-party governing coalition, with five posts in the Macedonian cabinet, and Xhaferi must choose his words extremely carefully, but he goes on to describe a kind of apparatchik network, a legacy of the former Yugoslavia, which enables Milosevic’s people to shape opinion in the Macedonian security forces. Xhaferi may merely mean that old habits die hard. (In any case, the police and the Army are not slow to think that the refugees Milosevic has evicted are the new footsoldiers of the campaign to ‘Albanianise’ the state.) The intention is to polarise Macedonian society along ethnic lines. ‘We refuse to participate in this game,’ said Xhaferi. ‘We refuse to destabilise Macedonia. We must be quiet, calm and ready to be humiliated. We must simply accommodate.’ But what of Albanian sentiment: what of the simmering anger of people who have seen the suffering of the Kosovars so briskly redoubled at the borders? Xhaferi replied that he had thousands
of activists on the streets of Tetovo and other cities, explaining to people that a show of anger would only further Serbian aims.

I think Xhaferi – a gifted, attractive man, too attractive, perhaps, to be wholly trustworthy – had the refugees in mind when he produced his answer to the question of population growth. It was as though he wanted his well-rehearsed argument relayed very clearly to the West. Fears about population growth, he said, had to be seen in terms of the longue durée to grasp why they were so unfounded. At the turn of the century, Monastir – now Bitola in southern Macedonia – was predominantly an Albanian city: today only 5 per cent of its population is Albanian. When Albanians proclaimed an independent state in 1912, the population of Skopje was likewise mostly Albanian: today it is mostly Macedonian. Besides, he went on, Albanian populations may increase but they remain confined to certain areas. ‘It’s like a room,’ he said, ‘getting fuller because everybody is staying. Let’s simply say that this demographic question produces paranoia. And the refugees heighten it.’ The real regional challenge, Xhaferi insisted, was to contain Serbian expansionism, not only demographically – which only Albanians could do – but culturally. ‘We resist it,’ said Xhaferi, ‘with our higher national consciousness. They cannot assimilate us.’ I might have asked what this higher national consciousness was, had he not swept the whole question to one side with an extraordinary remark that suggested it was forged purely in opposition to Serbia and that American hegemony was both its best guarantee and its natural idiom. ‘We can accept country music,’ he declared, ‘but not the balalaika; Coca-Cola but not the Cyrillic alphabet.’ There was no doubting Xhaferi’s alignment. As for the KLA, he no longer needs to concern himself with delicate statements of his party’s position. The KLA is Nato’s business until the Kosovars return to Kosovo.

Three weeks ago I drove west from Skopje towards the Albanian border with the man from L’Humanité. We crossed at Debar. There was scarcely a soul. We found a driver on the other side to take us north along a 90-kilometre mountain road to the town of Kukes. He was assured by the handful of people we met on the way that his VW saloon was not up to the journey. He pressed on, over bridges paved with wooden planks that moaned and clattered above a torrent fed by the thaw on the snowline, and persisted with the jolting ascent over raw rock, wincing at each blow to the underbelly of the car. We sat immersed in the shameful memory of the field at Blace and the bitter scenes at the airport in Skopje. After three hours we abandoned the VW and rode in another German vehicle, a Mercedes microbus acquired by dint of exile labour, which could manage the ascent. On the last stretch of the gnarled, precipitous track, 50 kilometres and six hours later, we began edging into the side of the pass or out towards the drop, to make way for oncoming taxis full of Kosovars who had fled into Albania and were now winding their way south.

The frontier gate at Tropoje, beyond Kukes, bore no resemblance to the big gantry and the riverbank darkened with hungry, desperate people at Blace. About thirty refugees were entering every five minutes. The Albanian authorities were speeding them through. The total figure passed 250,000 while we were in Albania and is now much higher. The majority were huddled on wooden trailers, canopied with plastic sheeting and fabric, towed by tractors; rural people from southern Kosovo. There were far fewer cars, far fewer mobile phones. They looked more abject and spoke passionately of that abjection, of shootings and robberies by the Serbian paramilitaries, easily confirmed in the hospital at Kukes. But the life and death situation which had faced the refugees in Macedonia was absent and the ritual grief of the crossing was far more readily expressed. The tailback in Serbian territory stretched off into the distance. The main square in Kukes, 30 kilometres south, was lined with tractors and thousands of people. Albania was drinking up its share of the exodus with a willingness that Macedonia could not begin to evince.

On 13 April the BBC reported an incursion into Albania by a company of Serbian soldiers. It was headlined as a dramatic moment and the Albanian Government has made much of it. But the border is a fluid area where the KLA, who saw so many of the refugees out of Kosovo, operates without hindrance from Albania. When it can, the KLA also provides bombing co-ordinates to Nato. It knows from its drubbings where Serbian forces are positioned.

This is the oddest of the current Balkan alignments. The KLA, a frankly separatist movement, has its origins in a rapprochement during the early Eighties between one banned nationalist Albanian grouping in Kosovo and two small Marxist-Leninist parties, also in Kosovo, also illegal, and now often described as ‘Enverist’ (the reference is to the Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha, and accounts for the current description of the KLA as a force with its roots in ‘Maoism’). The result was the creation of the Kosovo People’s Movement, probably in Germany, in 1982. There was a split in the early Nineties; the Marxists moved away; and shortly afterwards, the KLA came into existence as the armed wing of the Movement. Until last year the General Council of the Movement was still running the KLA. Pleurat Sejdiu, the KLA spokesman in London, is a member of that Council.

The factionalism within the KLA has been no better, and no worse, than in any such movement, but there has been agreement on three important points: first, that the ‘Gandhian’ stance of Ibrahim Rugova, the exponent of non-violent resistance to Serbian state extremism, was a non-starter; second, that the Dayton Accords hammered out at the end of the Bosnian war were a favourable sign for armed Albanian struggle; third, that nothing less than independence was acceptable.

In the last year and a half the KLA has changed greatly. It is now the focus of a mass movement of Kosovars. It has taken in thousands of recruits and hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs and Deutschmarks from the Kosovar diaspora. Its officers are drawn from the villages of the Drenica Valley, the mess rooms of the former Yugoslav National Army and the jails of Serbia, where dissident ethnic Albanians have rotted for years on charges of ‘counter-revolutionary activity’. It is not a movement that Milosevic or any plausible successor in Belgrade could do business with, which is why the most obvious outcome of this war looks like independence for Kosovo, whatever the Nato member states, Russia and eventually the UN Security Council may affirm to the contrary. In Albania and Macedonia, you can talk to refugees all day, recording their accounts of Serbian brutality, some of it criminal; you can, if you wish to raise the stakes, conceive of what is going on as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘genocide’. Most of what they say is frighteningly detailed; now and then there is the ring of propaganda – what is left to them but the power to denounce? But in every case without exception, when you plant the suggestion that Nato is to blame for their flight from Kosovo, they deny it. They are in favour of whoever means to defend them. The KLA could not, but it delivered them into the care of a far greater military force, which may in time do better than prevaricate in the airspace of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It is too soon to say whether those who survive will thank the KLA and the alliance, but it is probable that, under any circumstances, they will continue to hope for full independence.

That danger may not be as great as the disinterring of Cold War hostilities and the emergence of new ressentiments to do with who is and who is not a beneficiary of Western militarism and Western wealth. But the long-term future of the people Nato would like to spare from Milosevic is simply not safe in the hands of the KLA. Nato has come within an inch of arming them. If it takes this step, by stealth or increment, it cannot hope to disarm them later without a struggle. Nor, having empowered them, can it expect to have much of a check on their conduct in an ‘interim’ arrangement such as a protectorate, still less in a foreseeable Kosovar state. If the KLA returns to Kosovo under Nato or some broader international supervision, it will do so in triumph, basking in the new dispensation and conducting its own internal disputes high above the heads of its erstwhile supporters. This is often the way with armed liberation, as those with a fondness for precedent will agree, and it makes no difference who supplied the arms.

Three weeks ago, on the road leading south from Kukes, the KLA had established a checkpoint. Any young men on the tractors and trailers moving down to Tirana were urged in the most forceful terms to enlist. Further down the passes to the capital there was an encampment high in the collar of a rocky slope. In Kukes itself, an old machine-tool factory had been taken over by the KLA. The works yard was full of armed men in uniform and others in jeans, sweaters, leather jackets – members or prospective members. There is no question that Nato intervention swelled these ranks. Or that it hastened the refugee exodus. Yet without a finger raised by the West, there might have been as many recruits to the KLA and as many dead or displaced in and around Kosovo as there are now.

This is the troubling possibility that allows supporters of the Nato intervention to reach for their own precedents and their own reproachful invocations, including the shibboleth of ‘appeasement’. It is true that the refugees coming through Kukes on wooden carts resemble the lines of men and women leaving the Sudetenland in 1938. But the flight of Serbs from the Krajina in 1995 looked much the same: it is unavoidably the case that the earlier wars in the former Yugoslavia strengthened the argument for intervention in Kosovo – the Bosnian war especially, where the cumulative failure of diplomacy and ‘peace-keeping’, a year-on-year policy of pseudo-intervention under the aegis of the UN, was so marked. At the edge of our short historical attention span, meanwhile, stands the memory of Rwanda and of the Hutu camps in eastern Zaire: a damning affidavit in the matter of the UN’s ability to monitor, but not to check, a catastrophe. Neither Rwanda nor Bosnia has much strategic bearing on Kosovo but alas, they have a moral bearing and in terms of conscience, the question is much cruder: is it preferable to live with the known – the sickeningly familiar, even – or the unknown (as if it mattered, by now, who was for or against this war)? On the face of it, the former inhabitants of Kosovo are for the unknown.

They relish Nato propaganda. They are even willing accomplices. In Blace, at the instigation of their parents, children crossed the border chanting, ‘Nato, Nato’ (what for, if not for the cameras?); the buses that ferried eighty or a hundred people at a time from the field were rapidly decorated with KLA graffiti. Some even hold Serbian warplanes responsible for Nato’s ‘pilot error’. Until now, at least, they have welcomed the ostentatious aerial build-up (and if they haven’t, they are not yet saying so). They believe that internal support for Milosevic counts for nothing by comparison with the international opposition ranged against him, although of course they would want the war to go further, on the assumption that a fighting force in Kosovo would curtail Serbian security operations and pave the way for independence.

The puzzle is why so many seem ready to stake so much on what amounts to a spectacular gamble: indeed, to lose everything, as they now have – relatives, friends, houses, farmsteads, livestock, businesses, cars, jewellery and cash. Part of the answer may lie in the condition of the Drenica Valley and other parts of Kosovo by the time the Serbian offensive of 1998 was completed: the spectral ruin of town after town, village after village, most of it begun by artillery and finished by hand. The Nato bombardments have not yet started to mete out these levels of civilian destruction. Much, then, was already lost.

Another part of the answer may lie in the instinctive habits of a community with a large diaspora. Kosovar Albanians have already put the notion of home in parenthesis. It is ten years since they had jobs worth anything in the ravaged public sector, or received reasonable treatment in a state hospital, or could educate their children in state schools. During that time, in the towns rather more than the rural areas, a great moral reorientation occurred. As a dependable proportion of ethnic Albanian wealth was generated outside the borders of Serbia by expatriates and sent back to a place of deepening misery and repression, the hunger for security in the province found modest satisfaction in the sense of a world beyond, where almost every family had a relative, working or studying in a climate of civility from which people in Kosovo derived a measure of consolation. By the end of last year, hope itself had been transferred out.

What the refugees are thinking will change as circumstances change. They may turn against Nato, if it can do no better than it has. They may even come to prefer what they knew and dreaded – two or three years more of Serbian campaigning and costly KLA regrouping – to what they have suffered very recently. No doubt what they feared from Western non-involvement would have troubled us less than what is happening now. No doubt we’d feel easier had our governments refrained from the use of force, from threatening to tamper with the borders of sovereign territories, from the inglorious business of removing more than a million people from alien military rule and leaving them in the hands of a movement without any democratic tradition – and all this with no inkling of the repercussions it might have for their regional neighbours. It is certainly safer to say that the Balkans are the site of enmities that resist all scrutiny and intervention, even history itself – a kind of Africa in Europe – and go about our business with a clean conscience, like Tony Benn and Alan Clark or Julie Burchill and the Pope.