Not Much Tolerance, Not Much Water
Lynne Mastnak’s record of the last nine months in Kosovo
12 June 1999, Kukes, Albania. The Germans came to Kukes today. They were late, but the waiting crowd cheered as tanks and APCs rolled past. Yesterday a mild-mannered lieutenant-colonel told us that anyone could cross the border back into Kosovo but they were ‘not to get in the way of the tanks’. He advised waiting a few days for a ‘green light’. Last week UNHCR were telling us that we should still direct people to go south down into Albania. There is now an information campaign advising people not to return to Kosovo yet, it is not safe and there is no food. Some of us suggested that, regardless of directives, preparations should be made for an influx of three or four hundred thousand in a very short space of time. Two hundred went back yesterday and the families in the tractor camps are already packing for home.
17 June 1999, Pristina. We left Kukes at 4.30 this morning in a nose to tail queue of tractors and cars, waved over the border by Albanians and Germans. Nine thousand crossed yesterday. They are not listening to UNHCR. They want to get back before any more homes are burnt by departing Serbs – or looted by Kukes bandits. A gang of looters begged a lift back to Albania with the Germans two days ago, after one of them trod on a landmine. I cannot get over how much better the roads are here than in Kukes. We stopped for coffee in the main hotel in Prizren (the town seemed remarkably intact), and a man in KLA uniform welcomed us in a proprietorial manner, saying that the KLA were now in control of the town, and that they would co-ordinate all the efforts of the aid community. I explained politely that we would not be available for co-ordination as we were going to Pristina. At Suva Reka the scenery changed: burnt and shattered houses and another long convoy of tractors. But this one looked different. The trailers were loaded with more possessions than people: fridges, washing machines. A young woman stared at me blankly. Opposite her on a substantial sofa, an older one held her head in her hands. ‘Serbs leaving,’ my colleague Bini muttered.
The most striking thing about Pristina is its emptiness. The Grand Hotel is stuffed with media. Children cluster round a flower-bedecked British tank opposite a gutted pizzeria. Everywhere else the streets are deserted. All the shops and cafés are either boarded up or trashed. Our flat is untouched. No water, so we started filling plastic bottles, then fell asleep, exhausted, on the sofas. The World Health Organisation has called a meeting on the situation at the hospital. Apparently it is in chaos: there are very few patients, and only 20 per cent of the Serbian staff remain. Dr Grbic, the Serbian director, is discussing with lawyers how Albanians who were sacked from the hospital can have their jobs back. At the same time we are informed that 25 Serbian doctors are coming from Belgrade to help! Afrim, my psychiatric colleague, watched Serbian doctors load all the equipment from one local clinic onto a truck today. They stopped when he called KFOR. He mutters in my ear that the Albanian doctors plan to tell Grbic tomorrow that he is no longer wanted as director and to take their jobs back.
18 June 1999. It was a very peculiar demonstration. Anxious-looking Serb doctors clustered together in the anteroom of the surgical department eyeing a large crowd of Albanian doctors who, having discovered that Grbic wasn’t there, had no clear idea what to do. Hacks pecked at the edges of the crowd, interviewing anyone willing to speak. Two KFOR soldiers arrived. An irate Serb grabbed one of them and said: ‘Look, these doctors lost their jobs ten years ago and now they have come back. You have to give us security.’ Afrim lost his job three days after the air-strikes began, so this was not completely true. More KFOR appeared and put two armed soldiers outside the director’s office. Then some kind of delegation formed itself and a KFOR man announced: ‘Discussions are ongoing, why don’t you all take a bit of fresh air?’ We had to leave for Skopje anyway, to get food and fuel.
23 June 1999. We drove to Peje to see what had happened to Bini’s brother’s house. The journey is part highway and part dirt road, to avoid blown-up bridges. Just before Peje we noticed thick smoke coming from a small valley and turned off to have a look. The smoke was coming from a haystack. The two-storey house next to it had a wooden balcony and Serb Radical Party insignia painted on the gate-post. Half its contents were lying on the ground; across the path lay a dead pig and a pile of photos. On the balcony of the next farmhouse there were stacks of ammunition boxes. Men and boys were piling stuff up in the yard. An elderly Albanian woman in a white headscarf stood outside the neighbouring gate, beside a wall inscribed ‘Fuck off Nato.’ She had just returned. She didn’t know the ‘looters’. ‘Those don’t belong to them,’ she said, as a man and a boy walked past leading three cows. ‘They are ours, we came to get them,’ the man insisted.
Back on the road we came to a KLA checkpoint. ‘Checking for looters,’ the uniformed soldier told us. ‘Oh good,’ I said, suddenly irritated. ‘There are some houses being burnt and looted right over there. Perhaps you could do something about it.’ He looked awkward.
‘It is too much for us to do everything.’
‘But this is right on your patch – better to stop the looting than just to check for it.’
‘Well, they might not be looters.’ Now he looked surly. ‘They may be getting their own things back. I found my plough in a house near here.’
‘So what’s the point of checking for looters?’
‘Well, actually, we’re not just checking for looters, we’re looking for war criminals and collaborators.’
All that is left of Urim’s home and dental practice is outer walls and rubble. Not a single piece of equipment remains. His uncle’s house has been gutted. The rather glamorous Albanian-owned villas opposite are intact. Both of them had small paper notices attached indicating that they were now KLA property. We drove around the burnt and deserted city, feeling utterly depressed. The remaining Serbs have gone to the Patriarchate and Italian troops occupy the hotel. We bought petrol at three marks a litre from some Albanians who had crossed the border from Tropoje and drove back to Pristina.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.