An elderly Serb in the Kosovo village of Mlecan told me that, for him, trouble had begun only a few days before, when Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers had searched a man in the woods nearby for weapons. ‘We have lived here for years and years and we have never had problems,’ he said, ‘but things are spoiled now.’ ‘There have always been good relations in this village,’ the woman with him added. ‘We are not interested in outside problems. I talk to them and they talk to us, I bought food in their Albanian shop and never paid for a year.’

Mlecan is a small village: 13 Serb families, 140 Albanian. It looks a picture of tranquillity, with a circle of red brick buildings around a village green. The walled compounds contain family houses, barns and stables; there is no way to tell if a house is Serb or Albanian. The dirt road from the village runs down to the Pristina-Pec highway, now controlled by the KLA. In one direction is Kjevo, where Serb police forces set up a checkpoint in January. From the grain tower in the town, their snipers have shot at Albanians working in the fields. In the other direction, the highway leads to Malishevo, the tiny capital of a small ‘free territory’, where KLA soldiers in their army-surplus uniforms mingle with ordinary citizens. For Albanians in mixed communities, the presence of Serbs is both threatening and protective. They know what can happen to villages with no Serbs.

In Mlecan there was an agreement. It came about when two Serb police-reservists from the village told Rustem Gashi, the head Albanian, that the Belgrade chief of police had asked them to leave because the Albanians in Kjevo had fled. ‘I asked them: what does a guy from Belgrade know about this place?’ Gashi said. ‘You know what it’s like, he knows nothing. I told them to stay; that no one would harm or bother them and they agreed.’ Gashi consulted with activists in the LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) and came back with a proposal. ‘We met, three plus three, and I requested that police from Kjevo should not come into the village, and that the Serbs, who we knew were armed, should not go out with their weapons, and they should guarantee we would not be harmed. They said: you are asking for no police, but the KLA passes through here. I admitted it, but then I asked who was burning houses and massacring people? They admitted it was the Serb police. I told them if the KLA drove through they would not harm anyone.’

The two communities made an agreement that if either heard of an impending attack they would warn the others. A few days later, however, Gashi noticed that some Serb children had gone away with their father. When he asked their grandmother she told him that they had gone to the doctor. ‘But they never came back and today the father was here to collect his things.’

We found the grandmother crying loudly as the remains of her family packed. Around the front a group of men were bundling the entire contents of a small shop into a van. One of them spoke to us in German. ‘Yesterday fifty KLA men came here with masks and automatic weapons and told us to leave. I have a gun and could stay, but it’s the children. The Serb police told us they could not guarantee our safety. The old woman will stay to watch the house.’ Meanwhile a small crowd of Serb neighbours had gathered and were talking with our Albanian interpreter, a local man whom some of them knew. The stories became increasingly confused: it was not masked men, just a few KLA who had come to see why the children were leaving.

‘They didn’t threaten anyone, just said the children should have stayed.’

‘I am not going,’ one woman said. ‘I have a machine gun and I am going to fight.’

Miloslav Staletic, the head Serb who had made the agreement with Rustem Gashi, was upset – he knew nothing of fifty gunmen. ‘A man in Kjevo caused a similar panic and they all left.’ He thought it was the weapons search that had caused the panic. ‘They evacuated the kids because Rustem was away and we could not talk to him,’ he said. ‘Then twenty men came from Malishevo. They thought all the Serbs had left so it was necessary to protect the village in case it was attacked by Serb police. Then they saw the Serbs were still here and talked to Rustem and he told them to leave. We still have an agreement that if we find something bad is going to happen, we tell each other and leave together.’

An Albanian man, a local teacher, joined in. ‘We are panicking a little. We fear the police will tell the Serbs before they plan an attack, so if they leave us on our own it means the village will be attacked.’

‘I swear to God we have not been told anything.’

‘The police told you to leave, and you were going to go.’

‘That was before we made the agreement. We were going to go because the police said the KLA was going to attack, but then we made this agreement.’

Gashi insisted the agreement still held. By now the Serbs had drifted away from the discussion and the crowd of young Albanians seated on the ground around him weren’t so sure.

‘They are all deeply involved with the police so they want to leave,’ they said of the Serb villagers.

‘Two Serbs with flak jackets came to the shop and drank beer – we did not stop them. If the KLA comes and builds a barricade in Mlecan, we won’t stop them.’

‘We are all KLA here.’

‘If the Serbs disarmed and made a commitment to protect and live in this village we would protect them.’

‘If the KLA try to harm them we will protect them, but they won’t protect us.’

In Kjevo the story is different. Things have not been good since 1987, when the Serbs – a quarter of the local population – demanded the closure of the local Albanian secondary school, on the grounds that Albanians were teasing Serb children. The school building was razed to its foundations and Albanian children had to make do with classes in private houses. But it was the establishment of a new police checkpoint that made life really difficult for Albanians. ‘The local police never treated us badly,’ Kastriot Gashi, a 23-year-old artist told me, ‘it was the outsiders.’ He explained that there were beatings and searches: Albanians who went to work in the fields were harassed most of all, so they stopped going. ‘We were blocked in the town, and at night they terrorised other villages.’ Then in mid-May there was a rumour that the KLA planned to attack the police and Albanians were advised to leave to avoid reprisals. The majority did, decamping to Malishevo and neighbouring villages to live with relatives and friends.

Sherif Gashi, a retired primary school teacher and Kastriot’s uncle, stayed behind in Kjevo, along with four other elders, to negotiate with the Serb police. ‘We said, “we come here as neighbours,” and asked them to remove the checkpoint, adding that our families would come back if it was removed. The younger policemen refused. We asked the police for old men to be stationed at the checkpoint who would not harass us, but they did not agree. We waited all day for a better response, then we left.’ He told the story sitting on cushions in the garden of his brother’s house in a village north of Malishevo, among their joint family of 25. He had no complaints about the KLA. ‘If it was not for them we would be executed like animals.’ Nor did he hold a grudge against his neighbours. ‘One of the Serbs – his name is Kolja – he put his arm around me and said: “we have some bad things between us, but it has not affected our lives. We are not in a situation where we have done so much harm to each other that we could not live together again.” ’

The history of Kosovo is the history of both populations, and it is a history more of co-operation than antagonism. Albanians participated in many of the events that have acquired mythic national significance for the Serbs. Serbs and Albanians fought together on both sides in the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389. Albanians fled with Serbs in the Great Migration of 1690 that followed the Ottoman defeat of the Austrian Army. Polarisation began only in the 19th century, when the state-building ambitions of Serbia clashed with a new sense of national identity among Albanians. In 1912 the Great Powers agreed to the creation of an Albanian state but allowed Serbia and Montenegro to incorporate Kosovo. For Serbs this was a liberation from Turkish rule; for the majority Albanians – who today make up 90 per cent of the province’s population – it was the beginning of Serb colonialism. The land expropriation and forced migration suffered by Kosovo Albanians in the inter-war years encouraged their collaboration with Fascist states which appeared to offer them a better deal. The end of World War Two ushered in twenty years of anti-Albanian repression at the hands of Tito’s Minister of the Interior, Alexander Rankovc.

Tito’s 1974 Constitution defined Kosovo as an ‘autonomous province’ and improved conditions for Albanians, who used it to create new institutions and improve education. Many Serbs, however, began to see the Constitution as an attempt to weaken Serbia. The 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences called it ‘physical, political, juridical and cultural genocide’. Kosovo Serbs found a political champion for their grievances in the figure of the former banker and Secretary of the Serbian Communist Party, Slobodan Milosevic, who recognised in 1987 that the Serb discontent in Kosovo could become the basis of a national mobilisation which would bring him to power. Two years later, he sealed his success by removing the province’s autonomy, and embarking on a new period of repression.

Beginning with the introduction of a ‘programme for Peace and Prosperity in Kosovo’, every aspect of Albanian life has since been subject to special measures. Albanians have lost the right to govern, judge and police themselves, to have their own television and radio; they are deprived of state healthcare from doctors who speak their language and, at school, lessons in their own culture and history. The Serb teachers of Vuk Karadzic primary school told me that Albanian children ‘have no history – their history is our Yugoslav history’. More than a hundred thousand state employees have been dismissed from their jobs; arbitrary arrests, weapons searches, police interrogations and beatings have become routine.

In the face of this, Albanians are now engaged in what Noel Malcolm calls ‘the politics of as if’.* Exiled within their own country, they began in the early Nineties to create a parallel state. In a secret referendum held in 1991, 87 per cent of the voters agreed to declare Kosovo a sovereign and independent republic. Parliamentary and Presidential elections followed in 1992, with the majority voting for Ibrahim Rugova, the pacifist leader of the LDK. Albanians went to school and university in garages and empty shops, they turned to private and charitable healthcare, and in spite of sanctions, a fairly thriving private economy of small shops and enterprises has emerged. Two things kept Albanians from violence during the first half of the Nineties: the influence of Rugova, transmitted by LDK offices in every community; and the realisation that violent clashes would receive little attention while war raged in Bosnia. My strongest memory of Kosovo when I was here in 1994 is of a class of Albanian schoolchildren weeping because they feared the war in the Balkans might spread.

The Dayton Agreement signed at the end of 1995 created a new situation. The lack of commitment to future action on the part of the international community, which seemed to follow from Rugova’s non-violence, persuaded many Albanians that armed struggle was the way to get taken seriously. The Bosnian Serbs had been rewarded with their own statelet after four years of war, while five years of ‘refusing to be provoked’ had earned Albanians nothing except a belief in the West that Kosovo was under control. Blerim Shala, editor of the political weekly Zeri, and spokesperson for G15, the group of Albanian leaders formed to negotiate with Milosevic, points out that die first acts of coordinated violence occurred in April 1996, just after the EU went back on its undertaking not to recognise Milosevic’s Yugoslav Republic until the Kosovo crisis was resolved. Students took to the streets in the autumn of 1997 to demand the implementation of an agreement returning school and university buildings to Albanian control. This was the beginning of a new phase of demonstrations and protests. The newly formed KLA attacked the Serb police and, on occasion, Albanians who supported the regime. Last winter, the police withdrew from some parts of the Drenica region after armed clashes, allowing uniformed and armed Albanians to set up checkpoints. Once the US envoy Robert Gelbard had issued a statement that me KLA could be treated as a terrorist organisation, Milosevic had die perfect excuse for a crackdown: in March, he moved into Drenica with tanks and heavy artillery against unarmed civilians.

After Drenica everything changed. While the West bickered and procrastinated, the brutal clean-up operations continued. Yet, far from destroying the KLA, the effect has been to convert a small cadre of soldiers and a few bands of villagers armed for self-defence into the beginnings of a national uprising – a good parallel is Ireland in 1916. When I was here in March friends were still telling me they thought the KLA might be a Serbian security force provocation, invented to justify repression. When I came back in June, the constant refrain was ‘We are all KLA.’ ‘Until this year, the students had a Gandhian code of self-discipline,’ Albin Kurti, international officer of the Students’ Union, told me. ‘They would have been prepared to die non-violently in front of a police cordon; now they want to take three people with them. It does not matter whether you support the KLA: if war appears and you have to defend yourself, you are KLA’

This process of radicalisation and militarisation was evident everywhere I went, particularly in vulnerable areas around Drenica, such as the village of Korrotica, just off the blockaded Pristina-Pec highway. Here, I drove down a street of large villas, all of them boarded up. A young Albanian man told us that the women and children had moved to safety after the attack on nearby Poklek, when unarmed civilians were executed and ‘disappeared’, and 26 houses were torched. The men were staying to guard the houses. He invited us in for coffee and I sat with his male friends and relatives in a luxurious pine-walled living-room. They kept the shutters down. Suddenly the silence was broken by the roar of a police tank racing through me village. ‘You see why we moved the children.’ The owner of the house told me that me police had come to search his house for weapons four times in the last two years. Last December, fifty police had broken down the doors at 4 a.m., dragged him and his family out of their beds, pushed the women and children into a corner, broken more doors and china, beaten two of his brothers and finally left with his (licensed) hunting rifle and his camera. The next day the three men were taken to the police station and beaten some more. ‘They finally realised that we had no weapons, so they gave up. If we had weapons, we would be up in die hills with the KLA. We don’t know anyone who doesn’t support it.’

Blerim Shala argues that the LDK was primarily a social movement, containing within it a number of elements – intellectuals, villagers, ex-political prisoners – all committed to the creation of an independent Kosovo by non-violent means. ‘Now that those means have reached their limit, the KLA has emerged as a social movement using military means. There is no difference in concept. Just means.’ It makes no sense to argue, as many journalists have, that the KLA and LDK are in competition, the former draining support from the latter as people turn away from non-violence. The KLA could not have mushroomed without the network, self-discipline and organisation of local LDK activists. ‘The same structure that built peaceful resistance is the basis for territorial defence,’ says the journalist Ylber Hysa. ‘That is why it turned so fast.’ Although the KLA’s spokesperson, Jacub Krasnici, claimed soon after his appointment that ‘Rugova is dead,’ the largely rural rank and file on which both leaderships depend are keeping their options open.

‘On demonstrations we shout “Kosovo, Rugova, KLA,” ’ a friend told me. ‘That means an independent Kosovo by peaceful or violent means.’ The KLA members in Korrotica, as in many places I visited, had pictures on the walls of both Rugova and Adem Jashari, who died defending his home in Milosevic’s first attack on Drenica. They were also members of the LDK. ‘We don’t agree that Rugova’s support is slipping. He is the second Mandela. Richard Holbrooke made him negotiate. Anyway, it is never too late to fight, but dialogue is best.’

In Rogove, in the south of the province, we met the local LDK leadership at the primary school. They were anxious: seventy tanks had gone past their village the previous day and appeared to have taken up positions on a low ridge of hills between Rogove and the Albanian border. Some of die local population had fled. ‘And are you KLA?’ I asked. ‘In case of need I am,’ one of the women replied. Her name is Ganimeta and she is the local school psychologist. ‘We are still LDK but we are determined to defend our houses, which automatically makes us members of KLA’.

Milosevic appears to have no interest in a peaceful solution. His recent agreement with the Russians is another example of his masterly approach to conflict management – ‘talk and shell at the same time.’ It conceded a number of non-negotiable rights, such as access to the International Red Cross, the right of refugees to return to their homes and ‘no repressive actions against civilians’; meanwhile, his security forces have continued to bombard undefended villages along die Albanian border, and civilians have continued to flee. Shkelzen Maliqi, a member of G15, sees this as part of an organised strategy: first, through terror, to cleanse the western rural areas, then to engage in a frontal war and take the more industrialised areas of the north and east. Paramilitaries and armed Serb civilians have already been active around the northern coal-mining town of Mitrovica. The final aim is partition but the Government would rather provoke migration under the guise of a counter-insurgency than launch an all-out attack, because it insists mat Kosovo Albanians are Yugoslav citizens. Airstrikes against citizens would, in effect, be a declaration of war on them, which would in turn disavow their citizenship.

The KLA response has been one of direct confrontation with the security forces in the border area and on key roads. Attacks on police units and stations are the means of ‘liberating’ territory and villages. In order to prevent reprisals against civilians they warn the Albanians to leave first. Afterwards, they establish checkpoints and allow the civilians to return. The KLA is adamant that theirs is not an ethnic war; they do not target Serb civilians and their battle is with Serb security forces only. This, however, does not explain the kidnapping of 24 Serb civilians. And while purely Albanian villages can be liberated without difficulty, in the mixed communities Serb civilians are vulnerable. An attack on a police station in a town like Kjevo, which is now entirely Serb, would result in an immediate flood of Serb refugees and provide Milosevic with all the justification he needs for escalating the conflict. This may be the biggest incentive for the KLA to exercise restraint.

How long such restraint will continue depends in part on the actions of the Albanian politicians in Pristina and their ability to bring the KLA under their control. The political structures in Kosovo appear very weak – a fact for which Rugova is widely blamed. The opposition parties see him as having almost fatally divided die political élite at just die moment when unity was most needed. At the LDK convention in February, he appointed fifty councillors by diktat and drove his vice-president, Hydajet Hyseni, to form a new political party. ‘The League was no longer a league, because there was no unity; it was no longer democratic,’ Hyseni told me. Moreover, ‘extreme pacifism was stimulating militant extremism.’ Rugova’s insistence on national elections just after the clamp-down in Drenica, when many felt there were other priorities, resulted in a boycott by half the opposition parties.

The creation of G15 appeared to offer some chance of a new consensus, as it included all the main political players. ‘But,’ Shala said, ‘you cannot have a dream team if you do not have a serious coach.’ Hyseni resigned in protest at the decision to negotiate with Milosevic without an international mediator present and while the violence was continuing. Shala and die other members felt that negotiations were essential in order to retain US support.

The predominant view is that a national coalition government should be formed, including all the political forces in Kosovo. The alternative is the withering of Albanian political structures, leaving only a paramilitary force, which may not have the strength to defeat Milosevic but could certainly prevent him from winning. A serious threat of force on the part of the international community would create the security needed for genuine negotiations. I’ve heard again and again that an independent Kosovo is unacceptable because of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which prohibits the change of borders by means of force; because it would destabilise Macedonia; and because it would lead to the flight of 200,000 Serbs. But what is most likely to unite Albanians across borders is an escalating war. An independent and democratic Kosovo would, on the other hand, have a stabilising effect on the whole region. All the political groups are committed to equality for Serbs, for example through separate voting lists, a veto in all matters that concern them, and special relations with Yugoslavia. ‘We need them, they are not a threat,’ Hysa says. ‘I do not want to live in a country like Croatia.’

I wanted to go back to Mlecan. The KLA stopped me at the checkpoint on the Kjevo road and it took two days to get permission. In the meantime I attended a wake in a schoolyard. On a table was a framed photo of the dead KLA soldier and a polished Kalashnikov. A hundred or so Albanian men stood in line with their fists raised as I was escorted past them. The commander made a formal speech about the sacrifice for freedom; I offered my condolences, then walked back past the line of men, who mis time had their hands pressed against their chests. Here in the ‘free territory’ the hay is cut, small children lead oxen, swim in the outdoor pool and hold up their fists as you drive by. The tragedy is that young men who have been beaten for years now feel empowered because they have a gun in their hands.

Rustem Gashi sat me in a vividly carpeted room, gave me coffee and told me sadly that the Serbs seemed to be leaving, removing their things day by day. ‘We are not harming them. Why are they escaping without telling us?’ He told me how, during World War Two, Albanians had protected Serbs from the Italians. We talked about the future: ‘The KLA has its job and Rugova has his, and Rugova spoke with Clinton; the KLA did not. All Albanians are united in the end, there isn’t any other way.’ What he wanted was a peace process between Belgrade and Pristina, mediated by a third party. If not ‘We will all have to fight to die death.’ His daughter was in the yard; she looked about 19. ‘She wants to join the KLA,’ he said, shaking his head as he showed me out. On the other side of the village most Serb houses seemed deserted, but Miloslav’s mother was still there. She was not leaving her home unless she absolutely had to, even though she no longer felt sure her neighbours could protect her. ‘And if there was peace would you mind whether Kosovo was in Serbia or not?’ I asked. ‘We have been here for more than three hundred years,’ she replied. ‘Let it be what it’s going to be.’

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