History, it’s said again and again, is what makes the loss of Kosovo so much harder for the Serbs to entertain than any of the setbacks they’ve borne so far under the dark stewardship of Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo is the geographical fundament of Serbian Orthodoxy; the site of a legendary face-off between Christianity and Ottoman incursion. Among Serbs, this past is a far more vigorous currency than the miserable Yugoslav dinar, yet very few non-Serbs recognise it, or anything minted in Belgrade, as legal tender. We, too, can invoke history to explain our hesitation. Seven hundred years ago, Dante wrote King Milutin of Rascia into the book that lies open on the Day of Judgment. Milutin’s sin, the imperial eagle explains to the poet in the Paradiso, was to forge Venetian ducats (‘il conio di Vinegia’). Today his remote descendant Milan Milutinovic, President of Serbia, is honouring the tradition by issuing one counterfeit version after another of events in Kosovo. Since Richard Holbrooke, Washington’s Balkan fixer, brokered a rickety ceasefire last October, Milutinovic’s arguments have come with a plausible lustre – he invokes the UN Charter, the sovereignty of member states and so on – but his latest observation, that the 45 ethnic Albanian villagers massacred in Recak by Serbian security forces on 15 January were all ‘terrorists’, has persuaded no one.

Milosevic is clearly the bigger figure; larger than death, you could say, and thoroughly Orientalised: the West is aghast at the Federal President’s ‘cunning’, his staying power, his hecatombs, yet over the years and around the world, we have not done badly ourselves. For some time now Milosevic has had the better of Washington. He has also stood the normal order of events on its head: in Kosovo, the last few months of ‘peace’ have not been the logical outcome of exhaustion, defeat or satisfaction in war, but a necessary prelude to renewed hostilities.

Late last year, the weather in Kosovo turned momentarily in favour of Holbrooke’s ceasefire. In Pristina, the provincial capital, the change began with a warning volley of snowflakes just after dark. By the following morning the roads were nearly impassable. Food deliveries to the villages ravaged by the Serbian offensive – scores of villages in Kosovo – were delayed. And the low-key war, the sporadic skirmishing that has since escalated, was reduced to a minimum. A few centimetres of snow had done more than any monitors or roving ambassadors to muffle the ardours of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian authorities. The road out west to Pec – Peja in Albanian – was an ice rink. The villages we passed were gutted and quite deserted: the most recent addition, and presumably the last, to a long trail of ruin, consuming hundreds of peasant communities, which dates from the early Nineties and curves down through much of the former Yugoslavia. Stray dogs limped across the white fields. With the disruption of rural life, they had learned to run in packs.

We stopped in a village sacked by the Serbs during the offensive which ended in September. The damage was near-absolute and the place was still largely abandoned. A handful of people had returned but they were now in a state of terror: two days before, the KLA had killed two policemen and wounded four others in an ambush in the village and the Serbian police had taken summary revenge on any ethnic Albanians they could lay hands on. Nobody was dead, but there had been severe beatings. Two EU staff attached to the Diplomatic Observer Mission, a forerunner of the much bigger OSCE verification mission now in deep water in Kosovo, had moved in promptly to investigate the reprisals. One of the monitors had been in Kosovo for four or five months. He sat in his armoured vehicle with the door open and checked his ledger for details of the village: ‘Originally 1861 inhabitants, 187 houses, 95 per cent destroyed in the Serbian offensive.’

He accused the KLA of irresponsibility: they must have known what would happen to the villagers after the ambush. There was daily harassment of Albanian-speakers by the police in this area, he told us, but reckoned that the KLA was responsible for 90 per cent of the serious provocations. The local KLA commander is a man named Ramush. ‘He speaks fluent French and people say he is a former legionnaire. His English is also good. He corrects our interpreters.’ The monitor had had several dealings with Ramush and believed he was tough, fanatical even. ‘He wants to stay in the hills forever and cleanse this whole area of Serbs.’ He answered to no one, the monitor thought; certainly not to the KLA office in Pristina, headed by Adem Demaçi, a symbolic figure from the Parliamentary Party of Kosovo whose links with the liberation army are not hard and fast, although he is widely respected as a militant secessionist who spent 28 years (longer than Mandela’s term) in Yugoslav jails.

The independence of a well-equipped kaçak – or outlaw – like Ramush weakens the chain of command that is needed to turn an assortment of dedicated maquisards into the armed wing of a co-ordinated political movement and the dangers of warlordism in some KLA sectors are correspondingly high. Yet the organisation enjoys widespread support in the western part of Kosovo, above all in the Drenica valley: if civilians pay a high price for KLA actions, the liberation army is recognised as the only challenge to a minority regime that has stripped ethnic Albanians of most rights of citizenship, deprived them of jobs, forced them to develop a parallel system of schooling and healthcare, lately destroyed their rural infrastructure and cast them yet again in the historical role of Muslim intruders. The KLA also receives material support from Albania (the Democratic Party of Albania has purchased weapons on their behalf or passed on the contents of the government arsenals looted in 1997) and can count on funds from the Kosovar diaspora in Germany, which has the largest community of Kosovar expatriates, and Switzerland, where the organisation holds its main bank accounts. Switzerland is a major KLA recruiting ground; many Kosovar exiles have returned to fight for independence alongside people who have remained in the province, or dipped in and out of Albania between periods of detention.

‘When you meet the fighters,’ a young Albanian interpreter in Pristina announced, ‘you will see how they are. They are epic.’ This was not a frivolous description. She meant that the fighting tradition among ethnic Albanians is long (the current bout can be thought of as a continuation of hostilities that go back 85 years or more); that it has a robust undercarriage of myth, further strengthened by fierce notions of uprightness – moral notions that lie somewhere between honour and bravado; some would say courage. She was worried that the most reckless wield great authority, irrespective of their rank, and that this could happen within any given command (just as, on a bigger scale, semi-autonomous sectors can act as they see fit). The willingness to die is also a difficult issue. Death is easily reconfigured in terms of sacrifice and heroism, but it’s a setback just the same, and in war the presence of forces – living, able-bodied forces – in the field is always an asset. The statuesque figure of the KLA fighter hewn from the bones of his forebears and caked with the dust of earlier struggles is part archetype and part identikit – and mostly suspect. Yet the term ‘epic’ tells us something about the KLA’s strengths and its weaknesses.

It also serves to distinguish their approach from the more admirable and ponderous efforts of Ibrahim Rugova’s alternative administration, the Government of the ‘Kosovo Republic’, voted into existence by the provincial chamber that Milosevic stripped of its effective powers ten years ago. Two days after our journey to Pec, I took up with another interpreter, a young journalist who supplemented her income with work at Rugova’s information centre. M. had had many dealings with the KLA. She understood their impatience with Rugova, an impatience bordering on contempt, but she would not denounce the project of independence by peaceful means that he has so honourably, and hopelessly, pursued. She wanted a coherent front moving ineluctably towards an independent state of Kosovo, but she was a realist who thought better of her wishes.

M. knew a KLA base off the road leading north from Pristina to Podujevo and up into Serbia proper. We drove for forty minutes or more, the traffic decreasing as we got further from the capital. We passed a Serbian police post, continued until we were beyond sight of it and got out. The driver took off with the car. Working from memory – she had been here several months earlier – M. found a narrow track leading up to a rise, about half a mile off. On either side of it ran a low wall, and sometimes hedgerow, clotted with snow and ice. After a few hundred yards we were visible from the police post, but almost at once the track dipped and a long rampart of snow hid us from view.

M. took me to a farmstead surrounded by a palisade of rough thatch. She spoke to a man who directed us across the fields and some time later, tired now, we reached an isolated house with three pairs of frozen boots stood on the tiled floor of the porch. On the sloping roof above us, where you might have expected a weather vane, there was a white satellite dish. We knocked and an elderly man with a smattering of teeth appeared in the doorway, two younger men behind him. M. introduced us and showed them a pass she’d obtained from Demaçi in Pristina. One of the younger men came out of the house and put on his boots. The other handed him an old Kalashnikov and two magazines strapped together with masking tape. We followed our burly, convivial guide across the fields, breaking the crust of virgin snow as we went, and sinking up to our shins. He was fitter than either of us. On our way we encountered two other KLA men. He shouted to them and the sound of laughter clattered back at us through the lean air. ‘He says he has two suspects from Pristina,’ M. explained, ‘and we’re both under arrest.’

As the terrain levelled out we found ourselves in a plantation of young oak trees. M. wanted a photograph and the fighter stood motionless on the path between the trees with his gun in both hands. He could have held the posture for as long as it took a singer to recite the history of his village. ‘Epic’, it struck me again, was not a bad word. It was only as we left the plantation that I noticed the ground underfoot. It consisted of a thick snowfall strewn with autumn leaves. The trees, too, were still hung with straggler foliage. In Kosovo, winter had stolen a march on the fall and the normal order of events seemed once again to have been reversed.

We must have reached the village an hour or so later. It was quiet at the bottom but the path rose, and beyond that was a well-manned KLA checkpoint. We were shown into a house that M. had visited before. One of the officers recognised her. There was a woodstove burning in the front room. A big blown-up photograph of a pastoral landscape with a stream running over boulders covered the back wall: a homely, tautologous reminder of the KLA motherland that was all around them, large sections of it now under their control. The stovepipe ran up through the picture some distance from a weeping willow. The stutter of walkie-talkies, and from somewhere at the back of the house, the rasping crackle of a base-set, came and went in the room.

Our meeting was short and not very frank. We sat with three men in uniform. I’d come to Kosovo, I said, to trace the family of some refugees and knew that here only a small number of the people displaced during the Serbian offensive – 250,000 according to the UN, nearly double that by the reckoning of an American NGO – had actually left the province (which M. translated as ‘republic’). The officers said that a lot of people had moved from their sector last July, and that the KLA had helped them. There were probably twenty villages in the area and around 15,000 people. Most were gone by August, when the Serbian offensive was frenzied. They said that people had left by car, on buses, in tractors, swarming into Pristina and Podujevo, and that the KLA had stuck close to them, in the rear, with the idea of protecting them if the worst came to the worst. One of the men, a short, engaging character with a deferential smile, said that he’d urged his parents to leave; reluctantly they’d agreed, but had kept coming back. The inhabitants of one village had been moved wholesale and brought under the protection of the fighters at the base.

The officers insisted they were still at war, despite the Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement. And, yes, the ceasefire was an occasion to plan and regroup – ‘a good moment,’ M. said, translating the words of the senior commander, chain-smoking at a desk behind a portable typewriter, ‘to collect matériel. Training we have already done.’ Independence was the unequivocal goal. The idea that the medium-term outcome of the Holbrooke/Milosevic negotiations would redefine the province as a third republic, along with Serbia and Montenegro, within what remains of federal Yugoslavia was addressed with serious interest. But this interest is strictly provisional. Whether Kosovo is recast as an ‘autonomous region’, as it became in the Forties, or an ‘autonomous province’, as it became in the Sixties, or a republic in all but name, as it did under the Tito Constitution, or simply a Serbian stomping-ground, as it did in 1989, these officers – like many ethnic Albanians I met – have simply had enough of the Yugoslav project. They wanted international guarantees that the option of independence would remain open after any interim return to autonomy, in whatever guise. At the same time, they know there are no international guarantees. Disruption and violence on a scale that the West finds unsettling are the likeliest guarantors of their ambitions and these are the things they intend to call on. Complete separation from the remains of Yugoslavia is the objective.

The KLA base seemed backwoods-ish, ominously easy-going as it went about its business, preparing for the bleak days ahead. There were men chopping firewood; others attending to cars – plenty of cars, some of them four-wheel drives in good condition. It was a military version of the extended family that is everywhere in Kosovo: an advantage in this kind of war, but yet another obstacle, perhaps, to the creation of a modern chain of command in a small world of village notables and well-respected clans. There can be few Kosovars who do not have distant relatives in the KLA and so, to the authorities (above all Milan Milutinovic), every ethnic Albanian is a terrorist suspect, which means that in Kosovo those who condone terrorism outnumber Serb citizens by nine to one.

To our hosts, the close family connections between fighters and civilians proved that the movement swam in the waters of popular support. In eight months, they had lost only seven fighters and 14 civilians. But here, the KLA had not been put to quite the same test in the eyes of their followers as units further south in Drenica, which bore the brunt of Serbian revanchisme, or the units that were active near Recak before the recent massacre. A day after leaving the base, I drove through the wreckage of Malisevo, a town in Drenica which the police and Army had taken apart with all the more vigour for the fact that the KLA had occupied it and proclaimed it a liberated ‘capital’. The snow looked like a demure attempt to cover the charred remains of the place, as you’d cover the dead, but it is a monument of shame, both to the Serbian Army and police for what they did to it and to the KLA for having turned it into such an object of enmity, knowing full well that they could never hold it. The police were sandbagged in; there was armour half-hidden on the outskirts. Down the road to Dragobilje, the KLA had regrouped; it was a frontline of sorts, with the two sides staring one another down across a fraying cordon of foul weather and shuttle diplomacy. No one imagines it will hold.

M. had handed me a sheaf of her photographs before we parted. Most were from a recent trip in the field and, of these, the ones she urged on me showed a dead man – an ethnic Albanian – washed and readied for burial. He had been killed by the Serbian Army, she said. The wounds were brutal, the post-mortem stitching was crude. The body was bluish grey. She had used up the rest of the film at a gathering of her family and friends. The prints were all poor. It wasn’t the body that was troubling, so much as the business of showing the photos at all, and the fact that the shots of the dead man were on the same roll as the family snaps. I think M’s motive was simple. I was fond of saying that I knew nothing about the Balkans and perhaps she thought the photos would illustrate how bad things had been here. But one of the distinguishing features of Kosovo seems to be the readiness with which people light on the subject of atrocity. You’ll hear often, in differing detail, how one killing or another was a lingering and terrible affair, all this without a trace of the reticence you’ll find in other places where things have gone equally badly. It’s not simply that these horrors are fresh in people’s minds and have to be exorcised. For a people at war, atrocity, like death and heroism, is always a building block in the edifice of national identity, but is there anywhere it sits so snugly in the foundations?

‘The state,’ a member of Rugova’s Parliament told me, ‘holds the monopoly of violence now’ – which is how it looked last year and how it looks again since the massacre at Recak, but only at a glance. In any case, it doesn’t have a monopoly on atrocity. Late one night, as the thaw came on, I walked through a marsh of blackening melt-water to the Grand Hotel in Pristina, picked up a Serbian interpreter, and made my way to the police station. It was nine o’clock. I was instructed that anything arising from this meeting should be attributed to ‘official government sources’. Let’s call him the Source, a stocky, intense man with a witheringly powerful stare, a profound sense of grievance and a tendency to draconian exposition. A pile of white ring-bound folders lay stacked on the table at which we sat, but these would not be broached before ‘a short résumé on the situation in Kosovo’. It was, in fact, lengthy and punctuated by harsh criticisms of the Western media.

Since the Holbrooke/Milosevic agreement, the Source had lost nine policemen; another 25 had been wounded and 11 kidnapped (those figures have since risen). In the course of 1998 – with a few weeks to go – 112 police had been killed (a figure broadly consistent with the ratio of Serbs to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, given the 1998 death toll of something between one and two thousand people) and nearly 400 wounded. The Source had a register of 1,632 terrorist – that is, KLA – attacks, but emphasised that in the wake of the Serbian offensive, the authorities had decreed an amnesty for anyone handing in firearms and had so far received nine thousand weapons, manufactured mostly in Nato member-states and China.

He was speaking for the moment as a police chief, responsible for the welfare of his men, with a body of law to uphold and the integrity of a state to defend. All around him he saw terrorism in its purest form: two Serbs are abducted as profiteers for selling firewood to ethnic Albanians, then an ethnic Albanian is shot on the spot for buying the same firewood; a road is mined, a police post is assaulted, his officers die; whole villages are forced to take up arms which they’re at pains to part with once the amnesty is declared. ‘What,’ he inquired, ‘could my Government do? Would the Government of your country tolerate such a situation?’

We passed now to the white folders, forensic evidence of killings in Kosovo, complete with autopsy reports compiled by the office of the coroner, with poorly printed colour photographs, like M.’s, exposed on the same kind of camera as hers. ‘Six corpses unidentified, in a hole, estimated to be three months old, discovered on 3 October 1998 as a result of dogs carrying human remains.’ ‘August 16 and 17 1998, police officers Srdan Perovic and Milorad Rajkovic tortured to death in Lausa after being abducted by men in civilian dress’; the photos show one body, severely bruised, with the hand cut into strips; the other with an ear severed, the nose cut, both arms broken and, in a picture taken from another angle, a gaping hole in place of a shoulderblade. The coroner’s report advises that these injuries were sustained before death.

There were scores of cases, all of them terrible. The more eager I became to draw our meeting to a close, the more agitated and persistent the Source became, standing over me, pointing, recapitulating, insisting, enraging himself with the ghastliness of the detail until his face became ashen. The last dossier contained three photographs of an outright villain, identified as Aslan Klecka, born in 1947. He was the embodiment of everything a Serb might fear in an ethnic Albanian. The stereotype of the Muslim extremist, whose presence in Bosnia was so briskly milked for the credulous West, is once again stressed in Belgrade’s propaganda about Kosovo. In one photograph, Aslan was wearing a robe and keffiyeh and posing beside an enormous mounted machine gun. In another he was Abraham, raising the knife over Isaac, except that he was leering and the blade was already running with blood. In the third, he was at prayer in what appeared to be open countryside. Across from these photos was a forensic shot of a distended body on the floor of a garage with the head severed and blood seeping through the trousers at the crotch. The Source claimed that this was one of Aslan’s last victims, that Aslan was found dead in a car, killed by a member of his own entourage – which may or may not be true – in September 1998, and that the other pictures were removed from Aslan’s house during a police investigation.

The parody of militant Islam compromised the Aslan dossier. The rest of the evidence had been as credible as any allegations from the ‘terrorist’ side, but this looked like montage. I suspect nonetheless that it was genuine, a piece of good luck for the authorities, allowing them to tar the organisation with the Islamist brush in a way that’s neither fair nor representative, despite the fact that Mujahidin elements are active in the KLA. ‘Wild West,’ said the Source, stubbing his forefinger on the picture of this Oriental Charles Manson posturing with a machine gun.

The trouble with atrocity, and tit-for-tat evidence, is that it explains only the brutality of war. Neither side in Kosovo is a stickler for the Geneva Conventions, and both are deeply invested in updating their national myths. Both feel wronged by history, which is why they incline to the historical view. To inquire of someone like the Source why he has so many chilling deeds on file is to ask him to speak as an ordinary person and therefore as a Serb. He would say (as he did) that decent people don’t commit such crimes; perhaps too (though he didn’t) that the forces of the Serb prince, Lazar Hrebeljanovic, marshalled against the Turks on the plain of Kosovo in 1389, were defending the nearest thing to a civilisation, in the hectic world of medieval Balkan polities, against the nearest thing to barbarity; and finally that this model holds good six centuries on.

As the night grew longer, the line between the diligent policeman and the embattled Serb became harder to trace. Which of them was it who ventured the opinion that the Serbian offensive had been drawn to a close too soon last autumn? (‘Three more weeks and the job could have been done.’) And which of them urged me to take copies of the photos in the dossiers back to Britain? (It would be unethical on my part, and an affront to the dead, not to get them published.) I declined politely and the mood of my ‘official government sources’ – policeman, statistician, bureaucrat and Serb – rapidly darkened. The ability to suppress rage is always admirable – and this was no exception – though many Serb policemen and soldiers would surely disagree. Their own is contracted out to the strategy of terror that now passes for law enforcement in Kosovo. But rage, as we know, is a law unto itself.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences