A State of One’s Own

Jeremy Harding writes about Kosovo

National sovereignty, in the remains of Yugoslavia, has been a punishing master. It has evicted some in the name of an old arrangement that they never fully took account of – this, by and large, has been the fate of Kosovo Albanians – and others in the name of new arrangements that took no account of them: this is the fate of vast numbers of Serbs. In the process, sovereignty has lost a lot of credibility. Yet no sooner is it violated by a powerful alliance, as it was on 24 March by Nato, than it recovers its threadbare dignity. Its status in the abstract may even have been enhanced – in some quarters anyhow – by the fact that it was weakened in a single, real instance. But in the former Yugoslavia, a loss of any kind often insinuates itself into the annals of gain, while short-term winners – Kosovo Albanians, for instance – can barely distinguish what they are meant to have won from all they have lost.

Djuro Marinkovic was unusual in this sense. He didn’t doubt for a moment that he was a loser. I met him last year in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, three months before the Nato bombings. He and his family lived together in a large room with five beds in a wooden barracks full of other Serbs, like them, from the Krajina. The old man smoked a savage tobacco which had turned the bristles on his upper lip yellow. His wife and daughter sat together in silence in a corner of the room, the younger woman a little behind the older. From time to time the soles of their furry slippers rasped on the plywood floor. They were a similar shade of pink, like the four hirsute feet of a TV puppet. The youngest male in the family, Marinkovic’s grandson, was out with friends. His 15-year-old sister, on whom what little the family earned had clearly been lavished, wore denims and Nike trainers and made her way through an apple with sulky affectation. Old Marinkovic watched his granddaughter out of the corner of his eye. He seemed unhappy with the persona she’d concocted from the oddments of consumer jetsam that had come her way.

The Marinkovic family arrived in Pristina in 1995. Their new home lay under the shadow of a pale ochre high-rise: the military police headquarters, a source of comfort to Kosovo’s Serbian minority and an object of loathing to Albanians. The barracks were disposed around the building in a kind of overground warren. They had originally contained more than a hundred people, but by 1998 there were only forty. Most of them, like the Marinkovic family, were Serbs from the Krajina. Djuro Marinkovic, his daughter Anka and their dependants were refugees in the remains of what used to be their own country, until Croatia’s independence was recognised in 1992. Croatian forces, ‘advised’ by MPRI, a mercenary company based in Virginia, retook the Krajina from the Serbs in 1995 and the Marinkovic family were thrust into exile with tens of thousands of others.

A refugee is, by definition, a person who has fled across the borders of his country; someone who knows that the only option is to head for open water. For the Marinkovic family, the process was quite different. The former Yugoslavia simply drained around them. Federal boundaries suddenly became sandspits denoting the frontiers of new sovereign states. The 200,000 Kosovo Albanians who abandoned their villages during the Serbian offensive of 1998 were mostly ‘internally displaced persons’, hiding within the provincial boundaries of Kosovo, the national borders of Serbia and the federal borders of Slobodan Milosevic’s ‘Yugoslavia’; but the Marinkovic family and all the Krajina Serbs who fled towards Belgrade in 1995 were making for the capital of a state whose sovereignty no longer extended to their place of origin. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1951 they were bona fide refugees.

Marinkovic was 62 years old when he was uprooted from the Krajina. He’d had a farmstead on about 15 acres of land. He kept sheep, pigs and cattle and tended a two-acre orchard. He was self-sufficient. He got the family out without mishap. On their arrival in Belgrade, they registered as refugees and were eventually transferred to Kosovo. There were other options – they were even asked if they wanted to settle outside the former Yugoslavia – but the Government in Belgrade guaranteed that if they went to Kosovo they would have accommodation, and that seemed to clinch it. It was part of Milosevic’s forlorn attempt to shift the ethnic balance in the province in favour of the Serbian minority. By the end of 1995, several thousand Krajina Serbs had been dumped in Kosovo like so much demographic ballast.

Marinkovic’s daughter, Anka, believed the family had taken the wrong decision. In the summer of 1998, when the war between the KLA and Serbian and Federal forces reached its height, she made inquiries about resettling in Australia. Plenty of Krajina Serbs had already left Kosovo for Australia and Canada, but she had heard nothing from the Embassy and it was winter now; the heavy snow and the agreement between Washington and Belgrade two months earlier had produced a lull in hostilities, even though both sides were preparing for all-out war in the spring.

Her father was steeped in pessimism. He saw his predicament in terms of the far greater national disaster that had befallen the people of Serbia. The next leader of the Serbs, he said, would do well to assemble them all on a large coral atoll and detonate a nuclear device a few hundred feet above sea level. That was what the rest of the world wanted – was it not? – and it would put an end to a terrible historic curse. And if not the next leader, then Clinton – ‘Yes, tell Clinton to do it.’ Marinkovic removed his dark blue peaked hat, ran his fingers over his cropped white hair and then replaced the hat, making the final adjustments with unreasonable care. He proffered one of his appalling cigarettes. His wife had more to say about this national curse. She was fond of Scripture and had discovered in the Bible what she took to be a prophecy about the annihilation of the Serbs. She had resolved that her children should never know about this and one day, when the family were still living in the Krajina, she had taken the Bible to the far end of the orchard and burned it to cinders.

Marinkovic didn’t care for religion. He liked priests even less. The family had not had a single visit from an Orthodox priest during their time in Pristina, and he remembered how the Catholic Church in Croatia had persecuted the Serbs during the Forties. He told me that he’d been interned in a Croatian camp for Serbs in 1941; that in the same year his father had been burned alive by Ustashe guards; that his older brother, a Partisan, had been killed in the course of duty and that his mother had become a drunk. As a boy of nine or ten, he, too, had worked with the Partisans, setting fires in the fields at night to guide in Allied supply planes. This, in turn, put him in mind of how the Ustashe had laid false fires to mislead the pilots, and these fires, I think, were what brought him around to the subject of Milosevic, the deceiver, the man that he, Marinkovic, should never have taken at his word. He blamed Milosevic both for the catastrophe in the Krajina and the deplorable state of his family and fellow Serbs in Kosovo, where they had been promised succour and support but lived instead in squalid quarters in a hostile city. ‘Our property is gone,’ Marinkovic said, ‘and we’re at the mercy of the state.’ But the state had let them down. It could not compensate them for the loss of their farm and had made no provision for their future. Marinkovic was working as a security guard on a nearby building site; his daughter had irregular work as a bookbinder. Every two months the family received an international aid package containing a litre of oil and a few kilograms of potatoes, dried beans and sugar. ‘It is terrible,’ Marinkovic said, ‘when Serbs mistreat Serbs.’

That remark had slipped my mind. I found it in the notes I’d made of our conversation, which I read over on the way back to Kosovo after the Nato bombing campaign. It was no less terrible, of course, when Serbs mistreated non-Serbs. But Djuro Marinkovic would have cared less about the dead of Bosnia and Kosovo than the stations of his own bitter journey to the final betrayal: there was the young boy, all but orphaned, placing tins of burning pitch in the stubble, waiting for the sound of aircraft; then the elderly farmer, cowering in his house under Croatian artillery fire, days after the Serbs had surrendered; and a few years later, the defeated refugee, posing for a photograph outside his hut in Pristina, within spitting distance of the main police building. The snow had fastened on the garden. A row of icicles, the size of cuttlefish, hung from the eaves of the family quarters.

There were two places, apart from the cramped barracks, where you could find Krajina Serbs in Pristina before the bombing. One was a miserable hotel, permanently under guard, the other a stone building up by the city’s mosques. Since Nato’s entry into Kosovo under the new guise of KFOR, the hotel had changed hands and the stone building had been closed up. Where the Marinkovic family had lived, the sun beat down on heaps of mangled, blackened debris. A huge radio mast in the police complex had been targeted during the sorties. It lay lengthways a few yards in front of the ruins. The police building itself had been hit.

Whether the vestiges of the Marinkovic hut were evidence of ‘collateral damage’ or indiscriminate Albanian revenge after the last Serbian withdrawal was hard to tell – and no one would say. Indeed, the remaining Serbs in the remaining barracks, set further back from the police headquarters, were loath to say anything at all. A group of women, all of them upwards of fifty, swore they had never heard of Djuro Marinkovic or his wife Milica, or of Anka and the two teenage children. They whispered and fretted together outside the huts, and then began to tell us that Albanians were harassing them. They wanted them out of their homes, they said, and out of Pristina. But they were not from the Krajina; they had always lived in Kosovo.

A wizened woman, much older than the others and only a little more than half their height, appeared in the doorway of one of the huts. She had a basket of washing in her arms and a row of plastic clothes pegs dangling from the hem of her skirt. She took me aside, led me down the darkened corridor of the hut and into her single room, containing a packing case, a bed and some reproduction icons. She opened her hands in a gesture of resignation, like a hermit showing off her cave, and led me back along the corridor. She had barely set foot in the yard when she began screaming at the other women. Why do you tell such lies? What are you trying to hide? Of course you know Marinkovic. Everyone knows Marinkovic. He works at the hospital.

A shouting match ensued and the tense, beleaguered women, already beside themselves with fear, swore to the interpreter that the little old lady was mad, she’d been mad for some time, she was confusing Marinkovic with another man, who had, in any case, left the hospital and fled north into Serbia proper. There was no one from the Krajina here, they were sure of it. And when we walked them round to the piles of ash where Marinkovic had once lived, they said that he, like so many others, had left for Serbia some time ago.

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