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.
In the access of anxiety caused by our arrival, separating truth from half-truth was impossible. The interpreter, an Albanian with fair Serbo-Croat, could not judge whether the women were Krajina Serbs who were lying in the pathetic hope of minimising their chances of eviction, or Kosovo Serbs who believed they had a greater right to stay than their counterparts from the Krajina. It scarcely mattered – throughout Kosovo now, the 150,000 remaining Serbs are being ostracised, hounded down and killed. It may only be a matter of time before even the most tenacious want out. The interpreter, who had remained in Pristina looking after her father throughout the bombing campaign, was shaken. She had caught a glimpse of her own terror – a terror inspired by the very thought of the Serbs – suddenly reversed in the mirror of the ‘liberation’. Now she and her Nato-member-state journalist, with his Nato accreditation badge, were the objects of fear.
‘New neighbours,’ Flutura Xharra told me. Her apartment, on the fifth floor of a large housing project about ten minutes’ walk from the centre, was broken into and trashed by the Serbian police during the family’s absence in Albania, but order had since been restored and it was much as I remembered it (I stayed here before the bombings and I was staying again), although the splash-tiles in the bathroom had been prised off in a fruitless hunt for money. The difference was that no Serbs were to be seen. There were new families on the fifth floor and, indeed, on other floors. Flutura didn’t know them, only where they were from, and she was unsure how long they planned to stay.
The standard answer – for as long as it takes to rebuild the family home in the village – seems fair. The combined damage of the costly Serbian offensive last year and the unimaginable sequel this year has affected tens of thousands of homes. The towns are obvious points of convergence for people whose houses have been razed, especially now there is empty Serbian property for the taking. Flutura was sympathetic. Like many people in Pristina, she has close family beyond the city. She showed me a photo of her uncle’s house in Djakovica, burned and broken, her 15-year-old son, Edon, sobbing in the rubble. But she was disconcerted, too. The last ten years of oppression meant that Albanians lived with carefully negotiated forms of neighbourliness. You needed to know how far you could trust the people next door, whether Serbian or Albanian; to weigh up their strengths and weaknesses, the extent to which they’d look out for you and the point beyond which they wouldn’t. Sometimes that point was a good way down the line. A friend in another part of town sent his wife and daughter to Turkey during the bombings and stayed on unharmed, unpillaged, because his Serbian neighbours made sure they were on the scene whenever the police or paramilitaries rapped at his door.
All this is changing, and the changes are part of a climate of deteriorating security, frightening for Serbs, but trying for Albanians too. The appropriation of abandoned Serbian apartments, cafés and shops was the first phase in a programme of self-service rehabilitation that has opened the way for greater and lesser forms of lawlessness in a place whose majority population has for some time held the law in low esteem. It is common to see British paratroop units in Pristina intervening in property disputes that have got out of hand – often between Albanians – or following up petty crime. But more organised racketeering is invisible to the outsider, and perhaps also to KFOR and the UN Administration in Kosovo. People like Flutura Xharra fear that this is a good moment for more seasoned criminals from Albania to move north and make a killing. Their business at home includes firearms, clandestine migration to the West and drugs. In Kosovo there are further opportunities, including corrupt property dealing, protection and other forms of extortion. Even that rare species of Pristina militant, the irredentist, who once looked to a greater Albania as the natural polity for Kosovars, wants little to do with the country now. For many Kosovars, the relief of escaping to Albania during the bombing was accompanied by shock at the state of the place, the condition of civil society and – yet again – the apparent lawlessness.
Year Zero is always a difficult date, and if there are not yet sheep and goats in the high-rise apartments, the dependable urban-village ways of Pristina neighbourhoods have been thrown out of kilter by the influx of real villagers from real villages. This new sociology hints at an older political tension between the KLA, conceived abroad but nurtured in rural Kosovo, and the parallel government that ran for most of the Nineties under the presidency of Ibrahim Rugova, the founder of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Rural Kosovo – the Drenica valley above all – is the heartland of the KLA. Traditions of banditry in the Drenica go back at least eighty years and, on the whole, they have survived the attentions of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. It is not the case that every villager in Kosovo is a KLA stalwart – far from it – but by the mid-Nineties nobody could ignore the limitations of Rugova’s ‘pacifism’ and there was a sense of the inevitable about the rise of armed resistance. Those who organised and prosecuted that resistance have arrived in town in force. For Rugova and the LDK, who seemed utterly surpassed by events even before 24 March, and indeed for Milosevic, it’s as if Birnam Wood had come to Dunsinane.
The KLA have taken over a handful of administrative buildings and appointed ministers under the auspices of an interim government. Their figurehead and Prime Minister is Hashim Thaci, a young man from the Drenica region with a family history of armed opposition to Serbian rule. He is said to have taken part six years ago in one of the first armed actions in the province for which the KLA claimed responsibility. He was a history student in the parallel university system in Kosovo and finished his studies abroad. He now presides over the United Democratic Movement, an alliance of small parties put together by the KLA; it includes the LPK, or National Movement of Kosovo, from which the KLA itself evolved. Rugova’s people are not involved in Hashim Thaci’s ‘interim government’: they still regard themselves as the mandated government of Kosovo, elected in clandestine polling in 1992, amid a climate of deepening repression.
The LDK is alarmed by the KLA’s effective seizure of power, under what is technically the authority of KFOR and the UN; and so it should be. Hashim Thaci is a tough character. When he tells you he is interested in building ‘a new and democratic, pluralistic society’, you can take it down dutifully, as though you were noting the details of a recorded phone message, but you’re under no obligation to believe him. He subsequently added the phrases ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘respect for human rights’, but the fate of Kosovo’s Serbs means that these high-minded sentiments tend to get slurred in the articulation. I asked him why he believed Albanians should have to cohabit with their former tormentors. ‘We fought against the Serbian uniform, not against civilians,’ he replied. But thousands of Albanians, among them the KLA, don’t subscribe to such fine discriminations.
It is not always easy, in any case, to tell a Serbian in civilian clothes from a paramilitary or some kind of reservist (Serbian and Yugoslav forces had a similar, quite pathological problem distinguishing KLA members from non-combatants in 1998; during the bombing, the whole point was to obliterate any such distinction). The vengefulness of Albanians towards Kosovo Serbs is often justified by the assertion that they were neighbours, or known locals, who brought out their guns to help the regular police with the business of plunder and eviction. This is part of the argument in the strained and polarised town of Mitrovica, north of Pristina, divided along the line of the Ibar river, with Albanians on one side and Serbs on the other. The bridge is guarded at both ends by French soldiers. Before the bombing, Mitrovica had a population of roughly 150,000, of whom 25 to 30 per cent were Serbs – a high concentration, given the nine to one ratio of Albanians to Serbs in the province as a whole. But the river did not divide the town absolutely along ethnic lines. That, of course, has changed.
The Albanian part of the town is busy, the Serbian part low-key and embattled. Near the French headquarters, in the Albanian part, groups of highly aggrieved men hang around, requesting every so often that they be allowed back into their homes on the other side of the bridge, from which they say they have been driven by Serbs. These newly evicted Albanians are united, in their discontent, with others who have always lived and worked in the majority-Albanian part of town, and who have done badly, too.
Once the bombings began in March, a ‘committee of seven’, all upstanding citizens of Mitrovica, was appointed to steer the town through its impending ordeal. One of the first measures the seven wise men settled on was a bulldozing programme, to destroy as many Albanian homes and enterprises as possible in the old part of the town. It managed about forty houses and ten shops before more urgent matters arose. Ibrahim Bejtullahu had a large cosmetics shop near the French military offices. It is now little more than three standing walls. He is free to rebuild, if he can raise the capital. His sympathy for Albanians who can’t cross the invisible cordon of Serbian hostility to get to their homes is strong. Both he and they insist that the Serbs in the north of the town are armed. The French – roughly 20 per cent of the international force, the second largest after the British – have been a disappointment to local Albanians. They weren’t asking KFOR to kick out the Serbs, they explained. ‘We just want protection to go back.’ A moment or two was spent searching for the right word in English for KFOR’s style in Mitrovica. ‘Passive’, it seemed, was the mot juste.
There were still several Serbs in the town, Bejtullahu and his friends alleged, who’d had a hand in beatings, burnings, lootings and armed evictions. I asked for a list. They came up with six names immediately, all of them ‘police’, but perhaps they meant the reservists and other patriots who go in and out of uniform as easily as the KLA. They claimed that one of the men, Nenad Peric, led the arson attack on the mosque near the bridge in April, but all six, Bejtullahu’s friends agreed, were active in carrying out ‘the Serbian programme’.
A charming young officer from Britanny, Lt Mériadec Raffray, is on hand to deal with the dwindling trail of journalists to Mitrovica. He has no doubt that there are Serbs in the northern enclave with weapons, but it’s no good, he said, bursting into someone’s house on hearsay. Raffray was reminded of the US: many people in the former Yugoslavia have guns in their houses, and a legal right to possess them. He used the expression ‘gun culture’. As for putting Albanians back in their homes, it seemed obvious that Raffray and his superiors were biding their time in the hope that the mood of hostility and vengefulness might subside in the days ahead (perhaps they’d also felt that some of it would be dissipated by the looting sprees, in which they failed to intervene, in June). They have already deployed 130 military police, but they clearly feel unable to force the issue of property restoration across the ethnic divide. Softly, softly (‘laisser évoluer’, you could call it) may be the only sensible approach for the moment, but it is unpopular with homeless Albanians, who do not like to think of the KLA disarming, as it must by the terms of Hashim Thaci’s undertaking in June, while their enemies are well stocked with ‘sporting’ guns, ‘collector’s items’ in the automatic weapons range and worse.
It’s not surprising that the KLA are failing to meet their deadlines in the phased demilitarisation set out in Thaci’s undertaking. General Sir Michael Jackson, the KFOR commander, to whom the undertaking was given, has said in effect that full disarmament is a pipe-dream, but he’s confident that some sort of demilitarisation schedule will be completed and he’s prepared to stretch a date or two on the way. This entente between soldiers – allies, as it happens – is shaping the new political landscape in Kosovo. The fact that military men prefer to do business with other military men works in favour of the KLA’s interim government. The movement’s General Staff conduct daily business with KFOR, which has a higher credit-rating among Albanians than the UN or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, both of which are involved in the abstruse challenges of helping reconstruct a society, and a civic and legal apparatus, in Kosovo. The KLA and KFOR (with Nato ‘at its core’) are the two top dogs in the province: one growls brazenly from its manger in the complaisant shadow of the other.
Naturally, there are points of disagreement. The KLA don’t like having their rank and file detained by KFOR for violating the ground rules on demilitarisation, or for more obvious misconduct. ‘The KLA General Staff have appealed against house-burnings and other acts of violence,’ Bajram Kosumi, the interim minister of information told me, but he used the point quite skilfully to argue for a KLA police force. ‘We have around 4000 police in Kosovo. They know the population and they know the problems. Yet the international community will not allow them to act in a proper police capacity. If KFOR and the KLA patrolled together, these incidents would stop.’ In other words, the KLA believe that the deployment of their own ‘police’ – and with it the extension of their hold on Kosovo – is still negotiable. They may be right. One of the shortcomings of Tony Blair’s illustrious plan to ‘win the peace’ has been in the domain of international policing. It is perverse to be pledging huge sums of money for provincial reconstruction and convening in Sarajevo to imagine a fullblown ‘regional’ regeneration (without so much as a dollar on the table), when the West has yet to dispatch even a fraction of the civilian police contingent it thought necessary to achieve security in Kosovo. The gap is being filled by default. De facto ‘policing’ by the KLA is quite common. Ironically, the members of these ‘patrols’ may well end up as official police under plans now being drawn up by the OSCE.
Big areas of contention between the KLA and the international juggernaut in Kosovo are opening up. The KLA’s argument is not with KFOR, however, so much as the UN mission, whose attempt to start appointing a judiciary has upset Bajram Kosumi, an otherwise affable and apparently broad-minded man. At the time we met, five judges had been appointed: three Albanians and two Serbs. Kosumi said that the interim government (i.e. the KLA) had not been consulted at any stage. He agreed, of course, that there should be a mixture of Serbs and Albanians in the judiciary, but the way it was going was a bit much. Worse, the calibre and character of the judges fell short of the mark. The UN has claimed that the appointments are made on the basis of experience in court, but Kosumi is quick to reply that experience in the ‘socialist’ courts, as he called them, does not qualify lawyers and judges for the kind of legal system he would like to see.
Two appointments, in particular, have dismayed Albanians. The first is that of Gjorgje Aksic, who was at one time or another involved in military tribunals in Kosovo and should, in Kosumi’s view, ‘be tried for war crimes’. Clearly the UN does not agree. After a brief wrangle and a submission of acceptable names by the interim government, Bernard Kouchner, the new head of the UN Mission, proposed an extended list. Aksic was still on it. ‘He is totally unacceptable’, said Kosumi. The other judge is an Albanian, Tadej Rodiqi, whom Kosumi described as a ‘Party stooge’. ‘Bring back the old nomenklatura,’ he warned, ‘and you end up bringing back the system they served.’ These disputes between KLA figureheads and the UN Mission are likely to increase – and it will be interesting to see whether they drive a wedge between KFOR and the UN in the next few months – for they are fuelled by specific and bitter memories of which the UN Mission staff are only now becoming aware.
Bajram Kosumi is a case in point. He was appointed chairman of the veteran activist Adem Demaci’s Parliamentary Party in 1994; he is currently the deputy chairman of the United Democratic Movement. But his militant credentials go back to the student protests of the early Eighties. In 1981, he was denounced as ‘an enemy of Yugoslavia’ and sentenced to 15 years for counter-revolutionary activity. Imprisoned in Pristina, Belgrade and elsewhere, he was released at the end of 1990. The judge who passed sentence on Kosumi, and thousands of others at the time, was Tadej Rodiqi.
The oddity of Kosovo is that it remains a province of Serbia, as the international community has decreed that it must, and yet it has not one Prime Minister, but two. You can walk between the offices of these men in less than fifteen minutes, but until recently you would have had to travel to Switzerland to meet Bujar Bukoshi, who was appointed by Rugova’s parallel administration in the early Nineties. Bukoshi’s position is protean, to say the least. He does not like to be referred to as ‘Rugova’s’ Prime Minister. ‘I am mandated by the legal structures, and part of the executive set up by Rugova,’ he said, ‘but I’m no one’s slave.’ He also admitted that he would have ‘no difficulty’ leaving the LDK now. He is nonetheless back in Kosovo as its representative and as a Rugova appointee, to challenge the legitimacy of the KLA’s interim government – ‘to de-mandate this government and get the old one back,’ as he puts it. And, of course, like anyone with political ambitions in this territory of indeterminate status, ‘to focus on getting Kosovo out of Serbia’.
Bukoshi is an important figure. Like Veton Surroi, the editor of the Albanian-language daily, Koha Ditore, who has yet to open the bidding on his political role in the future of Kosovo, Bukoshi is widely respected and highly sophisticated. Both men are committed to civilian politics. That Bukoshi already has a (somewhat addled) platform, in the LDK and the parallel government, means that unlike Surroi, he also has a past – and his genuine alarm that the KLA is pursuing politics ‘by military means’ will be seen by some as the continuation of old squabbles between ‘pacifists’ and warriors. Beyond the manoeuvring, however, Bukoshi is determined that, having laid claim to ‘a monopoly of struggle’, the KLA should not go on to assume a monopoly of power. That would be to help themselves to the spoils of a victory which was not even theirs. ‘The KLA failed to liberate Kosovo,’ Bukoshi said. ‘How could they have achieved it? The odds were impossible. But their leaders have now transformed their military ambitions into political ambitions.’ It was as if no struggle, other than the KLA’s, had ever been waged in Kosovo, he said; as if no one but the KLA had earned a right to a role in its political future. It is one of the most forceful points that anyone can make about the way things may be going.
Bukoshi’s readiness to abandon the LDK may look like a case of rats and sinking ships – he is a politician, after all – but it’s more accurate to say that he is still aboard, with a small craft standing off. The LDK’s prospects are a puzzle, and not just to outsiders. It ought by rights to be finished. A translator for the US Consulate remarks, ‘I realised that Rugova is the LDK, that nothing can happen without him. And so the LDK is in trouble.’ But a journalist at Koho Ditore who agrees that Rugova may be done for – during the bombings, as everyone knows, he appeared with Milosevic in Belgrade; after them, he delayed coming back to Kosovo – believes the LDK may have a future, especially if internal feuding within the KLA picks up. (The same journalist casts a splendidly cold eye both on the dark years of repression and on the new political zeal of the KLA: ‘Remember, the Serbs know far more about democratic institutions than we do.’)
Meanwhile, Bukoshi holds one of the keys to power in the province. As Prime Minister in the old parallel government, he has built up a substantial treasury, and the money is still in the kitty. These funds, raised by a form of voluntary taxation, mostly of Kosovars in exile, have long been a source of rancour with the KLA, who argue that he might have put some of it their way. (Instead, sensing very late in the day that passive resistance was finished, he funded a short-lived armed alternative to the KLA, known as Farq, which was quickly absorbed by its rival.) The KLA must be worried about what use that money could be put to now, but Bukoshi is adamant that it is not LDK money, or anybody’s campaign chest: ‘It belongs to Kosovo,’ he said, ‘and it is my duty to look after it.’
The day before I spoke to Bukoshi, there was a football match in Pristina. The crowd was big and Hashim Thaci turned up. The spontaneous chant from the stands was ‘Rugova, Rugova.’ The appreciation for Thaci that followed was more by way of courtesy. Perhaps it was another case of the town-country divide; perhaps the stadium was a part of Pristina that Year Zero hadn’t reached. One of Rugova’s problems, a friend remarked, was his disdain for life beyond the city. We cast about for the English word that best expressed what Rugova thought of the KLA. ‘Bumpkins’ seemed to do the job. The once staunchly Marxist grouping of the Kosovo People’s Movement had given rise to an armed struggle regarded by its rivals in Pristina as a jacquerie, tainted with ‘the idiocy of rural life’.
Some time soon – in the spring of next year, it’s wishfully thought – local and ‘parliamentary’ elections will determine who gets the bigger shout, the KLA/United Democratic Movement or some alliance spawned by the LDK and other civilian parties. The outcome is far from obvious. As Bukoshi is eager to point out, more than half the people who fought for the KLA were also supporters of Rugova’s party. The differences between the LDK and the KLA may, in the end, have to do with the ambitions of a handful of KLA General Staff. If so, they are surmountable. These are largely the politics of the goldfish bowl.
The darker themes of Kosovo run very deep. On the day after the murder of 14 farmers in Gracko at the end of July, the bereaved women were pleading to the skies – slate-grey early morning skies – as they were helped out of the schoolhouse by British squaddies and onto a truck bound for Pristina, where they would identify the bodies. In the gardens and fields around the village the fresh fence-work, made from slashed saplings bowed and bound one to another, was decked out with new foliage. A British KFOR press officer explained that the victims had been shot at the end of a day’s work in the fields. They had gone on a little too long after dark. The combine harvester and one of the tractors were still running when a detachment from the Royal Irish Regiment came on the scene. At the funeral the following week it was said that a thousand years would have to pass before what had happened in Gracko was forgotten.
Around the moribund railway yards of Lozhenica, a neighbourhood of Kosovo Polje, hundreds of Gypsies cling together for safety. Kosovo Polje is the symbolic capital of the Serbs, the site of the Ottoman-Serb confrontation in 1389 that is one of the clichés of Serbia’s elephant memory. It feels like a ghost town now. The Gypsy families in Lozhenica are living in sixty or seventy houses, between six and twelve to a house. Some have always been here, but others fled to Kosovo Polje during the bombing and now the Albanians will not let them out. One group told how several of their friends were shot dead in the streets by Serbs at the start of the bombing. They could only account for it by the fact that the victims were speaking Albanian. Afrimi Berisha, Galifi Berisha, Salihu Kucoli and Fadili Krasniqi were buried by friends and relatives in the neighbourhood of Nakarada. A mother and six children straggled in from the road to Pristina. They’d fled from Podujevo in the north in March. The head of the family had been killed by Serbian police. Now they were trying to return to Podujevo, but every time they came within striking distance of the capital, Albanians turned them back and threatened to kill them. Another group from the Drenica had had their house burned down by Albanians. ‘We can’t be with Albanians and we can’t be with Serbs,’ one of the men remarked. ‘The Albanians should be threatening people who worked with the Serbs. We are completely innocent. If an Albanian came to me and explained that Roma people had helped the Serbs to burn his house, I would say, “Right. I will help you find them and punish them.” ’ I offered to take a couple of the men into Pristina, but they were too afraid. In Kosovo, innocence is no better than complicity for the simple reason that it has become the target of vengefulness by anyone who has lost a father, or a wife, or a child in the war. In some ways targeting the innocent is a more appropriate form of vengeance, a tooth for a tooth, no more and no less, than trying to hunt down war criminals. That is how bad it has been here, in 1998 and again this year. Kosovo Albanians claim to want a state of their own, but they are shaping a state of their very own.
KFOR looks on. Its soldiers are not much in evidence around the railway in Kosovo Polje. Their absence is partly to do with KFOR being over-extended. But it reminds one uncannily of Nato’s bombing war, as if the strategy were still, in effect, to remain at mid to high altitude above the province and out of harm’s way. Beneath the cloud cover, the town is left to its own devices. It might as well not exist. Yet it was here, before agitated crowds, that Milosevic talked up the storm of Serbian nationalism at the end of the Eighties, going on, like a conjurer performing a handkerchief trick, to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat in a series of mesmerising losses. The town wears its abjection, hard-earned and faintly ostentatious, like a badge.
Detective Superintendent Bill Gent emerged from his forensic tent in the village of Celine, near Prizren, and stepped over a cordon of blue and white tape (‘POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS’). He was tight-fisted about the evidence he’s been amassing at the instigation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Most of the work that he and his 17 colleagues were undertaking could not be publicised, he explained. He described the job so far as ‘rewarding’ but ‘terrible’. He was about to wind up work at Celine and move on to a new site. He turned my attention to the hill behind us. About five hundred yards off, a series of gravel mounds flagged with upright shovels lay stepped back along the green slope. A small circle of villagers, all of them men, sat in the shade of a tree.
The press did not cover Celine as thoroughly as they reported on the nearby village of Krusha ë Madhe (Velika Krusa in Serbo-Croat), where there are so far eighty graves, nine of them containing the bodies of KLA fighters killed last year, the rest civilians. Yet many people were killed in Celine by Serbian and Yugoslav forces about two days after Nato began its air campaign. When the survivors came back, they buried them, often near the sites of the killings. Bill Gent, a large, cautious and quiet-spoken policeman in his early fifties, had to persuade the inhabitants of Celine to disinter their dead, re-identify them and allow him to keep the bodies in a mortuary for about two weeks, while he carried out his investigation. It was complete. He had his evidence and the villagers could now have their dead. They would be buried for the last time the following morning, 69 of them identified, perhaps 18 women, six children aged ten or under. A small number of remains were missing, but gravemarkers would be placed for these victims too. Gent expected the funeral to be well attended. He would be there, of course. After everything he had heard and seen, after all the digging and sorting and raking over, he meant to pay his respects.
We walked up and greeted the men by the big excavations, but we hadn’t been talking long before the interpreter was overwhelmed by the extent of what had happened in Celine and we decided she should go back to Pristina. I was looked after instead by Ramadan Ramadani, a mourner and one of the funeral organisers, who had taught French in Kosovo and lived for years in France. He was a rather precise, proper man, who had lost a brother and a cousin in Celine. I stayed over with a friend of his in Prizren, and we talked until late. When I told Ramadani I’d walked around the school in Krusha ë Madhe, trashed and pillaged like so much else (on a blackboard in one of the wrecked classrooms: ‘Tim has climbed a tree. Present perfect tense’), he shuddered with disgust. Later, when visitors knocked at the door, he started visibly. In this tragic man, anger was mostly a transposition of terror, and one that was painfully incomplete. After supper, he embarked, in his consummate French, on a list of atrocities in his own village. ‘Et puis’; ‘et après ça’; ‘et finalement’; and at length, abandoning a story halfway through: ‘Mais, Monsieur, vous vous n’imaginez pas.’
It was already getting hot when we returned at eight the following morning. Bill Gent and his team were in their forensic tent. A glorious bolt of colour lay unravelled on the flank of the hill beside the excavations: about forty tables had been brought from the school at Celine and covered in red cloth. One of the organisers was fastening the last lengths with a staple gun. The bodies began arriving at around ten, in trucks at the bottom of the hill, where a group of women in headscarves set up a terrible lament. Other mourners began to arrive soon afterwards, covering their ears at the sound and stooping as they approached. It took an hour or more for the coffins, made of chipboard with a single coat of woodstain, to be laid out on the tables.
The weight of grief that was beginning to bear down on this place and the smell from the rudimentary coffins on the bright red cloth were already overpowering. Ramadani commandeered a car from another bereaved family and we drove to the sites of the killings, setting off down a track with a hedgerow full of hawkweed and purple thistle. There were children playing outside a charred farmstead. When he was young, Ramadani said, he had played on the same track: nothing changed here – it was always the same for Albanians, always the bare minimum, the dirt and the lack; only it was worse now, ‘maintenant qu’on est tué, maintenant qu’on est brûlé’. He took me to four sites. In one, he led me along a path strewn with clothes, shoes and hold-alls to a spot where Bill Gent had dug up 21 bodies, 17 of them members of the Zeqiri family. I recognised their names from the markers set at the foot of each coffin before we left. At another farmhouse, behind a tractor shed, a sprig of pink mallow swayed above the carcass of a cow. A few feet away, a mass grave had been reopened. Ramadani stared down at the grey dip in the ground and dabbed his forehead with a neatly folded handkerchief.
The heat at the funeral service was extreme by the time we returned. Hundreds of women wept by the coffins and a little later, the men filed down, old peasant farmers in waistcoats and pinstripe trousers with walking sticks, scores of them, turning off into the meadow behind the grave site and sheltering from the sun under a row of acacia; then young men in T-shirts and jeans, middle-aged men in suits, uncles leading orphaned children. The fastidious, broken figure of Ramadani paused beside the remains of his dead brother, and not long afterwards, Detective Superintendent Gent walked down the line of coffins with his right arm across his chest in the prescribed manner. When the moment for burial came, he stood in the thick crowd on a promontory twenty yards from the graves, gazing intently as the bodies he and his team had exhumed and examined were finally laid to rest.
On 22 May the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague indicted five senior figures in the former Yugoslavia on two counts of murder, one of deportation and another of ‘persecutions’. The men in question were, ‘at all times relevant to the indictment’, the President of Serbia (Milan Milutinovic), the federal Deputy Prime Minister (Nikolai Sainovic), the Serbian Minister of Internal Affairs (Vlajko Stojilkovic) and the Chief of General Staff of the Yugoslav Armed Forces (Colonel General Dragoljub Ojdanic); the Supreme commander of those forces, Slobodan Milosevic, is also indicted. Paragraph 1 of Article 7 of the Statute of the Tribunal states that ‘a person who planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution’ of a Statutory crime ‘shall be individually responsible for the crime’. Part of Paragraph 3 states: ‘The fact that any of the [crimes] was committed by a subordinate does not relieve his superior of criminal responsibility.’
It is difficult to see the charge-sheet as anything other than victors’ justice against some of the notable figures who rode with the trends of Western foreign policy in the aftermath of the Cold War and rebalkanised the Balkans with such incredible ferocity. Victors’ justice was the way at Nuremberg, too. Every sin of commission on the part of the Allies, from petty revanchism to fire-bombing, was bracketed out. Many Allied acts became post-factum infringements of the laws of war under the Geneva Conventions of 1949, on which the Tribunal in the Hague now draws for one of the murder counts in its indictment of Milosevic and his colleagues. At Nuremberg, many of the accused stood trial. The men indicted at the Hague may never do so. If they do not, the Nato member states will not enjoy the ritual expiation that the Allies felt at Nuremberg, while ethnic Albanians – the majority victims of this war – may never finish with their drastic pursuit of the innocent until they have emptied Kosovo of its Serbian population. After Recak, Krusha ë Madhe, Bela Crkva, Celine and a score of other atrocities, they will want some monument beyond the burial ground. It’s a pity that the unfinished process of victors’ justice – and victors’ justice is the least they deserve – will not suffice. The lists of Albanian dead being collated in the Hague and the excavations going on in Kosovo, the sense of wheels slowly turning and detail slowly accumulating – all this is a sort of monument, however modest. Better, by far, than a hecatomb of Kosovo Serbs and a sovereign state of one’s very own.