bosnia report
New Series No. 8 January - March 1999
Serb Cradle - Albanian Child

by Jasna Hasovic - a Bosnian reporter on Kosova

A brutal and bloody war is being waged in Kosovo, where no particular place guarantees safety since there is no clear front line. Uncertainty and risk are the only constants here. There was no problem in getting accreditation from the Yugoslav authorities for a visit to Kosovo. The Secretariat for Information supplies foreign journalists with brief instructions and the number of their Prishtina office, where they go to get the permit to move about. In Prishtina the Serb authorities gave me, without superfluous explanations, an A4 piece of paper on which someone had typed with a manual typewriter who I was, for whom I worked, and that I should have free passage. As it turned out, it was valid for only a small area. The paper came with the hope that I would return alive.

There are daily buses from Belgrade to Prishtina, but bus travel is by no means secure. If there is no battle in progress and the road via Podujevo is under Serbian police control, which was the case when I set off, one is likely to be 'exposed to a lengthy procedure'. No one in Belgrade could tell me, however, what would happen if the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had gained control of it in the meantime. Travelling with colleagues from EPA and Reuters in a car with a Belgrade registration, we passed four police checkpoints, none of which held us up for more than a few minutes. They looked at our documents and into the boot and waved us on. Through the thick fog that prevailed throughout our journey we could clearly see the tanks and APCs of the Yugoslav Army (VJ). There were hardly any cars on the road, only the APCs and the orange-painted armoured vehicles used by the OSCE verifiers.

Sloba's shit
When you come into Prishtina it seems at first glance that nothing terrible is happening and that the war is far away. People walk along the streets pursuing their own business, shops are open, and there is no lack of basic food at least. The dirty streets are crowded with pedlars selling cigarettes and foreign currency, and with policemen carrying automatic weapons standing every 20 or 30 metres. They watch you darkly. If you talk to someone in the street and he is a Serb, he will - perhaps because he thinks that you speak Serb - be polite and helpful. Albanians - precisely because you are speaking 'Serb' - will refuse all communication, unless they are selling you something. An entry into their world is, therefore, more difficult and has to be mediated by an Albanian who knows you and whose authority guarantees that, though you speak a language which they cannot distinguish from Serb, you are in fact not a Serb. If they are selling you somethiÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ng, on the other hand, the Albanians even if you are Serb will do their best to please you. This is most obvious when, if Belgrade journalists enter their cafes, they automatically switch from their traditional music, in case it may irritate them, to something American.

As far as the Serbs are concerned, their situation is more or less clear. They will tell you privately and in a friendly way that they fear they have 'lost the war, it seems' and that they have had enough. Those who are better off or more resourceful have already moved to Belgrade or to somewhere in Sumadija, while those who have nowhere to go - as well as those who still believe in the story of 'the holy Serb land' and 'the Serb cradle' - trust the army will save them. Serbs who are not from Kosovo, who are to be found here only if they work for the foreign media, openly tell you that they do not give a damn about Kosovo and that they have no intention of dying here for the sake of 'Slobo's shit'.

The policemen and the young soldiers express their bitterness only in private, and after they are certain that you have nothing to do with Albanian separatism. You can see how they feel even when they say nothing. 'Fuck their mothers! Sloba has sent me to be a clay pigeon in this village, waiting for the KLA to kill me, or capture me in order to exchange me for one of theirs. The Serbs who have run away from here are now swanning about in [the resort of] Zlatibor and Belgrade while I'm guarding their homes', a policeman complains. He has spent the past four months in Kosovo and heavily curses both the Kosovo Serbs and Milosevic who has sent him there.

The local Serbs gather at 'their' cafes, which is where they largely pass their separate lives. Night parties are organised in nearby Caglavica, a place a few kilometres away that can best be described as a suburb of Prishtina. Only local Serbs or foreigners in the company of Belgrade journalists go there. The foreigners and the journalists are impressed by half-metre-long pljeskavice, served probably only in Caglavica, where there is absolutely nothing except restaurants and Guinness Book of Records pljeskavice.

'Do you know what this place will be called when the war is over?', asks a Belgrade-born Serb educated in Canada, who for the past three years has been working for the best-known international news agencies. 'After another Dayton, this will be called Serb Prishtina. Don't you see it looks just like your Serb Sarajevo?' I agree. In public all, but all, Serbs swear by their patriotism and never question their right to Kosovo. 'It is ours; it is our Serb cradle', they say. Maybe they are right. This 'cradle' may be Serb, but the 'child' in it is definitely not. Albanian demographic dominance is visible at every step and at all levels.

Don't fuck with the Albanians
The news in Prishtina is that foreign journalists have recently opened their own cafes. There they drink and relax, behaving as if death is nothing and the war blazing a few kilometres away is only a video game. They have occupied all the three Prishtina hotels: the state-owned Grand and the privately-owned Deu and Park. It seems that foreigners have also rented a quarter of the private houses in Prishtina. The day before I got there, CNN had taken eight rooms in Hotel Park. Accompanied by an enormous amount of equipment, the American ABC TV station has arrived too, as has the BBC, which has rented twelve rooms in the Grand Hotel. Journalists working for ORF, ARD, Sky, Australian ABC and the most prestigious Italian, Japanese, Russian, Greek, German and God knows what other media, were additionally besieging Prishtina last week, waiting perhaps for a big massacre or NATO air strikes. Nothing of that nature happened, in fact, so they had to content themselves with filing speculative stories on whether Milosevic would deport the chief of the OSCE Kosovo verification mission, Walker, or whether the exchange of prisoners between the KLA ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ and the VJ would pass off without incident.

The Kosovo Liberation Army released eight Yugoslav soldiers at the end of January. Part of the agreement was that the VJ would in return surrender eight of their soldiers captured on 14 December while illegally crossing the border. Before the expiry of the term the KLA, possibly as additional security, had kidnapped five Serbs from the village of Nevljani in the municipality of Vucitrn; but it let them go after their own solders' release. A large number of KLA soldiers, no one can tell you the exact figure, are being kept in Yugoslav prisons, but their command wanted precisely those eight. Serb sources insist that 'these are exceptionally valuable to them, because they trained in Osam bin Laden's camps'.

Last weekend there were no big battles. One result of this was that the Albanian cafes, of which there seem to be hundreds and hundreds, were in their most lively mood. An enormous energy pours out of them. The suffocating crowds inside listen to great music, mainly of foreign origin; but it is not rare to hear also discs made by one of the twenty or so Albanian bands currently performing in Kosovo. Some of them have been banned from public appearance by the Serbian authorities. One such band is The Walls of Jericho. I heard only one of their songs, the one called Don't fuck with the Albanians, and must take them seriously.

'Please find out if someone could organise our appearance in Sarajevo. We have played in Slovenia, in Croatia, and we are now getting ready to go to Italy, but we would really like to come to you. We won't ask for any money', the guitarist, called Donat, of this banned band tries to persuade me - and, as a point in their favour, he reports that his aunt used to be married to Haris Silajdzic.

Kosovo's parallel worlds function perfectly also in wartime. Albanian and Serb primary-school children attend classes separately in walled-off schools. Albanian high schools are organised in private houses, while all Albanian university faculties are located in the building which used to be the Faculty of Technology. Children born when this crisis was barely perceptible have long since become literate, but the little Albanians who are only now learning to read and write on the whole do not speak Serb. The grown-ups do not like to speak it. 'Please understand us. The Serb that you speak carries no good associations for us', two Albanian women told me before engaging me in a conversation.

No Serbs, even from CNN
The war has brought two new parallel institutions to Prishtina: two information centres. The Serb Media Centre is located on the first floor of the Hotel Grand and the foreign journalists, when they are not on duty, spend their days there. The Kosova Information Centre lies in a back street, in a single-floor house next to the Association of Kosovo Writers. However, the most important and most interesting journalism from the media's point of view does not take place there. The most dangerous part of the journalist's work can be realized only after one has received the green light from the office of Adem Demaci, the KLA's only political representative. His office is located in an even more modest back street and is effectively the KLA office in Prishtina. Demaci's green light consists of a small form that he signs, thereby guaranteeing security on the territory controlled by KLA. Without that paper no foreign journalist can enter KLA territory; and he or she is absolutely not allowed to be Serb, be they even some leading CNN personality holding a Brunei passport.

Prishtina is and is not at war. Like in Bosnia, not all agree about when the war began. For some it has been going on since the start of the 1990s. For others it broke out on 26 November 1997, when a teacher was killed in Lausha, a village near Drenica (now an KLA stronghold): at his funeral KLA soldiers appeared for the first time and without masks. Still others say that the war starÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ted on 28 February 1998, when the whole of the Jashari family was massacred. This, according to Kosovo experts, was a decisive moment leading to a total Albanian homogenisation: since that time they have been massively joining the Liberation Army formations. Up to then the KLA had been made up of Albanians who had come from the West, above all from Germany and Switzerland, to fight for Kosovo's independence. Today this army includes also peasants from the villages it holds. In Prishtina there are also those for whom the war has not yet begun, but who are a kind of civilian Ucki [UCK/UCK = KLA] - a name used by both Albanian and Serb civilians, with the difference that the Serb pronounce the word with fear.

Although it is inhuman and indeed morbid to say this, the number of casualties in Kosovo is still quite small given the nature of the war. Albanian sources state that more than 2,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict, of whom only about 5% were KLA soldiers. About 400 villages have been destroyed and more than 20,000 houses burned down. The small number of casualties is explained by the fact that the war has been largely fought outside the urban centres; and also that, following the Bosnian experience, the Albanian population on the whole managed to flee in time. This significantly reduced the number of casualties, but it did produce around 400,000 refugees. Turkey has taken in a large number - without, however, registering them; around 30,000 are to be found in Montenegro; a similar number has fled to Albania; some live in several refugee camps in Hungary, where they went on their way to Western Europe. A large number of Albanians has found refuge in Italy, while 20,000, the Albanian sources state, are accommodated in the Federation part of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kosovo Albanians are aware that there is no way back and that this is their great historic chance to win independence. A twenty-one-year-old Albanian, much too mature for his years, told me of a saying which, apparently, has been passed on through generations. 'There is no bad bread or good Serb.' This young man, none of whose ancestors died a natural death, also told me: 'You, there, have massively inter-married with the Serbs, your experience is different from ours. I am not sorry to die for this.' Privately, no one hides their support for the KLA and there are Ucki also in the cities, where they do civilian service. The local Serbs are very much aware of this. 'We are nowhere safe here. They are with us the whole day. They work in their shops, we say "Good day, neighbour" to each other, but when their workday is over they simply change their clothes and work for the Ucki on their territory.'

'Their territory', the area under KLA control, amounts right now to two thirds of Kosovo's territory. The Serbs control the main roads and the cities, but even there their control is not completely secure. The Ucki tend to hold the villages and for the time being, in order to avoid large-scale casualties before the grand finale, are not taking the war to the cities. But the war is here. Prishtina inhabitants, especially those who live on [ the high ground of ] Suncani breg, can see the Ucki every night from their windows and hear exchanges of fire.

Rugova is spoiling the atmosphere
The likelihood of a political and diplomatic solution in Kosovo is negligible. The armed conflict is unlikely to end quickly, while the chances are that it will gain in momentum and power. The Albanian and Serb positions regarding a solution continue to be far apart, while the international community has an undefined position: that of a compromise, in fact, which does not lead to a definite resolution. The international players say that the Albanians should have all rights, that Kosovo should have an autonomous government, but as yet they refuse to support Kosovo's independence - though they are speaking about it increasingly. The Serbian government continues to iÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ nsist that no compromise is acceptable to it, and wishes at all costs to maintain the existing situation, imposed in 1989, when Kosovo's constitutional autonomy was suspended. They say that there will be no return of the 1974 autonomy, no special status such as has been talked about in recent years, no international protectorate, and no third federal unit in Yugoslavia.

The Daily Telegraph
A surviving ethnic Albanian shows the bodies of 40 villagers from Racak to his grandson yesterday

The Albanians have finally opted for war, which is not terrorism - as the Belgrade government insists - but an uprising. Before the Serbian government initiated large-scale actions, one could have wondered whether the Albanians really supported the KLA's approach to the struggle for independence. Today this question no longer makes sense. As far as the Albanians are concerned, they are absolutely united, though there are individuals, mostly independent intellectuals, who refuse publicly to support the KLA out of fear that this may reflect badly upon their well-known peaceful stance in the eyes of the world. After the Serbian police action in the village of Racak, Demaci called upon the people to gather around the KLA since, as he put it, the KLA is 'the only guarantee of Albanian survival in Kosovo given that the international verifiers are unable to defend even themselves.'

It is here that one should mention what surely must be the most important change that has taken place in Albanian minds during the last year. They have come to realise that they can and may conduct war. For all those years until the first military actions by the KLA, the Albanians supported Ibrahim Rugova's non-violent policy, convinced that the only thing they could do was to complain and demand, in the hope that someone else, if they so wished, would make them a gift of independence. All that has changed during the past year. The Albanians have realised that the Serbs and the international community began to take them seriously only after they had taken up arms and done away with their own prejudices. This was the key issue on which Rugova lost support, and why the people stopped listening to him. The Albanians continue to respect his intellect, but absolutely reject the methods he as a politician has used. The KLA's appearance in Kosovo has changed everything. In a situation in which people are dying every day, Rugova, at his completely irrelevant and meaningless press conferences, still avoids mentioning the KLA by name. 'I am not a warrior type. I studied art. But now, believe me, I feel better. The so-called general atmosphere is far better now that something has finally started to happen', a thirty-year-old Albanian admits.

Despite the Milosevic-Holbrooke agreement people continue to die in Kosovo. The Serbian police and army were not withdrawn in accordance with the terms of that agreement, and the brief calm permitted the KLA soldiers to regroup and re-arm. All that the international community did was to send verifiers to Kosovo. It required the events in the village of Racak to shake up the domestic and international public opinion. The autopsy results may also serve as an instrument of pressure at the forthcoming Kosovo peace conference, where, it is being said, a transitional solution will be adopted that will include self-government for the Albanians for three years. However, no clear solution for Kosovo exists as yet.

Sovereign Immunitty
The Daily Telegraph
"I claim sovereign immunity."

What is clear is that the Belgrade government would, sooner rather than later, engage in a great 'cleansing' operation were it not frightened of NATO air strikes. Aware that this was the only possible way of keeping Kosovo for a short time at least, Miloevic has just in case prepared the ground for another defeat. Vojislav Seselj and his Radicals are participating in the Serbian government, Vuk Draskovic and his SPO in the Federal one. In this way Milosevic will share with his most vociferous opponents the responsibility for the eventual defeat. When the Serbs finally lose Kosovo, there will be no one politically relevant to inform the people of the fact.

Shala e Bajgori, the KLA's greatest stronghold
On arriving in Prishtina it became immediately clear that visiting KLA territory will be the hardest part of the job. 'How can I tell you are not a Serb? You speak Serb and the passport you have could easily be forged. I myself may even believe you, you can perhaps explain to me the difference between Bosnian and Serb, but those ones up there, the people in the mountains, they do not know the difference nor do they have the time to think about it. Are you aware that you are risking your life?' This was the first thing I was told by the secretary of Adem Demaci, who was away travelling. Our conversation, which lasted for one and a half hours, was largely about this, after which he told me that I must take with me an Albanian translator with whom, while up there in the mountains, I must speak in English in order not to irritate the soldiers. Later I realised that this was an additional test which I could easily have failed, because the people who are ready to do this for money refused to go with me when they heard that I spoke 'Serb'. 'The risk is too great', they said. After several hours I managed to find someone who was either sufficiently brave or sufficiently crazy to agree, but this did not end the agony in Demaqi's office. I spent another two hours trying to persuade the secretary. Finally I got the permission, but not before declaring that I accepted the risk that someone up in the mountains might prove that I was a Serb, in which case the secretary would have no responsibility for whatever might happen to me. Night had fallen by the time I found someone willing to take me to KLA territory, again for a good sum of money.

We started early in the morning, stopping at one point to stick on a new car registration plate. 'This is absolutely necessary. Without this KLA snipers will take us out as soon as we appear on the road', my translator Bani told me. We passed only one police checkpoint on the road to Kosovska Mitrovica, which let us through without much fuss. After less than an hour we passed by the Trepca mine and the famous Stari Trg. Everything was deserted. No cars, people or animals. There was no one and nothing except signs of war, destroyed houses. A few kilometres further on, at the first tunnel, we found the demarcation line. This is where KLA territory begins. This is the area of Shalle e Bajgori, the KLA's greatest stronghold, where recently a fierce battle was fought during which the KLA managed to capture eight VJ soldiers.

We were moving deeper into the mountains, with everything around us deserted. Only the ice layer on the road grew thicker. 'We can go no further', said the driver, and I saw in a nearby field about thirty KLA soldiers. My translator got out to explain and ordered me to stay inside the car until he called me. We were soon driven off in a Land Rover, deep into the mountains and very high up. A dark, bearded soldier, dressed in black, his face heavily lined, asked me what I knew about mujahedeen before getting out of the car. There were only a few people present when we stopped next to an ordinary house, whose humble construction did not go together with its satellite dish. A military policeman searched us, then went into the modest building. We waited for about ten miÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ nutes and then a soldier came to tell us: 'You can come to the staff room. The commander is expecting you.'

I carried on speaking English with my translator. 'You need not continue, miss. You can now speak Bosnian', the commander told me as soon as I entered - and, to my great surprise, with a Sarajevo accent. 'I'm married to a Bosnian. I went as a volunteer to Bosnia. I fought first in the 1st and then in the 4th Corps', Hysni, the commander of the 141st KLA brigade, told me. His wife and child live in a place close to Sarajevo. When things started in Kosovo, he came and stayed on here in the mountains. In the modest room, with a sort of writing table, two chairs and two low seats, he was the only one sitting down. His two colleagues stood with their legs astride and arms crossed, listening carefully to our talk.

We shall move down to the cities 'This war is going well at present. It was better until a fortnight ago the Serbs broke the agreement. We used that time to regroup and equip ourselves with additional arms. In the course of our existence we have managed to create a professional and responsible army. The war is taking place in the countryside at present, but it will spread to the cities too. One of the reasons why the war did not begin in the cities is that people there find it more difficult to acquire weapons. That is easier in the countryside. Our basic problem at the start was that we lacked weapons. We never lacked people: between 70 and 100 volunteers come to us every day. The end will come when the whole of Kosovo becomes armed and that, God willing, will happen soon, faster than it did in Bosnia. We are ready and only waiting for the order of the General Command.' The man spoke quietly. Dark-haired, young, slim, he appeared tired and his gaze often got lost in an empty corner of the room. Only occasionally, usually when talking about Sarajevo or his wife, his face would stretch into a wide smile, after which it would acquire that perfectly calm and resolute look.

'We did not touch the Yugoslav soldiers whom we captured, but ours, who were returned yesterday, had been very badly treated. However, they had to release them, because we held theirs. Not a single soldier from my brigade has been captured by the Serbs, but they have arrested instead 150 Albanian civilians only because they came from here.' Hysni says that the KLA is ready to join the negotiating team, and believes that this should be arranged since they are the only force in Kosovo. One of their negotiating points will be an independent Kosovo. 'We will not be put in a situation in which we have to accept the kind of compromise you have in Bosnia. 90% of the population here is Albanian and we cannot accept any kind of Dayton. If someone tried to impose it on us, the war would continue. As things are, if NATO does not wish to hit the Serbian forces, we shall do so instead - the KLA will go onto a counter-offensive. The war will soon be over. You probably know that NATO and the international community always help and listen to the stronger. After a year of existence the KLA is strong and can act as the guarantor of the situation in Kosovo.'

This Albanian with a Sarajevo accent talked to me for a long time in his calm, quiet voice and slow sentences about his views, about how he saw his family only once last year, and about how he does not care if he dies. 'Civilians find this difficult, but once you have put on a uniform you no longer care. You can die any day. You're conscious of that. You know why you're here. I don't care. I'm used to war. There has been enough suffering. This must be solved once and for all. There is no way back. We shall fight as long as we live. Those down there can sign whatever they want, but we shall fight until we win independence. Nothing more, nothing less than that.'

On leaving I asked him how was it that he had only one child. 'I'm still young. If I don't die, we shall have many more children', the commander said. His colleagues saw uÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ s off and told us we need not worry about snipers on the way back, because the commander has sent out a message about the car in which we are travelling back to Trepca and Stari Trg.

Translated from Dani, Sarajevo, 1 February 1999.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits