When, waving Kosovar and American flags, Kosovo Albanians spontaneously took to the streets of their capital Pristina Saturday night to celebrate in anticipation of the province's unilateral declaration of independence on Sunday, I was flooded with memories of some two years spent chronicling the Kosovars' brutal last years under Serbian rule, the staggering exodus of tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians fleeing from Serbian paramilitaries during Nato's 1999 air war against Serbia, and the messy beginnings of their limbo status under NATO-led protection. It was only then, after the Serbian occupation had been driven out, that I learned an ugly lesson: that sometimes when the oppressed are liberated, they act with the brutality of their former tormenters. In the aftermath of the 1999 Nato intervention in Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing continued, only this time the majority of the atrocities being meted out were by the majority Albanians against the province's minority Serbs, Roma, and Turks. It was a phenomenon witnessed later in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Like almost everything else, Kosovo's independence divided its historic peoples. While the messages coming from Kosovar Albanian friends over the weekend, replete with photos of fireworks and youtube tributes to America (President Bush immediately recognized Kosovo's independence Sunday, followed by Britain and France), were filled with joy ("...At the moment the Kosovar prime minister declared Kosovo as a democratic and an independent state, I started crying," one friend wrote), the messages from friends and associates in the Serbian capital Belgrade simply stopped. As one who spent much of four years chronicling the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia from post-conflict to conflict, I felt a sense of ambivalence, as well as resignation that Kosovo's break with Serbia, while problematic, was also probably inevitable.
That's in part because of the level of brutality -- sometimes casual, sometimes extreme -- that I had witnessed the Kosovars enduring under Serbian occupation. Among those searing experiences, after touring the site of a massacre of a Kosovar Albanian extended family, 53 members in all, in Drenica in 1998, being asked by a young Kosovo Albanian mother in hiding from Serb forces in the hills to please take her baby, who was ill, and she didn't think the baby would survive in the unheated make-shift lean-to she was hiding in in the woody hills. (We took her, terrified, and hardly able to communicate with our group of Russian and American journalists, and her baby in our rental car to a relative in a town to seek medical help). And witnessing the tens of thousands of refugees crossing the border into Macedonia a year later after Nato air strikes had begun.
From one of my dispatches at the time: