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:
The 53 ethnic Albanian inhabitants of the village of Donji Prekaz in the central Kosovo region of Drenica lay newly buried under wooden sticks in a field behind their family compound. The killing was so fresh when I went that many of their abandoned farm animals were still alive. Since then, Kosovo has exploded into a war, and the scene from Drenica has repeated itself in dozens of villages, whose surviving inhabitants have fled for their lives. Others have come back to fight. The KLA, only rumored to exist in March, is now reported to control 40 percent of the province, including much of the main east-west highway connecting Pec with Pristina. Its recruits are mostly men whom the fighting has driven out of their villages.
The Serb officials giving us Western journalists this tour of their work don’t see it that way. They say the Albanian terrorists–as they call the people who have taken up guns to protect their homes–have brought this on themselves.
“Now you are invited to see the consequences of our artillery against the facilities of the terrorists!” says Gen. Sreten Lukic of the Serb police force, pointing to a group of destroyed homes that formerly made up one village. In a show made absurd by the absence of any local people, Serb police dressed in navy blue camouflage drop to their bellies and take positions on a hill, their automatic rifles pointed, to “cover” us from potential Albanian terrorists. …
To deter us from exploring on our own, they warn that the “terrorists” have mined the area after burning their own homes. The Serb officials’ propaganda is so primitive, it is hard to know if they believe it themselves. …
Later, our tour guide Gen. Sreten Lukic was indicted on war crimes charges, and sent to the Hague.
After following NATO-led peacekeepers back into post-war Kosovo in 1999, I saw and reported on a torture chamber, in the bottom of a Serbian police station in the Pristina, a nauseating site. “The most horrifying of the many appalling tortures that went on in the Serbian police station center on Cacak Street in central Pristina is suggested by a bed, with leather straps, its ratty yellow sponge mattress plunged through with bayonet and bullet holes, and the clothes of its victims piled onto the wet floor in the corner,” I reported. “In the next room sits a single chair next to a collection of wooden bludgeons, some with nicknames scrawled into them. A small wooden baseball bat-shaped club is engraved with ‘the mini.’ A larger one, studded, is nicknamed, in Serbian, ‘the mouth shutter.’ Next to them sits a wooden box filled with knuckle busters, chains, axes, hammers and a collection of dozens of knives.”
At the time, I could simply never have imagined that the U.S., which led the NATO effort to protect the Kosovars from ethnic cleansing, atrocities and feared genocide, would engage in torture as a matter of policy. I also could not imagine that a faint but real whiff of the kind of demagoguery one encountered in Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia — and the endless legalistic justifications for abuses against detainees and of course far worse; and suppression of its own population and portrayal of critics at home as traitors — would echo in milder forms in the words of our own government officials. This was a lesson only learned years later.
Finally the messages from Belgrade are trickling back. And for the most part, they are filled with bitterness, and grief. “Now I really hate the USA and E.U. because thay act like the world police,” one Belgrade friend writes. “The only thing I don’t know is who will judge them.”
(Photo Credit: AP Photo/David Brauchli, via UNC)