Propping up the walls

As international support for Kosovar independence wanes, hatred still seethes between Albanians and Serbs. And the U.N. oversees their division.

By Richard Blow
October 23, 2000 12:00PM (UTC)
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The road out of Pristina to the Serbian monument at the Field of Blackbirds, where the Serbs lost the mythic Battle of Kosovo in 1389, is littered with the carcasses of dogs. When Kosovar Albanians fled Serbian destruction last year, they abandoned their pets. Now the dogs roam the streets of Pristina, scavenging alone and in small packs, eerily indifferent to humans -- and, sometimes, to cars.

Albanians despise this monument. It's where, in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic gave his infamous "never again" speech initiating Serbia's crackdown on Kosovo's autonomy.


For such a reviled object, it is surprisingly unimposing. A brown obelisk maybe 30 feet high, the monument resembles a stone wall turned on end. Though nothing seems to grow on the farmland it overlooks, blackbirds still fly overhead, huge clouds of them filling the sky at dusk, blocking out the sun. To the Serbs, who lost the Battle of Kosovo, the birds represent the souls of slain Serbian warriors. Kosovars point to the two-headed black eagle that adorns the Albanian flag and claim the blackbirds as their own.

Serbs and Albanians live divided in Kosovo, separated by centuries-old hatreds and more recent bloodshed. Standing awkwardly between the two, compelled to prop up the very barriers of separation, are the bureaucrats and soldiers of the United Nations. More than a year after the NATO bombing, the world has turned its attention elsewhere. George W. Bush has even called for the return of the 7,000 American troops in the region. The U.N., meanwhile, is struggling to keep the peace in a desolate part of the world where violence has never been conquered.

A British journalist standing at the monument asks if I can translate the Serbian inscription on its front. With Serbia having erupted in protest against Milosevic, he's writing a feature about the place where the Serbian leader launched his career. I can't read Serbian, so he asks the two machine-gun-toting soldiers from the United Arab Emirates who guard the monument. In hesitant English they explain that they used to have a translation, but the previous day, somebody stole it.


I'm not surprised. Since NATO's bombing halted Milosevic's terror campaign, Kosovo's Albanians have become the aggressor here, and language is one of their weapons. Serbian names for towns have been scratched out on virtually every road sign. New businesses proclaim themselves part of Kosova, using the Albanian word (pronounced Kuh-SO-va) for the territory. A few months ago, a Bulgarian soldier made the mistake of speaking Serbian to a group of Albanians, and they beat him to death.

The next day, I visit the Serbian Orthodox monastery in the Serbian enclave of Gracanica, about 15 minutes outside Pristina. To enter Gracanica one has to pass through a checkpoint manned by NATO's Kosovo Force, or KFOR. A Swedish soldier carrying a machine gun checks cars. Behind him is a sandbag fort big enough to house a couple of soldiers, with peepholes to see and shoot out of. A tank looms over the fort.

Maybe half a mile down the pothole-strewn road, another guard stands outside the monastery's front wall, and another tank is parked in its driveway. Inside the modest, graceful building, a nun, her face furrowed with age, peers over the shoulder of a young monk who is surfing the Internet. (The monks and nuns used to live apart, but now they share the monastery, for safety.)


Another Serb, a local politician, is talking hopefully about the Yugoslav election. He has family in Serbia, and he thinks they will be safe. "It will be OK," he says. "The police, they are with us now."

Days later, he was proved right. But both Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have mixed feelings about the downfall of Milosevic. Most Serbs here supported Milosevic because they thought he stood up for them. The Albanians, of course, hate Milosevic, though his departure now worries them. Newly elected President Vojislav Kostunica takes an equally hard line against Kosovar independence and has done nothing about the hundreds of Albanians imprisoned in Serbian jails. U.N. officials say that while one path toward healing would be a Serbian apology, they don't expect one to come from Kostunica.


Unfortunately for the Albanians, however, Kostunica isn't the convenient boogeyman that Milosevic was. While Milosevic reigned, Kosovo automatically had the world's sympathy. Not anymore. It's easier to argue for independence when you're trying to separate from a war criminal.

When the Serbian politician is done talking, the monk shows me the Orthodox chapel some 200 feet from the monastery. He is perhaps 23 or 24, with gentle eyes and a light brown beard. He wants to leave the monastery to teach theology, so that he won't always be the youngest monk he knows. The church, he tells me, was built around 1320. In 1950, Marshal Tito honored it with a visit. A small stone structure that couldn't hold more than 20 worshippers, it's simple, beautiful, powerfully holy.

As he talks, an American soldier strolls by. He looks about 18, and his machine gun, which is about half his height, bounces against his hip as he walks.


I have come to Kosovo on the eve of the U.N.-sponsored municipal elections, which will be held Saturday, in the aftermath of Yugoslavia's. Touring the countryside, I can see why the Kosovars are so angry. The Serbs destroyed about one in four homes in Kosovo, and the landscape is pockmarked with house after house reduced to piles of rubble -- roofs gone, interiors decimated, maybe a wall or two partially intact. These were solid, durable homes made of brick, stone and cement. The Serbs knew their business.

One answer to the resulting housing problem was for returning Albanians to seize Serbian homes, but that has only perpetuated the hatred. An American diplomat told me of a Serbian man who fled Kosovo during the war, then returned to find his home occupied by an Albanian family. When they refused to leave, he asked an official at the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) for an armed guard. To protect you while you try to get your home back? the official asked. No, the Serb said, to protect me while I burn it down.

More typical, however, is the sight of Albanians building, building, building. Everywhere you look new houses are springing up, surrounded by stacks of red brick and piles of the saplings the Albanians use as floor supports.


But the Albanians are also constructing walls of division, and these days it is the estimated 100,000 Serbs who remain in Kosovo who live in fear. Though international visitors can rarely tell a Serb from an Albanian by sight, Albanians can -- and in most of Kosovo Serbs dare not walk alone. Not if they want to live.

After the bombing, under KFOR's guard, some Serbs remained in Pristina, but the Albanians did their best to expel them. In one two-towered apartment building, Albanians lived on one side, Serbs on the other. Last winter the Serbian side was always dark, because the Albanians who run the power plant cut off its electricity. (Other Albanians cut the Serbs' phone lines.) Winters in Kosovo are brutal. So the Serbs huddled in freezing apartments, because to step outside meant risking their lives.

Most of Kosovo's Serbs have taken refuge in Serb-only enclaves scattered throughout the countryside -- ghettos, some people call them. The enclaves are safer than Pristina, but they're not really that safe. Albanians can drive through the enclaves, and a few weeks ago an Albanian man aimed his car at a group of Serbian children and hit the accelerator. He killed one and tried to kill another before speeding away. Not long after that, in a municipality called Obilic, someone threw a hand grenade into a Serbian playground, wounding several children.

Such acts may seem like random, arbitrary violence, but they aren't. Murdering Serbian children is both an expression of the enduring hatred and a blow against the Serbs' future in Kosovo. But ask an Albanian about such terrorism, and he is likely to explain, in all seriousness, that Serbs are killing their own children to make Albanians look bad.


"You have to understand, this is different from Bosnia," one foreign worker said to me. "After four years of war there, they were really exhausted. They were ready for peace. But here there was a very short war with very few participants" -- the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels were a small minority of Kosovo's population -- "and a lot of people are not at all sick of the violence." He said this as a hopeful remark, implying that one day they will be.

In the municipality of Strpce, I get out of the car to photograph a particularly stark ruin. When I step off the road for a better angle, my guide slams on the horn. "Don't walk on the grass," she shouts. Thousands of unexploded mines still pollute the countryside. Another U.N. worker told me of an Albanian farmer who, thinking he was being helpful, walked toward two NATO soldiers, carrying a mine in his outstretched hands. "He's gone," one of the soldiers said. A second later, in a spray of red, he was.

After the NATO bombing, the Albanians returned the favor by mining some of the dirt roads in Serbian enclaves. So at considerable expense, UNMIK had to detonate the mines and pave the roads. More recently, UNMIK has been building roads that will allow Albanians to drive around the Serbian enclaves -- which has had the ironic effect of making the divides of hatred even more enduring.

Ironic, but necessary. If the Serbs are to survive, UNMIK must isolate them and KFOR must guard them. "We are not trapped under the myth of multiethnicity," one U.N. official explained. "NATO intervened to stabilize the region, not to strike a blow for social engineering."


Among the many international personnel from UNMIK and various nongovernmental agencies I spoke with, frustration with (if not outright dislike of) the Albanians was nearly universal. This is partly because many Europeans have long considered Albanians the riffraff of the continent. But more than that, these U.N. workers speak the language of reason, of process and diplomacy, and they cannot comprehend the Albanians' lust for revenge, their faith in the Serbs' collective guilt, their self-serving interpretation of history.

One American said to me, "The Albanians think they're the new chosen people," as if the NATO bombings were the hand of fate pushing Kosovo on its inexorable march toward independence, rather than a geopolitical move to counter Milosevic and stabilize the Balkans.

And if the Albanians were grateful at first when the U.N. arrived, now they seem to view UNMIK as a benign occupying force that will protect them while they recover their strength, set them on the path toward independence and then get the hell out. An example: UNMIK has attempted to convert the members of the KLA into a sort of National Guard-like group called the Kosovo Protection Corps, or KPC. The members of the KPC are supposed to disarm and engage in public works projects, but no one really believes that they are changing their stripes. The Albanian acronym for KPC is TMK, which, everyone jokes, stands for "Tomorrow's Masters of Kosovo."

One morning as I walked along one of Pristina's dirty, muddy streets, a little girl sitting on a stoop smiled at me and said hello in English. I was so surprised I almost forgot to answer her -- she was the only local during my visit who had given any sign of noticing me. Why should the locals notice me? The Albanians don't want to integrate with anyone. Even in Bosnia, there was intermarriage among Serbs and Croats and Muslims. Not here. In Kosovo, Serbs and Albanians have always lived and slept apart.


The same tribal instincts apply to visitors. Last summer, several foreigners who made the mistake of dancing with some Albanian women at a local club were so viciously beaten they had to be evacuated by helicopter. Sooner or later, the Albanians know, I will be gone, as eventually, they think, all the other foreigners will too -- including, especially, the Serbs.

The U.N. has an immense task in Kosovo. It must help create all the structures, from the noble to the mundane, that define a country -- a government, a legal system, an economy, an infrastructure, law enforcement, postal and telephone service, garbage collection. But it must do that without furthering the Albanians' faith that Kosovo will become a separate country.

That's a fine line to walk, and despite the efforts of UNMIK's many smart and dedicated people, working seven days a week and living in hardship, it may be an impossible mission.

The logistical aspects alone are daunting enough. Consider the economy. For the past 20 years Kosovars survived on a wildly inefficient socialist economy and money sent from relatives working abroad. Kosovo doesn't have welfare mothers; it has welfare everyone.

"The attitude of many people here is that Yugoslavia circa 1985 was excellent," one U.N. official told me. Of the 300 companies that existed in Kosovo before the war, perhaps a couple of dozen are still viable, but they will need to make sizable layoffs. There is some farming and some timber, although reforestation is a foreign concept. If meaningful trade is even possible for a tiny region without any distinctive natural assets, it will be years, if not decades, away. So UNMIK has tried to implement the collection of revenue through things like an airport tax, the licensing of gas stations and auto registration.

But at the moment, Kosovo lives off international aid and the service economy generated by foreigners. Neither will last indefinitely. One of the 29 political parties campaigning in the upcoming municipal elections is actually promoting tourism as a source of income. I can't think of a single reason why a tourist would want to visit Kosovo.

Organized crime thrived in Kosovo before the bombing, and its grip has probably tightened since. It's said that, for 1,000 marks (UNMIK imposed the deutsche mark as Kosovo's currency), or about $430, you can buy a Mercedes, a BMW, any car you want, as long as you don't mind that it belongs to someone else.

Pristina is also full of illegal construction. Built without safety regulations or building codes on land that the builders usually don't even own, such structures are ubiquitous -- a seven-story building across the street from UNMIK headquarters, a hotel going up in a public park.

UNMIK tries to identify the illegal buildings and condemn them for destruction, but it isn't easy. A few weeks ago, the U.N. appointed an Albanian to head the process. He condemned three buildings before being gunned down, gangland style. For Kosovo's criminals, killing an Albanian is simpler than killing a foreigner, and UNMIK's decision to put a local in such a visible, vulnerable position was a stinging mistake.

UNMIK's challenge of rebuilding Kosovo is also complicated by the separation of public institutions that the hatred here renders necessary. Hospitals are segregated because a Serb in an Albanian hospital would not fare well. So are schools. "I do not think," one U.N. official said, "that a Serbian child in a mixed classroom could survive more than a couple of hours."

Kosovo, you might say, is making the U.N. schizophrenic. An organization devoted to bringing the peoples of the world together has conceded that, in Kosovo, peace requires separatism.

I asked one U.N. official how the Serbian enclaves could possibly become self-sustaining. They can't, he said. So KFOR will guard them indefinitely? I asked. Not indefinitely, he said. For 10, maybe 20 years. The solution lies in "generational attrition." Most young Serbs have left Kosovo; those remaining tend to be middle-aged and older. "I can't see that we can sustain these people in any real way," he admitted. "But in 20 years, the problem will probably be solved."

Such words are chilling, but they're also realistic. Because no matter how much some things change in Kosovo, others stay the same, just as they have for hundreds of years. The blackbirds still fly at dusk, tens of thousands of them swooping and whirling as they fill the sky with black clouds. And when night falls, wild dogs roam the streets.

Richard Blow

Richard Blow is the author of "American SonA Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr.," and is currently a book about Harvard University.

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