I, Ramush

Former Kosovar rebel and prime minister Ramush Haradinaj is a local hero. He also faces war crime charges.

Published October 21, 2005 12:30PM (EDT)

Ramush Haradinaj was locked up in a jail cell in The Hague from March until June this year, charged with heinous war crimes committed during Kosovo's war against its parent state, Serbia, in the 1990s. Formerly a commander in the guerrilla group the Kosovo Liberation Army, Haradinaj was elected prime minister in December 2004. His political reign ended after only three months, when he stepped down to face charges brought by the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia).

Still, this summer, images of the darkly handsome 37-year-old loomed large across the region. Billboards bearing his name towered over Pristina, the capital. Shopkeepers along "Bill Klinton" Boulevard taped up fliers showing their support for him. Across the countryside, young and old alike wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "Our Prime has a job to do here."

This fall may be the most integral time in Kosovo's history. In early October, Kai Eide, Kofi Annan's special envoy to Kosovo, presented a report outlining whether the perennially wartorn region had met the various democratic and human rights standards set out by the United Nations in 2003. It is expected that Eide's report will open the door for negotiations to begin in November on whether Kosovo will be granted nationhood by the U.N.

Currently, conventional wisdom says it's a matter of when rather than if Kosovo, whose ethnic population is 90 percent Albanian, will be granted conditional independence. Says one former international official familiar with Balkan politics: "The road ahead may be rocky, but the international community wants it to end in some form of independence, because everyone realizes that the Albanian majority will accept nothing else."

If so, it would be a momentous occasion for Kosovo. And for anyone who wants to understand the embattled land, its conflicted leaders, and its tenuous relationship with the West, perhaps the best place to begin is with the story of Ramush Haradinaj.

The man and the myth are impossible to separate in a region that is a dense thicket of dangerous innuendoes, rumors and propaganda. He has been described as highly intelligent and disciplined. A native of Kosovo and an ethnic Albanian, he is almost universally credited with leading his fragile nation toward independence from Serbia, and doing more in his 100 days in office than the previous government had done in three years.

But there is another side to Ramush -- his first name alone is universal across Kosovo. He is a scrappy man who, when provoked, can lash out with chilling results. Earlier this spring he caustically told a group of protesters at a rally to shut up or "I'll fuck your mothers." His detractors describe him as a ruthless military "psychopath" who terrorized his own men and the local population into loyalty. And his ICTY rap sheet details 17 crimes against humanity including overseeing murder, rape and the displacement of people.

Haradinaj's trial is scheduled to begin in January 2007. Provisions of his release from The Hague in June meant that he was not allowed to contact politicians, attend public events or speak with journalists. That time expired in early September and now Haradinaj is planning a return to the political scene. It could not have come at a more effective time. Haradinaj's prime ministerial successor, Bajram Kosumi, has been hit with corruption and sex allegations, and has had a weak support base. Earlier this summer, it was revealed that Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova, who has no heir apparent, is battling lung cancer. So there is no single figurehead for Kosovo at the moment.

Politics in Kosovo have historically been a slippery slope of intrigues and mudslinging, and there are no guarantees that it will be granted independence by the United Nations. Serbs are certainly hellbent not to let Kosovo go. Serbia's President Boris Tadic has said his nation would be open to "more than autonomy" but it would be political suicide in Serbia to be seen to even consider independence for Kosovo. His main concern is that losing Kosovo might bring ultra-nationalist parties back into power. The northern regions of Kosovo also happen to have the greatest concentration of mineral wealth in all of southeastern Europe. And those resources are worth fighting for.

Kosovo has long been fought over as Serbs across the Balkans consider the region to be their holy land. Ethnic Serbs consider Kosovo the original seat of their Orthodox church, while Kosovar Albanians claim to be the original inhabitants. Kosovo was the place where the disintegration of Yugoslavia began in 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic whipped up Serbian nationalism at a speech at the historic site of Kosovo Polje, where the Serb Empire had been defeated by the Turks in 1389. Four wars erupted in quick succession -- in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- with violence, mayhem and the birth of the term "ethnic cleansing."

Today, Haradinaj's reputation within Kosovo and among those in the international community has not been crippled by his upcoming trial. Although many observers doubt that he can hold an elected position while he awaits his trial, there is a sense in Kosovo that he could emerge as a statesman-like figure in the status negotiations. "Ramush can play a 'Nixon goes to China' role by pursuing ethnic reconciliation on a daily basis," says Scott Bates, senior fellow for national security at the Center for National Policy. "He has the guts and street credibility to change the tone in Kosovo."

Haradinaj's bare-knuckles beginnings were exactly what Kosovo, battling for independence from Serbia, sought in a leader. His mix of raw intelligence and street smarts jived with Kosovars who were looking to follow someone who embodied the rural Kosovar spirit -- and not someone crowned with traditional Western credentials.

The second of 10 children, Haradinaj was the star kid of the large family. His mother, Ruki, says he was always a respectful and polite child, who from an early age seemed to know innately what was the right thing to do. "He was a child who felt for other people, and though I can try to take credit for teaching him that, it would not be true -- he was born with that gift."

Haradinaj's shopkeeper father, Hilmi, was a member of the Communist Party, and he raised his sprawling family in a part of Kosovo with strong nationalist traditions. "Culturally, Ramush was like someone who came from Arkansas or Tennessee, which is very different than coming from New York," says journalist James Pettifer, author of "Kosova Express." He excelled in school, often being given the opportunity to lead the class in schoolwork, and he used every opportunity to learn. "When he was very little he would write down numbers in the dirt and then erase them and write them over again and as he got older he would read lots of books, even when he was herding sheep he would be reading as he walked," his mother says.

His plans after graduating at the top of his class in 1987 were to volunteer in the Yugoslavian army for a year and then head to Pristina University to study astronomy. That, however, was never to be, though Haradinaj did obtain a university education by completing a law degree last year while serving in government.

Although he impressed his superiors enough to be promoted to corporal (something rare for an ethnic Albanian), the economic situation for the family was becoming bleaker and Haradinaj became an economic migrant. Working odd jobs in Switzerland, France and Italy as a nightclub bouncer, a martial arts teacher and a security guard at rock concerts, Haradinaj also fell in love for the first time. Joanna Carlsson, a young Finnish woman, was his live-in love for several years and is the mother of his eldest son. Their relationship ended around 2001, and in 2003 Haradinaj married a pretty TV presenter, Anita Mucaj, who is the mother of his son, Gjini.

While Haradinaj was living in Western Europe, learning French and English, back home Kosovo was simmering over with tensions as Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic kicked ethnic Albanians out of their state jobs and refused to admit them to university. Many in the diaspora, tired of how the Albanian leadership was preaching passive resistance, decided they must fight for their independence and Haradinaj took up the cause, smuggling weapons such as guns and grenades back to his parents' house on trips home.

In 1997, the nation of Albania, which borders Kosovo, fell into anarchy when a series of pyramid investment schemes went bust. Huge caches of weapons were thrown open to everyone, and the KLA, which had formed in 1993 and had been up to that point involved in small-scale guerrilla warfare against the Serbs, reaped the gold mine. The same year that Haradinaj witnessed his brother Luan being killed in an ambush, while smuggling arms across the mountain border between Kosovo and Albania, he proved his dedication to Kosovo by moving back to the region and becoming a point person for the KLA.

Haradinaj would later lose a second brother in the war and a third brother was murdered this past April in what was apparently a blood feud. The Haradinaj home became a guerrilla compound, and in 1998, the Serbs attacked the house and surrounding area hoping to dent the KLA operations in the region. During intense fighting, Haradinaj was shot in the leg, arm and lower stomach. Unable to see through all the smoke, he spoke to a silhouette he believed to be his father, telling him to take cover. The figure was a policeman who fired at Haradinaj. One "bullet hit me [in] the pocket where the keys were, so [it] did not have the full effect, but it caused me 12 different holes where the pieces of metal had gone," Haradinaj later recalled. Running into a room, he found some cheese and used it as a compress on his leg to stop the bleeding. He continued to fight against Serb forces until they eventually retreated several hours later.

The KLA continued to grow from a guerrilla operation to a small, organized army. Both the United States and NATO would eventually back the KLA, a controversial decision. At one point, the KLA was branded a terrorist organization by the State Department and funds going to the KLA were declared illegal. However, as the West was drawn closer and closer into war with Serbia, the KLA was seen as the key organization for providing intelligence.

Haradinaj moved up the ranks to become a senior commander. During a cease-fire in 1998, he came into contact with U.S. and British intelligence agents; realizing that Haradinaj controlled western Kosovo, they nurtured relations with him that would prove invaluable to all parties. The West gained important battlefield intelligence and Haradinaj made contacts that led to his rise as a politician. In March 1999, after months of shuttle diplomacy by the international community, hoping to get Serbia to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO began a bombing campaign that would last three months. Haradinaj, equipped with a satellite phone supplied by the alliance, helped to pinpoint targets for bombing and continued to command his fighting troops.

"Ramush really struck me because he was just so calm and professional and very different from your average KLA soldier," says journalist Stacy Sullivan, author of "Be Not Afraid, for You Have Sons in America," which chronicles the links between U.S. Albanian imigris and the KLA. But Haradinaj was also said to be a strict commander who would beat his men to maintain discipline. A British military official told London's Observer newspaper in 2000 he had seen Haradinaj beat two Albanian men who supposedly had let Serb police into their home. "Someone would pass [Haradinaj] information and he would disappear for two hours. The end result would be several bodies in a ditch," the source stated.

The ICTY states that Haradinaj's KLA unit kidnapped and murdered 40 Serb civilians, some of whose remains were found decomposing in a canal and had marks of torture. Reports on Kosovo.com, a pro-Serb Web site, say that other bodies were stuffed into wells and that Haradinaj's troops also killed Albanians believed to have been helping Serbs. "[The Serbs] accused us of perpetrating acts so they could justify their actions to domestic public opinion," Haradinaj has said. "I cannot say we were perfect during the war, we were human, [and we reacted] when they attacked our family and values."

After the Kosovo War ended in June 1999, diplomats in Kosovo claimed that Haradinaj was persuaded to enter the political fray by British and American intelligence, which wanted to see the KLA's support split between Haradinaj and another former KLA commander, Hashim Thaci, a more radical and unruly candidate. Haradinaj founded the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK), a political party that was considered to be moderate, in the spring of 2000 and began building up clout. Quickly moving his way up the ranks, Haradinaj positioned himself to become the prime minister of the ruling coalition.

There were glitches along the way. In 2000, he was involved in a punch-up with Russian peacekeepers and was injured in a murky attack on his neighbors. During July of that year, in what was allegedly a drunken squabble, Haradinaj was hit in the neck with shrapnel from a grenade and was treated first at Camp Bondsteel and then taken by helevac to another U.S. base in Germany for treatment. In 2001, when reports circulated that Haradinaj was funding his party with profits from petrol and cigarette smuggling, the United Nations forced him to shut down the smuggling operation.

But detractors began to give Haradinaj credit as he quickly turned himself into a polished statesman; instead of running on the obvious issue of independence, Haradinaj tackled issues such as improving education and basic infrastructure. "He seemed young and decisive, able to make the shift from guerrilla leader to political leader, rather like Michael Collins of the Irish Republican Army did in the early 1920s," says Britain's former Europe minister Denis MacShane. At a dinner held soon after Kosovo's first assembly elections in 2001, members were asked to mix and mingle. Haradinaj headed straight over to a Serbian delegate, where he sat down and conversed all evening with him about judo.

An array of Western advisors coached him on how to dress, act and master the subtle nuances of spin. Haradinaj proved to be an able leader, lobbying heavily to have a Serb become his minister of returns. "What was striking was that when he became prime minister, he seemed to grow into the role immediately," says Carne Ross, whose group, International Diplomat, advises the Kosovar government.

Haradinaj's indictment on war crimes was not unexpected, and his reaction to it only reinforced his newfound statesman persona. "He of course had the option to bolt for the hills and become a fugitive, and although if he had run he would have always found a home and a refuge, he chose not to," says a source familiar with Haradinaj. Instead, he stood down from his role as prime minister and told Kosovars to remain calm. However, according to an International Crisis Group report, Haradinaj in private told colleagues a week before his indictment, "They won't take me alive." Some say he meant it as joke, while others say no, he meant exactly what he said.

Haradinaj declared his innocence and said he would do whatever he was asked to do by the ICTY. But he didn't hesitate to declare that the international community had made a grave mistake. "[The ICTY] is treating liberation fighters the same as aggressors who destroyed entire nations and turned the region into ruins," he said, as some of his bodyguards and ministers wept. He also claimed he was a victim of "horse-trading" between The Hague and Belgrade, Serbia's capital, to encourage the hand-over of Serbs such as Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is wanted on war crimes charges in Bosnia, and still remains at large.

Although conspiracy theorists claim that Haradinaj's indictment on war crimes was an act of sabotage to destabilize the region, what it really shows, observers say, is that the ICTY is an equal opportunity prosecutor: Serbs can no longer claim they are the only ones being prosecuted, as Croatians, Bosnians and now Kosovars have been charged with crimes.

"There is a misguided attempt by the ICTY to prosecute Serbs, Croatian, Kosovars equally," says Niccolo Figa-Talamanca, who works for No Peace Without Justice, a nonprofit organization, and was involved in investigating war crimes during the war in Kosovo. Milosevic, currently on trial at The Hague, is the ICTY's most famous catch and someone whom Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at ICTY, fought hard to get and prosecute. Haradinaj was charged solely because of his Albanian ethnicity, Figa-Talamanca says. "If the same accusations were leveled against a Serb, it would not be near the scale of gravity, whether they were true or not."

Of course, whether the charges of rape, murder and ethnic cleansing stick depends upon the evidence. But in Kosovo, there are few people willing to even acknowledge his war crimes. "We investigated cases of kidnapping, disappearances, but we never managed to search cases related to Haradinaj," says Natasa Kandic, founder of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "No one from Kosovo will talk about that because all people are afraid to speak about his indictment and his responsibility. I think you will not find anyone to talk to you."

The U.S. put Kosovo on the back burner after Sept. 11, focusing on more pressing issues in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it seeks to retain good relations with Kosovo because Camp Bondsteel in central Kosovo is likely to remain a permanent military base for jumping-off points in Eastern Europe. There is also the feeling that though Kosovar Albanians tend to be secular -- 95 percent are Muslim and 5 percent are Catholic -- there exists the possibility that because of the lack of opportunities for growth and a 60 percent unemployment rate, the province could prove fertile ground for regional Islamic terrorism. "The U.S. is feeling that the situation needs to be resolved before it could potentially be a terrorist haven," says James Lyon of the International Crisis Group. "It is an Islamic majority so you have the potential."

Before his indictment on war crimes, Haradinaj's star seemed to shine bright in the U.S. State Department. "Ramush is the kind of man Americans could get excited about," says Whit Mason, an advisor to the Kosovar government. "Ramush built his career on the basis of charisma and vision, which is something that Americans expect of a politician, and [while] the other parties were practicing mudslinging, Haradinaj practically claimed to be apolitical, which is something the Americans found refreshing."

Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden has described Haradinaj as "a tough guy [who] looks as if he could lift an ox out of a ditch," and this March paid tribute to him on the Senate floor. "I want to publicly salute him for his personal courage, for the statesmanship he has demonstrated over the last two years [and] I wish him well," Biden said.

However, the U.S. began to distance itself from Haradinaj when Del Ponte and her ICTY colleagues brought his possible war crimes to light. "[The Americans] have been backing him for the long term, and they wanted him to be one of their main vectors of influence here for the next 10 or 20 years," Mason says. "So they did not want him to be prime minister now, they wanted him to deal with these charges, beat them and hoped he would come back and be a powerful leader who is sympathetic to the U.S."

Today, there are strong feelings among Kosovars as well as international observers that if Haradinaj is found not guilty, or even has to serve a short prison term, he is still likely to be a political star in Kosovo. "If the U.S. government is smart they will continue to have quiet, sotto voce conversations with Ramush [to] keep a little bit of oil on the water as we move through this period," says John Norris, a former State Department official during the Clinton administration, and author of "Collision Course: Nato, Russia and Kosovo."

"Ramush is a revolutionary and revolutionaries are capable of greatness and brutality, and if you push them into a corner, you don't know what they will do," says Sullivan. "If Ramush thought it was necessary to kill Serb civilians to get his independent Kosovo, he probably would have done it. On the other hand, when he saw that helping Serbs return was necessary for an independent Kosovo, he made sure the Serbs were allowed to return."

Haradinaj, it seems, has done whatever it takes to help Kosovars become independent. Judges in The Hague, who earlier this month ruled that Haradinaj could return to politics, are reviewing an appeal by Del Ponte, who is unhappy with the thought of Haradinaj getting involved in Kosovo affairs. Rumors are circulating that Haradinaj's AAK party might merge with another party, the LDK, led by President Ibrahim Rugova, to become the Democratic Union of Kosovo. If that happens, it is believed that Haradinaj would be the head, making the party strong and united with both the president and prime minister of Kosovo as members. Regardless of The Hague's decision over Haradinaj's reentry into the political life of Kosovo, what is certain is that Haradinaj's presence and influence are still felt across the region. That brings comfort to many and sends shivers up the spines of others.

By Ginanne Brownell

Ginanne Brownell is the editorial manager for Newsweek's London bureau.

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