Dancing in Kosovo
A reporter in the Balkans finds that good intentions can't end a blood feud
By Rebecca Pollard
MARCH 28, 2000: PEJA, WESTERN KOSOVO -- My first night in Kosovo, I found myself sitting in a pizza parlor across from a young Australian dancer named Skye. As she fussed with the rhinestone clip that held back her short blond curls, Skye -- who works for a Czech organization called People in Need -- told me about the weekly lessons she holds in a local park. Every Saturday morning she teaches capoeira, a Brazilian dance and martial art, to a class made up of Western relief workers and ethnic Albanian locals.
"It's just good for people to do something besides sit around, drink Turkish coffee, and get angrier and angrier," she said.
I'd arrived in Kosovo just that day, and I was having trouble believing Skye was real: her chiseled face, her dreamy voice, her proposal to spiritually reawaken the Kosovar Albanians through dance lessons. She seemed, in that moment, some kind of apparition, an incongruous New Age vision amid the postwar chaos that still envelops this mountainous region.
Peja is the largest city in this part of Western Kosovo, the cultural center of a mountain valley in the Dukagjin region. The Dukagjin is arguably the most peaceful part of Kosovo today. One year ago, when NATO bombs started falling, Peja endured the brunt of the conflict; nearly the town's entire population -- some 85,000 ethnic Albanians and thousands of Serbs and Romas -- fled into the nearby mountains, or to refugee camps in bordering countries.
NATO bombing stopped in June of 1999, and refugees have slowly returned over the past year. The region's make-up is now markedly different, however. In the area around Peja, most of the ethnic Albanians have come back to their homes, but only 900 Serbs remain, clustered in an isolated village about 30 kilometers away.
Locals say that after the cease-fire, the Kosovar Serbs left the region "with blood on their hands." But the Serbs' departure wasn't quite so simple. The Albanians in the area have been conducting what is essentially a reverse ethnic-cleansing campaign, with NATO as their military shield. The local UN office reports weekly murders of Serbs in the nearby village of Gorazdevac. The city's Roma (or Gypsy) population, generally considered Serb allies by Albanians, lives in fear. NATO estimates that some 100,000 ethnic Serbians have left Kosovo since the bombings. Even the White House has started to take notice: on a recent tour of the province, State Department spokesman James Rubin warned militant Kosovar Albanians that they could lose international support if they kept up the violence.
Here in Peja, the newly established homogeneity has created a fragile but comparatively peaceful climate. The region lacks the extreme tension of northern Kosovo, which remains racially divided; or of the east, where a newly revitalized ethnic Albanian militia calling itself the East KLA tries to spur conflict in Presevo, over the border shared with South Serbia.
As a result of its relative calm, Peja has acquired a strapping international population of NATO officials, UN employees, and relief jockeys who've entered on the Albanian side of the conflict. On the town's main street it is not unusual for markets to sell mangoes and avocados -- fruits unheard of in the area before some 75 Western relief groups took up residence here. The influx of foreigners has raised property values and food prices. The new ethnic "purity" of the area renders it stable enough that an Australian capoeira instructor can find a sizable Saturday-morning clientele -- or at least feel comfortable trying.
In the four years I've known him, I don't recall ever having seen Casey conduct a single mindful conversation about international politics. Still, like a lot of Americans, he was touched by the conflict. He felt as if he had something to offer the people there, if only his hopeful demeanor and pacifist message.
Last year, during the peak of the Kosovo crisis, 1000 reporters arrived in Skopje -- and that's only the number that officially registered as press with the Macedonian government. They piped back footage of fleeing refugees, families, children. They filled newspapers with personal stories of the Kosovars' plight. The New York Times ran an average of five pages of Kosovo coverage each day, and the Boston Globe regularly plastered stories on the front page. Even Americans normally uninterested in foreign affairs, like my friend Casey, became instant experts on the issue.
Almost overnight, Kosovo became the world's humanitarian hot spot and the target of wildly disproportionate quantities of aid money. In Angola at the time, an estimated 5000 people were dying daily in an ongoing civil war. Four weeks after the NATO bombing started, Ethiopia expelled 50,000 Eritreans. But Kosovo got the attention.
By last July, the UN had earmarked roughly half of its worldwide relief budget of $2.2 billion for Balkan relief, despite the fact that displaced Kosovars make up a mere eight percent of what the UN deems the world's needy population. UNHCR Special Programmes budgeted almost $170 million to the former Yugoslavia for 1999, about as much as they budgeted for the entire continent of Africa.
But that's especially hard to do when Kosovo still lacks the essential elements of a civil society: a police force, a judicial system, a tax structure. It's technically still a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and every aspect of this quasi-autonomous state is fraught with chaos. Electricity is intermittent and unpredictable; the main power supplier to the province still lies in neighboring Serbia. The road system is pockmarked with gaping holes and peppered with mines.
Driving to Pristina from the airport in Skopje, we passed dark town after dark town, our headlights illuminating the yellow ribbons of the land mines that flanked our sides. As we neared the city, traffic mounted. Cars with Swiss plates, Italian plates, and Austrian plates vied for space along the city's laneless avenues.
Most of these cars, Casey told me, were stolen. A recent UN report estimated that 70 percent of the cars in the province are "imported" from Western Europe over Kosovo's many unmanned borders. No one can regulate this theft; Kosovo has no Department of Motor Vehicles and no auto registration. The region's administrative body, the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), attempted to stem the influx of stolen vehicles by issuing parking tickets, but no ruling body enforces the tickets, so most of them find their way to the ubiquitous meter-high piles of roadside refuse. There they lie alongside worn shoes, discarded syringes, and dog carcasses.
The centralized rubbish piles in Peja are the greatest testament to the town's newly established civility. In Pristina, trash collects at random along the roadside. But in Peja residents favor one dumping location: the base of a Serbian monument at the perimeter of the town park.
The UN peacekeeping team in Kosovo has its own acronym -- KFOR, for Kosovo Force. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which gave the UN authority over the province, requires KFOR to encourage a "multiethnic community" in Kosovo by protecting all Serbian national monuments or cathedrals. Day and night, three Italian soldiers dutifully guard the World War II monument where people dump their trash. It's a tremendous sculpture from the days of communist Yugoslavia: four 50-foot-tall steel-plated soldiers hold their victorious fists in the air. In the afternoon sun, the KFOR guards stretch out across the giant tank that blocks the auto entrance to the monument; they play cards or stare idly at the townspeople who regularly arrive with wastebaskets and garbage bags.
Given the current climate, one can expect the UN-mandated "multiethnic community" here to be composed exclusively of ethnic Albanians and Westerners from NATO countries. One foggy morning in Peja, I drank Turkish coffee in a café on the town's main drag. A young Kosovar walked onto the outdoor terrace where I sat, looked hard at my notebook, then approached my table. He introduced himself as Ghshi Valdet, an ethnic Albanian in his early 30s who'd stayed through NATO's bombing campaign and the Serb insurgency. After thanking me four or five times for NATO's intervention, he took a seat at my table. Valdet unbuttoned his silk shirt and pointed to a leather sheath attached to the inside of his waistband. He pulled out a five-inch steel knife. The knife glinted in the morning light. "If I see a Serb -- this!" he said. He placed a finger at the left side of his neck and forcefully traced an imaginary line across his throat. He thanked me again before he stood and walked inside.
In my short time in Peja, a handful of ethnic Albanian townspeople expressed the same thing to me -- a personal vendetta against the entire Serbian population. "We will never forget what was done to us," Casey's landlord, a mustached man in his late 50s, told me later that afternoon. "The land still smells of blood." Posters of armed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) heroes hang in local shop windows, accompanied by lists of provincial Serbian and Roma villagers thought to be supporters of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
A few weeks before my arrival, a group of teenage boys had killed a man in the street. According to the reports, the teens had asked the man in Serbian for the time, and when he responded in that language, one of the teens pulled out a gun and shot him. The man was a Bulgarian translator for the UN.
Lieutenant Colonel Casimiro San Juan, second in command of the local KFOR unit, showed me a digital photograph of the event, in his Peja office. The photograph was an image of a young boy flinging a burning bottle toward the convoy, which had been stopped by the encroaching crowd. San Juan showed me more images. A picture of the bloated body of a Serbian villager lying face down in the fields south of Gorazdevac. Click. A photograph of an old woman, her swollen face encircled with a braid of gray hair. A bullet had entered her head just below her left cheekbone.
"It's a very tense situation. There is little KFOR peacekeepers can do about this," said the Spanish lieutenant. "We can guard the Serbian villages and monuments, but we can only respond to militaristic attacks."
But most of the attacks in the Dukagjin region aren't militaristic; they're personal, and they're backed by hundreds of years of regional ethnic conflict bordering on blood feud. Many Serbians view Kosovo as the birthplace of their culture; Kosovo contains a string of their earliest monasteries and monuments, built by the Serbs' first autonomous society in the 14th century. A subsequent invasion of Turks launched the cycle of religious intolerance between the ethnic Albanians, who are Muslim, and the Serbs, who are Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The Albanians of the area have not always reacted violently to Serbian rule. In 1989, when Milosevic's government rescinded ethnic Albanians' political autonomy, Ibrahim Rugova, a pacifist Kosovar leader, encouraged them to resist nonviolently. But the Kosovars learned quickly that nonviolence doesn't garner international attention. At the Dayton negotiations, the talks that partitioned Bosnia-Herzegovina between Croatia and Serbia, the US hardly acknowledged Kosovar delegates. The message to Kosovar liberation leaders was clear: peaceful resistance would change little.
After Dayton, the militant KLA gained popularity. It seems the Kosovars, by default, mobilized under a centuries-old Albanian code known as the Canon of Lek. The canon establishes clear laws as to the proper conduct of a blood feud: any wrong deed warrants an equal and opposite punishment. If a neighbor kills your next of kin, then you must kill his, which in turn obliges him to kill your next of kin, setting off a spiral of revenge that can envelop whole regions. It's an old code, and it's hard to see how a few years' worth of Western aid to the area is likely to root it out of the culture.
UNMIK plans to remove humanitarian forces from the area by mid 2000. As I traveled north of Peja to a guarded monastery in the foothills, I found myself wondering whether UNMIK's head, Bernard Koucher, had ever wandered the village streets and listened to the Albanian Kosovars whose homes and livelihoods -- and, in many cases, lives -- had been destroyed as the bombs fell. NATO peppered the countryside with land mines, spoiled the water table with toxins, and destroyed any civil infrastructure with the goal of setting up a new government that will be unlikely to restore autonomy anyway. And now that we find that our bombs didn't end the conflict, we want to pull out altogether.
I spoke to a young Serbian priest in long dark robes, with a chest-length black beard, who was standing by the entrance of the chapel. He had come from a village not far south of Belgrade only three months before the bombing campaign. "It is not easy, but this is my home now," he told me quietly. "This is my life. I cannot leave." Since his arrival, the priest said, he had not once ventured beyond the protected gates. "It is not because I am afraid here, for God is on our side." He pointed to the stone cross on the chapel's roof. It shone like a target in the morning sun.
About a half-mile outside the KFOR checkpoint, on my way back to the main road, I stopped at a café for a Turkish coffee. I hid the gold cross dangling around my neck as I entered the building. The proprietor came out from behind the bar to greet me. He shook my hand and began, in broken English, to berate Slobodan Milosevic and the entire Serbian race, drawing that imaginary line across his neck as he spoke. I thought about the priest, in his uncertain security, only a five-minute walk from where we stood.
That evening Casey invited me to join him and a group of "internationals" from Peja for dinner at the Hotel Dypon in the old city. The restaurant is popular among the KFOR soldiers and the German Red Cross. The two Albanian Kosovars in our party, both Casey's neighbors, were the only locals there. We ate fried calamari and drank Coca-Cola and California chardonnay under generator-run lights. A well-spoken Canadian relief worker on my left complained about the weight she'd gained since she moved to the region.
"My friends back home won't believe I've really been living here in Kosovo," she said. "Sometimes, I forget myself."
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