Friday, December 07, 2007

Breaking point


Breaking point

It's a crisis that's been simmering since 1999, when Nato troops enforced an uneasy peace on Kosovo. But from Monday, the Albanian majority in this former Yugoslav province will no longer be bound by the UN-brokered truce. And the fallout could be disastrous, as Julian Borger reports

Friday December 7, 2007
The Guardian

A Kosovo Albanian stands behind the Albanian national flag at a market in Pristina
A Kosovo Albanian stands behind the Albanian national flag at a market in Pristina Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP-Getty

Some of the potholes have been mended on the rough tar road into Kosovo from the south, but otherwise it is unchanged, winding its way through a blighted land that has been stuck in limbo for eight years. British troops came this way as part of Nato's intervention force in June 1999, when their vehicles were festooned with flowers by enthusiastic villagers - creating the dangerous expectation of a similar floral welcome in Iraq.

Unlike Iraq, the Kosovo invasion has gone down in history as a success. It staunched the bloodletting that had seen 10,000 people die in this, the last of the 1990s Balkan wars that broke Yugoslavia into its ethnic components. But eight years later, Nato's Kosovo force (K-For) is still there patrolling the same country roads, keeping a lid on the same fundamental problem - the unwillingness of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority and Serb minority to live together under the same flag. For most of the world, the troubled province has been out of sight and out of mind in recent years, but it is about to force its way back into the headlines. On Monday, the deadline expires for UN-brokered negotiations on power-sharing between the two peoples. The expectation is that Kosovo's Albanian-led government will go on to declare independence early in the New Year. The crisis that is now gathering momentum could not only ignite ethnic antipathies in Kosovo, but also set the west and Russia at each other's throats and send ripples of instability along other ethnic fault lines through the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The epic clash was inevitable from the moment Nato troops drove into the killing fields on that hot June day to put an end to Slobodan Milosevic's final stab at ethnic cleansing, before he was ousted as president of what remained of Yugoslavia and bundled off to the Hague war crimes tribunal.

By the late 90s, Milosevic's dreams of a Greater Serbia had long since collapsed in Croatia and Bosnia, and he was facing a revolt in Kosovo, a province that Serbs see as the cradle of their civilisation, the site of some of the oldest Orthodox churches and monasteries. When Kosovo rose up, Milosevic's response was utterly and characteristically ruthless. Serb troops and paramilitary groups were given the green light to make their way through Kosovo and terrorise the Albanian population. They killed the military-age men, as well as teenage boys and some of the women, children and elderly. Ten thousand were killed but the real aim was to create a wave of fear that would drive the population out and for ever put to rest the question of independence. Until Nato's ground invasion, it worked. A million Albanians took to the road and headed for the borders.

By intervening, the west made itself godfather to an embryonic and traumatised nation of nearly two million ethnic Albanians. Eight years ago, I followed a British armoured column through Kosovo, and saw it greeted by this Albanian populace as a liberating army. It was a moment of rare euphoria for civilians and soldiers alike. A week ago, I went back to find out if any of that euphoria remained after Kosovo's eight years as a United Nations protectorate.

I began at the place that was our first stop along the road in June 1999, a hamlet then called Mali Ribar, where children danced around the British Warrior armoured cars, flashing V for victory signs, and led the way to 26 fresh graves. There, I met a woman called Shemsije Vishesella, a Kosovan Albanian who was going home for the first time since Serbian irregulars executed her husband and two sons two months before. With her face heavily bandaged from a bullet wound, she had crouched and touched the ground where her youngest son, 14-year-old Ismet, had died. In all, 10 members of the Vishesella family were killed that day, including two girls, aged five and 15.

The village is now known by its Albanian name Ribar i Vogel, but it is unchanged. Vishesella's house is still there, with its little square garden, broken chicken coops and clutch of apple trees dusted with snow. The front door is unlocked and the charred interior is exactly as it was after the paramilitaries' half-hearted attempt to burn the scene of the crime. The same thin mattresses and punctured football are still lying on the bare wood floors. Vishesella now lives with relatives in another village. She had no money to repair the house, and could not bear living there even if she could afford it. "I would have to walk past the doorstep where my husband and my sons were shot," she says. "I come to see the graves and sometimes I go to the house. I go through the rooms and I remember how our lives were. I think back on how I was and who I am now."

She was shot in the face when she looked back to see the fate of her sons Ismet and his 17-year-old brother Kreshnik, and her husband Rexhep. Her right jawbone is missing and she must eat and talk with one side of her face only. The passage of time has not relieved her loss, and for the past eight years, while the world outside has moved on, she has continued to exist rather than live. "I try to spend a lot of time asleep and I take a lot of sleeping pills," she says.

She has one surviving daughter, Besa, who was 10 at the time of the killings and was clutching her mother when the shots rang out. "I saw the Serbs giving each other signs on who to shoot first, and I saw they were saying to shoot my younger brother first," Besa says. "We hid in the garage. My mother looked out from behind a tractor wheel and got shot in the face. I thought she was dead as well and I was going to run when my mother grabbed me and that's how I knew she was alive."

In the years that followed, Besa's state of depression was so deep she would sometimes collapse without warning at school. Now 18, She studies law in Pristina. "I know what justice means," she says. The fainting fits have tapered off, but she cannot bring herself to go back into her old house, cannot bear to hear Serbian spoken, and cannot wait to cut the ties to Belgrade.

The sentiment is almost universal among Kosovan Albanians. For them, the price of independence has been paid in blood many times over, and now only sovereignty will dull their pain. A few kilometres further along the road to Pristina, Idriz Govori lives just a short walk from the spot where he was lined up against a wall with his brother and nine other men from the village of Hallaq and shot by Serb paramilitaries. Eight years ago, I had met his nephew, Ali, who had been spared the firing squad because he was too young. Govori's escape was narrower still. Two bullets went through his leather jacket and passed either side of his body. He lay among the fallen and heard a Serb gunman go up the line finishing off the victims. He ran out of ammunition two bodies before Govori and walked off, his job unfinished.

Standing by the squat concrete memorial to the victims, just a few feet from the bullet-scarred barn wall where he came so close to death, Govori says: "With independence, everything that has happened until now will be accounted for. It doesn't mean we'll get over everything, but we think it will help the victims rest in peace. We will be psychologically free."

Independence has appeared within Kosovo's grasp several times in recent years only to be put off by international negotiators fearful of the global rift it will undoubtedly cause. Albanian frustration has boiled over once before, in 2004, when three Albanian boys drowned in a river and unfounded rumours went round that Serbs were to blame. Twenty-eight people were killed in the ensuing unrest. There are signs that Kosovo could explode again, if independence does not come quickly.

Govori's neighbour, Bedri Alliu, the village garage attendant whose brother was killed in 1999, says: "Waiting is not an option. Not even a minute longer. The people have lost their patience on this. People are frustrated and there might be a violent reaction. I'd rather K-For ran us all over than go without independence."

Compounding the sense of an unredeemed blood debt is a unanimous conviction among Kosovo's Albanians that independence would bring economic rewards to one of the poorest corners of Europe. There are some signs of investment since 1999. A lot of houses have been built around Pristina, and the roads are dotted with new petrol stations. Kosovo has the extraordinary distinction of having the greatest density of petrol stations in the world. But the shiny garages are paradoxically a symptom of stagnation. For Kosovan Albanians with savings from work abroad or the thriving black market at home, there is simply nothing else for them to put their money into to get any sort of return. That will change, the Albanians believe, when the status question is settled.

The irresistible rise of popular expectations, however, is headed for a jarring collision with the immovable fact of Kosovo's Serb enclaves. Since Nato's arrival in 1999, the 100,000 Serbs who stayed behind in Kosovo have lived in Europe's last ghettoes, leading entirely separate lives as if the war and the collapse of Yugoslavia had never happened. Gracanica is only a few miles from Pristina and used to be a suburb. It is now a parallel universe.

Driving from one town to the other, the intervening years seem to drop away, along with the western-style shops of the capital. In Gracanica, the cars all have old Yugoslav number plates, the shop signs are still in Cyrillic - never seen on the Albanian side of the lines - and the merchandise has the no-frills crudity of the old socialist republic. It is paid for in Yugoslav dinars. The residents go to Belgrade-run schools and visit Belgrade-funded clinics. It is a mirror image of the underground society Albanians ran in the days of Milosevic - with the important distinction that the Serbs have a choice. Most of the people on the streets have not been to Pristina for years. The young know of no life beyond Gracanica. "People throw stones or make signs at you if you drive in Albanian areas," says Novica Milanovic, a local businessman, dragging his finger across his throat to illustrate his point. "It's not particularly nice if you're with your kids and you get a stone in your car window. It sticks in your kids' minds."

"In eight years, nothing has changed. Nothing has moved forward," Milanovic adds bitterly. Asked if he is anxious about the prospect of Kosovo independence, he replies testily: "Only the crazy aren't worried. If you have any sense, you worry."

The Serb enclaves are hostages to fortune in Kosovo's bid for independence. Most of the Serbs I talk to say they intend to stay put for the time being. But at the first sign of violence, most say they will consider heading north, towards Belgrade. Another refugee exodus on the world's television screens would be a huge setback for the newborn state and a crippling embarrassment for its international midwives, the United Nations and the European Union. With that in mind, Nato is bolstering its presence, and Britain has offered to send more troops, if needed, in the New Year, but whatever precautions are taken, there is no doubt that the process is vulnerable to extremists on both sides.

There is plenty of blame to go round for the eight years of failure to integrate the enclaves. Belgrade has aggressively countered any attempt at integration, threatening any Serb seeking to bridge the divide with virtual excommunication, a loss of salary or pensions. For its part, the Albanian-run government in Pristina, under continual UN scrutiny, has paid lip service to reconciliation but failed to prevent waves of reprisals against Kosovan Serbs in the immediate aftermath of the war, and then again in the 2004 riots. "The biggest challenge is the local Serbs, because, in eight years, we failed to have a positive approach to minorities, to Serbs," argues Berat Buzhala, the editor of an Albanian-language newspaper, Express. "Here was a joint failure of the international community and the government of Kosovo. [The Serbs] still can't drive their cars all around Kosovo without being scared that someone will shoot them. They have reason to be scared."

Buzhala was a student when the war broke out. His parents' house was burned down by Serb paramilitaries and he spent 78 days hiding with his family in the mountains. After the Nato intervention, he became an interpreter for Italian troops, despite a loose and largely intuitive grasp of the language, and from there drifted into journalism. Express, which he co-founded, has since become a thorn in the side of the Pristina authorities, exposing a series of scandals in the Kosovo government and the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik). He faults Unmik in particular for seeking local "strongmen" to work with. The result was that UN officials helped legitimise gang leaders and warlords and cut some dubious and lucrative deals with them. The joke in Pristina is that the only difference between Unmik and organised crime is that Unmik is not particularly organised. The many failures of Belgrade, Pristina and the UN have led to the current situation, in which Kosovo Albanian and Serb alike are sliding towards a historic turning point largely unprepared for the consequences.

If Kosovo breaks apart under the stress, it is already clear where it will fracture. The river Ibar separates central and southern Kosovo from a northern tract, abutting the rest of Serbia, that is inhabited by 40,000 Serbs and perhaps 5,000 Albanians. The line bisects the town of Mitrovice and the bridge connecting the two halves is Kosovo's most sensitive flashpoint.

In 1999, I saw two French tanks from the Nato force take up position at either end of the 50m concrete span to keep the two communities apart, and the line has since fossilised into the protectorate's own "Checkpoint Charlie" - a cold war-style crossing point between two worlds and two ideologies, complete with abundant reels of razor wire, police cordons and a French-manned sniper's nest atop an adjacent building.

Eight years ago, only the old, the young and the Nato-escorted could cross in complete safety, and the situation is little better now. The average traffic flow amounts to a pedestrian every couple of minutes. About every 10 minutes, a civilian car drives across, often halting on the bridge itself so that the driver can remove number plates that would betray ethnic identity. In Serb Mitrovice I can find no one willing to contemplate life in an independent Kosovo. Miladin Vladislavovic, an elderly taxi driver, had fled to the town in 2004, after he, his wife and father were beaten, and his house razed, by an Albanian mob during the March riots. "I am lucky to be alive," he says. He insists a unilateral declaration of independence is "not possible". When pressed on how he would react, he shrugs and says: "We are waiting to see what the Serbian government will do ... We are sitting and waiting. If something happens here, I will have to leave and go to Serbia."

The local Serbs look exclusively and passively towards Belgrade for leadership. When one of their civic leaders, Oliver Ivanovic, registered to participate in Kosovo-wide elections earlier this year, he was pressured into pulling out within a week. "The international community here does not understand that Serbia is not going to accept an independent Kosovo, and Serbia is going to do its utmost to keep Kosovo. It's much more than a piece of territory. It's about identity," Ivanovic says. "The Serbs do not know who we are if we lose Kosovo." Belgrade would not send troops into Kosovo, Ivanovic predicts, but rather would try to strangle Kosovo at birth by closing its borders and adopting a strategy of non-cooperation with international organisations. He lays out a disturbing timetable for the next few months, as seen from Belgrade.

"The scenario that is most likely to happen is that the Albanians will declare independence unilaterally. The immediate reaction is that the north [part of Kosovo] will decide they do not recognise it. To all practical purposes, such a decision exists already," Ivanovic explains. "The next step will be some Albanian extremists who might decide to involve themselves and [attack] Serbs in the south and central enclaves. That will cause an immediate reaction in the north and Serbs will try to clean up the Albanians from the north. That means new tension, and maybe shooting and killing. That's the way the trouble starts.

"Even moderate people are saying the war can happen," Ivanovic goes on. "They feel injustice. They feel humiliated. That's dangerous. That's how things start boiling ... If Serbia is going to be humiliated with losing Kosovo, there will be no stability in the Balkans."


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