No time for forgiveness in a land of division

By Robert Fisk in Pristina

The Independent - 30 November 1999

When gunmen tried to murder the local Serb leader Momcilo Trajkovic in Pristina this month, the daily Kosovo Albanian Koha Ditore newspaper – with a circulation of around 20,000 – put his picture on page one.

"On that day alone, we lost 5,000 readers – just because we put his picture on the front," one of the paper's journalists says. "Our readers wouldn't buy our paper because they saw Trajkovic's photograph."

So much for the "forgiveness" President Clinton asked of the Albanians in his best supermarket style last week. No wonder Koha Ditore lost readers. "We had a debate over what to do," the young journalist told me. "Do we carry on reporting the news as we wish and lose thousands of readers? Or do we wait until public opinion changes before we do something like this again?"

Over at one of Pristina's numerous human-rights groups, there are no doubts about the template of Kosovo Albanian opinion. I spoke to a man who has witnessed as much carnage in the Middle East as many Albanians have seen here.

"Can you imagine what these people felt in the camps in Macedonia when they listened to some of the stories I heard there?" he asked. "I heard a man telling of how a Serb paramilitary had pulled a girl off a truck and cut out her eyes and then left her lying on the road. Two hours later, he came back and killed her. Then we took evidence from a man who'd seen seven Albanians tied to a haystack; after they were tied, the haystack was set alight."

Yes, there were atrocities. Many of the paramilitaries, it seems, were on hard drugs – how else could a man put out the eyes of a fellow human? – but Nato let them leave Kosovo, untouched. I recall standing by the roadside last June in Kosovo Polje beside a British armoured vehicle whose soldiers were watching with amusement as a truck full of Serb gunmen, threading its way through a Yugoslav army column, passed them by. The Serbs were wearing shades – one of them wore a hood – and several were swigging from brandy bottles. They had painted: "Fuck the Shipters [Albanians]" on their truck, along with crudely drawn pictures of skulls, and they were making V-signs at us. But the Nato boys did nothing. Potential war criminals could leave with the Yugoslav army if that meant a peaceful Nato entry into Kosovo. That, minus the diplomatic phrases, was part of the deal.

Now, of course, the war-crimes officials here would like the names and identities of the Serb gunmen whose departure Nato did nothing to prevent. But without the evidence of these men, their admissions, their defence, there will be precious few arrests. And atrocity stories are almost as easy to deny as they are to believe.

"There was another story I heard," the human-rights official said. "And I'm not certain it's true. I was told that a man was put in the bucket of a JCB truck – the kind you use to hoist electricity workers up to mend power lines. Well, I was told the Serbs put an Albanian in the bucket and then, using the vehicle, tossed him on to high-tension power lines, where he burnt to death. But it was a story, third hand. We could find no witnesses."

In the meantime, there is still no code of law in Kosovo and no real police force. A constabulary is being trained, it is true – Serbs as well as Albanians – but the UN police are coming under constant abuse. Several of their vehicles have been stoned. "It's difficult to make crime inquiries when everything you say has to go through a third party, the interpreter," the human-rights worker says. "People don't want to talk. There's a lot of intimidation. And the Albanian mafia is working hard here."

He is right. At night, the sleek guys from Tirana turn up to drink cappuccino and brandy in the revamped coffee shop of the ghastly old Grand Hotel. Their fingers are dripping rings, their hair damp over velvet collars, their creepy bodyguards working mobile phones at the next table. They are collecting taxes from the shopkeepers (German marks only), deciding who should run the growing street market of vegetable, meat and CD stalls. They do not even bother to look at the UN cops cruising the streets in their little red cars.

On Sunday the Kosovo Albanians celebrated a 15th century Albanian uprising against Ottoman rule, and the 1912 declaration of Albanian independence. In the early hours of yesterday, a mob in Pristina hauled three elderly Serbs from their car, shot the man dead and assaulted the two women. And outside, in the countryside, houses still burn.

"It was a real flaw not to have police coming in here with K-For," the human-rights official says. "There is going to have to be some form of international law to cover the interim period after a war. These are topics for a major debate in the future."

Needless to say, Nato blames the UN for not putting more policemen into Kosovo more quickly. But when Nato was at war, it did not want any UN involvement. It did not want to talk policemen with the bureaucrats on the East River. Only when the war was over, when it needed cops, did Nato expect the UN to snap to attention and provide a ready-made police force.

Which is why, with the last gypsies herded into camps – there are 740 in a camp at Pristina and a further 460 in Macedonia – the West's determination to maintain an Albanian-Serb society in the province appears futile. Indeed K-For, with its British, American, Turkish, Emirate, German and other contingents – is now the only multi-ethnic society in Kosovo.

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