VREME - "I Don't Have a Watch"

by Enes Halilovic (AIM)

December 11 1999

Tyranny is eternal, I now believe, following my most recent journalistic odyssey to Kosovo. Occasionally old tyrants are replaced by new ones; crimes continue. Others have taken over from Milosevic's regime in Kosovo. Of course, they are trying to outdo him. Traveling today in Kosovo reminds one of a game of chance in which staying alive is a lucky break.

It is the second half of November. On the border between Kosovo and Serbia, a control point of the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs Police; a perfunctory inspection, only to prove that the men in blue uniforms exist. The bus is going from Novi Pazar to Skopje via Pristina. "Personal identification, please" and then "bon voyage". A middle-aged Serb traveling to Skopje says: "I've relieved myself here; I have no intention of looking for a toilet in Pristina." A Belgian KFOR troops checkpoint follows; another perfunctory inspection.

First we pass through Leposavic. They say there are no Albanians here anymore, only peace, quiet and hopelessness. Zvecan: A Serbian woman is complaining because the bus does not stop in the Serbian part of Kosovska Mitrovica. The driver says through his teeth: "Go back to Pazar and look for a better connection." She gets off the bus by the road and heads for the city, which, despite everything, cannot imitate Berlin.

SILENCE BECAUSE OF AN AX:  The driver tosses a piece of beef salami into his mouth and says: "Don't anyone raise your fingers in salute because you may screw it up. It's not three fingers anymore, it's two" [i.e. the Albanian victory sign instead of the traditional Serbian three-finger salute]. People with money are busy building; people without money are waiting for better times. There are tents in the alleys and houses are slowly growing from the ground, so that people can move in before the first snow. Between Mitrovica and Vucitrn, on the right side of the road, I spot five freshly dug graves. On the graves, a red flag with a black, two-headed eagle [Albanian flag] flies on a wooden stake stuck in the ground. It is easier to find a Serb in Kenya than here. In Vucitrn, there is a refugee camp, which was opened after the Croatian war by Buba Morina, the Yugoslav Commissioner for refugees, who married into an Albanian family. Albanians live here now; the Serbs from Croatia have been exiled yet again. I am, of course, already regretting coming here; I have a translator who talks fluent Turkish and Albanian but I don't know what to say. I only know how to say "une nam Enes Halilovic prej Novi Pazar, gazetar Free Europe". I know that Free Europe is respected by the Albanians but they are resentful of everyone who doesn't speak Albanian.

In Pristina the buildings are intact, the spirits worn out. Post-war worries on faces, the wounds of war flash in every eye. I get off the bus and wait for the bus to Prizren. It is twilight, I am the tallest person in the bus station and this is not to my advantage; whoever looks at me, it seems to me, is thinking: "He must be a Serb." A few people approach me and ask me for the time in Albanian. "Ska sahati," I say, which means: I don't have a watch. They ask: do you want a taxi? "Jo."[No]

The bus for Prizren is here. I enter; the translator buys tickets. A young man and an old man sit inside; the old man is singing "Gjingjile, o gjingjile." The translator tells me it's an Albanian-Partisan song. I call home and tell them where I am. I end the conversation with "Allah imanet." Might as well get some kind of credit.

The bus passes through Lipljan, then Stimlje. Darkness, no electricity whatsoever. Either the Serbs intentionally ruined it or the Albanians don't know how to get "Kosovo A" to maximum production. It is so dark that it couldn't be any darker, something like the episode of "Twilight Zone" where the guy gets lost and wanders around in a desert. That is Kosovo at night. After Stimlje, on the left side of the road toward Prizren, there is a psychiatric hospital. A person who speaks Serbian, does not know Albanian, and by some miracle manages to arrive in Stimlje alive would do well to check into this hospital because that is where he belongs. I am asking myself whatever possessed me to inflict injury upon myself in this way.

In Suva Reka a young Albanian gets on and greets the other two men. He asks me something, and the translator says something back. The Albanian wants to know about the bag placed between the seats, which does not belong to me. "A Serb?" asks the man with curly braids halfway down his back. Jo, un prej Novi Pazar, Enes. He starts shouting and mentioning "sekira" [an ax in Serbian]. I say nothing until we arrive in Prizren. I remain silent, stubbornly silent. I feel their stares on the back of my head.

We get off in Prizren. Why was I crazy enough to come here? It is a historically significant city, a city about which I have heard beautiful stories, but the year is 1999 and all sorts of ugly things have just happened. And are still happening. Darkness; the sound of electrical generators is coming from a few houses. We go to the translator's house; his family does not know their son is coming. They ask me who I am, what I am. A reporter, and so on. The father looks at the translator as if to say: on top of my worries, I really didn't need this one as well. I will remember that look as long as I live. They are Bosniaks-Muslims and the Albanians have tried to break into their warehouse; during the war, both Serbs and Albanians pilfered from them while there still were some of them in Prizren. The father, an industrious and honest man, doesn't want his house to become a target but he will also not do anything that may bring dishonor on himself and his family. We talk about his business. I comment that at least they had a reprieve from the tax collector and financial and commercial inspectors; he says: "One is always paying someone for something." I ask whether he means the Albanian mafia racket and I get the impression that he is afraid of confirming my suspicions. Maybe he thinks he would suffer misfortune if something like that should get on television or into the papers. After dinner we sleep. I dream of the guy with the braids who talked about an ax.

PEOPLE HAVE MONEY:  In the morning, I go to the German KFOR and am told by a man with a mustache that I need to come back tomorrow exactly at nine because that is when the man in charge of issuing accreditation to reporters will be there. Am I supposed to play hide-and-seek all day? I go to the Turks. Selam aleikum and merhaba. Officer Hasan Gengis says that Turkish forces are protecting citizens and preventing theft and acts of vandalism at checkpoints and by patroling 24 hours a day.

"We have successfully prevented illegal logging and selling of wood. We have helped schools in Dragas and the surrounding villages. We distributed 5,700 packets of humanitarian aid, and we gave the village of Dobrudzan 20 tons of coal. We have vaccinated 857 children against various diseases. Our military physicians have examined approximately seven thousand patients and circumcised 271 children of Albanian and Bosniak ethnicity. We did the same in the Turkish village of Mamusa and in Prizren. This is especially important because it fosters tolerance and reduces hate," says Hasan Gengis. In the Turkish camp, I can hear Ottoman music. Iron discipline, all of them are working like ants.

H.T., a merchant and an ethnic Turk, is happy because of the arrival of the Turkish forces. He says: "This is our guarantee; the Albanians would crush us if our brothers were not here. I cried when they came, I threw flowers on their tanks. Their soldiers cried, too." Business is transacted exclusively in German marks, the telephones have just resumed working but the connections are unstable which represents a new problem. "The people have money," says H.T. and adds "I am making more now than before, I am not paying taxes, I have no inspectors waiting to skin me alive." Then he asks me: "Is it true that Slobo's [Slobodan Milosevic, the president of FR Yugoslavia] son opened an amusement park?" "It is." "I know that Slobo knows no shame before God but how can he not be ashamed before so many people? I remember when he said in 1997 in Pristina that he would not give up a single inch of Kosovo. What is he thinking now?"

Around 12 noon restaurant owner Ahmet confirms that he, too, is making more money than before the war. "An espresso is one German mark; so is a glass of juice. Everything is calculated in German marks, my friend." Around 7:00 p.m. that evening I learn that some Albanian cracked his skull open with an iron bar and that Ahmet is in the hospital where doctors are fighting for his life. "Because he is a Turk," the translator tells me, "you'll see what happens when the KFOR Turks catch whoever did it; he will regret that he was born." Previously the Albanians had forced Turkish children to attend school in Albanian. In Prizren not a single Turkish word could be heard. Now everything is different, the Turkish army is here to successfully hunt down those who formerly tossed Turks and Bosniaks out of their restaurants, beat them up or mistreated them.

I interview Numan Balic, the president of SDA in Kosovo. He is an ideal interviewee requiring no prior preparation. I quote: "It is true that there have been kidnappings and killings of Bosniaks by the Albanians. Now the situation has improved but it still has not reached the desired level of mutual trust. The battle for our survival in Kosovo is the battle for schools in the Bosniak language. We are on the threshold of securing ideal conditions for the education of our children. We have ordered textbooks from Bosnia-Hercegovina."

ENDANGERED PLATANUS TREE:  A reporter for the local review "Selam", Mustafa Balje, says: "We need to fight for our rights. We Bosniaks are not a currency to be shortchanged. I am staying here and I want a future with everyone; I want to live here where I was born and to live a life worthy of a man." In Prizren there is a tree, a specimen of platanus orientalis [plane-tree, sycamore tree in the USA], which is six hundred years old. If it could speak it would be the best witness to the history of this city, about Dusan Silni [Serbian medieval emperor; his capital was in Prizren] and Sinan Pasha [ethnic Albanian bey during Ottoman rule; an enemy of the Serbs; he burned the remains of the greatest Serbian saint, St. Sava, and destroyed monastery built by emperor Dusan to build Sinan Pasha's mosque in Prizren]. "Under the protection of the state" reads the sign on the tree but now the sign is only in Albanian; all the other inscriptions have been erased. Those who erased them had no respect for the past. Therefore, in addition to the Turks, the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Roma [Gypsies], the platanus orientalis is also endangered.

The Germans didn't give me my accreditation the following day, either, telling me that "If somebody is going to kill you, they are going to kill you whether you are accredited or not." A luxurious red limousine cruises around Prizren with the license plate "ZJJARI 002". The limousine is driven by an Albanian who sets Serbian houses on fire. They say he also set two Jewish houses on fire. "Zjjari" in Albanian means fire. A Bosniak man says: "I wish that Slobo could come back if only for three days. These Shiptars [ethnic Albanians] have grown so oppressive. They do not allow us Bosniaks to utter a sound. They tell us that we must state that we are Shiptars or flee from Kosovo. I think they can't even stand themselves by now." The church in the center of the city is protected by Germans; there are almost no Serbs in Prizren, perhaps ten or twenty in all. Their names are mentioned with a lot of respect. "That is real courage," say the residents of Prizren.

The interview with Ferhat Dervis is a real pleasure. Dervis is the president of the Representative Club of the Turks from Kosovo. He says: "I cried when the Turkish soldiers came to Prizren. That was the greatest day of my life. Now we Turks from Kosovo have at least some degree of security in our future. We are a part of Kosovo and we will not at any price allow the Albanians to assimilate us." Ferhat Dervis is very close with writers Altai Surroi and Iskender Musbeg. A weekly publication in Turkish, "New Age", has began established. On the front page, in huge type: "Eighty seven years after the departure of Ottoman soldiers, the Turkish Army is again in Kosovo." The article on the visit of [Suleyman] Demirel [Turkish president] bore the headline "Welcome, father."

It is time to head back to Pazar. The same route. It is nauseating to again reply "ska sahati". An Albanian from Suva Reka heard what we were whispering in the bus. He pricked up his ears and heard us. He called the conductor, explained, pointed a finger at us... The conductor raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. Signs by the road indicating monasteries have not been erased; male reproductive organs have been drawn on them. In Pristina we wait for the bus from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00p.m. For three hours I reply "ska sahati, ska sahati..." The bus comes; I put my bag in the bin; only four passengers board. The driver is standing in front of the bus; he says quietly: "I'm Boro, stay next to the door, check the tickets, I'm just going to ask Feriz, the driver to Pec, if he would mind taking me to the toilet." "Hurry up," I say to Boro. And in the quietest voice possible, he says: "Aren't we lucky to have our Slobo." "He's not mine," I answer. "Mine neither," says Boro. The bus pulls out.

KFOR jeeps are too high for the tragic reality in Kosovo. The people in them observe the life around them in a corresponding manner: from above. Vucitrn, then Mitrovica. Passengers are smuggling cigarettes and cooking oil. The control point of KFOR; the control point of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Police. Green waters of the Ibar River, willows and aspens.