Daily Archives: 18 February 2008

Yugoslavia, 1998: A Dismembered Corpse

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 318-320, 332:

ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A COUNTRY CALLED YUGOSLAVIA. It was a medium-sized country in the southeast of Europe, and more than twenty-three million people lived there. It was not democratic, but it had a fair name in the world. Its king was called Tito. Being both largely rural and socialist, this country was not rich. But it was getting a little richer. Most of its children grew up thinking they were Yugoslavs. They had other identities, too, and strong ones. Slovenes already talked of the “narrower homeland,” meaning Slovenia, and the “wider homeland,” meaning Yugoslavia. Its Albanians were always Albanians. Still, it was a country.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, this European country has been torn apart. At least 150,000 and perhaps as many as 250,000 men, women, and children have died in the process. And how they have died: with their eyes gouged out or their throats cut with rusty knives, women after deliberate ethnic rape, men with their own severed genitalia stuffed into their mouths. More than two million former Yugoslavs have been driven out of their homes by other former Yugoslavs, and many deprived of everything but what they could carry in precipitous flight.

In this former country, the grotesque spectacle of a whole village burned, looted, and trashed has become an entirely normal sight. “Yeah, the usual story,” says the journalist, and drives on. A few have grown rich: mainly war profiteers, gangsters, and politicians—the three being sometimes hard to distinguish. The rest, save in Slovenia, have been impoverished, degraded, and corrupted too. Real wages in Serbia are estimated to be at the level of 1959—in the rare event of you actually being paid a wage. In Kosovo, the killing, burning, plundering, and expelling went on throughout the summer of 1998, even as West Europeans took their holidays just a few miles away. It went on though the leaders of the West had all repeatedly declared it would never, ever be allowed to happen again. Not after Bosnia.

If you look at a current political map of Europe, you may conclude that the former country is now five states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (known to diplomats as the FRY, pronounced as in “French fries”). But the reality on the ground is at least nine parts. Bosnia is still divided between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a Croat-Bosniak Federation, which itself is effectively divided between Croat-controlled and Bosniak- (or “Muslim”- ) controlled areas. The FRY is divided between what may loosely be called “Serbia proper,” Kosovo, and the increasingly independent-minded republic of Montenegro. But even “Serbia proper” should be disaggregated to notice the northern province of the Vojvodina, with its large Hungarian minority, and—Oh, delight to the diplomatic historian!—the still partly muslim-settled Sandjak of Novi Pazar. Perhaps one should also distinguish the Albanian-settled areas from the rest of Macedonia. That makes twelve ethnically defined parts to be going on with.

It’s not just we in the West who are largely indifferent. Most inhabitants of most of these dismembered parts themselves live in growing indifference or active antipathy to each other. In Ljubljana, a cultured Slovene woman tells me sadly that her children cannot enjoy the wonderful work of Serbian writers because they no longer read the Cyrillic alphabet. Why, she exclaims, they don’t even understand Croatian! In Sarajevo, a local veteran of the siege says, “You know, if I’m honest, we watched the television pictures from Kosovo this summer much as I suppose Westerners watched the pictures from Sarajevo.” But the feeling is reciprocated. In Priština, the capital of Kosovo, a leading representative of the mainly muslim Albanians tells me, “We don’t feel any fellowship with muslims in Bosnia, because they are Slavs.” In fact, the two groups have diametrically opposed goals: Bosnian “muslims” want to keep together a multiethnic state, Kosovar Albanian “muslims” want ethnic separation.

Across this landscape of extraordinary ethno-linguistic-religious-historical-political complexity crawl the white-and-orange vehicles of an international presence that, in its different, political-bureaucratic way, is just as complicated. SFOR, OHR, UNHCR, MSF, CARE, OSCE, USKDOM, EUKDOM, RUSKDOM: international alphabet soup poured over Balkan goulash. Americans may be the new Habsburg governors here, but French deputies tussle with British ones for priority at court, while earnest Scandinavians get on with laying the phone lines. At Sarajevo Airport, I sit next to a man whose shoulder badge proclaims “Icelandic Police.” Perhaps that Icelandic policeman will now be sent to Kosovo, to keep peace among the dervishes of Orahovac.

Faced with such complexity, it’s no wonder newspaper and television reports have largely stuck to a few simple, well-tried stories: bang-bang-bang, mutilated corpse, old woman weeps into dirty handkerchief, ruined mosque/church/town, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke meets Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, NATO bombers at Italian airbase, preparing not to bomb. Yawn. In truth, it needs a whole book to do justice to each single part….

What have we learned from this terrible decade in former Yugoslavia? And what is to be done? We have learned that human nature has not changed. That Europe at the end of the twentieth century is quite as capable of barbarism as it was in the Holocaust of mid-century. That, during the last decades of the cold war, many in Europe succumbed to fairy-tale illusions about the obsolescence of the nation-state and war being banished forever from our continent. That Western Europe has gone on living quite happily while war returned almost every summer to the Balkans. And we have learned that, even after the end of the cold war, we can’t manage the affairs of our own continent without calling in the United States. Wherever you go in former Yugoslavia, people say, “the international community—I mean, the Americans …”

UPDATE: In today’s Washington Post, Anne Applebaum reminds us that the destruction of autonomy in Kosovo is where the dismemberment of Yugoslavia got underway.

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Kosovo, 1998: Origins of the KLA

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 320-324:

The fresh red blood on the fresh white snow looks unreal, like a new avant-garde exhibit at the Tate Gallery in London. But it is entirely real. This is the blood of two dead Serb policemen, shot at dawn, almost certainly by the soldiers of a tough local commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), violating the October cease-fire….

Our knowledge of the KLA is still fragmentary, partly because this guerrilla army is itself quite fragmentary. It has, as one Western military observer politely puts it, a “rather horizontal” command structure. Each region is different, and regional commanders behave like local bandit chiefs. Nonetheless, we can establish a few significant things about its history, leaders, and support.

First and foremost, Its emergence is the result of Kosovar Albanians despairing of the nonviolent path that they adopted after the province was robbed of its autonomy by Milošević in 1989 and Yugoslavia began to fall apart in 1990-1991. Under their unofficially elected “President of the Republic of Kosova,” Ibrahim Rugova, they organized an extraordinary alternative state, with its own taxes, parliamentary committees, private health service, and, most impressive, unofficial education system, from primary school to university. To the frustration of Western policy makers, Rugova was unbending in his commitment to the goal of independence. To their relief, he was equally unbending in his attachment to nonviolent means. How did he propose to square the circle? By the “internationalization” of the Kosovo problem.

Even in the early 1990s, there were those who thought change would come only with the help of more traditional methods. Many Albanians from this region go to Western Europe for training and to earn money to send home. So did they. Ramush Haradinaj, the local commander almost certainly responsible for that blood in the snow, went off to get his military training in the French Foreign Legion. In Priština, people recall first hearing of a KLA in 1993. But then it was something like one of the terrorist splinter groups from the Western European student movement of 1968. One of the KLA’s more important current political leaders, Hashim Thaci, code name “Snake,” was a student activist in Priština who then went to study in Albania and to raise funds in the West. But most of the political activists who came from three generations of formative student political protest—in 1968, 1981, and 1990-1991—were still for nonviolence.

What changed the balance? The startling answer I am given is: “Dayton.” I’m told this by the veteran political prisoner Adem Demaci, who is now the KLA’s political representative. He dates the true emergence of the KLA to spring 1996, just a few months after the November 1995 Dayton agreement on Bosnia. I’m also told this by Veton Surroi, a favorite source for visitors from the West, whose influential daily newspaper nonetheless supported (some even say inflamed) the armed struggle. And by several others.

They say they drew two lessons from Dayton. After more than five years of their Gandhiesque struggle for independence, the United States made a deal with Milošević over Bosnia without securing even a restoration of mere autonomy for Kosovo. So, lesson one: Nonviolence wasn’t working. Meanwhile, in Bosnia itself, the Dayton agreement went a long way toward recognizing ethnic realities created by force. Lesson two: Force pays.

There’s an element of retrospective rationalization in this account. This is not what these same people were telling me in Priština in March 1997. But there is also an uncomfortable element of truth. So long as Rugova kept the lid on his own people, and so long as we felt we had to deal with Milošević over Bosnia, we weren’t going to push him on Kosovo.

The armed rising then grew from two further developments: the looting of arsenals during the violent implosion of Albania in spring 1997, which gave the KLA access to Kalashnikovs galore, and the brutality of Serbian “reprisals” against whole extended families and villages, starting in February 1998. As always, an oppressive army and police were the best recruiting sergeants for the guerrillas.

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