Trix: Tale of Three Villages: Kosova, 2007
With the status of Kosova uncertain after a Russian veto of a UN Security Council plan for its independence, its leaders are calling for elections this fall anyway. This volatile region in the Balkans is extremely important. We are lucky to have a guest editorial today on it. – Juan
Anthropologist Frances Trix writes:
|As we approached Krushe e Vogel, a village in southwestern Kosova, we met a tractor pulling a cart with workers going to the fields. A common enough scene in rural Kosova except that the driver of the tractor and all the workers were women. We entered a typical Albanian compound with high wooden gate and walls. Inside was a garden, chickens pecking around, a rusty tractor, the house, and again, only women.
The Kosovar Albanian woman I was with, Marte Prenkpalaj, had a special relationship with these village women. On March 26, 1999, she had looked out her family’s window across the Drini River to see women and children running toward the icy river on the other side. “Don’t go out,” her mother cautioned her, “there are paramilitaries.” But Marte, an elementary school principal knew something was wrong. She took the family tractor with its cart and drove down and across the wide riverbed with its shallow river. Four times she made this trip to pick up all the women and children from Krushe e Vogel and bring them to her village on the other side of the Drini.
That day the local Serbs, for there were about thirty Serb families living in the village and they were armed, had forced the Albanian men and older boys at gunpoint into a stable. The NATO bombing had begun two nights before, and conditions on the ground were precarious. The Serbs had ordered the women and children to go drown themselves in the river and chased them in that direction.
Three days later all the Albanian people of the region, including the women and children of Krushe e Vogel, went on the trek out of Kosova to Albania to wait out the war. Three months later they returned to find that all their menfolk had been killed that day in March, their bodies burned in the stable, and the remains dumped in the river. But the story does not end there.
Several years later, in line with its central directive to “build a multi-ethnic society,” KFOR (Kosovo International Security Force) troops from the Ukraine escorted a group of local Serbs for a “go and see” trip back to Krushe e Vogel. They could see their former homes and consider whether they wanted to become “returnees.”
But the Albanian women of Krushe e Vogel, when they understood what was going on, sat down in the road of their village to block their entrance. The KFOR commander ordered them to get up and let them pass. They refused. Tear gas was used on the women and sticks. Someone made a mobile phone call to Iqballe Rogova of Motrat Qiriazi, a women’s group that had worked with the women. Iqballe sped to the scene and was able to head off the convoy. Two weeks later an apology was received and the Ukrainian KFOR commander sent back to the Ukraine.
This brings us to our second “village” in Kosova, well delineated on a hillside of Prishtina, and known colloquially as Dragodan. I lived here during the early years of Milosevic and my son attended the local school, but Dragodan today is much built up, much changed since then. What were empty fields are now filled with multi-story homes with white UN Toyota jeeps and other more impressive vehicles parked nose to nose along the winding road.
For today Dragodan is a mini-green zone, peopled by the internationals who have actually governed Kosova in all matters of consequence since 1999. They work for the UN, UNHCR, EU, and OSCE–collectively known as UNMIK–the UN Mission in Kosovo. They write reports, publish colored brochures, and garner salaries that allow for fine Greek vacations and regular weekend trips to London. Many served earlier in Bosnia before they came to Kosova.
One of the main official concerns of this “village” is measuring the extent to which Kosova is meeting “standards.” There are eight major “standards,” set up by one of the better SRSGs, that is, Special Representative to the Secretary General, Michael Steiner, in 2001. Unfortunately Steiner did not involve Kosovar leaders early in the process of delineating these “standards.” In addition, they were set up three years after the war so none of the impressive humanitarian work or the rebuilding done by the Albanians in the early years counted. Instead, only the harder issues, like that of ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs, remained, and the focus came here. Indeed, one main way to measure progress has been in numbers of Serb returnees.
This is deeply frustrating for Albanians, who see the 5% Serb minority as thereby favored by the internationals. Many local Serbs were part of the oppressive Serb regime of the 1990’s whose police and local paramilitaries killed 10,000 Kosovar Albanians between 1998 and 1999 and expelled over 800,000 Albanians from Kosova in 1999. A Norwegian church group, in concert with UNHCR, spent eight months after the end of the war in 1999, extracting corpses from wells in Kosovar Albanian villages (Martinsen, Josef. Puset e Vdekjes ne Kosove, “Wells of Death in Kosova,” Grafoprint: Prishtina, 2006). But this was done too quickly to figure in the “standards,” let alone the knowledge of those implementing them.
Steiner also came up with the slogan–“Standards before Status”–that is, the eight major “standards” must be met before talks on political status could begin. “Status” for Albanians has always meant independence from Serbia. This slogan can be seen as a way of motivating people; it was also a delaying tactic at a time when the UN Security Council was in no mood to consider Kosova, and the more common delaying and distracting tactics of municipal and general elections had already been used more than once. In classic bureaucratic mode, the eight “standards” morphed into hundreds of “activities” whose success was color-coded in thick booklets of charts for all municipalities.
In my many interviews with people from this “village,” I was struck with their singular lack of knowledge of recent history of the region. They tended to know of or to own Noel Malcolm’s Short History of Kosovo, but it was clear they hadn’t read it. If they were readers, they had read Robert Kaplan’s distorted Balkan Ghosts, a journalistic account that plays off Rebecca West’s beautifully written but distinctly pro-Serb account of her 1937 trip through former Yugoslavia. They were not familiar with recent books on Kosova and former Yugoslavia. They had little understanding of the 1998-1999 war, let alone the preceding decade of the 1990’s during which time Albanian Kosovars had all been fired from their jobs and expelled from high schools, institutions of higher learning, and medical facilities. The earlier period of renewed growth of Serbian nationalism under Milosevic in the 1980’s was also foreign terrain, although Milosevic had played off the fears of Serbs in Kosova and staged his major media event in 1989 on the field of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, a short taxi ride south of Prishtina.
None of the many official internationals I met had bothered to study Albanian, an Indo-European language spoken by 95% of the people of Kosova. I asked an international high up in media relations who had been in Kosova for eight years whether he had studied Albanian. “I started,” he said, “but my employer wouldn’t pay for it and it was too expensive.” There is 44% official unemployment in Kosova with massive under-employment of educated people, so this is not credible. Another long-term international remarked that if you were going to learn a foreign language, Serbian made more sense since you could count it as three languages on your resume (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian). These are the people running Kosova.
The third village is a Serbian one, Babin Most, that I have never seen mentioned in the news. It is off the road from Mitrovice heading south. It is a farming village and the gardens and fields are well tended. The farming equipment however looks aged; the official who drove me there pointed this out, explaining that Serbs tended to invest in central Serbia rather than in Kosova. Nor was there a teahouse or coffee shop in the village, but there was a video game shed with young people. What was most remarkable however was that none of the homes or barns had been damaged after the war. Rather this village had kept away from Serb military and police, and had kept good relations with its Albanian neighbors who had also protected it. No international cadre would have been capable of promoting or implementing this.
Rather, Serb enclaves that international cadres, including the international press, tend to find are places like Lipjan. A recent New York Times article (Craig Smith, June 25, 2007) quoted a Serb from Lipjan, south of Prishtina, who, while sitting under the family grape arbor, acknowledged he had served in the Serb army but said he never took part in the fighting or any war crimes.
This reporter must have been escorted around Kosova by internationals like those I too met, internationals who did not know the meaning of Lipjan for Albanians, or he would not have included it in the article. Lipjan prison, just west of town, was the major prison in eastern Kosova used by the Serbs for Albanians. There they were brought, tortured, and sometimes sent on to prisons in central Serbia. During May 1999, there were 34 Albanian prisoners in each 4 by 5 meter cell, totaling well over 3,000 people. Conditions were deplorable. But memory of this, only eight years old, never reached our green zone “villagers.” It is like interviewing someone from Dachau about difficulties of being an East Prussian refugee after World War II, and not knowing what Dachau was.
Also in Lipjan was a paper mill. Kosovar Albanians remember that over 1,000 Albanian books from the National Library in Prishtina were taken there by Serb officials in the mid-1990’s and turned into pulp. But this too appears unknown to the international escorts of our New York Times reporter. Like the Ukrainian KFOR escort to Krushe e Vogel, they did not know where they were taking people or what transpired there, if they cared.
Frances Trix is a professor of linguistics and anthropology at Indiana University. She was an IREX fellow at the University of Prishtina 1987-1988, speaks Albanian, and recently returned from research work in Kosova.