AS THE SNOWS MELT

It is as if civil war had broken out in Switzerland. And when spring comes to Kosovo, writes Raymond Whitaker, the violence is likely to worsen
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The Independent Culture
SELMAN MORINA'S pale blue eyes stared at us from infinitely far away. One arm was thrown up and his mouth was twisted in a grimace, as though he was trying to warn us of something. As the mortuary attendants unzipped the rest of his body-bag, they threw a white cloth across his loins to preserve his dignity, unconsciously echoing a medieval deposition from the Cross.

There were eight other body-bags in the mosque at Rogovo, three of them containing the remains of Selman's father and two of his brothers. Ten days earlier a Serbian policeman had been shot dead in this village of 2,000 ethnic Albanians in south-western Kosovo, and his colleagues had gone on the rampage against the "terrorists".

Three of the 25 Albanians killed had worn the uniform of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which has sprung up to wrest the province away from Serbian control, but there was evidence that others had been dragged from their beds and shot out of hand, and that rifles had been laid beside them to make them seem like guerrillas. Rustem Morina, Selman's 56-year-old father, made a particularly unlikely "terrorist": as he was wrapped in his white shroud and laid in his coffin, we saw that he had lost his right hand years before.

"They can't do anything about those who are fighting, so they just come into our village and take people while they are sleeping," said a villager as the emptied body-bags piled up in the yard of the mosque. "If they wanted to fight the guerrillas, they know where they are. But they just come here like cowards and kill innocent people."

By this time the nine coffins, with each man's face exposed, had been lined up along the front path, and their womenfolk were admitted. The only surviving male in the Morina family, two years old, looked bewildered as his mother, aunts and sisters moaned and cried aloud to the dead. "Open your eyes one more time and look at me!" "My brother, you gave your life to be free! You are my hero!" The discomfort of foreign on-lookers was heightened by the feeling that the deaths were senseless, not heroic, but everyone wanted the world to see proof that the problem of Kosovo had not been solved.

In October Nato threatened the Serbs with air strikes unless they halted the offensive which had devastated Kosovo over the previous seven months. A ceasefire was imposed, unarmed international "peace verifiers" were sent in and the level of violence fell; until the massacres in Rogovo and at Racak two weeks earlier, where 45 Albanian civilians died, it was possible to ignore the evidence that the crisis remained.

The renewed bloodshed led to the current peace negotiations at Rambouillet, but no international "solution" can repair relations between Kosovo's Albanian majority - 90 per cent of the 2 million population - and their Serbian masters. The past year, in which Serbia abandoned all restraint in its campaign to hold on to Kosovo, cost over 2,000 lives and ruined hundreds of thousands more, on both sides; it also destroyed all trust between the two communities.

What brought demands for intervention in Bosnia a few years ago was the sight of people who looked European, in surroundings reminiscent of rural France or Germany, being murdered and "ethnically cleansed" from their homes. In Kosovo it is as if civil war had broken out in Switzerland.

Near Malisevo, a ghost town occupied only by the Serbian interior ministry's special forces, the MUP, there are emerald pastures, snow-covered mountains and cows with bells hanging from their necks. Even the solid houses by the roadside are Alpine in style; they were built with the money earned in Germany and Switzerland by tens of thousands of Albanian emigres, and are designed to match the homes seen there. Yet every one is wrecked and deserted.

When KLA attacks goaded the Serbs into all-out reprisals last summer, the Albanian inhabitants of these house were killed or expelled. The road commands the lower ground on each side, and served as a convenient point from which to bombard the villages below. Windows were knocked out and the gaps filled with breeze blocks. Many of these strongholds have been abandoned since the October, but the "SERBIA" graffiti remains, making it clear that this is not Switzerland.

Last year the entire Drenica region of central Kosovo looked like this, and most of it still does. Here and there people have crept back to their homes, and smoke from the ubiquitous wood-burning stoves can be seen rising from apparent ruins. Piles of bricks and roof tiles in villages testify to the rebuilding going on, but the ceasefire and the descent of winter did not bring anything approaching normality. Many returning refugees have had to flee again, sometimes more than once. In Racak 45 of them did not get away in time.

We did not see the makeshift shelters in the mountains above Racak until we were almost upon them, so cleverly had they been hidden under trees and carefully-placed branches. "Just after the massacre there were nearly 1,000 people sheltering here," said Nesir Hysenaj, "but it got too cold. We couldn't use the stoves by day, because they would have given us away."

Hysenaj had just heard that his wife and children were safe in a relative's home, "but I daren't go to see them. If the Serbs caught me I'd be finished. Last October the police arrested me in Stimlje [the nearest town to Racak] and accused me of having weapons. They beat me for 13 hours. The doctors thought I wouldn't make it." He still moves stiffly, but he was more fortunate than his 60-year-old elder brother; arrested three months later, he did not survive the beatings.

To hear stories such as this you have to leave the towns, where few rural Albanians under 60 dare to go, and turn off the deserted main roads - deserted because they are patrolled by the Serbs. Off the asphalt, life suddenly appears.

After passing through a KLA checkpoint only yards from the road, we came upon a market on a hillside. Tyres, fake Adidas shoes, cheap alarm clocks and petrol in litre bottles: everything had been trucked in along muddy tracks. "The market is smaller now than it was last year - most of the people who were here have left again," said a stallholder. In the summer and autumn thousands were living in shelters along the river banks below, until colder weather and the hope of international protection persuaded them to risk going home.

Some, though, are still too afraid. Muhamet Gashi, 51, was living in one room with his 40-year-old wife, Merushe, and seven of their eight children. "We used to live in Lapusnik [a large village on Kosovo's main east-west highway] before they attacked us last summer. I have walked six hours back to the village, but only the walls of our house are standing. They even cut down the trees in our yard and threw dead animals in our well. I thought things would be different after the ceasefire, but when I went back the Serbs were still there, and I felt intimidated."

In Kishna Reka, a few miles away, Sherife Nuhaj, 45, had moved back into the basement of what was once a substantial house, built on her husband's 30 years of earnings in Germany. "We put everything we had into this home," she said as we looked at the remains of German kitchen units and bathroom fittings beneath the rubble.

"We were in the mountains for three months, but it began to rain and snow. When we came back we found everything stolen or smashed. The basement was flooded, but it was the only roof we had." She shares the room with 10 members of her family. Melting snow dripped through from above, loosening bricks, several of which had fallen to the floor.

"Our crops were burnt last year, and we have been unable to plant any more," said Mrs Nuhaj. "We're completely dependent on humanitarian supplies. Last night there was shooting, and the children were very afraid. We have all our clothes in bags, so that we can get out straight away."

The collapse of the former Yugoslavia began in Kosovo, and everyone expects it to end there as well. Under Tito, Albanians enjoyed considerable autonomy, but Kosovo was, and remains, part of Serbia. In 1989 Slobodan Milosevic used the alleged "persecution" of Serbs in Kosovo to seize power in Belgrade and strip the province of its self-rule. Most of the rest of Yugoslavia broke away when it saw what was happening, but that was no help to the Albanians, nearly 100,000 of whom were sacked or pushed out of official jobs as direct Serbian rule was imposed. The old Communist political correctness, which pretended that everyone shared a common Yugoslav identity, has fallen away: now the police have a free hand to punish anyone offending Serbian "patriotic feelings".

The response of the Albanian political leadership under Ibrahim Rugova, a Paris-educated intellectual, has been to construct an alternative state. In 1991 his Democratic League of Kosovo organised a referendum which overwhelmingly supported independence. Elections, with polling stations in private homes, have endorsed him as "president", a title he is commonly given by Albanians. Taxes are raised to educate Albanians and give them medical treatment, again in homes.

The polarisation in Kosovo, slightly smaller but more densely populated than Northern Ireland, was completed by last year's descent into "ethnic cleansing", which brought insecurity to Serbs as well as Albanians. Serbian peasants were attacked by their neighbours; others fled or took up arms. There are at most 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo, and the number is dwindling as those who can get out do so, leaving the province to the most fanatical and the most desperate.

Among the latter was the 40-year-old woman we met in a grimy tea bar near Kosovo Polye station. A Serbian refugee, she had been transplanted to Kosovo to keep up the numbers. "I came here from Knin after the Croats drove us out," she said, "but the difference is like heaven and earth. They put us in a barracks, with some military beds, chairs and a table. We have only a bar heater. I have three sons, but they cannot get work, and it's hard to adjust."

A syrupy nationalist song came from the loudspeakers as people trudged past in the snow and slush. There were virtually no customers. "The government? I don't trust anyone any more," said the woman. "It's awful what's happening here - I feel like I'm going through the same thing again. I want to go to America with my sons."

Kosovo Polye, an agglomeration of concrete tower blocks, was built in the Tito era as a satellite town to the provincial capital, Pristina, but has increasingly degenerated into a grim, broken-down Serbian ghetto. Half a mile away from the tea bar we met 27-year-old Dragan and his friends, who have spent all their lives in these surroundings. Their gathering-place was the Kobra pool hall, where they whiled away the cold, grey day with one beer after another.

"If she doesn't like it, why does she stay?" was Dragan's response to the complaints of the woman from Knin. But he admitted: "There's no future here, because of the political situation. We used to play football around Kosovo, but you can't go out of town any more. We just sit here all day. I've got an uncle in Australia, and I'm thinking of going there."

As the number of empties on the table multiplied - this was around noon - inhibitions began to melt. A 23-year-old who did not want to give his name joined in. What did he think of the situation? "It's great," he answered, laughing mirthlessly. "No, it's shit, and it's all their fault. The Albanians can go and fuck themselves. Kosovo is Serbian and should remain Serbian. We are all together on that."

Expletives aside, he was quoting the official Serbian line. Kosovo formed part of the medieval kingdom of Serbia, when Orthodox monasteries such as Devic and Decane were founded, but the Serbian defeat at the battle of Kosovo Polye in 1389 brought five centuries of Ottoman rule. Not until 1912 did the Serbs regain sovereignty over the territory.

This history is as alive in the minds of Serbs today as is the Battle of the Boyne among the Orangemen of Ulster. No intervening events, population movements or alternative accounts can be allowed to interfere with the vision of Kosovo as the birthplace and cradle of Serbian identity.

"I blame Belgrade," he went on. "They should give us the green light to burn these terrorists. What if Nato comes? Fuck them. They should bring rockets. I don't care - things couldn't get any worse. What happened in Iraq should happen here."

My interpreter was shaking after we got out of the Kobra. An Albanian who spoke perfect Serbian, she had managed to disguise her origins: if the deception had failed, the pool cues might have been used on us. "My best friend in school was Serbian," she said. "I used to go to her house, and she came to mine, but now I feel I was always the one making the effort. I learnt her language; she didn't try to learn mine. We lost touch after the schools were segregated."

On a Saturday night I went to the office of Veljko Odalovic, a member of Serbia's executive council in Kosovo. A big basketball game was on television, and he kept one eye on it while spelling out the uncompromising Serbian approach. "There is no question of independence for Kosovo," he said. "We can talk only on the basis of the integrity of Serbia. Secondly, we will not negotiate with terrorists.

"Apart from that Albanians can have all the rights they want, but they do not choose to exercise them. They took their children from our schools, and now they learn that Kosovo is a republic and Rugova is president. Their teachers tell them that Serbia is an occupying power."

Didn't events like Racak and Rogovo reinforce that impression? "The reaction has been out of all proportion," said Odalovic. "There is no proof, documentary or otherwise, that they were not terrorists. No women or children were killed: they were all terrorists." What about the recent shooting of five Albanians, including a woman and two children? I had seen the bullet-riddled tractor on which they were travelling, and had also heard the federal health minister dismissively call the incident a "traffic accident".

"I didn't hear that statement," he confessed, "but the matter is being investigated." So, supposedly, were the killings at Racak and Rogovo, but that hadn't prevented him making up his mind. The Serbs are acutely conscious of what the world thinks of them - "This is no more than other countries do when faced by terrorism," Odalovic kept insisting - but they make little effort to explain or justify their position.

To the barely-disguised resentment of the Serbs, their suppression of Kosovo's autonomy has brought unintended economic benefits to Albanians. Turfed out of public jobs, many have prospered in trade; despite 70 per cent unemployment in Kosovo, the community is kept afloat by remittances from the vast Albanian diaspora, which also pays most of the unofficial taxes. There is an Albanian middle class which is often richer and more confident than the Serbs, whose state employment looks less of a good bet as the economy sinks under international sanctions.

The main problem for Arben Kastrati, an actor and director in Pristina, is getting British visas for the two leads in his latest movie, a tragicomedy about young Albanians who go to London expecting riches, but end up washing dishes. "You'd think they would be keen on something that discourages illegal migration, but so far they haven't seen it that way," he says. Kastrati is hugely proud of having lured Vanessa Redgrave to Pristina last summer for a production of Twelfth Night - "set in Illyria, don't forget: today's Albania" - and has named his baby daughter Viola in honour of the event.

But as in apartheid South Africa, even the most educated and prosperous member of the wrong community is at the mercy of the humblest official. A few months ago police raided Kastrati's home "looking for weapons" and took away his computer, which was never returned.

For years Rugova's advice to Albanians was to ignore Serbian oppression and wait for the international community to bring Milosevic to heel. It didn't - Kosovo was ignored while the world focused on Bosnia, where it needed the Serbian leader's co-operation to reach a settlement. With enmities left to fester, the KLA grew from a clandestine armed group with a couple of hundred members two or three years ago to a larger force capable of inflicting stinging attacks on the Serbs. So savage was last year's retaliation that the world was finally forced to take note of what was happening.

Rugova has at last got the international community involved, and is happy to admit that without the KLA he would probably still be waiting. The problem, however, is that independence is not on offer, even though most Albanians feel that by their actions in the past year, if not before, the Serbs have forfeited any moral right to Kosovo.

The KLA went to Rambouillet against the advice of their political spokesman, Adem Demaci. Although his standing suffered as a result, his 27 years in Yugoslav jails still wins him respect among Albanians.

"I thought very carefully about this," he said in an interview, "and I concluded there was not enough on offer to Albanians. Also, I don't believe anything the Serbian regime promises." The alternative, he admitted, is not good: "I don't believe the regime is ready to give up its ambition to eliminate the KLA. We will have new difficulties, new victims, new bloodshed." Would it be all-out war, then? "Yes, that is the alternative. I don't see Europe holding the Serbs back."

If Demaci is correct, the end of winter will renew the conflict. The sense of impermanence one finds everywhere in Kosovo, of waiting for fresh horrors, will be fulfilled. And spring is not far away: before the dead of Rogovo could be laid to rest with the traditional blessing, "Ilehte juqofte dheu i Kosoves" (May the earth of Kosovo rest lightly upon you), melted snow had to be scooped out of their sodden graves.

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