Return to Kosovo

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The Independent Culture
At half-past six on a fresh summer morning, the voices of invisible nuns ring out from the Serbian monastery of Gracanica. This was the first place I visited in Kosovo, more than 20 years ago. Here, behind the high monastery walls, you can, for a moment, imagine that nothing has changed. Still the black-bearded priests, in their white, red and gold robes, celebrate a never-changing God in the ancient, undulating chants. I recognise one nun, with a round, nut-brown face, and she gives me the same serene smile.

But the visitors' book tells a different story. On 11 June, the day before Nato troops marched in, a defiant inscription in Serbian declares "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia and the monasteries are its soul". But now Kosovo is part of Serbia only in name. Day by day it becomes more Albanian; and more international. "May peace return to Kosovo", reads an entry in English, dated 20 June, "and the people live together in harmony and prosperity" - signed Richard Cieglinski, Kfor, the acronym for the international military force whose tanks, armoured cars and soldiers you see churning up every dusty, potholed road across the devastated land.

I came to Kosovo for the second time in the early 1980s. Albanian student protests had just been brutally suppressed, and the atmosphere was horrible. I wrote an article entitled "Belfast in Yugoslavia". Today, the troops who were then on the streets of Belfast have actually come to Kosovo. Everywhere, I hear the accents of London, Leeds and Glasgow. Twenty years on, the once remote, exotic world of the other Europe and the familiar world of Britain have suddenly and surreally met.

There's a British Kfor post in the former Serbian police station close to the Gracanica monastery. "It's OK, they're English," shouts the guard to his mate, as I approach with a colleague from The Independent. Stuart Watson, a young 2nd-lieutenant from 52 Battery, Royal Artillery, tells us how last night the senior churchmen from the monastery came to say the people in this mainly Serb village were frightened by the sound of gunfire from the nearby capital, Pristina. Lieutenant Watson tried to reassure them. Since there are no ordinary police, the locals come to them to complain: "He stole my pig." "No, he nicked my radio." There's still no civil administration in sight here, so British soldiers and Serbian priests try to run the place between them.

Everyone says the experience of Northern Ireland equips the British best of all the foreign troops for the job in Kosovo. A corporal of the Parachute Regiment who stands guard at the door to the Grand Hotel in Pristina tells me it's like serving in Belfast, only better. There, in their own country, the Paras were spat at

in the streets. Here, the Serbs anxiously look to them for protection, and the Kosovar Albanians greet them like heroes. Large graffiti on the facade of a nearby theatre offer thanks to one "Tony Bler" and proclaim, "God Save the Quin".

My next trip was in the spring of 1997. For eight long years the Kosovars had organised entirely peaceful resistance against the Milosevic regime which, in 1989, stripped the province of its autonomy. But patience was running out. There were reports of a shadowy organisation called the Kosovo Liberation Army, killing Serb police in the hills of the central region of Drenica.

Yet friends in Pristina warned me: "There are 700 purely Albanian villages and the Serbs could destroy them all." When I was last here, in November, the KLA rising had met with brutal, utterly disproportionate repression; already there were miles of ruins, hundreds of thousands of refugees, much blood in the snow.

Now I return to visit the places and the people I knew. In the meantime, they have been to hell and back. Or at least, to Macedonia or Albania and back. You see the returnees on every road, trailers piled high with mattresses and children, the red and black Albanian flag flying from the tractor in front.

Yet, beyond the tragedy, I find a phlegmatic determination to rebuild - and a real sense of liberation. Liberation not just from a few months of horror, but from 10 years of oppression by the Milosevic regime. And, for those who see the longer perspective, from more than 80 years of living under Serbian rule. The Kosovar Albanians have suffered terribly, but most of them also feel they have finally won.

Pristina I find relatively undamaged. Every day, there are more people on the streets, and another cafe reopens. A surprising number of people stayed here throughout the bombing, though under extreme duress. Veton Surroi, the leading independent newspaper editor, was in hiding the whole time, listening to radio news and watching satellite television. "BBC World was the best," he says. I meet him on his way back from Holland, where he's just bought a new printing press for his paper. Professor Abdyl Ramaj, a small, charming, cultured man, survived in his own home, constantly harassed by Serb police and officials, who tried to persuade him to collaborate. He is exhausted, even traumatised, the words coming only slowly in half- forgotten French. But as I leave he stands on the verge, eyes sparkling again, and gives the V for victory sign.

To see the real destruction, you have to go into the countryside. So I steer my Russian-built Jeep out past the endless columns of Kfor military vehicles, along dirt tracks and across makeshift bridges which replace the ones we bombed.

The town of Malisevo, in the heart of Drenica, was once described by Richard Holbrooke as "the most dangerous place in Europe". When I went there last autumn, it was a ghost town, utterly destroyed, with Serb police controlling the road into town. Graffiti on the walls said, "Serbia to Tokyo", and, "Burning houses, beautiful houses". Now I find Albanians cheerfully cleaning the police station. There's a market: bottled water, vegetables, fruit and - the real essential of Balkan life - cigarettes.

I visit a family I had found cowering in a cellar room of their ruined farmstead, terrified of the police. One brother had been a schoolteacher, the other a bus conductor. The men survived the war in the woods, creeping down for food at night. Their wives and children fled to Albania. When it was over, the schoolteacher walked for seven days and nights, crossing illegally into Macedonia, then Albania, to fetch his family. How did it feel when they met? His hands go up. "It was the happiest moment of my life." They have just a few blankets. No food, no flour, no oil, no work. Only aid, and a little money from relatives abroad. But they say they feel free "so long as Nato is here".

And so it goes on, tale after tale. I track down the local KLA commander, Ramush Haradinaj, a man with a ferocious reputation. Still in uniform, he talks English with what I think remnants from the Sheffield accent of an earlier English girlfriend, modified by his present Finnish wife. He says "foighting" for fighting. "The nation is going to respect the time of this foightings."

Last autumn I saw the fresh blood of two Serb policemen shot by Ramush's men in the nearby village of Prilep, in a flagrant violation of the ceasefire. Now I charge him with responsibility for it. He replies: "I hope it was more than only two." He was so happy to see dead police. After all, they had killed two of his own brothers. "Me," he says, "I couldn't be no Mother Teresa."

Yet even Commander Ramush insists he is committed to demilitarising the KLA, although he would still like his best soldiers to form the nucleus of a Kosovo professional army. He is, in fact, much brighter and less thuggish than I expect, and he even claims they can live together with innocent Serbs. "The Albanian people can forgive... in the time of Tito it was no trouble."

I drive on to Prilep. It is a collection of ruins, yet still the people are coming back. Last autumn I visited a family in a still-intact house near the mosque. Now the mother, Gale Latifaj, stands before a pile of rubble that was once that house, and weeps. Her husband is dead. Her eldest son, a KLA soldier, was killed fighting for Commander Ramush. Her youngest son has gone to try to find a tent from one of the aid organisations.

She has put water in a rusting can to heat in the midday sun, so she can wash, and she carries bricks from the rubble, slowly, one by one, to build a shelter for the night. She is 58, and looks about 70.

Back in Pristina, I talk to the political leader of the KLA, Hashim Thaci, formerly known as Commander "Snake". In his slightly wooden Swiss-German he says: "Freedom always has a price, but we have won." Of course, it's people like Mrs Latifaj who pay the price, not people like him - this budding young politician in jacket and tie, programmed for sound-bites.

Yet the wise among the Kosovar Albanians recognise that the ultimate losers are the Kosovar Serbs. Most have fled. Those who remain feel imperilled or live in ghettoes. A Dutch tank stands guard at the entrance to the purely Serb village of Velika Hoca, in the KLA heartland.

Local Serbs pathetically ask me if I could get them some tomatoes and water from the local town. They don't dare to go shopping there. A large, blowsy woman called Snezana says: "We were told it would be UN control but now look at your badge," and she seizes my Kfor identity badge. "It says Nato - I don't like people like you who come and look at us for 15 minutes, as if we were animals in a zoo, and then go away."

The town of Kosovska Mitrovica is effectively divided at the River Ibar, with Serbs dominating the northern part of the city, Albanians the south, and French troops on the bridge over the Ibar. I watch Serbian men, wearing sunglasses and wooden crosses on their necks, line up to chant abuse at a few Albanian kids who venture halfway across the bridge. "We're waiting for the Russians to come here," one Serb says. How does he know they are coming? "I heard it on the Voice of America."

However hard Kfor tries to persuade the Serbs and Albanians to live together, the Serbs are already reduced to tiny pockets in an essentially Albanian place. Suddenly, thanks to Nato, the tables are turned. The only authority the Serbs have left is the Church. And Church leaders are now saying out loud who is really to blame.

I seek out the exquisite monastery of Decani, a medieval wonder nestling in the wooded foothills of the Accursed Mountains, on the border to Albania. When I have negotiated my way past the Italian armoured car blocking the entrance, I am received by the black-robed and black-bearded abbot, Father Theodosius. Talking through young Brother Leonard, who speaks fluent English with a strong taste of the King James Bible, he says that during the war they "felt great injustice and great evil". Everything was wrong: while Nato bombed Serb civilians, Serbs wrought vengeance on Albanian civilians. Many ordinary Serb soldiers came to unburden their heavy consciences to the monks.

So has Milosevic lost Kosovo for Serbia? "He has not only lost Kosovo but completely destroyed his own people, physically and spiritually." This monastery will survive international rule, or Albanian rule, as it survived 500 years of Ottoman rule.

But the time of Slobodan Milosevic will be remembered as the worst in the history of the Serbian nation. Brother Leonard translates: "It is not meet, in this sanctuary, even to mention that name."

The author's `History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s' was recently published by Penguin