The Serbs are victims too

If the KLA is not ready to stop the killings, then the West should pull the rug from under its feet

THERE IS a temptation to turn a blind eye to the nightmare now being suffered by Serbs in Kosovo. The nightmare endured by Albanians in recent months - when rape, arson, expulsion and murder were rarely off the menu - is constantly weighed in the balance against the lesser suffering of the Serbs. The slaughter of 14 Serb farmers as they brought in the harvest in the Kosovo village of Gracko is acknowledged to be a horrific act; but it is seen as a mere bloody drop in the ocean when set against the Albanian mass graves.

Some seem unwilling even to admit that the latest massacre was an Albanian crime. It has been suggested that Belgrade could have organised the killings as a cynical ploy to create international sympathy for the plight of the Serbs. Interestingly, this is a mirror image of the canard that was used about Serb attacks on Sarajevo, when Britain in particular was keen to find an excuse to stand aside. Officials constantly trotted out the thesis that the Muslims were thought to be "bombing themselves".

The thesis was as crazy then as it is now. As the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, wearily pointed out, when I asked him about accusations that the Muslims had staged a fake mortar attack to get the world on their side: "Why should we prove anything by shelling ourselves? A hundred times it has been proved that they've shelled civilians. Why should we do it for the 101st time?"

Serbs in Kosovo today could give the same retort. The very suggestion that Serbs could be to blame for Gracko killings smacks of a refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of Albanian wrongdoing. Crimes against Serbs are committed daily - with the implicit blessing of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA denies responsibility - but it does nothing to punish those who commit crimes on its behalf, which is what counts. The KLA must be clearly told that if the bloodshed and harassment continue, then Kosovo will get not a penny from the international community. The Albanians cannot wash their hands of these crimes, any more than Serbs could wash their hands of the allegedly uncontrolled Serb militias in Bosnia. That basic lesson has not yet been learnt. The UN Security Council, which on Monday night condemned the Gracko killings, showed its woolliness by dropping a demand for the KLA and other Albanian groups to disarm.

Admittedly, most Serbs constantly fail to admit the gravity of the crimes that their fellow Serbs have committed. That is a major problem, not just for Kosovo but for all of Serbia. But there is no reason to take a leaf out of Serbia's mentally disturbed book.

If the violence against Albanians is supposed to be retribution, then it is seriously misplaced. Take the case of Ljubomir Pumpalovic, a gentle and battered 72-year-old widower, blind in one eye, whom I met in the peaceful surroundings of the Serb monastery at Decani, in western Kosovo. (Peaceful only because of international protection; Italian forces guard the approach road and the monastery itself.)

More than 150,000 Serbs, according to the UN refugee agency, have fled Kosovo. They now huddle - mostly homeless and ignored by their own government - in Serbia proper. Perhaps 40,000-50,000 have stayed behind. They hope, like Ljubomir, that their innocence will protect them. Fat chance.

Ljubomir began by telling me the story of what had happened to his Albanian neighbours in the little town of Istok in northern Kosovo. For him, the chronology of his own suffering made sense only in the context of what had come before. He described the same stories that I had already heard from the Albanians themselves. "The first actions were Serb attacks on them. Albanians were driven out, and soldiers were burning the houses. They were saying: `you've got 24 hours to leave'."

By chance, I had already met several families from the same village after they had fled through the mountains into neighbouring Montenegro earlier this year. Ljubomir was unusual, in that he clearly understood the evil of what had happened, even when he told the story deadpan. Had he been sorry to see the Albanians go? "Of course," he replied, with a look that made it clear that he regarded my question as foolish. "We had been friends for years. The children had played together. I heard the children crying and packing their things. I was crying."

Then, with this crucial prologue out of the way, he told his own story. A group of four armed Albanians, including one in KLA uniform, arrived at his house and told everybody to get out within 24 hours. His family left, on tractor and cart; he stayed behind. "I was hiding in a shelter, sleeping in the woods. I watched when they started burning the houses." I imagined that maybe he had foraged for food, or taken his own food with him into the woods. But no. "My Albanian neighbours brought me priganica [a traditional local form of meat pasty], and water. They brought me a blanket." The neighbours had to visit him secretly, lest the KLA thugs should discover them. Eventually, the neighbours begged him to leave. "They said: `If they catch us bringing you food, they'll torture us worse than you. So please go.'"

Frail in body but tough in spirit, Ljubomir returned from a nearby monastery to visit his home, which the Albanian outsiders had in the meantime looted. A group of Albanians (including, again, one in KLA uniform) returned and beat him up so badly - including a knife thrust into his mouth - that he could no longer eat or move. His feet are still hideously swollen where they jabbed a crowbar repeatedly into his feet. His Albanian neighbours were now so frightened by the KLA that they no longer dared to enter Ljubomir's house to help him; instead, the children were sent in to bring him water. Finally, Kfor soldiers, alerted by the Albanian neighbours, brought Ljubomir to the sanctuary of Decani. There he waits, for he knows not what.

The crimes of the supporters of the KLA are not on the same scale as what has been done to the Albanians. But the idea of a beating for a beating, a killing for a killing, contains within itself the seeds of future violence. If you can justify the attacks on Serbs in Kosovo because of what has happened to the Albanians, then you may as well go back as far as the massacre of Serbs by Fascist forces during the Second World War.

The KLA cannot simply disown events like those at Istok - just as its denials of responsibility for the massacre at Gracko are meaningless. In many ways, the KLA is now the most important authority in the land - just as powerful, in its way, as the UN or Nato. If the KLA is not ready to stop the killings, then the West should pull the rug right out from under its feet.

Ljubomir's neighbours were ready to help him rebuild his life. The people who took pleasure in running him and his family out of his home did so merely for the love of violence. Few Serbs are as ready as he is to acknowledge that crimes were committed against Albanians. "Play-acting" is a ludicrously common phrase among Serbs today, used to describe the stories of Albanian suffering. But it is not just a case of taking the moral high ground if we condemn Albanian violence against Serbs. The idea that, in certain circumstances, harassment and murder are "understandable" (ie half-permissible) is precisely what has got us into this mess in the first place.

If the cycle is allowed to continue, the instability in the Balkans will only continue to worsen. Through its financial clout, the West currently has enormous leverage over the Kosovo Albanians. It should use it.

The failure to act against Albanian intimidation and murder would be an insult to innocent Serbs such as Ljubomir. It would also be an obvious carte blanche for the committing of further acts of murder, as at Gracko. Enough must be shown to be enough.

Repeatedly in the Balkans in recent years, the West has paid attention only to problems that have already exploded, rather than the problems that are brewing for the future. On behalf of Serbs and Albanians alike, that pattern finally needs to be broken.

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