Kosovo exiles stoke fires of resistance

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The Independent Online
FROM A corner table at the Cafe Pristina in Geneva, Bardhyl Mahmuti, one of the Kosovo Liberation Army's top officials, picked up his mobile phone and placed a call to the battlefield. On the other end was Commander "C", a graduate in law and political science, who left the quiet and prosperous life of an emigre in Switzerland to fight in Serbia's southern province.

Belgrade announced last week that the KLA has been defeated. But Mr Mahmuti did not seem to agree. "Since the Serbs are now everywhere, they can be hit from all sides," he said. "Our strategy is to inflict the maximum damage on the enemy with a combination of frontal assaults and hit and run tactics."

A ripple went through the cafe. It was 6.30pm and time for satellite news from Albania - the reason why the 100 or so Kosovar Albanians had gathered here. The report carried the latest allegations of a massacre of Albanian civilians and showed pitiful pictures of refugees huddled together against the rain.

"We knew there would be consequences when we started this," Mr Mahmuti said, "but the alternative was to live in the endless hell of Serb rule. We chose this suffering to save ourselves from the alternative."

Western diplomats are inclined to write the KLA off as an effective military force. But Bardhyl Mahmuti has been working for the "liberation struggle" for a long time and is not about to give up now. He was jailed for seven years by the Yugoslav authorities in 1981 for nationalist agitation. After that, he joined the LPK, the popular movement of Kosovo which became the nucleus of the KLA.

Lenin's What is to be Done? was their guide on tactics. These involved the creation of a clandestine cell structure of secretly recruited loyalists, which sustained the struggle until open warfare broke out in Kosovo in March. Overnight, the KLA went from a few hundred activists to tens of thousands of eager recruits.

Most of the KLA's fund-raising and its political activities are based in Switzerland. It was here Mr Mahmuti first made contact with the Americans, and held a secret meeting at the US embassy with Washington's Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard. Hopes for any political settlement are now fading and Mr Mahmuti wants Nato to give the KLA the green light to attack the Serbs and take advantage of any air strikes "just like happened with the Kurds and Saddam".

At the cafe I met the family of Bekim, a 27-year-old KLA volunteer who left Switzerland after seven years to return to Kosovo. The family's flat is adorned with pictures of national heroes. Bekim's wife is expecting their first baby but she encouraged him to join up. "I want my child to breathe the free air of Kosovo," she said.

On the wall is a portrait of her grandfather, killed in one of this century's earlier Balkan wars. "He was massacred by Serbs. They killed him just for his coat." On the wall, there is also an opuz, a traditional weapon like a ball and chain. "The best thing for killing Serbs," Bekim's father-in-law said, half-joking.

Bekim was dispatched from Switzerland this summer to Albania. After staying in a KLA safe house in Tirana and a base in northern Albania, he made the perilous 25-hour walk across the border. "Never mind about the Serb shelling," one KLA commander told me, "we are losing two or three a day with broken legs in those mountains."

He was taken into his KLA unit in Kosovo, where he got his Kalashnikov and swore on an Albanian flag to fight for independence and freedom "until death". His family and friends have clubbed together to buy him more equipment, night vision goggles and a sniper sight.

Emigre groups might be expected to be more hard-line than Albanians in Kosovo - many of whom are homeless and hungry - but all the evidence is of an increasing determination to achieve independence."The Serbs want to create a situation in which we accept any political solution to prevent a humanitarian disaster," Mr Mahmuti said. "But the KLA will never move away from its object, which is the liberation of our people."

In Kosovo recently, I found the family of a commander I had met during the summer. They were refugees in a village not yet touched by Serb security forces. Most were ill from drinking bad water and their only possessions were what they had carried away under Serb artillery fire.

Sitting cross-legged for our meals, the man's wife spoke repeatedly of their house. It was being used as a police post - they expected it to be burnt down as the security forces pulled back.

But the men still had their KLA uniforms and weapons. That evening they would be out on patrol again. Searching hard for the most appropriate phrase in English, the eldest son said simply: "The show must go on."

Never again? Page 25