Liberation Of Kosovo: Lunch and denial among the ethnic cleansers

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The Independent Online
KOSOVO POLJE is not known for its cuisine. It is the heartland of Serbism, site of Serbia's 1389 battle with the Turks - the greatest defeat (so far) in Serbia's history - and the location of one of the country's ugliest Tito-style railway stations.

Currently, parts of it are on fire, but anything is worth trying to flee the cockroach-haunted restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Pristina.

Our first stop - a pleasant garden pizzeria that I had regularly visited last year - was closed, its gate padlocked, its owner already fled to what is now called "Serbia proper".

Just a street away, there was a house on fire, its roof slowly crumbling into blazing rooms, its tiles exploding in the heat. In any other country, there would be crowds, fire engines, tearful home-owners. But all we found outside the crackling building was a boy on a bicycle, practising how to backpedal.

I walked up the driveway and saw a figure retreat into the next-door house. There was a pile of bottles and food cans - military rations, I suspected - beneath a tree in the garden. The Serb owner, or the policemen who had taken over his home after his departure, had simply torched the place to prevent anyone else living there, in the same way that you or I might lock the front door when we left.

There was a bar 400 yards away where soldiers were drinking Sprite - at least it looked like Sprite - and I asked them where we could eat. They gave us an address and the conversation went like this. "If you go down that street past the burnt houses, take the first turning to the left where there is a building on fire and a bit further on, on the right, there's a good restaurant which serves pork lunches." We followed the directions to the letter and there was the Zhivil Gaj taverna, an artificial turf terrace beside a real garden of brilliant yellow and red roses.

Bratislav Valikojic, the owner, was not at all nervous of all the fires, nor, it seemed, the cascades of rifle fire that sprayed into the sky from every soldier's rifle in Kosovo Polje. He served a Serbian salad (too little cheese, far too many onions) and hunks of pork that could have satisfied an army.

Our fellow guests were an interesting bunch. There was a Yugoslav army colonel and his pretty wife at one table while at another sat three men, one with shoulder-length hair and a beard, all with knives in their belts, another with half a bottle of brandy pushed into his camouflage trousers. Other patrons arrived in black shirts and headscarves with pistols tucked into their belts.

It was a bright sunny day, despite the drifting smoke haze, and we asked for mineral water and red wine. At this point a spent round - fired into the air by a celebrating Yugoslav soldier half a mile away - cracked on to the terrace floor beside us. A militiaman picked it up with amusement. Just outside, 20 yards away, two drunken soldiers were brawling, one of them beating the other over the head with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle until a comrade intervened to prevent both men shooting each other.

"No wine, it's against the law," Mr Valikojic announced. Against the what? "There are very strict rules against selling alcohol in Kosovo," he replied. Government regulations. Of course. The Yugoslav authorities, anxious to prevent "unruly elements" committing crimes, banned the public sale of alcohol in Kosovo some weeks ago. Outside on the road, a Yugoslav armoured column moved sluggishly past our restaurant - tanks and artillery and rocket launchers.

It was only when the other guests had left that Mr Valikojic invited us inside and said that we could "order freely now". He served the finest chilled red wine - far too much of it - and more pork and salad. And he wanted to tell us about the local Serbs. "If people from [Kosovo] Metohija start leaving, no one is going to remain," he said. "But here in Kosovo Polje, the Serbs are the toughest. We'll keep all this. The area is almost etnicki cisto [ethnically clean]."

He talked about casualties. His nearest neighbour had been killed by a landmine set by the Kosovo Liberation Army (who had in turn stolen it from the Yugoslav army) with 19 other Serb soldiers, including the son of a woman who used to work in the restaurant. Mr Valikojic's brother- in-law was killed by a sniper on his way to a funeral in Glogovac, again by the KLA.

Mr Valikojic had few thoughts about the Albanians, no knowledge, it seemed, of what every guest in his restaurant must have known, or even - the thought often crept through my mind - participated in. I couldn't see the young man with the knife and the long hair or the guy with half a bottle of brandy in his pocket standing guard duty in a barracks. We had sat, I'm sure, among the bad guys, among some of the "cleansers" in this town which was "almost ethnically clean".

So we asked whether he realised how much the Albanians had suffered, and he said this. "Be sure that they did not. They were harmed in a different way, forcing them to go out [of their homes] but physically they weren't maltreated ... We used to be on good terms. Albanians helped to build this house. Albanians came to my parents' wedding." Lies and half-lies and - about the house and the wedding long ago - probably the truth. The first will outlive the second.