Serbs lose heart and hope inthe struggle to keep Kosovo

They claim to love the `heartland' of Kosovo more than life itself - but few want to live there. Robert Fisk reports on the parallels with an earlier violent colonial denouement - the French loss of Algeria
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The Independent Online
ONLY on Yugoslav airlines could the crew offer passengers a Serbian brandy before take-off from Beirut at 4.30 in the morning. Only a nation so doubtfully freed from international isolation could display the gold stars of the European Union on the front page of its in-flight magazine.

I was still marvelling at this feat of political illusion when I came across the magazine's main article, "The Serb Holy Land and Spiritual Cradle", under the guise of being a travel story: "Those who had the chance personally to behold the beauty of the Kosovo churches ... cannot stop admiring them until the end of their days." It was in reality a venomous attack on the province's 90 per cent Albanian Muslim population.

After 1737, the author Dragan Nedeljkovic told his readership, the "Islamised - and therefore privileged - Albanians rushed in from the neighbouring areas ... seizing Serb homes, estates, and even whole villages and creating ethnic imbalance in the region ... Especially during the fascist rule of the Second World War, the Serbs were exiled from Kosovo while the Albanians were further brought in and granted privileges."

After the Second World War, Yugoslav airline passengers were told: "The remaining Serb population was terrorised and forced to move out from their ancestral homes ... A significant Albanian majority in this Serb heartland was created ... by government policy and Albanian aggression."

That so blatant and open a piece of racism could be published by a state organisation says as much about the hopelessness of the Kosovo conflict as it does about the sectarian hatred of its author. Yugoslav airlines is also supposed to be the national airline of the Kosovo Albanians. My fellow passenger, a Serb chemistry professor, shrugged his shoulders. "The people outside Belgrade listen only to the government television news and they believe all they are told," he said. "What can we do to stop this? I will tell you something. In any other country in the world, people ask about their government: `What will they do next?' All we do is ask: `What will come next?' You see? We are a people without hope - and we are going to lose Kosovo."

The lady in the hire car office in Belgrade disagreed. "If we give up Kosovo, there will be no more Serbia," she said. "If you cut out the heart, the body dies. And don't believe what you read in the papers." Yet the moment I asked for directions to Kosovo, her tone altered. "If anything happens to the car, if it is stolen, you must go straight to the police, remember that." A few miles west of Leskovac, I remembered.

I had been driving for about an hour along a mountain road when I turned the corner to be flagged down by two blue uniformed policemen in flak jackets. They glanced at my Belgrade registration plates. Where was I going? There was a good deal of surprised conversation at my reply before the younger policeman pointed down the road and said: "Pristina, straight on!"

In the rear-view mirror, I saw him shaking his head at his colleague and realised, in that instant, that I had crossed the front line. The hills still climbed around me, the forests still smelled of damp timber, but the road surface began to break up. The few houses that appeared beside the road were shuttered and locked, the high iron gates of each property - a symbol of Albanian land - firmly shut.

Gigantic holes began to appear in the tarmac and the road signs had an oddly translucent quality. I had gone at least 10 miles before I realised they had been shot through with bullet holes. "UCK" appeared on a few walls - the Albanian acronym for the Kosovo Liberation Army. For all of 25 miles, I saw not a soul. There was no outward sign of destruction - that would come later, on the other side of Kosovo - but the entire population had vanished. From a farm, two fierce dogs chased my car as I negotiated a crater.

The roads of Kosovo were a disgrace. It was more than an hour before I caught sight of a minaret, a battered school bus pumping pitch-black smoke from its exhaust, an old man in a white fez on a broken tractor.

The laneway into Pristina was little better than a farm track covered in mud and rubbish, and I remembered what an airline stewardess had told me in a moment of truth. "We say we love Kosovo," she admitted, "but we don't want to live there. So we will lose it."

Much of it is already lost. Phone lines across the province have been cut. Try taking the main road west to Pec, through the town of Klina, and the police stop your car scarcely 20 miles from Pristina. A few miles further on, the young KLA men with their Kalashnikovs politely turn you round. Take the alternative road to Djakovica via Malisevo and the same thing happens. Drive out to the railway station at Kosovo Polje - the same `Field of Blackbirds' upon which

the Serbian armies perished in their stand against the Ottomans in 1389 - and you find that the last supposedly twice-daily train to Pec left three days ago.

Routinely stopped by armed Albanians, it was hauled back into Pristina by a dirty diesel loco on Friday, its carriages empty. According to Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo - the fast decaying political party in which the Americans and the European Union still put their faith as an Albanian negotiating partner for the Serbs - the police simply prevented passengers from boarding at Pec.

The entire geography of Kosovo is changing rapidly. When the Serb authorities took us to the battle zone in western Kosovo to show how they had cleared the road to Prizren from the "terrorists" of the KLA, they were forced to drive us all the way into eastern Montenegro - through the pass above Gazivode Lake through which the Serbian army retreated under Albanian attack in the winter of 1915 on its tragic and courageous march to the Adriatic coast - to re-enter Kosovo and reach Pec.

Serbia had reconquered Kosovo in 1912 and held it for just three bloody and cruel years. Most foreign journalists were banned - familiar story - but Albanian deaths numbered perhaps 25,000 in the first two years of Serb occupation alone.

And so we were at last taken down the long road from Pec to Prizren with the Albanian frontier high on the mountain range to our right, through Kosovo-Albanian villages that had been trashed, looted and burned by the Serb army and police in their assault on the KLA.

True, there was evidence enough of KLA resistance - and of Albanian lies. KLA spokesmen who spoke of the village of Decani being "no more now than a name on a map" had grossly exaggerated the scale of destruction; some houses and apartment blocks in Decani were apparently undamaged. Further down the road, however, the ruined villages were identical to the ethnically cleansed Muslim towns of central Bosnia, their houses razed, their farm animals dead or running wild, their furnishings smashed in gardens.

A Serb journalist, a tough but genuinely compassionate man who long ago understood the nature of cruelty, sat silent for much of our journey. Then he said to me: "I'm cured of my patriotism. I lost my country when Yugoslavia was destroyed. I am not here any more. This is just an assignment for me."

It was about this time that I recognised something terribly familiar about both the landscape and the history of this land: the high mountains protecting the hot, fertile fields of the Metohija plain, the neat farms and the monasteries. The powerful minority governing the poor majority, the Christians ruling the Muslims - Algeria before the 1954-62 war of independence.

For more than 100 years - though not for the centuries which the Serbs claim this territory as theirs - the French had ruled Algeria, had called it France (France d'Outre-mer - "France overseas"), had pronounced its earth as sacred as that of metropolitan France. And all the while, they had denied the native Muslim Algerians basic constitutional rights, had rigged elections, had alienated the moderate Algerian politicians who thought - even at the end - that a political accommodation could be made with a colonial power still in place. Indeed, an Algerian, of Mr Rugova's moderate and eloquent taste, was assassinated just before Algerian independence; he had become irrelevant.

Just as the French refused to contemplate equal rights for the Algerians, so the Serbs ignored the claims of the native Albanians, stripping them even of their autonomous status in 1989. When the Algerian separatists turned to violence in 1954 - telephone and railway lines were the first to be cut - the French called their FLN enemies "terrorists" and presented their struggle as a battle against "international terrorism" which was being aided by weapons smuggled across the borders from Tunisia and Morocco.

Similarly the Serbs today: their new and armed enemies of the KLA are denounced as "terrorists", the Albanians and Macedonians supplying them with cross-border arms. The Serbs have become the pieds noirs of Kosovo, as incapable of understanding their own predicament as they are a danger to their lives. When France took the offensive against the FLN, French paras massacred whole villages, which is what the world now accuses Serbia of doing.

True, the battle for Kosovo is not identical. France's claim to Algeria rested upon its 1832 invasion. Serbia's roots do truly go deep into Kosovo's past. Aleksa Djilas, son of Milovan - the man who was Tito's comrade, loyal executioner and, later, prisoner - recently acknowledged the parallels, but added that the comparison - given Serbia's ecclesiastical history in the province - could be made only if the medieval cathedral of Chartres had been built in Algeria.

Yet this serves only to obscure the powerful similarity between Kosovo and Algeria: that the battle here is colonial rather than historical, imperial rather than religious or spiritual. It is a 20th-century conflict, one which should be seen for what it is: the suppression of a vast majority of ethnically different people by a heavily armed occupying power whose own minority population (like the very last pieds noirs) are now bolting.

And all the while, Washington and Brussels, Nato and that untrustworthy creature the "international community" call for restraint, autonomy and Yugoslav unity. In truth, the days for such an accommodation appear long gone. It can be only a matter of time - save for some truly appalling repression - before Serbs can reach their Kosovo "capital" only by air, and before negotiators have to plead for post-independence protection for the Serb minority and their magnificent architectural heritage. Even General de Gaulle ultimately failed to do this for the pieds noirs. And Slobodan Milosevic is no de Gaulle.

He has lost Serb areas of Slavonia. He has lost Serbian Krajina. He has lost much of Serb north-western Bosnia. Now he stands to lose Kosovo. Perhaps defeat is part of Serbia's sustaining myth, a phenomenon to be perpetually re-enacted as a proof of statehood. Perhaps eviction is needed to provide territorial claim, tragedy to provide epic scale. They say that the story of Serbia's greatness began in Kosovo. Who knows if it will not end there?