War In The Balkans: 72 days. 1,500 dead. Serbs ask why

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The Independent Online
"SO WHY couldn't he have signed this 72 days ago?" Jelena asked. "Why did we have to have 1,500 of our people killed by Nato and our country destroyed before our President agreed to this peace?" As we sat outside the Knez restaurant in the muggy early summer afternoon, there was a crack of sound as a Nato jet broke the sound barrier high over Belgrade, as if Jelena needed to be reminded of her humiliation.

For if Kosovo's future is now being decided in Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow, what of the rest of Serbia with its shattered factories and epic post-war unemployment, its broken roads and pulverised bridges and bombed-out power stations and refineries and railways? And what of those cemeteries of civilian dead and the constant reminder to Yugoslavia's people - those official graves with their red, white and blue banners - of the price their soldiers paid for opposing Nato? What did they die for?

There will be those here who will ask this question many times in the coming weeks and months. They will want the answer from President Milosevic. The mothers and fathers of the thousands of Serb wounded will want an answer to the same question. And not just the parents. The soldiers too will have their questions, just as the nationalists did in the Serb parliament yesterday, shouting their defiance at the "capitulation" - the word used by a Vojvodina MP - to Nato. They voted in favour of peace by 168 to 82 but almost came to blows in the closed parliamentary chamber, out of which stormed that most ferocious of nationalists, Vojeslav Seselj.

True, the Serbs held out under weeks of bombing by the most powerful force on earth. And their defiance will become the stuff of Serb mythology in centuries to come, alongside the 14th-century battle of Kosovo Polje, another epic defeat for the Serb nation.

But what of the immediate future of Kosovo? Turned into a wasteland by two and a half months of pillage and bombs, its electricity and water supply destroyed, its communications torn up, its villages and towns burnt, its fields contaminated with the dust of depleted uranium shells, what possible home can the refugees return to? And what possible protection can the Serbs of Kosovo expect in that critical moment between the departure of the Yugoslav forces and the arrival of Nato and Russian armies? Already they fear the coming days. Retribution is the word that springs to mind. For the Kosovo Liberation Army is going to emerge from the hills and forests of Kosovo in the next few days with an agenda quite different to that of Nato, let alone Serbia.

Indeed, nothing is ever as it seems in Yugoslavia. And even Jelena's cynicism at the Knez restaurant yesterday was slightly misplaced. According to the text of the Kosovo peace agreement available in Belgrade, Slobodan Milosevic has succeeded in erasing a key element of the Paris peace agreement: a referendum on the future of the province in three years' time that might have allowed Kosovo Albanians to demand independence. And one of Mr Milosevic's ministers was quick to seize on another apparent departure from the March accord: the disappearance of an annex to the Paris agreement, which would have allowed Nato troops free access to all of Yugoslavia. Nato, it appears, will have to move in out of Kosovo only through the narrow roads of Macedonia and Albania.

And a close scrutiny of the text suggests that if Serbia has been humiliated - its army and police in Kosovo reduced to a mere skeleton, the province controlled by an army of foreigners - Belgrade's guerrilla enemies in the KLA will face emasculation.

"Demilitarised" by Nato, the KLA's declared intention of achieving independence will be opposed by its Western protectors. And if Serbia's MPs are to be believed, Yugoslavia's frontiers are now regarded as "inviolable" by the Nato powers. So much for Kosovo's independence. Will the KLA accept this - or will it turn against Nato?

In Belgrade, this all seems academic. The papers here have been advising readers how to keep warm this coming winter in a Serbia that will have no infrastructure and few functioning power stations. Burn trees from the forests and old floorboards, they are told, store water in a land whose water pumping stations have stopped working. They've even asked the tram and trolley-bus crews to reduce their schedules to save electricity.

But war invisibly wounds the living, too. Take the lady who cleans my hotel room each morning. Both her sons are at the front in Kosovo and she has been weeping every day in fear for their safety. Now she need weep no more. But last weekend, one of them came home on two days' leave. "He had changed," she said. "I don't know what had happened to him. But he was no longer like my son. I cry now because he is a different boy."

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