West turns blind eye to Kosovo tragedy

After a Serb assault, nothing moves in the Albanian villages except dogs and chickens. Marcus Tanner on the return of ethnic cleansing
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The Independent Online
WHEN Slobodan Milosevic says the offensive is over, you can be sure that is because his armies have crushed all resistance. Last week, the Serb leader refused even to meet an Austrian-led troika of EU diplomats visiting Belgrade on yet another peace mission. By Thursday, six days into a Serb offensive against the Albanian separatists of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Milosevic had changed his mind.

Now he assured them face to face that the army's campaign had achieved its objectives. He even promised not to shell the last KLA redoubt, in the south-western village of Junik. One government official boasted that the KLA now controlled only 10 per cent of Kosovo, compared with as much as 50 per cent just a week ago.

The British - along with Moscow, Serbia's most enthusiastic apologist in its successive campaigns against Croats, Bosnians and now Kosovo Albanians - hastened to conclude that a campaign that has left 150,000 Albanians homeless might have a good side. Britain's Emyr Jones Perry told reporters, after seeing the smoking, deserted villages, that talks between Belgrade and the Kosovars might now begin "in a matter of weeks".

Britain is not alone in this delusion. Most European and American diplomats seem fixed on the notion that the destruction of KLA "extremists" will magically assist a diplomatic solution by leaving the field to Albanian and Serb "moderates", in whose company Mr Milosevic seems absurdly to have been included.

In Brussels, where earlier talk of military intervention in Kosovo has abated, the sole response to this vast displacement of civilians was a ban on flights by the Yugoslav airline, JAT, to EU capitals.

What has taken place in Kosovo over the past month is simple. The Serb leader allowed a real Albanian uprising against Belgrade's rule to escalate in order to gain an excuse to send the tanks into Kosovo and crush the spirit of resistance among the local population so absolutely that, in the process, large parts of the province can be cleared of its population.

We have been here before. Belgrade insists there has been no repeat in Kosovo of the "ethnic cleansing" which permanently rid eastern Bosnia of its majority Muslim population in 1992. But European observers this week have found those parts of Kosovo that were supposedly the scene of fighting between the KLA and the Serbs undamaged - and empty.

Ten days ago the Serbs cleared Orahovac - 40 miles south-west of the regional capital Pristina - of the KLA and, in the process, of its civilian population. Earlier this week it was the turn of another rebel bastion at Malisevo.

Each time, the world has only had the assurances of the Serb-run "Media Centre" in Kosovo that these victories followed serious battles with well- armed KLA fighters.

And in each case, the Western observers who have trundled in to these towns in the wake of the Serbian army have seen little trace of battles. What they have found are deserted towns with a few dogs and chickens rootling around in the dust. Thus does the dismal history of the Bosnian war repeat itself five years on, complete with the platitudinous calls from European mediators for restraint "on all sides".

What is the endgame? Mr Milosevic's old gurus among the Serb nationalist intelligentsia, such as the writers Dobrica Cosic and Brana Crncevic, have long since given up on the idea that all Kosovo can be held for Serbia. The fact that Albanians dominate the province's two million population by a nine-to-one majority makes this impossible. Demographic trends suggest that if Kosovo remains in Serbia, the high Albanian birthrate will eventually make of the Serbs a minority in their own country, let alone in Kosovo. (Already they are only about 60 per cent of the total population of Serbia.)

But they have not given up on the idea that at least a third of the province can be retained. That will still require "ethnic cleansing", or a population exchange of some sort, as the Serbs do not form a majority in any municipality of Kosovo, except one, rural Leposavac, in the far north.

Even Kosovo Polje, the suburb of Pristina that is a bastion for Serb nationalists, is at least half Albanian these days, thanks to the emigration of younger Serbs.

Six years ago, as the war in Bosnia got under way, one of the Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders told me Serbia would "have to discuss" the Albanian claim to Kosovo if the Serbs were to justify the annexation of parts of Bosnia and Croatia on ethnic grounds. "We will have to raise the issue of Kosovo once we have settled affairs in Bosnia and Croatia," Nikola Koljevic told me in his Sarajevo apartment in 1992. But in the end the Serbs failed to wrest any territory from Croatia and got less than they expected in Bosnia at the Dayton peace talks in 1995. The whole of Sarajevo, including Koljevic's flat (he later committed suicide) went to the Bosnian Muslims.

So instead of Albanian claims to Kosovo being raised, Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia were dumped in Kosovo in 1996 in a hopeless but cynical attempt to reverse the 300-year-old ethnic predominance of the Albanians.

The immediate victims of this policy are, of course, the Kosovo Albanians who have the choice of either firing their rusty pistols at the Serb tanks, fleeing to poverty-stricken Albania or escaping to a West which looks determined to keep refugees out. Seven died in Germany last week, as a vanload of 27 Kosovo refugees, driven by two Czech smugglers, careered across the Czech-German border, only to hit a tree at high speed.

But in the long term, the victims of Serbia's brutal pacification will also include the Serbs of Kosovo, who number about 190,000. Strung out in a necklace of villages around Pristina, in another ring of villages around Prizren in the south-west, and sprinkled around a handful of ancient religious communities, they are in a precarious position.

For the plight of some of the Kosovo Serbs it is hard to feel empathy. The nationalist allies of the Kosovo Polje crowd were instrumental in making Mr Milosevic leader of Serbia in 1987. Throughout that summer they planted themselves on the lawn outside the Belgrade parliament hurling abuse at Mr Milosevic's more peaceable predecessor for failing to tackle Albanian "separatism" in Kosovo. Many of these ugly militants were descendants of the "colonists", the First World War veterans planted on confiscated land by the pre-war Serb regime in an attempt to Serbianise Kosovo after its conquest in 1913.

But other Kosovo Serbs are the descendants of old families who have lived in Kosovo for centuries, predating the Ottoman conquest. A generation ago, at any rate, they used to speak Albanian as well as Serbian and lived quietly with their Turkish and Albanian neighbours.

Deep in the heart of the province, Father Sava Janjic and other Orthodox monks of the monastery of Decani have been e-mailing the world on the need to find a compromise solution to Kosovo. It is said that a besa (oath) taken by the local Albanian clans protected this ancient monastery over the centuries from the destruction that befell most of the other Serb Christian sites during the 450-odd years of Muslim Turkish rule.

Milosevic's campaign has driven a coach and horses through such ancient communities. What will become of places such as Decani?

In the chaos of today's Kosovo, all that seems clear is that Albanians and Serbs will never live under one roof together again. Perhaps, however, it is part of Milosevic's war aim that they should not.

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