Albanians demand independence now in massacre village

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The Independent Online

Caught by an icy breeze, the scarlet Albanian flag flying over Racak shows up like a bloodstain against the snowy hills that ring the village.

Children slide down the white fields on sledges, but steer well clear of one patch of ground the cemetery studded with the headstones of 45 Kosovo Albanians allegedly massacred by Serbian forces on 15 January 1999.

"Independence for Kosovo will be wonderful if it comes," said Ali Mahmouti, 65, from Racak. He hopes that political leaders 20 miles north in the regional capital, Pristina, will fulfil their promise to proclaim sovereignty from Belgrade as soon as next week.

Mr Mahmouti says he fled his village when Serb forces arrived in January 1999 and, in retaliation for deadly ambushes by the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), executed 45 Albanian civilians.

Images captured here the following day appalled people around the world and galvanised Western powers to bomb Slobodan Milosevic's soldiers out of Kosovo.

A tangle of bodies in a frozen ditch, all gouged by bullets, some mutilated by knives, prompted William Walker, head of an international mission to monitor a non-existent ceasefire, to deliver a verdict that damned Milosevic and still haunts Serbia today.

"I will not hesitate to say, based on what I saw, that this was a massacre close to crimes against humanity," said the US diplomat. "I will not hesitate to accuse Yugoslav security forces for it."

Ten weeks later, Nato bombers were pounding Serbia, and five months after the massacre Nato and Russian forces were in Kosovo watching Milosevic's troops withdraw from a region under UN control. By the ninth anniversary of the killings, Kosovo is likely to have declared independence despite implacable opposition from Serbia and Russia.

"I always thought we would be independent, like the other parts of Yugoslavia," said Mr Mahmouti on the side of the slippery track called William Walker Street, Racak's main thoroughfare. "We've been waiting for that day for centuries."

This village encapsulates much of what divides Kosovo's 1.9 million Albanians from the 100,000 Serbs who remain in the province, and from their kin to the north in Serbia proper. Albanians remember Racak as the Serb atrocity that spurred Washington, and, to a lesser extent, Europe, to stop Milosevic's brutal crackdown, during which 10,000 Albanians were killed and 800,000 were displaced. Most Serbs, however, while feeling contempt for Milosevic and his ruination of their country, resent the Nato bombing that killed hundreds of their civilians, destroyed much of their infrastructure, and paved the way for the independence of a province that they see as the religious and historical heart of their nation.

Many Serbs also accuse the West of either falling for or orchestrating a hoax in Racak. They say the KLA dressed dead fighters in civilian clothes and dumped them in the ditch above the village to discredit Serbia in international eyes. The "massacre", so a strand of the theory goes, gave President Bill Clinton a pretext for a small war that distracted some attention from his impeachment over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Mr Walker's shadowy role as a US diplomat in Central America during the 1980s, when Washington was involved in several dirty wars in the region, helped fuel Serb suspicion.

It is impossible to reconcile Serb and Albanian differences over Racak, just as no agreement on Kosovo's future can be reached between Belgrade and Moscow on one side, and Pristina, Brussels and Washington on the other.

"We have no patience left. The deadline for independence is now," said Islam Mustafa, 37, a Racak resident who fought with the KLA. "When freedom comes, we will know our people did not die in vain."

Have your say on yesterday's story on the threat of war in the Balkans as Serbs prepare to flee Kosovo

The multi-ethnic experiment of Yugoslavia, imposed on the Balkans by the great powers, clearly failed. Our former ambassador Sir Ivor Roberts is therefore right to advocate partition for Kosovo, and to criticise the international community's inconsistency in supporting Kosovo's right to secede from Serbia while denying the right of Bosnian Serbs to secede from Bosnia. The inconsistency makes no realpolitik sense.

Joseph Palle, Richmond

Yet again, we see the results of Western anti-Serbian policies. We say we support an agreement by both parties in Kosovo but then tell the Albanians we will support independence and give them no incentive to negotiate. We say we're against the creation of a "Greater Serbia" but we are for the creation of a "Greater Albania". It makes you wonder about what kind of individuals have been chosen to lead many Western nations.

Michael Pravica

The results of Blairite doctrines are still with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let us hope that whatever happens to Kosovo, it will not be another example of the Blair doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

Miso

It seems only 45 per cent of the Kosovo electorate actually voted, and the present winner got 35 per cent of that. To my counting that gives him about 15 per cent of the electorate - hardly a democratic mandate, let alone the consensus required for the establishment of a stable independent state. The reasonable policy now is a further ten years as a UN protectorate.

Augustin

In the artificially cobbled-together Yugoslavia, the Serbs dominated the rest by sheer economic and military force. Over the last few years Serbia has seen this dominance fade. Serbians need to stop living in the "glorious" past. People have a right to decide their own form of government.

Albanman

Albanians say 90 per cent of Kosovo is Albanian. It probably is, but what they conveniently ignore is that Kosovo is legally a part of Serbia and Albanians are 20 per cent of Serbia.

PBUK

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