Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000

Not Much Tolerance, Not Much Water

Lynne Mastnak’s record of the last nine months in Kosovo

4574 words

12 June 1999, Kukes, Albania. The Germans came to Kukes today. They were late, but the waiting crowd cheered as tanks and APCs rolled past. Yesterday a mild-mannered lieutenant-colonel told us that anyone could cross the border back into Kosovo but they were ‘not to get in the way of the tanks’. He advised waiting a few days for a ‘green light’. Last week UNHCR were telling us that we should still direct people to go south down into Albania. There is now an information campaign advising people not to return to Kosovo yet, it is not safe and there is no food. Some of us suggested that, regardless of directives, preparations should be made for an influx of three or four hundred thousand in a very short space of time. Two hundred went back yesterday and the families in the tractor camps are already packing for home.

17 June 1999, Pristina. We left Kukes at 4.30 this morning in a nose to tail queue of tractors and cars, waved over the border by Albanians and Germans. Nine thousand crossed yesterday. They are not listening to UNHCR. They want to get back before any more homes are burnt by departing Serbs – or looted by Kukes bandits. A gang of looters begged a lift back to Albania with the Germans two days ago, after one of them trod on a landmine. I cannot get over how much better the roads are here than in Kukes. We stopped for coffee in the main hotel in Prizren (the town seemed remarkably intact), and a man in KLA uniform welcomed us in a proprietorial manner, saying that the KLA were now in control of the town, and that they would co-ordinate all the efforts of the aid community. I explained politely that we would not be available for co-ordination as we were going to Pristina. At Suva Reka the scenery changed: burnt and shattered houses and another long convoy of tractors. But this one looked different. The trailers were loaded with more possessions than people: fridges, washing machines. A young woman stared at me blankly. Opposite her on a substantial sofa, an older one held her head in her hands. ‘Serbs leaving,’ my colleague Bini muttered.

The most striking thing about Pristina is its emptiness. The Grand Hotel is stuffed with media. Children cluster round a flower-bedecked British tank opposite a gutted pizzeria. Everywhere else the streets are deserted. All the shops and cafés are either boarded up or trashed. Our flat is untouched. No water, so we started filling plastic bottles, then fell asleep, exhausted, on the sofas. The World Health Organisation has called a meeting on the situation at the hospital. Apparently it is in chaos: there are very few patients, and only 20 per cent of the Serbian staff remain. Dr Grbic, the Serbian director, is discussing with lawyers how Albanians who were sacked from the hospital can have their jobs back. At the same time we are informed that 25 Serbian doctors are coming from Belgrade to help! Afrim, my psychiatric colleague, watched Serbian doctors load all the equipment from one local clinic onto a truck today. They stopped when he called KFOR. He mutters in my ear that the Albanian doctors plan to tell Grbic tomorrow that he is no longer wanted as director and to take their jobs back.

18 June 1999. It was a very peculiar demonstration. Anxious-looking Serb doctors clustered together in the anteroom of the surgical department eyeing a large crowd of Albanian doctors who, having discovered that Grbic wasn’t there, had no clear idea what to do. Hacks pecked at the edges of the crowd, interviewing anyone willing to speak. Two KFOR soldiers arrived. An irate Serb grabbed one of them and said: ‘Look, these doctors lost their jobs ten years ago and now they have come back. You have to give us security.’ Afrim lost his job three days after the air-strikes began, so this was not completely true. More KFOR appeared and put two armed soldiers outside the director’s office. Then some kind of delegation formed itself and a KFOR man announced: ‘Discussions are ongoing, why don’t you all take a bit of fresh air?’ We had to leave for Skopje anyway, to get food and fuel.

23 June 1999. We drove to Peje to see what had happened to Bini’s brother’s house. The journey is part highway and part dirt road, to avoid blown-up bridges. Just before Peje we noticed thick smoke coming from a small valley and turned off to have a look. The smoke was coming from a haystack. The two-storey house next to it had a wooden balcony and Serb Radical Party insignia painted on the gate-post. Half its contents were lying on the ground; across the path lay a dead pig and a pile of photos. On the balcony of the next farmhouse there were stacks of ammunition boxes. Men and boys were piling stuff up in the yard. An elderly Albanian woman in a white headscarf stood outside the neighbouring gate, beside a wall inscribed ‘Fuck off Nato.’ She had just returned. She didn’t know the ‘looters’. ‘Those don’t belong to them,’ she said, as a man and a boy walked past leading three cows. ‘They are ours, we came to get them,’ the man insisted.

Back on the road we came to a KLA checkpoint. ‘Checking for looters,’ the uniformed soldier told us. ‘Oh good,’ I said, suddenly irritated. ‘There are some houses being burnt and looted right over there. Perhaps you could do something about it.’ He looked awkward.

‘It is too much for us to do everything.’

‘But this is right on your patch – better to stop the looting than just to check for it.’

‘Well, they might not be looters.’ Now he looked surly. ‘They may be getting their own things back. I found my plough in a house near here.’

‘So what’s the point of checking for looters?’

‘Well, actually, we’re not just checking for looters, we’re looking for war criminals and collaborators.’

All that is left of Urim’s home and dental practice is outer walls and rubble. Not a single piece of equipment remains. His uncle’s house has been gutted. The rather glamorous Albanian-owned villas opposite are intact. Both of them had small paper notices attached indicating that they were now KLA property. We drove around the burnt and deserted city, feeling utterly depressed. The remaining Serbs have gone to the Patriarchate and Italian troops occupy the hotel. We bought petrol at three marks a litre from some Albanians who had crossed the border from Tropoje and drove back to Pristina.

28 June 1999. Slobodanka, a Serbian neighbour of Bini’s, called this morning to ask for help. Apparently an Albanian man had turned up and told her to move out within two hours: he was returning with a family who needed her apartment. Slobodanka’s husband lost his own job for refusing to sack Albanians from the Grand Hotel in the early 1990s. We went up to talk to the Paras who are living on our roof. ‘We’d love to help,’ said an officer holding a shaving brush. When the Albanian returned he found a welcoming party and went off most disgruntled.

It’s all very ad hoc. Having bombed the Serbian administration and security forces out of the province, neither Nato nor the UN seems to have a clear idea of how they are going to run it, and the Albanians have had no practice for the last ten years. Last week in Ferizaj we found an elderly Serbian couple sitting on a bench outside the priest’s house, bruised and crying. They had been beaten in their village, and wanted to be taken to Pristina. The priest said he had asked for protection, for his house and church, but nothing had materialised. So we put the couple in the car and went to talk to KFOR. A polite US officer told me there was nothing to be done and would I just look at all the Serb old ladies sitting on the steps of the HQ, because they felt safer there?

‘But if you protected the church it might make the whole community feel safer and give them a place to go.’

‘I’ll pass on your views, ma’am.’

This week the priest’s house has been burnt to the ground, the priest has gone and there is a guard outside the church.

It is still not clear who is running Pristina hospital, let alone Kosovo. In neuropsychiatry last week the Serbian doctors were working alongside the Albanians, but ‘separately’, insisting on seeing their own patients and doing their own on-call, until they realised they were short of cover and asked the Albanians for help. The Albanians said that was fine, but would not accept Serbian authority over them. This week all the Serbian doctors have gone and only nurses and patients remain. Professor Bosniaku told me it was their choice. ‘They were welcome to stay, but not as heads of department. And if they cared about Kosovo they would have stayed. A Serbian consultant psychiatrist came into my office ten years ago and said he was taking it over, but I did not leave. I continued to work here – I insisted. And when people were rude, I still did not go. They are leaving to make politics and they will say they were driven out.’ Apparently some of the retreating Serbs are heading for Mitrovica – now divided along ethnic lines. We have obviously learnt nothing from Mostar.

29 June 1999. We drove west to visit an Albanian patient I saw for the first time last week. He came home to find his house burnt and the skeletons of what he assumed to be relatives, including 11 children, lying among the charred timbers of one room. Their shoes were still piled up outside the door and a ring of machine-gun bullets round the wall suggested what had happened. On my first visit, we sat on a rug in the long grass among the apple trees, the garden stinking of death, while he asked how he should tell his own children that their cousins had died. He also wanted me to get hold of a war crimes investigation team, so that he could move the bodies and bring the children home. That has happened, and there are now four small children playing happily in the orchard. Father has decided that, after all, he is not sure who died, so he has told them nothing. I am always amazed how we cling to hope. I have two girl patients in another town whose entire family and several neighbours were rounded up, herded together and shot to pieces. The girls survived although they were badly wounded. Arlinda saw blood appear on her 12-year-old cousin’s coat and her brother’s head explode. Her mother was right beside her, but Arlinda did not actually see her die, so tells me she thinks her mother might be alive. One of the problems is that burnt bodies are hard to identify, and the war crimes investigators are not doing this detailed work at present.

7 July 1999, Drenica. I finally seem to have accounted for all my old patients. Most of them are well; some are dead. None of them left Drenica. In this area, most of the women and children seem to have been pushed from one village to another in convoys; sometimes they were given flour by Serbian forces, sometimes they were shelled, whereas the boys and men kept moving or hiding or fighting. The other day Illir came hurtling after me on crutches. He has survived three months in hospital. The house is wrecked and the whole family is in Pristina. I spent Sunday playing football with Simon and his sister. Their uncle is already rebuilding their house for the second time. He left a note for the Serbs saying: ‘Burn this down 100 times, I will rebuild it.’ They left one for him saying: ‘Put a stick up your arse.’

Today I found Faton and his family at home, but there was an empty chair outside the door to indicate mourning. It seems that the grandfather was one of 18 killed in a massacre. The last his daughter saw of him, he was with the other men, stripped, and with his hands against a wall. Faton had already escaped out of a window when the tanks came into the village. He spent the next three months living on his wits, avoiding one fatal Serbian round-up by pretending to be disabled and jumping into a line of women, another by running away while a soldier was reloading. Now he tells me he is very well, no nightmares, no fear and only occasional sadness. He thinks it is thanks to the antidepressants I gave him, but as he lost most of them in the first onslaught I said it might have more to do with discovering his own abilities.

But my elderly chronic schizophrenic who lived down the road was shot in his bed and one of my 14-year-olds was killed in the woods. Julietta, his mother, cannot stop crying, her daughters cannot console her and she points to her youngest sons: ‘What use are they?’ The family had only just begun to get over the loss of the father, who was killed in a massacre in 1998. The house is a blackened shell. They are using a Serbian ammunition box as a table and have constructed a tiny plastic shelter, but they are scared of the snakes.

Yesterday Arlinda walked me round the gardens behind her house. She wanted to explain exactly what had happened: starting with the paramilitaries telling them to put down their bags, her aunt being taken off alone for half an hour, an old man beaten, everyone lined up in the street, then driven back into the garden. Against a freshly whitewashed wall under a hazelnut tree, Arlinda described how her aunt was brought back, pushed to the ground and shot, then one little boy dropped his marbles and the soldiers opened fire on them all.

‘Do you still believe your mother is alive?’

‘I think now that she is dead.’

We sat on her bed and she showed me all her photos of her mother. The bodies have been identified and the funeral is next week.

21 November 1999, Drenica. ‘I see Milosevic has won the war,’ Simon’s uncle said to me over lunch. ‘If we had offered him the mines at Trepca, we wouldn’t have had to go to all this trouble. He fought for gold, not Drenica hay. So Albanians will have to organise themselves.’ Simon’s family have now been properly buried. The 22 graves with their wooden markers and cellophane-covered, plate-shaped bouquets lie in neat rows by the turn-off to the house. There is no flag: these people were not soldiers. There is a debate going on in the US and European press as to whether the massacres have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes. How can anyone know yet? At a press conference last week, the UN war crimes investigators said they had exhumed 2108 bodies of a reported 11,334, and that only 195 of 529 gravesites had been examined so far. Moreover, ‘steps were taken to hide the evidence’ and ‘many bodies have been burned.’ I did a personal audit of my own patients. They include ten extended families who between them have witnessed the deaths by execution of at least 92 people, 42 of them last autumn, long before the airstrikes. These figures do not include people killed by shelling or in combat, or anyone killed in any of the many stories I was told in Kukes, or in any second-hand reports of massacres such as the two Faton narrowly escaped (84 people in Rezala and 18 in his own village). I am just one doctor working in half a dozen villages. Almost all of these victims were women, children, the elderly, sick or mentally ill, but according to John Laughland in the Spectator, their deaths do not count because most of them are ‘buried in individual not mass graves’. Yet it seems clear to most of us working here that a great deal of violence was inflicted on people in quite small groups. Unprotected civilians were killed at close range in particularly brutal ways. The violence, to quote the OSCE report of last June, ‘was extreme and appalling’ and ‘organised and systematic’. The strategic purpose was to terrify the population out of the country.

9 February, Pristina. The new Kosovo Transitional Council met for the first time today. Not everyone is happy about it. Bini’s father, an MP in the Parliament elected in spring 1998, feels that the only elected institution in the region should not have been disbanded. My friends in Drenica would have preferred the KLA-established provisional government to carry on. Some point with glee to the disaffected Podujevo KLA, who left the Kosovo Protection Corps to reform their old unit. Others like Vjosa Dobruna, transformed from paediatrician and human rights activist to new co-head of the ‘department for democratisation’, is glad that ‘seven months too late’ Bernard Kouchner has finally realised he cannot administer Kosovo without actively involving Kosovars. She sees it as a chance for Kosovars to take responsibility, rather than acting as victims. The 34-person council has members from all the parties, as well as places for minorities and civic groups, although only one Serbian woman attended. In addition there are 19 new administrative departments, similarly divided between different groups and co-headed by people from the international organisations. Ylber, a friend of mine and an independent participant, is simply glad the council met. Some wanted to cancel the meeting in protest at the de facto division of Mitrovica and the reluctance of the French to move against armed Serbs in the north of the town. ‘I can’t think of anything the creators of Mitrovica want more than to prevent the growth of institutions in Kosovo.’

12 February, Gracanice. You can get your bearings in Kosovo by the posters on the wall. In Drenica they tend to be of the bearded Adem Jashari and other KLA heroes. In Pristina there are pictures of Clinton, Blair and the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea. At the health centre in Gracanice, an enclave of some four or five thousand Serbs, there was a poster of the medieval King Lazar on horseback, looking over his shoulder. We had come to see if they wanted us to start a clinic. The health service in Kosovo is now almost completely divided. The UN have removed their flag from Mitrovica hospital to mark their displeasure at its treatment of Albanian doctors and patients. In theory hospitals elsewhere are open to all. One neo-natologist told me two Serbians recently had babies on her ward without any problems. But hostility is not uncommon and Serbs are frightened to go for treatment without a KFOR escort. The director of the health centre, after an initially wary welcome, sat us down opposite King Lazar and gave us coffee. She had sent her last child with post-traumatic stress disorder to a large psychiatric hospital in southern Serbia that takes seriously disturbed adults. She was happy to have us start a clinic and yes, we could bring our Serbian-speaking Albanian interpreter. Unicef has managed to set up joint vaccination teams of Albanian and Serbian doctors who work together in the remaining mixed villages in the area, an example of what is possible when projects benefit everybody and there is an absence of outside manipulation.

We still have unguarded Serbs and Bosnians in our neighbourhood. Slobodanka has arranged a house-swap with Albanians in Serbia. Bini tells me she is miserable.

13 February, Drenica. I spent the weekend in Drenica visiting old patients. Simon is bouncing around his grandfather’s house, now rebuilt. He is happy and well, although he still wants to kill all the Serbs. Faton is worse. He sat sullenly with his female relatives chattering around him. When I saw him alone he burst into tears. He gave up school after a few weeks because he could not concentrate. He is restless, does not eat, and the nightmares and fear have come back. It is almost as bad as last year and he wants to come to the clinic. Another worry is that the owners of the house they are living in are coming back from Germany. Their own home is in complete ruins across the yard. They don’t know what to do.

Faton took me to meet his cousin, one of the only survivors of the massacre in Rezala. Alban’s father had been executed in the same group as Faton’s grandfather. Alban escaped, but a few days later the Serbs started shelling the village, then conducted a house-to-house search, and rounded everyone up in the garden of a large house. After they had sent the women and children away, they placed machine guns around the yard and on the roof. ‘Then they all started to shoot and everyone fell.’ Alban’s great-uncle – who was paralysed – fell on top of him, then someone walked along the line shooting at close range, but ran out of ammunition before he got to Alban. When he returned, he forgot where he had left off and began again one body further down the line. Alban lay wounded for two hours, then, with two others, managed to crawl away. He told us he felt all right now, had no symptoms and was coping well. I am struck that neither he nor Faton talks about revenge. Nor does Arlinda, now in hospital in England, or Simon’s uncle, who repudiates actions like the mortar attack on a UNHCR bus, which killed two Serbs. Often there is more anger and resentment among those to whom less has happened, as if to compensate for not suffering enough.

The OSCE published its fourth report on the situation of ethnic minorities two days ago, cataloguing continuing violence and discrimination and attributing this, in part, to the absence of adequate law enforcement and judicial capacity. Judges were only sworn in last January. The international police force is still 4000 short. Dennis McNamara, the head of UNHCR in Kosovo, has called for ‘a change in culture and attitude’ among Kosovars. At a conference last weekend the newspaper publisher, Veton Suroi, wondered ‘what would happen to tolerance in Switzerland or Belgium if you left them without electricity, water, wages, courts and police. Tolerance does not only derive from goodwill. It derives from organised societies.’

There is also a feeling that Western memories are short and that crimes against minorities are now seen as equivalent to crimes against Albanians. No stories, however heartfelt, about past atrocities committed in the absence of any media can have the same impact as TV images of current ones. Yet while the lynching of a Serbian family by a mob and the shooting of children in a garden are both horrific, there is an important distinction to be made between crimes committed under orders given by the representatives of a structured society and those committed in the absence of institutions and the rule of law. Albanians feel that in its ‘balanced approach’ the international community has become ‘one-sided’. Milosevic claims to have won the war, and it gets harder to let go of the past because the full injustice of what happened is still not acknowledged. It is difficult to be reconciled with people who deny that anything happened to you, or to forgive someone who does not believe any crime has been committed. Without a ‘change in culture and attitude’ among Serbs – and an end to impunity in Serbia – it will be difficult to achieve an analogous change among Kosovars.

15 February, Pristina. Power station B has broken down so we are back to two hours with electricity and six without; and no water. I could walk to the office and get covered in mud, because all the pavements have cars parked on them, or sit in gridlock because none of the traffic lights work. When I finally got there I spent two hours trying to sort out accommodation for Faton’s family. I discovered that the agency which organised the emergency ‘warm rooms’ in the area has finished its programme and gone home. The spring rebuilding has not begun. The sister agency has an office two municipalities away, and the nearest UNHCR field officer is in Mitrovica. I am certainly not sending Faton there. There are spaces in a centre 15 kilometres away, but I have not yet found out who is responsible for them. UNHCR says that only 6000 of its 18,000 temporary shelter spaces are being utilised, and that this reflects ‘positive coping strategies within the community’. Perhaps it also reflects the fact that people just don’t know where to go.

The small war that broke out in Mitrovica on Sunday seems to have precipitated a response from the international community. Today French KFOR found a Serbian ambulance coming into town carrying 14 antitank rocket launchers. There are apparently more multinational troops now, more thorough searches. Bernard Kouchner has repeatedly committed himself to a ‘united town’ and a ‘united Kosovo’. Partition would reopen the matter of Balkan boundaries and whether they should be negotiated along ethnic lines, destabilising Bosnia, Macedonia and southern Serbia, reversing the developments in Croatia, where the new President, Stipe Mesic, invited 300,000 Krajina Serbs home without documents last week, and pushing a rump Kosovo towards unification with Albania. ‘Is that what the West wants?’ Ylber asks me. He would like Kosovar Serbs to realise that the choice is between ‘building a common house or permanent conflict’; and for Albanians to understand the consequences of ‘the stupid pursuit of vengeance’.

Underlying the problem is the unresolved question of status. While ‘the game is still open Albanian extremists will go on trying to drive out Serbs to create facts on the ground,’ the historian Noel Malcolm argues. Other Western officials believe the deliberate ambiguity of UN Resolution 1244 does not preclude independence and that any attempt to tamper with it would push the Russians and Chinese into a veto when it comes up for renewal. ‘Once we have democracy in Serbia, anything is possible,’ one of these officials said. But it is the issue of Kosovo that keeps Milosevic in power. There is far more open discussion of Albanian responsibility for what has happened. ‘We were all horrified, but before it was, if you are not with us, you are the enemy,’ a doctor friend said. ‘Sometimes I felt there was more freedom of speech in Milosevic’s Serbia, but it is better now.’ We were sitting in her mother’s flat. She rented hers to ‘internationals’ because her salary of 300 DM is not enough to feed the family and pay the bills, although the UN insists that is all the domestic economy can sustain. ‘It means no one cares if they get sacked and it’s an invitation to corruption,’ according to my friend. Listening to her catalogue of anxieties and frustrations, I asked if things had been better under Serbia. She looked amazed. ‘Of course not. It was apartheid. I was a good doctor and did nothing wrong, but I was sacked. There was no future, and no security, for me or my children in the whole of Yugoslavia. Now we are just impatient.’

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