(#2 of 3)

By Peter Lippman

(For Peter's first letter from Kosovo, click here.)

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

Someone asked me how things look in Prishtina. Prishtina is a good place to be right now, in some ways. While it is formidably ugly, it is also pretty cheerful.

To walk around the town is to walk through garbage. Garbage is piled up next to dumpsters. Sometimes the garbage takes up the corner of a block. Dumpsters are burning. The air smells of smoke or of rot. Animals are feeding in the piles of garbage.

There is hardly a pretty sight in Prishtina. Tattered old Serbian campaign posters and new mine-warning posters litter the walls. Graffiti ghosts continue the war. Someone wrote, "UCK" (KLA), and someone else came along and added, "-is just a dream." Around the corner is "I'm not just perfect: I'm Serb, too." Down the street and all over the town is "Welcome NATO & UCK."

Here and there is a house or store whose windows are broken out. This happened to Albanian-owned houses before the end of the NATO intervention, and to Serb-owned houses afterwards. Here and there you pass a house and look up to realize it has no roof, only charred rafters. But Prishtina is no Vukovar. Peja (Pec) and Gjakova (Djakovica) are a different matter.

Lawns are dead and parking strips are overgrown or trampled to dust. Weeds are growing up over the garbage. The word "pothole" does not describe the shape of the city streets and cobblestoned alleys. "Trench" and "rut" would be closer. Cars sit by the side of the road with four punctured tires, sometimes stripped, sometimes upside-down. Every other block has a gaping hole in the sidewalk where there used to be a manhole.

The city suffers from lack of a lake or river to freshen the atmosphere, though I fear that the atmosphere would conquer the river first. Once there was a lake here but the engineers got rid of it. The most outstanding monuments are perhaps the police building and the post office, both bombed by NATO.

The people of this city are as good to look at as the city is not. I see in the faces an almost classic handsomeness, with a rough edge. Older men displaced from the villages wear the white "plis," a round felt cap. Older city men wear a black beret as do the older Muslims in Bosnia. Younger people can look as urbane and fashionable as in Sarajevo or Paris, or they can have a hint of Picasso in their faces, something out of place, something genuine.

Their buildings are dirty but their apartments are spotless. Shoes are left outside the door. Warmth and hospitality prevail inside. Coffee, strong Turkish tea, and fruit are an obligatory part of visiting. Optimism is the rule. It's not unusual that the first thing I hear from someone is, "A miracle has happened." While there has been trauma and there is anger, people are looking forward. Almost everyone I have talked with in the last few days dismisses problems of factionalism and looting. People see the latest developments as a step towards independence.

Ereblir ("Fragrance of the Linden") is a young friend who has been helping me and Teresa make connections here. He was taking me to meet with the organization Mother Theresa yesterday. Ereblir was a refugee in Macedonia for three months, and is thinking of going to finish high school in the United States. But now he is wavering. He told me, "There are plenty of talented people in the West. Maybe I should stay here and help my people. Kosovo needs good people.

"It feels good to be here," he continued. "Now we can speak our own language outside without looking over our shoulder. We can go out at night and stay out late without worrying about how we'll get home, or whether we'll get home. We have our own flag now. It feels like freedom."

In fact the atmosphere on the streets is 180 degrees different from when I was here in the spring of 1998. Then, young people did not walk the streets after dark. Now they throng at certain collection points - the Brooklyn Bar, for example. Around nine in the evening you can hardly pass through that area. People sitting at outdoor tables jump up suddenly to hug friends they haven't seen since before the NATO bombing.

Many things I am hearing remind me of the transition period in Bosnia in early 1996, immediately after Dayton was signed. I realize that two years in Bosnia, in a divided country where progress is negligible and young people are striving only to leave, have made me pessimistic. This is hard since I am not naturally that way. And I realize once again how much the Bosnians, except for the profiteers, have lost.

I am nervous about the potential for a similar outcome here, but the situation is very different. Kosovo has not been partitioned, although I had feared that something like that would happen. The population is relatively ethnically homogeneous. The Roma and Serbs are losing. They are suffering, and being victimized. I don't believe in collective punishment. But the present situation is the consequence of war as a solution, and this choice was made by the Serbian regime ten years ago.

The Serbian population has been caught up in that choice, and now they are paying for it. I don't know when they will face the history of the crimes that have been committed in their name. Now there are demonstrations taking place all over Serbia - in Kragujevac, Kikinda, Uzice, Cacak, and other places. Draskovic the chameleon is getting in on the act. He just said that Milosevic has done more damage to Serbia than NATO did. And Djindjic said that it was better under the Turks than under Milosevic.

I suppose Milosevic will be removed, although there could be a lot more blood shed before then. This is entirely unpredictable and there is no use wasting time making predictions. A million pundits will make predictions and one third of them will be right. In whatever way (by way of prediction), Milosevic will be gone and then the world will support the great democrat Draskovic, or the other great democrat Djindjic (old pal of Karadzic), and the Serbs will have another horrible new leader. But perhaps a more mediocre one, which would be a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile in Kosovo house burnings are continuing. These seem to be unorganized acts of revenge. From what I have heard repeatedly they are not perpetrated by the KLA. It doesn't help that there is no police force in the province. As I write this there is a KFOR helicopter outside the window, hovering over the northern neighborhoods of Prishtina with a spotlight searching for arsonists. But KFOR is not up to the task. An international police force is soon to be established here, but a lot of damage is being done in the meantime.

Demonstrations have also been taking place in Kosovo. People are nervous about a few things, especially about the presence of the Russian troops. I have heard many stories about Russian volunteers participating in atrocities during the war. In any case their presence here is unwelcome since Russia has clearly been on the side of the Serbs. In Rahovec (Orahovac), one of the centers of Russian troop placement, Albanians have said that 25,000 of them will leave if the Russians are placed there.

Albanians are also angry with the Italians and the French - the Italians for permissiveness in the western sector, where they have allegedly allowed war criminals to escape, and the French for permissiveness in the north, where they have allowed Serbs to take over most of Mitrovica and prevent Albanians from returning. The Germans in Prizren have a good reputation, and Fejza says she wishes they were in Prishtina.

* * * * *

I visited my old friend Xhemal, who is a radio journalist. He told me that he covered the Rambouillet meetings and in mid-March rushed home with inside information that made him get his family to Macedonia before the bombings started. A month ago he was a refugee in Skopje. Now he is the chief editor of a newly-forming radio and television station, Radio 21. KFOR and USAID are helping install a transmitter and equipment for this station, and the radio service will be running soon.

When I brought up the issue of pressure from the international community on Kosovo to include Serbs in the province's decision- making process, Xhemal reacted with a certain amount of anger. He said, "We are not going to have the old Yugoslav brotherhood here. If Serbs and Roma want to stay here, they can live and grow. But they will not be able to dominate us like they did before. I don't want my children to live through what I had to live through.

"My Serbian neighbor shaved his head and went out every night with two guns, and came back with bags of goods that he stole. I don't have to love him. For now it's enough that I don't do something to drive him out of Kosovo, or worse.

"Where are all the young Serbs who lived in Kosovo? Why are only older people staying? The young people all wore uniforms. There were very few exceptions. OK, I know about a Serbian woman who protected a lot of young Albanian women in her apartment, because you know what they were doing to young women. But there were very few such stories."

* * * * *

Today I talked to Nora, who used to be with the student union. I wanted to hear what she had to say about the women's situation in Kosovo. But she started telling me her story, and that took all our time. It was obviously something she needed to talk about, and she needed me to listen to her.

Nora was driven out of her house in Prishtina with her family a few days after the start of the bombing. They avoided being sent to the train station by taking off in a direction, towards a village where they had relatives. Nora told me that she made this decision because she had heard that the men and women were being separated at the train station.

When the family got to the village there were already five families of refugees living in four rooms of that household. So those who were not too weak slept outside in the woods for two weeks, without any shelter or bedding. Food was scarce and they went for two days at a time without eating. Then they decided to go back to their houses in Prishtina.

When the family was heading back they wound up with a column of around 100,000 people who had just been displaced from villages to the north and east of Prishtina. The police and soldiers were forcing the column of people to go to the train station to go to Macedonia. As before, Nora wanted to escape with her family. At a point near their neighborhood she "ordered" her family to run away, and then she followed them, across some train tracks. She told me, "I heard gunshots. I don't know if they were aiming at us or in the air. I didn't look back."

I can't imagine hearing this sentence once, even though I heard it. In fact, I've heard it now three times in one year - last year in Poland, and in Sarajevo. Once is too much.

After Nora's family got back home they were given "green cards" by the Serbian police, as were other Albanians who stayed in Kosovo. The police took liberties to harass Albanians whenever they were caught on the street. Nora told me that she felt "like the Jews in a ghetto during World War II." She said, "I am trying to forgive, but I don't think that I will be able to forget."

* * * * *

Last night someone threw a bomb at the Serbian-owned house behind this apartment. Teresa and Adem heard it; I didn't, because I was sleeping soundly. Adem found out about this today. Adem and Fejza told me that the owner of this house wore a uniform during the bombing and that paramilitary units congregated at the house at night.

Yesterday five or six Albanians rang the bell at the doorway to the hall of this apartment. There are two other apartments on this hall, both owned by Serbian families who are the immediate neighbors. They are both older couples whose sons have left the province. The Albanians who came wanted to kick them out of their apartments. Adem came to the door and argued with them.

The men said to Adem, "They're Serbs, what are they waiting for?" Adem said, "They didn't do anything, so they shouldn't have to go." The men said, "That's easy for you to say, you didn't lose your house or family." Adem said, "I did too. My family lost five houses, and some of my relatives were killed. But this is not the way to solve your problem. If you have proof that these people committed crimes, I will help you evict them myself."

The men left. I was not around at the time, but later Fejza explained to me, "Before the bombing I was in the habit of stocking up on food. I always bought extra. So when the bombing started we couldn't go out for the first two weeks, but we had enough. The neighbor's son is a doctor. At work he was given two loaves of bread and two cartons of milk. That night his mother came over and offered me one of each. I didn't need them but told her I would come over if I did. So why shouldn't we defend them?"

Later the Serbian neighbors called KFOR troops in to talk to them. When the KFOR people left they put up a sign on the hall door that read, "Anyone who is engaged in stealing apartments or trying to burn houses will be arrested and put in jail immediately." I don't know if that sign will protect the neighbors, but perhaps the KFOR will come around Fjo more often.

* * * * *

Last night T and I went out with the sisters and their cousin Arzen. We walked down through the campus where there was a statue of Vuk Karadzic, the famous 19th century poet and scholar who standardized the Serbian language. His statue was lying on the ground, face down. Arzen said, "He's kissing his holy land, which he never visited."

Meanwhile Louise Arbour, president of the International War Crimes Tribunal, came to Albania and Kosovo. She visited a couple of mass graves in Celina. One of them held 22 people, including a couple of two-year-olds.

The count of returned refugees is up to 670,000 now. Mines and leftover NATO cluster bombs are still a big problem. Around 100 people have been killed by them. Some KLA forces are engaged in clearing mines, and some of them have been injured too.

Apparently there's a bit of banditry on the road. T's friend V. was out to Mitrovica with his nice car and on the way back it broke down. His cell phone didn't work either, so he went to sleep in the back seat. Some folks came up to steal the car. According to Teresa, he "had to flash his lights" to let them know he was there. They left.

We should be going to Prizren tonight for some kind of "Thank you NATO" celebration. Darda is supposed to pick us up tomorrow and take us to Pec and Gjakova. In an interview I did today, a woman told me that people in those two cities are shell-shocked from the atrocities committed there, and not in much of a mood to celebrate.

Sunday, July 18

Friday Fejza went to a meeting at the high school where she used to teach Albanian. She was fired from that job nine years ago, like all the rest of the teachers. This was the first time she had been inside since that time. She said, "The building looks good. It was clean and painted, and the Serbs didn't wreck it. The paramilitaries slept in the university buildings and wrecked them.

"There were so many victims," Fejza continued. "Maybe it had to be that way." "It didn't have to be that way," I said. Fejza answered, "It didn't have to. But when you were here last year, the Serbs said that there would be blood up to here (pointing to her knees) before there would be a Kosovo Republic." And there was.

On the streets of Prishtina I noticed that people have been painting over the red star on their car license plates. This is a symbol of Yugoslavia. Some people are putting stickers of the red and black Albanian flag over the star. The newer license plates have a Yugoslav flag in place of the star. That also is getting covered over.

President Rugova came to Kosovo Friday for the first time since he left during the bombing. I waited for him to show up, in a crowd of people in the center of town. After an hour of pushing we saw the UN vehicle pull up in front of their mission building, with Rugova waving from the window. He got out and gave a little speech. I left, but I was told that he praised the Pope above all. Later I told Fejza and Adem what I had seen. Fejza said, "Ku, ku..."

"Ku, ku" means "Well, I never-" or, "Can you imagine that kind of behavior..." Fejza said, "Ku, ku...Peter came to visit free Kosovo before Rugova, what kind of president is he?" Rugova has lost a lot of popularity. There were a couple of thousand people at the reception, where there probably would have been tens of thousands a year ago.

I did an interview with Melihate Juniku of the Center for Protection of Women and Children. We had met with Vjosa Dobruna of this organization last year, after the massacres at Drenica. The Center works to educate women as to their rights, and provides health services. At the time it was scrambling to find shelter for displaced persons from Drenica.

Melihate told me how the organization created projects in Macedonia this spring when the refugee camps were full there. They did "psycho-social projects" for the children, including having them make drawings about their experiences. She said that while doing this work, what bothered her most was the barbed wire around the camps.

While Melihate was in exile in Macedonia she went to The Hague. I assumed that this was to give testimony to the war-crimes tribunal, since her organization collects witnesses' testimony about such crimes. But it turned out that she went to the Hague Appeal for Peace, a huge pacifist gathering in May. She said, "We had a workshop where we talked about Kosovo. There was a big piece of paper on the floor where we wrote down ideas for a policy on the war. The main one was 'Stop NATO and the KLA.' I said that if people went into the larger meeting with that as their main point, then I couldn't support it. So what we eventually came up with was the following: 1. Stop the massacres. 2. Stop the genocide. 3. Stop NATO, and 4. Stop KLA. Only if the first two were accomplished would it make any sense to go to numbers three and four. So I think the people listened to me and the other Albanians there.

"The peace activists were appealing for peace, but I had an appeal to the peace activists," Melihate told me. "Why didn't they get involved in Kosovo on time? They were opposed to the bombing of Yugoslavia, but they hardly said anything what had been happening for a long time in Kosovo. I'm against killing, but you have to look equally at all sides of the situation. To some people at the conference, it was important to hear what those of us from here had to say. But there were others who seemed bored and acted like they already knew enough."

* * * * *

Teresa and I took a taxi to Gjakova, about a half hour away, the next morning. Coming into town, we passed the 8-story police building on the right. It had been bombed during the NATO intervention and was totally gutted. Oddly, it still seemed to be smoldering. A boy of about four was standing in the rubble beside the building.

We passed a graffiti: "NATO is stronger." When we arrived I found Ismet, Ariana's brother. He and the whole family stayed in Gjakova for about a month, and then escaped to Albania. Ariana's parents are still in Tirana, due to come home soon.

We sat in the living room at talked to Ismet and his neighbor Flamur ("flag") while Ismet's wife Saranda cooked us lunch. Flamur told me that he had lived in Sweden in the early 1990s for a couple of years but then came back to Gjakova. He said, "In Sweden when you go outside, the flowers don't smell. Here, you go out and they have a fragrance. This is my homeland. I want to be here, close to my parents and family."

Flamur had been in the KLA up around Decani for five months last year. He said, "I had a lot of luck surviving during that time. Once they shot at me from a tank and I was thrown twelve meters up into the air. Another time I was on guard duty, sitting in a chair. I got up to move out of that chair, and then it was blown away by a mortar."

Flamur came home early this year because his wife was pregnant. He told me that he was on a list to be killed by the Serbs, but he hid out. When the NATO bombing started, his family moved immediately to another house. He told me, "On the second day, they took our neighbor away. I still don't know where he is. I watched from the attic of the house where we were staying, when three men in masks came and took the family out from next door. They killed four people in the yard. I was waiting for them to come kill me."

Ismet told me about a family of his cousins, twenty of whom were killed by the Serbs. First they were killed, or some of them were killed, and then the house they were in was burned. This was done to many people, alive or dead, in Gjakova especially.

I was translating some of this for Teresa and she told me I didn't need to continue.

Flamur, a chubby man of 28, has a sad expression built into his face. He shook his head and said, "It was terrible. I wish I could take the head of a Serb and analyze the brain." I said, "It's the same brain as ours." He said, "No, it's not."

On the first day of the bombing the Serbs torched the old section of Gjakova. Flamur said, "They wanted to destroy our heritage." He also told me, "There were very few Serbs here, maybe around two or three per cent. But during the war they behaved very badly towards us." Now they have all left.

Many of the residents of Gjakova tried to stay at home. The population had been around 60,000, plus approximately 20,000 people who were displaced from the surrounding villages. Eventually around 60% fled to Albania. Most of them have returned now. The worst problem now in Gjakova is that there are at least 1,500 people missing. Some of these are in jails in Serbia. Beyond this number there are 500 known dead.

Flamur and Ismet told us that a KLA commander had been shot and killed the night before, and there was to be a funeral today. We were invited. There were various theories as to why the man was killed, but no facts. Flamur had fought under him, and said he was a "smart man and a very strong commander."

We went to the building where the service was being held. There were two rows of uniformed KLA soldiers, including several women, in front of the hall. People filed in between the two rows to pay their respects. Later we drove to the cemetery a few kilometers away. Here there were many fresh graves, some including more than a dozen people.

There were several thousand mourners of all ages present. After a while the coffin was brought in and buried. Men with uniforms and guns conducted a ceremony. The KLA is not supposed to be carrying weapons nor wearing uniforms now, but KFOR did not interfere. A soldier called out some orders and three volleys were fired. Some of the women covered their ears, and so did I.

On the way back from the funeral many people were driving or walking. We passed a camp of Roma displaced from houses that had been burned. They were sleeping in NATO-donated tents, and some of them under UNHCR plastic. Colorful clothing was hanging to dry on the cyclone fence. Flamur told me, "They put on uniforms and robbed and killed us during the bombing. We want all of them, and all the Serbs, to leave here." A young man who was walking back from the funeral shouted curses at the Romi inside the camp.

Flamur drove us back to Prizren, to an entirely different atmosphere.

* * * * *

Dardan and I had arranged to meet and go up to Pec. First we visited Igballe, the sister of Dardan's wife. I had been to that house ten years earli er for a sunnet, or circumcision, of Igballe's two sons. This ceremony/celebrat ion was also a "svadba."

Now the two sons are grown and one is in Holland. The daughter is married and has an infant. This family stayed in Gjakova throughout the bombing. I asked Dardan why. He said, "Because they weren't kicked out." Dardan told me that one night the police came to a restaurant run by the daughter's husband's uncle. The police ordered dinner and drinks. They ate and left. Then they came back in masks and took the uncle and his four sons away.

Igballe's husband told me, "America freed us. We want to build a monument to Clinton."

Dardan and I drove around Gjakova. Many cars had no license plates. Dardan explained that when people fled to Albania, the police removed the license plates from the cars as they were leaving, to prevent people from being able to prove where they were from, should they ever try to come back.

We drove through the old section that was burned. It burned quickly because it was mostly old Turkish storefronts with wooden facades. Dardan told me that the neighborhood was built on the design of Sarajevo's old Turkish section, the Bas-Carsija. It was much larger, though. Blocks and blocks, maybe around ninety per cent of the neighborhood, were destroyed. Here and there were a few mosques or "tekijas" (Dervish centers) that survived because they were mostly made of stone.

We headed north towards Pec. There was a checkpoint with two tanks manned by Italians with helmets. The Italians like feathers. Each of their helmets had most of a roostertail, from a real rooster, hanging to one side of it. It seemed perfect for a Fellini movie, but incongruous for this situation. The Italians looked in the trunk of Dardan's car and waved us on.

Near the turnoff for Junik there was a settlement of a hundred or so clean little two-room cottages. These had been built after 1995 for Serb refugees from the Croatian Krajina. They were put in this area where there were almost no Serbs, as a colonization tactic. Dardan called it a provocation. Now a red and black flag flies over the compound. The settlement will not be big enough for the thousands whose nearby homes were destroyed.

We took the turnoff to Junik. Dardan had never been to this village, even though this part of Kosovo was his stomping grounds. Junik was a center of KLA activity in the last year or so. Now there are very few intact houses. Many of them were ancient stone buildings with "kulas" or towers, that is, a taller portion of the house that looked out over the stone walls surrounding the compound. Dardan said that people in this area preserved the old look from the outside, while having "everything modern" inside their homes.

Further up the road to Pec we passed through Decani, site of the famous monastery. At the entrance to the town there were two Italian tanks and a banner that read, "Mire se vini ne Kosova e Liri" -- Welcome to Free Kosovo." This town was attacked by the Serbs last summer. There were few untouched homes there, except for some apartment buildings in the center. Dardan said that Serbs had lived in these, and used some of the upper floors for sniper's nests during the bombing.

Along the entire road between Gjakova and Pec there were very few undamaged houses. Here and there, there would be a cluster of untouched houses. Either they were Serb-owned, or they had been passed over. This is the state of affairs in every part of Kosovo that I have traveled now, including the road through Orahovac and Malishevo. My impression is that while destruction was widespread, it was hurried. The Serbian forces apparently did not have the time to do the thorough, expert work of demolition that they did in Bosnia. Here there are many houses that were torched but not blown up. Many houses have holes in the roofs where the rafters collapsed, but the walls are still standing. They are restorable, unlike many houses in Bosnia that will have to be rebuilt completely.

We arrived in Pec to visit Dardan's brother Ismail. First we stopped in the middle of town where Dardan's uncle had a shop. I had visited Dardan's uncle ten years ago at his old-fashioned Turkish house with balconies, wood paneling, and built-in cushioned benches around the perimeter of the upstairs room. He had a little room where he relaxed, and there was a picture of Ghandi on one wall, and a picture of Lenin on another.

This uncle died a few years ago, and his beautiful old house was burned down this spring by the Serbs. Dardan's aunt and the family are now staying upstairs from the shop in the center of town. Nearby is the old section similar to the one in Gjakova, and like Gjakova, it was burned. This is a somewhat more compact old neighborhood, but there is not much left of it anymore. On the central square, however, there are some apartment buildings, hotels, and businesses that are intact.

Walking through this section, we saw some enterprising people already repairing a roof, and there was even a building crew putting in a new foundation where one shop had been completely destroyed.

The biggest damage is in the residential neighborhoods, which I would say are 90 to 95 per cent burned. We went out to Ismail's house. On the way we passed the police station that was bombed by NATO, and the sports complex next to it where Dardan's father Riza had been held for a weekend. People were driving into the bombed police/military complex and taking out usable wood timbers. Ismail's house, now burned, was behind a high wall in a neighborhood of narrow streets. Two houses are destroyed, for the old mud-brick house next to Ismail's, where Dardan was born, has also been burned down.

A tent stands in the front yard of Ismail's house, next to a grape arbor that still bears ripening fruit. The big house, finished in 1981, is full of charcoal and melted glass. The roof has fallen in where the rafters burned through. The walls of brick and cinderblock are intact, and the house can be rebuilt. That will not happen this year, as it is too late for the international relief organizations to get sufficiently organized. Meanwhile Ismail and his wife Hatixhe camp in the front yard and spend their time cleaning up.

We sat at a metal table under the arbor and talked with some neighbors whose house had survived, but had been looted. Hatixhe served spaghetti with canned beans. Dardan said, "Now you can try some refugee food."

Ismail told me, "I was never a nationalist. But this (pointing to what was done to his house) was beastly. They were fighting a war against houses, not people." Unlike Gjakova, the people of Pec were expelled immediately at the beginning of the war. Then the houses were looted and burned to prevent people from coming back. I was told that 85,000 people left Pec in four days. Around 300 stayed, and they were mostly killed.

The town was once 30 per cent Serb, but those people are gone now. And my friends were very reluctant to speak Serbian with me. They brought out a death notice of Hani Hoxha's family with twenty pictures on it. These were the people killed and burned in Gjakova, Dardan's and Ismail's cousins.

We went into the house to look around, after I asked whether there were any mines inside. From the third floor I could see many blocks of roofless houses. It reminded me of looking from the upstairs floor of Emsuda's bombed house in Kozarac. Kozarac and Vukovar, Vukovar and Kozarac. From the upstairs balcony I could pick an almost-ripe Italian prune from a nearby tree. Down in the grass a mother cat lay nursing kittens.

* * * * *

Third letter from Kosovo

Peter Lippman's other correspondence from Kosovo and Bosnia

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