(#3 of 3)

By Peter Lippman

For Peter's second letter from Kosovo, click here

Friday, July 23, 1999

I did a couple of final interviews this week, including one with Igballe (Igo) Rogova, whom we had been chasing since we got here. It turned out she only came back from exile in Macedonia after we got here.

My interview with her was the best. Igo told me about her organization's work with the women of Has, a rural region between Prizren and the Albanian border. The organization is "Motrat Qiriazi" (Qiriazi Sisters), a women's organization. The Qiriazi sisters were Albanian women who standardized the Albanian writing system, around 100 years ago.

Motrat Qiriazi went into the villages around Has and asked the fathers why the daughters were quitting school before they finished high school. The fathers said, "The high school is far away in Prizren." Motrat Qiriazi said, "O.K., we'll build schools here." They built three high schools and in the next three years 500 girls enrolled.

One was a general school and the other two were pre-med preparatory schools. Later they added sewing courses and then literature courses. To supply literature, Motrat Qiriazi encouraged the publishing houses to re-issue various works of Albanian and international literature. This encouraged Albanian writers to write more. Motrat Qiriazi also produced a series of recorded cassette tapes with readings of various literary works, because in the 1990s radio was not available to the Albanians of Kosovo. These tapes were distributed for free around the villages of Has. The group got a village woman to write her life story and this was produced as a theatre play and on tape. In this way, as Igo told me, Motrat Qiriazi was responsible for creating a "cultural revolution."

From Igo I was able to find out more about the situation of women in the villages. Apparently as a result of Motrat Qiriazi's work women in this area were able to come out from under the repression of the local patriarchal system to some extent. Igo talked about the need to "emancipate men," and how she witnessed this happening as part of the process of emancipating women.

I had a short interview with the leaders of the League of Albanian Women, an organization that has provided shelter and services to displaced women, widows of Drenica. The founder of the organization is Flora Brovina, who is currently languishing in a prison in Serbia. She is one of as many as 5,000 political prisoners who were removed by the Serbs from Kosovo during the NATO intervention. The present leaders of the organization praised Flora and told me that I didn't have enough paper to write the story of her good works.

I was satisfied with the amount of information I had from women's organizations (the main point of our project), and wanted to look into the situation with the fast-disappearing minorities of Kosovo, i.e., the Roma and Serbs. The number of those who have left the province, while probably impossible to calculate accurately, is allegedly upwards of 100,000. The estimated number of Serbs living in Kosovo was only 200,000 to begin with.

What the Serbs did to the Albanians is pretty well known. What I have heard from dozens of Albanians about what the Roma did has been 100% consistent, though this does not necessarily prove anything. I have heard repeatedly that Serbian police and paramilitary units would break into Albanians' homes, evict the residents, and steal whatever they wanted, and then leave the doors open for the Roma to steal the rest.

I have also heard that the Roma at times participated in attacks on the Albanians, wore uniforms, spoke only Serbian in public (although many use Albanian as their mother tongue), received privileges from the Serbian regime, and in general chose to side with that regime until the last minute. I have heard many first-hand stories about this behavior in great detail from people I trust. I believe that at least some of it happened.

Since the departure of the Serbian forces Roma have been attacked en masse, their houses burned, and they have been driven out of the towns -- either to collective centers administered by the international community, or to neighboring countries. The biggest center near Prishtina was in Kosovo Polje, a suburb of Prishtina about a 15-minute drive from here. (Kosovo Polje is also the location of the famous battle in 1389, when the Ottomans first defeated the Serbs.) Several thousand Roma were gathered in a high school there.

I heard that the people were to be moved to a new collective center on Wednesday and took a taxi out to Kosovo Polje to try to talk to them. The atmosphere in Kosovo Polje is quite different than in Prishtina. There is a large Serbian population still there - some local Serbs, and other displaced Serbs who decided to make that their refuge instead of leaving for Serbia.

Kosovo Polje consists of a couple of long streets with a nearly abandoned train station at one end. There is no hint of a Medieval epic battle having been fought there. There are, however, dozens of abandoned shops, some burned out, others with broken windows. Most of the signs are exclusively in Serbian. People openly speak Serbian on the streets, unlike anywhere else I have been in Kosovo. They have the air of people who don't know what hit them and don't know what is going to happen next.

I arrived at the high school and wandered in through the gate. Some UNHCR moving vans and some KFOR soldiers were placed at the entrance. I ignored them and they ignored me. There were a couple hundred Roma sitting around outside the school building, with piles of bedding and belongings waiting to be loaded. The women and children had already left.

As I walked in a Rom man was trying to tell a KFOR soldier something in Serbian, so I volunteered to translate. He was upset because, as he reported, two Albanian kids had just come up behind a fence and thrown rocks at the school windows. The KFOR soldier promised to look for them. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the Rom and ask for an interview.

We took two chairs and sat against a wall, and in no time there were a dozen curious, idle Rom gathered around to participate in the interview. Two of them spoke to me, with others contributing at times. They denied that any of their people took part in the crimes against the Albanians, or that they knew anything about anyone who did so. This was obviously a very sensitive topic and I did not pursue it beyond the initial question.

The general appraisal of the people I was talking to was that they have no future in Kosovo. They want to get out to any place they can get to, preferably a "third country," meaning somewhere other than the former Yugoslavia. This will be very difficult, as the contempt for Roma around the world is extreme. One tall man stood near me waving a table leg. He said, "We will walk to Macedonia if we have to."

The Roma told me of mistreatment at the hands of both the Serbs and Albanians. Probably the truest thing someone said was, "This was a conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians. We got caught in the middle."

* * * * *

I told an Albanian friend, Zana, about my interview. She told me about something that happened in her apartment building during the NATO bombing. People were being evicted in many parts of town but this had not taken place there. Zana said that there was a Rom resident in one of the upper apartments. He was a reservist in the Yugoslav army. He had apparently made plans to kick the Albanian tenants out of their apartments. His children went around the building and told the other children, "You are going to be kicked out in two days." Zana asked her father whether they were going to leave. He said, "Not until they come around with guns." Zana said to me, "It's easy to leave, but difficult to come back."

The Rom man in Zana's apartment building also talked to Serbs in the bomb shelter/basement of the building. He told them that he was going to kick out the Albanians. They asked him how. He said he would put on a mask and no one would know him. Some of the Serbs in the shelter argued with the Rom and persuaded him not to do it.

Zana said that the Serbs in some of the other buildings nearby treated the Albanians in those buildings horribly, but that they had no such problem in this building. She said that one of the Serb neighbors had long since said, "It's easier for us now, but one day it will be the opposite. Later we will be dependent on you."

I asked Zana if she thought there was any future for the Serbs in Kosovo. She said, "I don't know if there's any future for any of us. We are all in shock now. It takes time to recover from all of this. But if the Serbs or the international community insist on a one-to-one ratio of Serbs and Albanians in the public institutions, there will never be reconciliation. For example, they are pressing this arrangement with the public radio and television. The television station has no equipment because the Serbs stole it all when they left. But the radio is ready to reopen. However, the Albanians are refusing to work under that arrangement."

* * * * *

After a couple of weeks of sharing the Albanians' feeling of euphoria in their new-found freedom, things that were happening in Prishtina began to make me feel nervous. There have been a couple of bomb attacks on a nearby Serbian-owned house, whose inhabitants are reportedly former paramilitary members. Teresa was walking near the stadium and passed some KFOR troops tending to a Serb who had been shot in the head. But what made me the most nervous was what was happening in the building.

The small groups of Albanian bandits who had been coming around to the outer door of Fejza and Adem's hallway kept coming and demanding to be let in. Fejza or Adem would answer the door, and the Serbs in the two apartments would stay inside. Fejza and Adem kept refusing to let the bandits in, and they were receiving threats and verbal abuse because of this. I never witnessed this but was in the apartment when it happened. Because of this I started having presentiments of evil and decided to leave Kosovo early.

A few days ago some Serb neighbors in the next hallway were threatened. The bandits told them they had three hours to move out. They told the Serbs, "Don't call KFOR or it will be worse for you." The Serbs gave the bandits the keys and left. An Albanian man moved into that apartment. The Serbs called KFOR anyway, and the troops came and arrested the Albanian. The Serbs, who had moved to Kosovo Polje, subsequently received a death threat there over the phone.

Rada, one of Fejza's Serb neighbors, was talking to me about this situation. She told me that some of her relatives in Orahovac had been kidnapped by the KLA after KFOR arrived. Some of them were released, and some have not been heard from. All of their houses were burned.

All of this has understandably made the two Serb couples in Fejza's hallway very nervous. Rada next door came over for coffee yesterday. I asked her for an interview so I could get a Serbian point of view. She declined but then talked non-stop about her problems for the next fifteen minutes.

Rada said, "I wouldn't wish this on our worst enemies. I was very Yugoslav-oriented, not nationalist at all. I have been here thirty years. (She came from Montenegro.) I worked at the newspaper Rilindja, and knew the Albanian language very well. I loved Albanians; more of them were my friends than were Serbs. Fejza here is like a sister to me.

"These last ten years, when everything was heating up, have been very bad. Now it is hell for us. After what happened to those neighbors yesterday, I'm still nervous. See, my hands are shaking. And I got a call in the middle of the night, where they just said, 'I'm going to kill you.' If things calm down by September, so that my son can come back and go to school, then I will stay here. (She got up and crossed herself.) But if not, I'll move back to Montenegro where my parents live. I'd sleep on the floor, just so my son could go to school. He's very smart and it would be a shame to waste that."

"It's a problem though, because my husband is not Montenegrin. He's from Herzegovina. His parents came here in 1926. And you know how we are in the Balkans. It's considered shameful for the husband to go to the wife's home."

Fejza told me, "Rada said that if something happened to her, I should take her valuable things like the embroidery and the television set, so that they don't get stolen. I said, 'Aman, don't even talk about it.'"

Earlier in the day I was up the hill visiting my friends with whom I had stayed last year. I described the situation of threats and displacement to them, and they just laughed. To the father it was obviously just a fair turnabout. We discussed revenge a bit. I remembered what one Albanian asked me: "If you are bit by a mosquito, do you look for that mosquito, or do you go after all mosquitoes?" Leka, the 16-year-old who had given me a magnificent private piano concert last year, said, "I am against revenge. I don't want anything to do with it."

* * * * *

While Fejza, Rada, and I were conversing, the doorbell rang. Fejza went into the hallway and I heard a very brief discussion. Fejza came back and locked the door. She said that the bandits were demanding that she open the outer door or they would break it. Soon we heard a loud noise. Fejza and Rada went into the hallway and I stayed in the apartment, not knowing what to do. I heard some yelling for a couple of minutes. Then I heard some screaming. I went into the hallway and Rada was leaning against the wall, screaming and holding her head. Three or four young men in t-shirts were leaving.

The bandits left, and Rada and Fejza came into the apartment. Rada told me what had happened. She had run to the apartment door, and her husband started to open it. She pulled it closed so the bandits would not go in. She feared it would be worse if they found her husband inside. The bandits figured out that she was a Serb, and became very angry. One of them had a pistol. He hit Rada on the head with it, and that's when she began screaming. Probably the bandits started leaving because of the screaming.

We called KFOR, and they said that they would come in ten minutes. Rada tried to get into her apartment but the door was stuck, since the bandits had been pushing on it. Slavko, Rada's husband, was frantic to get out. So I kicked the door in for him. Then he and Rada, and the other couple in the apartment at the end of the hall, all started moving their televisions and other valuables into Fejza's apartment. They were moving gilt-framed embroidery samples, dishes, and lace tablecloths. They were planning to leave.

The Serbs were moving their things quickly and fairly calmly. Fejza and I did not know what to do. Fejza was frantic. She was trying to get in touch with Adem, and couldn't. She started crying. The KFOR people were not coming and this was making us all nervous. I called them back and expressed my anxiety in strong terms.

About 45 minutes after the first visit, four bandits came back. This time Fejza stayed in the apartment. I thought a little about what my responsibility was and went out into the hall. It was much more a reflexive action than a considered decision. The four men were very angry that I was there. I pretended not to have any common language with them. They questioned me in Albanian and I answered them in English, so there was not much communication.

It was clear however that they were very upset by my presence. I was mutually upset by their insistence on going through my pockets. They were trying to figure out who I was and what the hell I was doing there. After a while they went down to Rada's apartment. She yelled, "Please give us an hour to clear out." They told her, "You have a half hour." They gave me one last stern look and cleared out, all in white t-shirts.

With exquisite timing three KFOR soldiers showed up a few minutes later. The leader, Corporal Tomlinson, tried to calm us all down and establish some order. The Serbs were frantic to leave, and were still putting their possessions into Fejza's apartment. Corporal Tomlinson tried to put a stop to that as it would implicate Fejza and Adem if the bandits came back. He also tried to get us all out of the hallway so that they could set up an ambush to catch the bandits if they came back. This was very difficult to achieve as we were all running around like nervous chickens. Around that time Iain (my colleague from the Advocacy Project) showed up.

With me translating between Corporal Tomlinson and the Serbs, we finally established some order and made some decisions. Corporal Tomlinson promised to drive the Serbs to Kosovo Polje, where they would find refuge. As a formality he asked both couples whether they had any weapons. Rada and Slavko had nothing. However the next couple pulled out a "trophy" pistol in a felt bag and handed it to Corporal Tomlinson. He did not want anything left for the bandits to find. Then the woman, Mara, said there was one more thing. She opened up a cupboard and had Corporal Tomlinson pull out a weapon. He handed it to me to hold. It was a longish thing and there were a couple of cartridge clips. I asked Corporal Tomlinson what it was and he said it was an AK-47. Mara had a son who had been in the army, and had left Kosovo.

Corporal Tomlinson was very polite and solicitous. He told me, "All the Serbs have guns. The Albanians too. I would keep one, if I were here. I do this work, arresting people, all day every day. We have been making ten or so arrests each day. It's a very complicated job. There's not much order. If I get a call right now saying that someone has been shot somewhere, I will have to leave."

He continued, "I love my job. I haven't had to kill anyone, so far. Last week I separated two men who were fighting. They were both Albanians. One had a pistol and the other a hand grenade. He had pulled the pin on it. They were holding onto each other, each to prevent the other from killing him. I separated them and took the grenade. The pin had broken and so could not be replaced. I took the grenade and threw it in a hold in the sidewalk. It exploded harmlessly. I said to the men, 'There, that wasn't so bad, was it?'"

"Another time there were three Albanian families fighting over who would get to take over an abandoned apartment. And they were just going to take it and rent it out." I asked Corporal Tomlinson, "Do you sleep?" He said, "Not much."

We walked into Fejza's kitchen so that Corporal Tomlinson could go out on the balcony to use his mobile radio. He said to me, "Do you know what my job is like? Do you know what I have to deal with? Look out the window." Instead I looked at him, wondering why the man was telling me to look out the window. He said again, "Look out the window." I looked out the window into the darkness and two blocks away there was a house in full blaze.

I thought of hell, and it was not a movie. I remembered that my mother had told me before I came here a few weeks ago, "It sounds like hell." She turned out to be right, as usual. She told me not to go to Kosovo, so I promised not to go. Later I found out she knew I was going to go anyway. In that case, she should not have made me lie.

Corporal Tomlinson left his two mates (they're all British) and drove the Serbs to their refuge. Iain and I fixed the lock on the outer door and then went inside. The two soldiers stayed inside so as to surprise the bandits. I sat with one of them describing what I could remember of the bandits. The main thing I could remember was the white t-shirts and the bad teeth.

After a time the soldier got up to go across the hall to his mate. While doing so he caught sight of four men running down the stairs. He called his mate and they ran after the perpetrators. Iain and I sat down to have a cold drink with Adem, who had shown up in the meantime. Adem was joking and speaking French with Iain.

After a short while one of the Brits came back up and asked me to come downstairs and make an identification. They had caught four men. Iain and I went down and I recognized some of them. The one who had been going through my pockets was not among them, but the one with bad teeth, who had hit Rada with a pistol, was there. I identified him and went and finished my dinner. Iain stayed down and watched the Brits throw the four bandits roughly into the back of a jeep.

The soldiers came back and asked me to go make a statement to the military police. We rode in the back of another jeep to their headquarters. The young man who took my deposition explained to us, "We have a kind of rough justice here. With regard to violent crimes, British law is applied in this sector. Your testimony will be treated as concrete evidence. These men will be tried in the morning and will probably end up in jail for four to six weeks. There have been no repeat offenders. They are very scared of being involved with us. There are people who have fainted when we were driving them to prison, because of the torture they experienced there before under the Serbs."

"For each of these people that we catch, there are more to take their place. The civilian police needs to be formed. We have been putting up signs in front of apartments, saying that anyone caught evicting someone or stealing will be put in jail. But it has turned out that these signs are really just an invitation to commit a crime. People see the signs and say, 'Oh, I didn't know Serbs were living there.'"

I gave my deposition and a British officer wrote it down in longhand, which took up about six pages and two hours. I offered to write it myself but he had to stick to the regulations. It would be good if the Brits could get a donation from the Norwegians and buy a computer, or at least a typewriter. Even the Serbian police have typewriters -- I saw one in the Prishtina police station once -- although they didn't know how to type. The officer asked me for my address. I started to give him my e-mail address, and he said, "No, this is the army. We're still using pigeons."

Iain was waiting for me to finish and made the mistake of playing a game of chess with the Albanian translator. Never play chess with an Albanian unless you are a masochist.

When it was all done, Iain said to me, "Well, how are you going to write this up?"

I went and slept at Ibrahim's house in case there were any t-shirt boys running around. Ibrahim showed me the bullet holes in his bedroom wall from when the Serb paramilitaries attacked, on the night the Russians came to town. He explained that the practice was to fire tracer bullets into a house. The tracer bullets start fires. Then if people put out the fire, the paramilitaries knew that there was someone in the house.

After the paramilitaries went next door to Ibrahim's and shot several people, they came and made everyone at Ibrahim's lie down on the floor for about an hour. They beat Ibrahim's wife Violeta and took everyone's jewelry and money. Ibrahim told me that he thinks the Serbs took 20 or 30 million DM out of Kosovo that night.

Ibrahim commented, "When the violence starts, you never know where it's going to end. You can't stop it the way you'd like to."

Over at Fejza's the situation was quite worrisome. There were two empty apartments on her hallway, full of furniture-a magnet for thieves. Fejza was terribly afraid the bandits would come back and make a reprisal against her. Adem's sister who lives upstairs and is a lawyer faulted me for getting in the hallway when the commotion was happening. I thought about it later when I had time to think about it and thought that I would probably have done the same thing twice, if I didn't think about it. It was a reflex. The amount of time a New York taxi driver takes to change lanes after putting on his turn signal is longer than the amount of time I had spent thinking about going into that hall. My presence probably prevented greater violence from happening. On the other hand, if I had really thought about it when it was happening, I probably would have stayed inside like Fejza.

Everyone decided that the best thing to do was to get some trusted Albanian families into the Serbs' apartments, so that the bandits would not come back and steal, or move someone of their own people in. Adem's relatives whose houses were burned in Mitrovica moved in. I talked to Fron, a young man from Mitrovica. The Serbs burned his house on their way out of town. He had had a nice new house. Now he had been living in an apartment with 11 other people. He and his mother, wife, and kids moved into the apartment at the end of the hall.

Fron's wife said, "I would not have moved in here, but Adem asked me to." Fron said, "I don't want to stay here. This is not my place, and never will be my place. As far as these people who were kicked out of here, I feel sorry for them as humans. But as for the Serbs in general, I can't feel anything for them at all."

Fron also had a friend move in with him, the Danish head of the new civilian police force. This should add an element of security to the hallway. And Adem fixed the locks.

I don't think that what the bandits did to the two Serbian families on Fejza's hallway was revenge. It was just lowbrow banditry.

Albanians have been tossing around the question, "Why is the international community letting all this go on? Is this as a relief valve, or is it just to make us look bad? Will they now say, 'See, you are just like the Serbs?'" My own theory is just that the international community was unprepared for the task of taking over the province, and it happened so quickly that I don't know how they could have been prepared.

Meanwhile other rumors are floating around. I heard two. One is that Serb officers are supposed to come back to Kosovo to be stationed on the border points with Macedonia and Albania. At present there is free entry into Kosovo for anyone who can exit Macedonia. But if the Serbs are stationed there, there will be real chaos.

The other rumor is that the Serbian troops in Serbia are preparing for an invasion of Kosovo. I'm sure this is not true, but it's an indication of the jumpiness of Albanians in Kosovo. Meanwhile there are large anti-Milosevic demonstrations going on in various parts of Serbia, as various "democrats" compete for the leadership of a new government. I imagine there will be a change in Serbia, either this year or in the next five years.

The latest news as I was leaving Kosovo was that fourteen Serbs had been killed in a village near Prishtina. The euphoria has worn off. I have seen anarchy and I don't like it. At least, not this form of anarchy, in which anyone with a white t-shirt can wander around and steal from whomever he wants. If the existence of a state means a monopoly on violence, then perhaps that is a step in the right direction. It would be in Kosovo, in any case. Kosovo needs to be a protectorate. Right now there are 36,000 foreign troops in the province, and they are not up to the task. Perhaps in a few months things will be better under control. They have to be.

Peter Lippman's other correspondence from Kosovo and Bosnia

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