Kosovo Albanians Problems Sped Up In '89
National Public Radio
Saturday, April 10, 1999
SCOTT SIMON, host: Thousands of ethnic Albanians remain trapped inside Kosovo following the closing of international borders. But overnight a caravan of refugees was allowed to cross into neighboring Albania. Earlier today, a few hundred refugees got through to Macedonia. The war Serbs are now waging on the Kosovars is the culmination of a 10-year crackdown. Two refugees in Macedonia tell NPR's Anne Garrels how they saw events unfold.
ANNE GARRELS REPORTING: Ramis(ph) and Mohammed(ph) are considered the lucky ones. They've lost everything they own. They've been deported from their homeland and are dependent on handouts. But they're alive, their immediate family is with them, and unlike tens of thousands fenced in transit camps, they're staying in Macedonia with relatives. Just a couple of weeks ago, 44-year-old Mohammed owned several stores in the Kosovo city of Aroshevitz (ph). Thirty-five-year-old Ramis worked in a food processing plant in Prizren. Looking back, they say the turning point was 1989, when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic took away Kosovo's autonomy and with it the right of the majority Albanians to run their own internal affairs. The Albanians were removed from all leading positions. Many were fired from their jobs. They became second-class citizens. As bad as it was, Mohammed, who worked with his brothers, couldn't believe it would last.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We did not think it would be that long before it got better. That's why we invested in our business.
GARRELS: Ramis, an elected union leader at his factory, was summarily removed and replaced by a Serb. He was never optimistic.
RAMIS: (Through Translator) I realized from the start when I saw the Serbs around us arming themselves. My neighbor got a machine gun. Not just Milosevic, but the people. I never thought it would come to this and that I would be here.
GARRELS: The noose tightened. Albanian teachers were fired. The public schools
and universities were run by Serbs in Serbian. Albanians set up their own
classes in private homes. They had to pay taxes to Serbia for facilities they
say they were locked out of. They also paid taxes to the underground Albanian
government of Ibrahim Rugova. It was costly to maintain Albanian institutions,
and they say, increasingly futile. Mohammed sponsored an Albanian sports club,
but games were routinely broken up by Serb forces, who claimed the club was
merely a cover to train terrorists.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We were constantly harassed and roughed up. Let
me give you a typical incident. The Serb police turn up at one of my stores
after it received a big shipment. They came in and confiscated it. This sort of
thing didn't just happen to me, but to all the Albanian businessmen.
RAMIS: (Through Translator) The patience of the people was coming to an end.
They could not continue like this. They were economically and politically
GARRELS: Initially both these men supported Rugova and his policy of passive
resistance, but they say it only encouraged the Serbs while letting the West
off the hook. Mohammed says Rugova's Gandhi-like tactics couldn't work with an
enemy like Milosevic. The ethnic Albanians stepped up armed resistance. The
Kosovo Liberation Army emerged. Mohammed donated money to the KLA.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) The Serbs needed to create a violent reaction
and we gave it to them, but it was the only solution. We had to defend the
villages. We could not sit by and let people die. The KLA is not a bunch of terrorists.
GARRELS: But he admits the KLA was no match for the Serbs. Mohammed and Ramis
hoped against hope peace talks in France would bring international protection.
RAMIS: (Through Translator) During the Rambouillet talks, the Serbs brought in
more munitions. They clearly didn't expect any peace agreement. We saw this but
still we didn't want to leave Kosovo.
GARRELS: This winter, violence moved from the villages into the cities. Two of
Mohammed's closest friends, a prominent Albanian politician and a journalist,
disappeared. Ramis says there were also mysterious killings and kidnappings in
RAMIS: (Through Translator) I was at their funerals. They took a driver who had
worked for the international observers. We found his body dumped along the road.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We couldn't go out after 4 PM. At the first sign
of dark, we stayed in our houses. Only Serbs could be found at coffee bars or
night clubs. The financial inspectors, backed by armed police, started coming
to our stores every day. They removed what they wanted and they demanded money.
GARRELS: When the NATO bombings started, Mohammed's house and six stores were
burned to the ground.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) There was a rumor they were going to kill me
because I was a leader in the Albanian community. They followed us everywhere.
I realized I had no choice but to leave with my family.
GARRELS: In Prizren, Albanian houses were mined. Five days into the NATO
bombing, Ramis fled with his wife and two young children.
RAMIS: (Through Translator) My neighbor of 35 years, a Serb, told me, `I cannot
guarantee your safety.' He was not exactly a friend, but we had regularly
exchanged (technical difficulties) the fence.
GARRELS: Both Mohammed and Ramis managed to get to the border safely, but they
had to wait several days in a line stretching way back into Serb territory.
MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) ...(Unintelligible) paramilitary saw men from a
certain village. They separated him from his family. I kept his wife and
children in my wing for two nights in the hope they would return her husband. They didn't.
GARRELS: Eventually both men ditched their cars and walked with their families
across the border. The NATO bombing may well have accelerated this process of
ethnic cleansing, but both these men believe it was an inevitable process that
was already well under way. Their hopes, so often misplaced before, are now
with NATO. They say the only way they can ever return home is under the
protection of NATO troops.
I'm Anne Garrels, NPR News, Skopje, Macedonia.