Articles on the Kosovo Conflict




The New Yorker
October 15, 2007

Early in the morning on May 14, 1999, a large force of Serbian paramilitaries, soldiers, and special police appeared in Qyshk, a farming village in western Kosovo. The Serbs had come to Qyshk before, searching for weapons and valuables, but this time they herded the residents, all ethnic Albanians, toward the center of the village. They said that they were looking for Hasan Ceku, the father of General Agim Ceku, the chief of staff of the Kosovo Liberation Army. This was at the height of the war between the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's forces and the K.L.A., and seven weeks after NATO had entered the conflict, bombing Belgrade and other parts of Yugoslavia in an attempt to halt Milosevic's brutal campaign against Kosovo's Albanian majority. Hasan Ceku, who was sixty-nine years old, came forward, according to an eyewitness. To prove who he was, he produced a picture of his son Agim. "They shot Hasan right there, and set him on fire," another witness said. The Serbs also killed Agim's uncle Kadri Ceku.

The Serbs beat the villagers with rifle butts and stabbed them with hunting knives, demanding information about the K.L.A., according to reconstructions of the events by Human Rights Watch and two American radio reporters. They singled out Qaush Lushi, the richest man in town. One Serb, according to a witness, asked Lushi, "Do you want a state? We are eleven million Serbs, so if you want a state ask for help from Clinton and Blair. Ask for NATO's help now." Lushi said, "We have a state." Lushi gave the Serbs his car and ten thousand Deutsche marks, in the hope that they would spare his twenty-year-old son, Arjan. Still, they killed both men. Lushi's wife, Ajsha, found his body in an outhouse; one hand had been nearly severed in an effort to remove his watch.

The Serbs separated the rest of Qyshk's men from their families, lined them up, and machine-gunned them. Then they burned the bodies. Forty-one people were killed in Qyshk that morning. Hasan Ceku was the oldest; the youngest was nineteen.

Qyshk sits in a lush stretch of the Bistrica River Valley, near the main road running from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, to the western city of Peja. A low marble monument in the village lists the names of the victims of the massacre. Not far away stands the whitewashed hut, still used by the Ceku family, where Hasan's nine children were born. His son Agim, the K.L.A. commander, is now the Prime Minister of Kosovo. Given the number of Kosovo Albanians killed in the war with the Serbs--it is estimated that ten thousand died, and bodies were found in mass graves far away in Serbia--it is perhaps not surprising that Ceku's family was victimized. What I found strange was that no one outside of Qyshk seemed to know that the Prime Minister's father had been executed by the Serbs.

When I met with Ceku recently, I asked him why he never talked about the murder of his father. We were sitting in his office in a new government building in Pristina. A few blocks away stood the shattered seven-story hulk of Milosevic's old police headquarters--bombed, looted, and wreathed in hanging rebar. Ceku, a big, rawboned forty-seven-year-old career soldier with a buzz cut and a frank gaze, looked at me. "My father was killed because he was my father," he said finally. Then he added, "He has his name."

I took that to mean that his father's life had a completeness of its own, which it was not the son's place to traduce. Ceku went on, a bit stiffly, "I consider it not fair that I should try to get some benefit from my father." Anyway, he conceded, in postwar Kosovo such plays for sympathy could backfire. "Somebody else lost children," he said. "That's worse than losing a father."

He also admitted that, in certain private conversations, he wasn't so restrained. "Maybe sometimes, in arguments with Serbs, I use it," he said. "I say, 'Look, my father was killed. But leave it. We are now invited to build a better future. It happened to everybody. It happened to you. It happened to me. I'm here to talk about the future, not to sit and argue about who suffered more.' "

Eight years after NATO drove out the Serbian forces, Kosovo remains in a quasi-colonial limbo. It is legally a province of Serbia and effectively a protectorate of the United Nations, and there are still sixteen thousand peacekeepers deployed, from thirty-four countries. Kosovo Albanians, who make up ninety per cent of the population, have grown increasingly impatient with "the internationals." They want, overwhelmingly, independence. Kosovo--poor, predominantly Muslim, and a reputed stronghold of the Albanian Mafia--is frequently portrayed, not least by Belgrade, as a criminal enterprise masquerading as a nation, a potential Al Qaeda beachhead, or a failed state in the making. The fear often expressed is that an independent Kosovo might become "a black hole in the middle of Europe."

The U.N. Mission in the province has conducted four rounds of elections since 2000, with the result that Kosovo now has, at least in name, a parliament and its trappings. The government's powers are limited, but, with the framework of a state in place, it seems increasingly likely that Kosovo will simply declare independence unilaterally. Independence for Kosovo is supported by all the major European powers and, most strongly, by the United States; it is fiercely opposed by Serbia and is being blocked in the U.N. Security Council by the Russians, who are the Serbs' traditional allies.

"The chances of violence are very high here," Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's special envoy to Kosovo in the late nineties, told me. He described the current situation as "a fast-approaching diplomatic train wreck," and said that he expects a declaration of independence by the end of this year. The U.S. has agreed to recognize the new state, but the European Union will likely be divided on the issue, and, according to Holbrooke, "may cut off aid, which will be catastrophic."

Last year, when Ceku became Prime Minister, he was the most popular man in Kosovo. He was expected to be the leader who would, at last, shepherd Kosovo to independence. Instead, he has presided over a series of missed deadlines. In late April, he told the International Herald Tribune, "I expect to be able to declare independence by the end of May." Nicholas Burns, the Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, seemed to say the same thing two weeks later in Zagreb, foreseeing "the independence of Kosovo by the end of this month." But Washington wasn't really promising anything. It was, as a U.N. officer in Kosovo told me, "signalling" something. Ceku hadn't understood the difference.

Ceku is not a politician. He is a military man who finds himself vacillating between defiant demands for progress and obsequious deference to Kosovo's powerful "partners." "It is frustrating," Ceku told me. The U.N. Mission has "absolute authority" but "the internationals are not doing all they can," he said. "It's not the same when you're doing something for someone else. We'll do a better job for ourselves, because we'll be doing it for our children."

The tension between national pride and international supervision in Kosovo has become as pervasive as the tension between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. In 2004, widespread rioting broke out. It was mostly reported as mob attacks on the remaining Serb and Roma minorities, and it certainly was: nineteen people were killed and nine hundred injured, and the homes of more than seven hundred Serbs and other minorities were destroyed, along with thirty Orthodox churches and two monasteries; rampaging schoolchildren burned down a medieval convent and took a nun hostage. But the anger and violence were also clearly directed at the U.N., which lost scores of vehicles and was lucky not to lose any people.

One of the reasons that Agim Ceku is so widely admired in Kosovo is that, even though he came from an ordinary village background, he had a successful Yugoslav military career. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, eighty per cent of the officer corps was Serbian, and ethnic-Albanian commanders were almost unknown. Ceku, after graduating from the national military academy with highest honors, was stationed in the seaside town of Zadar, which is now in Croatia. He married a half-Serbian, half-Croatian woman, Dragica. (They have three children, and the family now divides its time between Pristina and Zadar.) In 1991, when Croatia declared its independence, Serbian paramilitary units went to war there, and Ceku cast his lot with the Croatian Army. He rose to the rank of brigadier general, receiving nine medals from the Croatians. He also received four bullets in the legs.

Ceku first got to know Americans while fighting in Croatia. The Croatian government had hired a private military contractor called Military Professional Resources, based in Virginia, to upgrade its forces, and Ceku took the course. In 1995, officers trained by the company, including Ceku, helped drive an estimated hundred and fifty thousand Serbian civilians out of Croatia, in what was then the largest single episode of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars. (Milosevic later set a new record in Kosovo.) The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague, eventually indicted three Croatian commanders for crimes against humanity for their actions.

Ceku was not one of those indicted in The Hague, but, in 2002, he was indicted by a Serbian court for war crimes allegedly committed in Croatia. He was accused of responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Serbian civilians. Later that year, another Serbian court convicted him, in absentia, of genocide against Serbs in Kosovo. Interpol arrest warrants requested by Serbia led to Ceku's being detained briefly at airports in Hungary and Slovenia; U.N. officials intervened to obtain his release on both occasions. When the subject is war crimes, the Serbs suffer from an acute credibility problem, since they are widely considered to have been the aggressors in each of the Balkan wars--they have also convicted Bill Clinton and Tony Blair of war crimes, and sentenced them to twenty years each. The genocide charge against Ceku in Kosovo seems notably weak. According to Jane's Defence Weekly, though, Ceku played a leading role in the 1995 Croatian offensive, and in another, in 1993, which also featured extensive, well-documented atrocities against civilians.

I asked Ceku about the war-crimes charges. "My case has been very carefully looked at in The Hague," he said evenly. "Nothing was found. I was a professional soldier. I took my duties very seriously. I did my job in a very professional way. So my conscience is very clean. Really, I know for sure that I have never ordered a crime. I have never committed a crime. I have never seen a crime." (A spokeswoman for the Hague Tribunal, asked about its investigation of Ceku, said, "It would be incorrect to conclude that just because there is no indictment issued against an individual this individual has been determined not to have participated in any criminal activity.")

Ceku has said that he always believed war was the only way that Kosovo's Albanians would ever be free of Serbian domination. For most of the nineties, though, they tried nonviolence. Milosevic had banished virtually all ethnic Albanians from the university in Pristina, from the civil service, and from the professions, and the Albanians built a parallel society--underground systems of health, education, and welfare. In 1991, they declared an independent republic, led by Ibrahim Rugova, a literary critic. It was a collective effort that drew minimal Western attention, and by 1996 the Kosovo Albanians had launched a low-level armed struggle.

The K.L.A.'s strategy was to provoke Milosevic, by means of hit-and-run attacks on his police and soldiers in Kosovo, into a huge overreaction that would draw the West into the conflict. The strategy worked brilliantly. In February, 1998, a high-ranking American diplomat in the Balkans described the K.L.A. as "without any question a terrorist group." But, little more than a year later, after Milosevic's forces had launched another crackdown, the Clinton Administration took up the Kosovar cause, and the K.L.A., as Kosovars liked to say, suddenly had an air force--NATO. The Serbs drove nearly a million Albanians across the borders into Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro.

By then, Ceku had taken command of the K.L.A. He hiked over the mountains from Albania to Kosovo, by way of Macedonia, through deep winter snows. He told me that it was the most difficult physical ordeal of his life. He used obscure, uncleared trails to avoid detection, and repeatedly crossed Serbian lines. His main task, once he took command, was to keep the K.L.A. from being destroyed.

"The Serbian intention was to end the war without any K.L.A. left," he said. "We lost a lot of soldiers." Ceku's troops managed to help NATO, drawing Serbian units from their hideouts into more exposed positions. When the war ended, after seventy-eight days of NATO bombing, the K.L.A. still had some twenty thousand fighters. (Among them were three of Ceku's brothers--Afrim, Arsim, and Besim.) What it didn't have, despite NATO's victory, was a state.

Paddy Ashdown, who spent more than three years as the U.N.'s governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has written that no humanitarian occupation can succeed without a designated "intervention end state"--a detailed, achievable goal. The coalition that drove Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo, Ashdown argued, failed to make it explicit that the purpose of the war was to procure a state for the Kosovars. There was never any realistic alternative--at least, not one that the Kosovars would accept. This should have been obvious in 1999, and should have been spelled out at the war's end.

Richard Holbrooke disagrees. Ending the war on any terms that specified independence "would have required immense additional fighting and a ground-troop invasion," he told me. As it was, NATO suffered no casualties. The coalition's great failure came later, Holbrooke said, after Milosevic fell from power, in late 2000. "The Bush Administration had an open glide path to Kosovo independence during its first term," he said. "The Serbs were in a moderate reformist period, the United States was globally dominant, and, most important, the Russians were still flat on their backs." But Administration officials, including Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, were publicly dismissive of the American commitment in the Balkans. By the time the White House turned its attention to the Kosovo problem, Holbrooke said, the window was closing--hard-liners were back in power in Belgrade, and "you had a resurgent Russia, with an aggressive Putin, enabled by an Iraq-weakened Bush." (Putin has called an independent Kosovo a threat to peace in Europe.)

Iraq is, of course, the new benchmark for a bungled intervention, and the internationals in Kosovo comfort themselves with the idea that, however difficult things get in Pristina, they are not as difficult as they are in Baghdad. But some of the basic "peace-building" mistakes made in Kosovo were not so different from the ones that were later made in Iraq. There was a broad failure to impose law and order early on. In Kosovo, this meant unpunished revenge killings of Serbs and other minorities, which helped drive nearly half of Kosovo's Serbs into Serbia and Montenegro; only a hundred thousand remain, and most live in enclaves protected by U.N. peacekeepers. And it meant that criminal networks--smuggling, brothels, protection rackets--flourished.

Today, the gray economy, as it is called, rivals the measurable one. There is a building boom in Pristina, but it doesn't seem to be reflected in official statistics. Most of the traditional overland criminal-trafficking routes between southwestern Asia and Western Europe pass through the Balkans, and Kosovo sees its share of that vast trade. In Switzerland, Kosovo Albanians are known for their control of the heroin market, and are thought to send the profits back home to be laundered.

Another concern, particularly since September 11th, has been Islamist terrorism. The Balkans, like Afghanistan and Chechnya, have been a battlefield for mujahideen--a stop on a sort of holy warrior's Grand Tour. In the Bosnian war, a foreign Islamist contingent known as El Mujahed joined the Muslim side, and there were rumors that jihadist veterans from Bosnia had joined the K.L.A. Osama bin Laden is believed to have set up a series of charities as front groups in Albania in the mid-nineties, and one of his operatives reportedly approached the K.L.A. in 1998, offering financial aid. The Kosovars turned him down; their strategy was to attract Western backing, and they knew that Al Qaeda was already anathema in the West.

Albanians have always been known for wearing their religion lightly; in Kosovo, bars do a brisk business, and women dress in tight clothes and high heels. There is an Islamic political party in Kosovo, but it has gained only one seat in the parliament--winning even fewer votes than a Christian Democratic party. (In Albania itself, thirty per cent of the population is Catholic or Orthodox Christian.)

Still, after the war, Saudi Arabia and assorted Gulf State charities contributed generously to the reconstruction of mosques in Kosovo. (Serbian forces damaged or destroyed more than two hundred mosques.) The mosques built by the Saudis can be seen from miles away. Their minarets, built from sheet metal, look like rocket nose cones--ideal for the desert, perhaps, but architecturally disastrous in the Balkans. Islamic charities have given scholarships to young Kosovars, and some of those students have come home from the Middle East transformed, alarming their families with their newfound piety. They are few in number, but easily spotted--the young men wearing beards and djellabahs, the young women in hijab. The Ministry of Education recently suspended three girls from school for wearing head scarves. Rumors abound, Balkan style, about the Saudis' paying young people to wear these foreign costumes. Other rumors have the Serbs paying them, trying to make Kosovo look bad.

A twenty-seven-year-old medical student named Arber Vokrri told me, "I actually kind of admire them. People are so hostile, so suspicious: 'Why do they have to bring these strange ideas here? They're going to alienate our allies!' And this sort of thing really accelerated after 9/11. But they always stay so calm. We're not in danger--they are, from our xenophobia."

Vokrri spent nearly two years in Germany, where he lived in a barracks with refugees from all over the world. "I met a lot of mujahideen, radicals from Chechnya, Hamas guys," he said. "Most of them hate the Saudi government, the Gulf States, any Muslim country that has good relations with the U.S. So it was funny to come home and find that some of my old friends had started going to the mosque and become religious--their discussions were all about how we must be thankful to NATO for liberating us, and how the Christian countries are our friends. I could never see these kids here, even the ones who fought in wars, going for a malignant political culture like Al Qaeda."

After the Serb withdrawal in June, 1999, General Ceku, working closely with NATO, oversaw the K.L.A.'s demobilization, and became the commander of a small successor force, the Kosovo Protection Corps, which was seen as the nucleus of a Kosovo army. Ceku's first deputy was a former K.L.A. field commander named Ramush Haradinaj. Together, they retained direct authority over several thousand fighters.

Ceku and Ramush, as Haradinaj is called, represent distinctly different strains of Albanian nationalism. Ceku is a man who grabbed the opportunities that the Yugoslav system afforded, yet never forgot who he was. Haradinaj is more of a classic kacak, a village rebel and social bandit, a type that features heavily in local legend. His family was always in trouble with the authorities, and he left Kosovo as a young man. He worked in Switzerland as a bodyguard, then joined the K.L.A. and, by his own account, ran guns through the mountains from Albania. Wounded in battle at least three times, he built a fierce guerrilla force and a formidable reputation as a warrior. When his brother Luan was killed in an ambush, Haradinaj dragged his body away, under fire, and then carried it on his back over the mountains to Albania for a proper burial. He was thirty when Milosevic's army withdrew from Kosovo.

General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO's forces during the Kosovo war, invoked the kacak type when he talked about Milosevic's suing for peace. "Milosevic was afraid of the tremendous, high-spirited militarism of the Albanians, which was expressed by the K.L.A.," Clark told me. "That's why he surrendered. He was afraid that, with our help, the Albanians would rise up and win." Of Ceku, he said, in contrast, "He could have been in anybody's army and done well."

Haradinaj entered politics and, after parliamentary elections in 2004, became Prime Minister. He surprised many people with his dynamic performance in office. He also built--or had built for him--an ostentatious mansion in central Pristina, in a style that might be described as Balkan Mirror-Finish Molded Plastic. Ceku's home, in a nondescript suburb out toward the airport, is a modest brick house with a rusted satellite dish.

Local journalists told me that Haradinaj's money came from criminal enterprises run by his supporters, but that the internationals loved him because he could deliver security. One journalist recalled that Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders (and now the French foreign minister), who served from 1999 to 2001 as the U.N. Secretary-General's special representative for Kosovo--effectively, Kosovo's governor--used to say, "We have to work with the guys who can deliver." Another journalist said, "He meant the gangs who can deliver."

Three months into his term, however, Haradinaj was indicted in The Hague for war crimes. According to the indictment, K.L.A. forces under the command of Haradinaj and two co-defendants murdered more than thirty civilians during an ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1998; many of the killings were preceded by rape or torture. Haradinaj resigned immediately, and kept his heavily armed followers calm. He is now on trial in the Netherlands.

The U.N. Mission's attitude toward Haradinaj cannot have pleased the prosecutors. On the day the indictment was announced, Soren Jessen-Petersen, who was then the U.N. governor, described Haradinaj as "a close partner and friend." He was sure, he added, that "Mr. Haradinaj will again be able to serve Kosovo, to whose better future he has sacrificed and contributed so much." Senator Joseph Biden, of Delaware, a proponent of Kosovo's independence, found time to praise Haradinaj on the Senate floor, describing him as "a very hard, tough guy" who "looks as if he could lift an ox out of a ditch." Biden went on, "I want to publicly salute him for his personal courage, for the statesmanship he has demonstrated. . . . I wish him well."

The folklore surrounding Ramush Haradinaj has only grown since he left for The Hague. The prevailing view among Kosovo's Albanians is that the K.L.A. was engaged in self-defense against marauding Serbian forces. But many civilians, including ethnic Albanians accused of collaboration, died at the hands of the rebels, and their fates, and the grief of their survivors, find no place in the nationalist narrative in Albanian Kosovo today. Billboards saying simply "With Ramush" are everywhere. Rock concerts are held to raise funds for his defense; one can even contribute by cell phone. The Tribunal's prosecutors complain that witnesses have disappeared, died under suspicious circumstances, or simply failed to turn up.

Haradinaj's departure created a leadership vacuum, and, at his invitation, Ceku stepped into it. He had no political base of his own; his role was that of the warrior and public servant called to duty. But Ceku's disengagement from the usual favor-trading of politics has left him with a weak grasp of the thousand small levers of power that might help make an ill-trained, inexperienced bureaucracy work. His administrative ineffectuality has earned him private, and even some public, scorn.

Ceku, in his first speech as Prime Minister, shocked his countrymen by addressing Kosovo's Serbs in Serbian, inviting them to take part in building a new nation. His stature as a war hero insulates him from rear-guard political attacks on his patriotism, and attempts by ultra-nationalists to smear him because his wife is part Serbian and his children's first language is Croatian have not got far. Not that Ceku's efforts to engage local Serbs have yielded much; nearly every Kosovo Serb leader I asked said that he would not talk to Ceku. As far as the Serbs are concerned, he is an irredeemable war criminal.

One day this summer, my translator and I drove to Qyshk, a scatter of brick farmsteads amid fields thick with corn, pumpkins, and beans. On a dirt road flanked by poplar trees, a man walked past us, hoe on his shoulder, and my translator asked him if the Cekus lived nearby. The man guided us to a narrow lane, then waved us onto it.

We found Afrim and Arsim and their wives on the porch of a two-story house. Although we weren't expected, we were welcomed. Arsim, who is forty-three, had worked in Switzerland and spoke some English. Afrim, forty-five, was quieter. He had powerful arms and heavily calloused hands. The brothers showed me a room at the back of the main house, a modern version of a traditional Albanian oda, where village clansmen gathered. An Albanian flag stood in a corner, and a number of hunting rifles were hanging on the walls, along with one well-worn AK-47. "That was Agim's gun in the war," Arsim said.

We were invited to join a small caravan of vehicles, crammed with children, on a drive that took us through Peja, a densely built old city, and into the mountains, to a hut in a high pasture. The hut had no electricity or plumbing, but it had a porch, and we sat there. Afrim pointed to a towering ridgeline across the valley. "The K.L.A. carried all its guns and supplies over passes down that way," he said. "On foot."

After a while, someone asked if I had seen the monument in Qyshk.

I said I had.

"She was there," Afrim said, indicating his wife. He meant at the massacre.

His wife, blond and round-faced, regarded me steadily. Finally, she spoke. "They said they were going to execute me and my children because I was Agim's sister-in-law," she said. She pointed to a tall, skinny boy wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt. "He was a baby, still in my arms."

"They burned my father's body," Afrim said. "I picked him up with my hands. I buried him."

Stephen Smith and Michael Montgomery, the reporters who, after the war, helped reconstruct the massacre, identified and even interviewed some of the Serb participants, who were by then living in Montenegro. But it is unlikely that any of them will be prosecuted. The Hague Tribunal is no longer bringing new cases. As part of its "completion strategy," evidence in many ongoing investigations is being transferred to local authorities. War-crimes trials do take place in Kosovo, but the defendants tend to be ex-K.L.A. fighters, since Serbs are impossible to extradite, even when they can be located.

This summer, the Tribunal's lead prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, suggested that the question of Kosovo's independence be postponed while she made a last attempt to persuade Belgrade to help her apprehend General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander and the most prominent remaining fugitive. When the Kosovars reacted with outrage, Del Ponte backed off.

The Kosovars' gratitude for America's intervention has not faded. Displays of affection for the United States are ubiquitous. It is common to see the Stars and Stripes, and there is an oddly bipartisan intersection in Pristina: Bill Clinton Boulevard and Bob Dole Street. The main U.S. military base, Camp Bondsteel, is a thousand-acre behemoth near the Macedonian border--clearly a long-term investment. When I asked Agim Ceku about Americans, he seemed to run out of complimentary adjectives. "They're very practical people," he said. "Focussed. Pragmatic. Principled. When they commit themselves, they deliver. They always deliver."

The United States has not, of course, been able to deliver independence. But Ceku is careful not to blame the Americans. "America cannot do this thing alone," he said. "We know that the European Union is a very slow organization on decision-making and on committing itself. So it takes some time. The problem is Russia."

Having failed for years to focus on Kosovo's status, the U.N. shifted gears sharply after the riots of 2004. High-level government delegations from Pristina and Belgrade went to Vienna, where they worked for fourteen months to reach an agreement. Martti Ahtisaari, a former President of Finland with experience in the Balkans, led a team assigned to come up with a comprehensive proposal for the resolution of Kosovo's status.

The Ahtisaari Package, as it became known, was unveiled earlier this year. It recommended extensive protections for the Kosovo Serb minority, with a high degree of self-government and a special relationship with Belgrade. The Ahtisaari Package's bottom line, though, was its endorsement of "supervised independence" for Kosovo, leading to normal statehood. Every Western government involved in Kosovo embraced the Ahtisaari proposal. But Belgrade and, more important, Moscow turned it down.

Most of the Kosovo Serbs I asked both denounced the Ahtisaari Package and claimed not to have read it. They didn't have to--it recommended independence, and that was all they needed to know. (The Serbian press had its own gloss. One story: "ALBANIAN MAFIA BOUGHT AHTISAARI." His price: forty million euros and two young girls.)

In Gracanica, a Serbian village a few miles south of Pristina, I met a doctor who said that she had not set foot in Pristina in eight years. Her fears about going into town may be justified, and yet there was something fantastical about her insistent description of the K.L.A. as an illegal organization--as though this were an essential point of local history that I might miss. It was a common view, oddly frozen in place since 1999.

Besides the privileges and the security that Kosovo Serbs lost when Milosevic withdrew his forces, many also lost their jobs. The government bureaucracies and state enterprises that they worked for simply ceased to exist. Most of those who are still employed draw their paychecks from Belgrade--the sign on the clinic of the doctor in Gracanica, for example, announced, in Cyrillic script, its affiliation with the Ministry of Health in Belgrade.

In the 2004 elections for the Kosovo parliament, fewer than one per cent of eligible Serbs voted, even though ten seats and two cabinet ministries are allocated for their representatives. One of the few who ran for office was Oliver Ivanovic. He was elected to parliament, and shortly afterward unknown assailants, presumably Serb hard-liners, blew up his parked car.

The attack on Ivanovic was surprising, given his credentials. He was the original leader of a notorious group known as "the bridge watchers," in Mitrovica, an old mining city in northern Kosovo. Mitrovica is divided by the Ibar River, and Serbs mostly lived on the north side or fled there after the war, making the main bridge a natural choke point. Ivanovic and his men camped at the bridge for years, heavily armed, confronting peacekeepers and Albanians who tried to cross. Ivanovic had no great military experience (he managed a mining company), but, as he told me, "you don't study this kind of resistance at West Point."

Ivanovic is, however, unusual in that he acknowledges that, like the Serbs, the Albanians have suffered. There was a night in February, 2000, when a Serbian mob in north Mitrovica, enraged by a rocket attack on a bus and a grenade attack on a local cafe, drove a thousand Albanians from their homes, killing seven or eight. "It was horrible--like Kristallnacht," he said. "People just didn't want Albanians anywhere near them anymore."

We were sitting in a cafe in north Mitrovica. Ivanovic studied me politely. "When Albanians and Serbs meet, they all have their own stories," he said. "A listener just has to pick. And normally he picks the Albanian story."

I asked why he stayed in Kosovo.

"It's very hard to explain to an American," he said. "I am someone who can get a job somewhere else."

Indeed, young, middle-class Kosovo Serbs have tended to emigrate, leaving behind the elderly, the infirm, peasants, and the ill-educated. Some stay because they have heard that they can expect to be treated shabbily in Serbia--housed in refugee camps, derided as "Kosovo Gypsies." Another common explanation is that they cannot bear to abandon the graves of their parents.

North Mitrovica and its hinterland, which extends forty miles north to Serbia, have become the largest, most important Serb enclave in Kosovo--a "gangster statelet," as it's often called. Here the Serbian secret police operate freely, and the economy revolves almost entirely around smuggling. In Leposavic, a town with a reputation for hard-liners, however, I met a man named Miscu, who only wanted to talk pro tennis--he was excited about a recent wave of young Serbian players. Miscu had lived in Virginia, and said that he was going to open a pizza parlor called Las Vegas. He asked if Finnegan was a Jewish name. When I said it was Irish, he suggested that we spend the afternoon drinking beer.

Belgrade has been working, successfully, to make the north ungovernable for Pristina, but as yet neither side is willing to discuss a territorial compromise--one that would leave northern Kosovo in Serbia, for instance. Among Kosovars, talk of giving up land is regarded as treachery; among Serbs, retaining Kosovo is the single most important political issue. Most Serbs have never been there, and have no desire to go, so the connection is rather abstract--Kosovo has a mythic status as the cradle of Serbian Orthodox history. The ruling party in Belgrade is stridently nationalistic, but it likes to encourage foreigners to believe that, if it were to give an inch on Kosovo, the opposition, which is even more belligerent, would very likely win the next election.

It's not that people don't discuss the possibility of partition; it's just that they do so in terrifying scenarios. If Kosovo declares independence, the north will revolt. If the north revolts, the ethnic Albanians in southwest Serbia will revolt. If Ramush is acquitted, the north will revolt. If the north revolts, the Serb Republic of Bosnia will attempt to annex itself to Serbia. And so on.

For some years, the internationals seemed to have given up on the north. More recently, however, peacekeeping troops have tried to reassert themselves, reopening a base near Leposavic. The base is called, for some reason, Nothing Hill. (My Serbian translator found the name "a little insulting.") There was an American detachment rotating through--a National Guard unit from Massachusetts--and the commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Williams, gave me a briefing, using PowerPoint.

The Americans were not welcome when they arrived, Williams said, "but we've earned people's trust." Troops patrolled constantly. "We go out low profile," he said. "Park our Humvees at the edge of town. Walk through town with weapons slung back. Eat and get coffee at local cafes." The unit had twelve interpreters, most of them Bosnian Serbs who were now U.S. citizens.

I asked whether his troops ever crossed the border into Serbia proper. "Never," he said. "But calling it the border is a no-no. It's 'the administrative boundary line.' "

Williams showed me a PowerPoint slide titled "Competitors": the Serbian secret police; the "Siminovic Slobodan Gang," apparently smugglers; the Serbian Army. I was curious about the Army, but when I asked about it Williams hesitated, and said, "What's your clearance?"

Bishop Artemije of Ras-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija has his seat in Gracanica. The church in Gracanica is a five-domed fourteenth-century masterpiece in the middle of a large, leafy, stone-walled compound. Bored-looking Swedish troops were guarding the compound the morning I met the Bishop.

Tiny and ancient, with a long white beard and a sweet smile, Bishop Artemije wore black robes, a stiff round black cap, and, around his neck, a big shiny medallion showing the Madonna and Child. His hands looked like a child's, pale and soft. He is a venerated figure, his words closely heeded by the Serbian public. We talked in an airy, ornate room, under coats of arms and Orthodox icons.

"There was no 'war' in Kosovo," the Bishop told me. "There was a terrorism in Kosovo. And Milosevic was in power then, and he was not servile toward the internationals." Rewarding Albanian terrorists with independence now would be wrong. "No pasaran!" the Bishop said, his eyes twinkling.

The Serbs have long tried to define their fight with the K.L.A. as a religious conflict, and this was the theme that the Bishop took up. "Islam has no borders," he said. "Terrorism has no borders. The presence of Wahhabism is growing in Bosnia and Kosovo. We think the Americans want to use Bosnia and Kosovo to overcome the tensions they have with the Islamic countries. America leads the fight against world terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, and for that it is condemned by Islamic countries. They say it is not really fighting terrorism but Islam. That's why America needs something to show that it is not really against Muslims: 'Look, we are helping the Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo get their democratic rights, their own state.' " (There may be something to this. Senator Biden recently wrote, "The people of Kosovo--already the most pro-American in the Islamic world--will provide a much needed example of a successful U.S.-Muslim partnership.")

Bishop Artemije believes that an independent Kosovo "would be the base for Islamic jihad, which would threaten security not only in the Balkans but in the whole of Europe and in America. Do we need to remember September 11th?"

Interfaith dialogue with Muslims was pointless, Artemije said. He had tried it already, before the riots of 2004. "All our conversations and conclusions were simply an empty letter," he said. "Since the 2004 pogrom, we don't have any contact. We don't speak. There is no use." Had the Bishop read the Ahtisaari proposal? "Partially," he said dismissively. (I asked Ceku if he ever spoke with Bishop Artemije. "I've tried to talk," he said. "I sent a letter that I want to meet him. But he never answers.") The Bishop's voice was soft, though his words were bitter. "The international community tolerates whatever Albanians do against Christians in Kosovo," he said. "Thousands of murderers are walking freely through the streets of Kosovo today."

The most common graffito by far in Kosovo is a red-and-black stencil: "Jo Negociata--Vetevendosje!" ("No Negotiations--Self-Determination!") The Vetevendosje Movement, as it's called, attracts mainly young, educated, urban Kosovars who are fed up with the internationals, the politicians, and the stalled drive to independence.

In February, a rowdy Vetevendosje demonstration outside the U.N. offices in Pristina caused a Romanian unit to panic and start shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. Two people were killed and more than eighty injured. The U.N.'s police chief was fired, but the Romanians were not punished. Vetevendosje's leader was arrested, and is now on trial.

Some five hundred people showed up for Vetevendosje's most recent demonstration, this summer. Marching alongside the college students were older men, clearly peasants from the villages, wearing the traditional white conical cap called a plis. They chanted "K.L.A.! K.L.A.!"

An enormous Albanian flag--blood-red, with a black double-headed eagle--was unfurled across the front of a building, and the marchers roared. The flag has become an unusually potent symbol lately, ever since the U.N. Mission declared that it will not be the flag of an independent Kosovo. This decision has infuriated Kosovo Albanians. What's more, the U.N. Mission is sponsoring a public competition to come up with a neutral design for a new flag: no black, no red, and no eagles will be allowed--too divisive.

The march wound through downtown Pristina, drums booming. On the steps of the National Theatre, five dummies in business suits with pumpkins for heads were set on chairs--effigies of Kosovo's negotiators in its talks with Belgrade. A curly-haired young woman with a microphone went down the line, pulling off each pumpkin top. Inside the head of a former K.L.A. commander she found "dreams of factories, luxury." Inside that of an older politician she found "dreams of Tito." Inside Agim Ceku's head she found "Ramush!" The crowd laughed and jeered.

The march ended at the U.N. Mission's headquarters, where a large white gift box labelled "Ahtisaari," with a message in English--"Take This Package and Go to Hell"--was dumped over the front gates.

The demonstration ended peacefully, but in Kosovo the threat of violence never quite leaves the air. The 2004 riots arose on the back of peaceful protests. The K.L.A. veterans' association announces regularly that it may no longer be able to control its members' disappointment at not having achieved independence. And Kosovo is justly famed for its gun culture. In a population of slightly more than two million, there are believed to be nearly half a million guns in civilian hands.

In September, the deadlock over Kosovo's future intensified. The government in Belgrade declared that Western recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence would cancel the agreement that ended the 1999 war. Serbia would impose a trade embargo, and would have the right to send its armed forces back into Kosovo.

Prime Minister Ceku seemed to shrug off this threat, calling independence a "done deal." He and his negotiating team are once again engaged in talks, at the insistence of their Western partners, but no one expects an agreement. The talks are scheduled to end December 10th. In Kosovo, the general expectation, encouraged by Ceku, is that the next step will be a unilateral declaration of independence, most likely before the end of the year.

The United States is still sending mixed signals--pro-independence but anti-unilateralist. Yet Ceku may be feeling less constrained than he once did. The U.N. Mission in Kosovo has scheduled local and parliamentary elections for mid-November, and Ceku has announced that he will not run. His only concern now, he said, is to make Kosovo "as ready as possible for independence." Meanwhile, Ramush Haradinaj, his charismatic double, from the dock in The Hague, has quietly added his name to his party's list of parliamentary candidates.


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