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Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


Prisoner in Kosovo
American activist; member of Peaceworkers
By Peter Lippman
The Progressive
, July 1998

In March, I became a prisoner in Kosovo, along with a group of activists from Peaceworkers, a California-based organization that monitors human-rights abuses and promotes nonviolent conflict resolution. I arrived in Kosovo as part of the Peaceworkers' delegation, at the invitation of the Independent Student Union there. We witnessed the brutality of the Serbian government in this Albanian-populated province. And we noted the remarkable efforts of Kosovo's Albanian citizenry to stave off disaster by engaging in creative nonviolence.

In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, we met the people who are holding together the infrastructure of Albanian society--professors, doctors, journalists, and human-rights workers.

The dean of philology at Pristina's underground university told us how, in 1991, the Belgrade regime had imposed an exclusively Serbian-language curriculum. When the Albanian professors refused to teach the curriculum, they were fired. The same thing happened in the high schools. Teachers and professors soon set up a parallel educational system in private rooms, basements, and storefronts.

We visited an English class in an unheated, empty store. The students sat on makeshift wooden benches, wearing their coats, hats, and gloves. The young teacher shivered as she gave a lesson in prefixes: neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism, pan-Hellenic, pan-Balkan.

All of the college-educated people we spoke with said they were convinced that their conflict with the Serbian regime must be resolved peacefully. One of our young translators was the most eloquent. Asked how she felt about the Kosovo Liberation Army, she responded, "Did anyone ever win a war? You can take territory, but everyone still loses."

At the same time, many people are at the end of their patience. A journalist said to me, "Each night I go to bed knowing that the police can break into my apartment and do whatever they want to my family. This is psychological terrorism. Every parent is a potential fighter." One student in the English class told us, "If the police hurt my father or my brother, I will have to fight." At the student union office, I looked at pictures of the victims from Drenica, the region west of Pristina where Serbian police and paramilitary units surrounded more than a dozen villages in late February and massacred at least ninety people. I saw photos of the bodies of old people, men, women, and children. Many had been shot at close range. Half of one woman's face was gone.

Later I watched the Serbian television coverage. Only the male victims, that is, "terrorists," showed up on TV.

We met a former Serbian politician who was forced out of his job after he spoke against the regime when it took away Kosovo's autonomy. We asked what would happen to him if he protested now against massacres of Albanian civilians. "Probably the same thing that happened to the people in Drenica," he said.

Another Serb we met, a shopkeeper, said he had friends and customers among the Albanians. He came close to tears when he talked about the Albanian woman who used to take care of his children. He told us he wished the Albanians would receive their independence so that things could calm down.

But his mood changed when we brought up the recent massacre. "I knew some of those policemen who got killed," he said. "In America, what do you do with your terrorist problem? You hunt them down and shoot them, right? I am just waiting to leave here."

The shopkeeper blamed the Kosovo Liberation Army for the troubles in the region. But he also expressed hateful views of the Albanian people generally. "The Albanians just think about sex and guns," he said. "If they have two wives and we have one, they can have ten or fifteen children, and we usually just have two. And they always make sure to have lots of guns. The Albanians I know here in town are mostly normal. But not those in the villages. Did you see the pictures of the people who were killed? They looked like monkeys."

At noon on Friday, March 13, my colleagues and I walked up a muddy hill in Pristina to observe a protest. Demonstrators chose the hillside location, among other reasons, because of its inaccessibility except by foot. No cars could make a sudden attack. The demonstration started earlier than announced, so the police wouldn't have time to block it. About 50,000 people stood among the houses on the edge of a sloped field. They sang freedom songs, waved Albanian and American flags, carried signs saving, Serbian Terror Out of Kosovo, NATO: S.O.S., and Drenica, We're With You. Protesters made speeches, and then the demonstration broke up. The crowd marched down Qafa Street, renamed Yugoslav National Army Street by the Serbian government.

We went to visit the Mother Teresa clinic, located in a small house in the poor part of Pristina. It is the only free women's clinic in Kosovo, staffed by doctors and nurses who donate their time. One doctor told us about her surreal firing from the state hospital in 1990 by a policeman wearing a doctor's white coat, holding a gun in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.

She also said another doctor was fired while operating on a patient. When he insisted on finishing the operation, he was handcuffed to a radiator and beaten.

On days when traffic is not disrupted by police actions, an average of fifteen children are born in the clinic. Because of space limitations, mothers who have just given birth have only two hours to rest before they are sent home. Women are often doubled up, two to a bed. The day we visited was a slow one, because of the demonstrations. There were only three newborns, tightly wrapped and placed together in a bed with bottles of warm water between them. Most women are giving birth at home now, the doctors said, and there is anecdotal evidence of a big jump in infant mortality.

On Sunday, four days after we arrived, we watched more demonstrations. One was scheduled to coincide with Catholic Mass. There were no signs this time, just pictures of Mother Teresa. Demonstrators also carried candles in honor of the dead at Drenica. About 100,000 people walked around the town quietly. Seven young men at the front of the line wore T-shirts that spelled D-R-E-N-I-C-A. Near the center of town the march stopped. An old man stepped out and motioned everyone to be quiet. The silence of those thousands of people was overwhelming. The man lit all the candles of those in front of the line, and then walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The next day, 20,000 women tried to march to Drenica with bread in their hands. The police turned them back. Human-rights groups and aid organizations were also prevented from reaching Drenica, where terrified villagers hiding in the woods were reportedly starving. The head of the International Red Cross in Pristina gave up on relief efforts and left town after receiving death threats.

On Thursday, March 19, the students called another brief demonstration. This time everyone was to bring keys and rattle them, to symbolize unlocking the prison of military repression, a tactic protesters used in Chile and Czechoslovakia. A half-dozen policemen blocked the protest at a main intersection. Pistols, grenades, and knives hung from their belts. The marchers all sat down. Snipers stood on the rooftops. Two armored vehicles raced to the scene, and ten helmeted policemen got out. They filed around to stand behind the seated protesters. But what were they going to do to thousands of people who were sitting down, with dozens of international journalists watching? Nothing happened. The demonstrators rattled their keys and blew their whistles. For half an hour unarmed men, women, and children, sitting on the pavement, prevailed over the police.

On the same day, a large Serbian demonstration took place. Word spread that many busloads of people were brought into Pristina from Belgrade, Nis, and Kragujevac. We watched as a crowd of people walked by carrying signs: Kosovo is the heart of Serbia; We'll give our head, but not Serbia!; and a swastika with the words America and Germany over it. Some Serbian marchers caught sight of my colleagues and me standing near some journalists who were wearing plaid shirts and carrying cameras. The marchers started yelling, "Profiteers! Go home." People sang the old song, "Who's lying? Who says Serbia is small?" As we left, an old woman followed us, yelling, "You are shit! You should be killed!"

I heard a piano when I arrived at my host's house to rest. The fourteen-year-old music student who lives there was practicing. I went in to listen while he played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, all three movements, without sheet music. I was impressed, and asked him how long he had been working on it. He told me, "Since the beginning of the year, only I haven't had much time." Then he played Mozart's March Alla Turca, which sounded easy after the Beethoven piece.

Our visit ended abruptly when my group was arrested, tried by a "judge" (more properly a magistrate) and sentenced to ten days in jail, all in the space of a few hours. I was apprehended a day before my colleagues when I reached a checkpoint while trying to leave Kosovo by bus for Sarajevo. The police, not liking the fact that I had no evidence to show I had registered my presence in Kosovo with the police, removed me from the bus. They held me at the Mitrovica police station for several hours, talking to me sometimes politely, and other times rudely. Eventually they decided to send me back to Pristina. Two armed policemen drove me back in an unmarked car.

During the entire detention and arrest incident, I was more inconvenienced than scared because I believed I would soon be fined and allowed to go on my way. When one of my guards conjectured that I would be sentenced to ten days in jail and then deported, I thought he was trying to intimidate me. But I soon learned that he was right. And as my mother warned me before I went to Kosovo, "In a war situation, there's no one you can complain to."

On entering the jail, I was not physically mistreated, just yelled at for a long time by the guards. Some of them seemed to be enjoying their opportunity to yell at an American. They asked me if I wanted a haircut. I said no. Then they shaved my head and took me to a cell.

I spent the night in the cell with seven Albanian men, ages sixteen to forty. They had been arrested the same day as I was. It was clear that the police had already been hard at work on a couple of them. I shook hands with everyone except the two whose hands were too swollen from pounding by nightclubs.

Two men adopted me, talked to me in a whisper, and told me how to act in order to survive. I asked if we could speak openly. One said, "You can, but we can't."

The police entered the room every half hour that night. Each time, we had to jump up and form a line with our hands behind our backs. One big guard was particularly mean. He asked the sixteen-year-old boy standing next to me a question. The boy answered in Albanian. The man slapped him on one cheek and told him to speak Serbian. The poor kid didn't know much Serbian. The guard slapped him hard on the other cheek. His hand whizzed by my face. He asked the boy, "Were you in the demonstration?" The boy answered, "Yes." Slap. The guard left, satisfied for the time being.

I was arrested on a Friday, and the rest of my colleagues came in on Saturday. Diplomatic pressure on the Serbian government ensued. U.S. diplomats all the way up to Madeleine Albright were making a clamor to high Serbian officials. On Monday, we were suddenly taken out of the jail and driven to the Serbian border with Macedonia. The Serbian government had made a mistake in detaining us. The arrest gave us a special opportunity to publicize our findings. After we were released, we held press conferences in Skopje, Macedonia, and in Washington, D.C.

We were relieved to be out of jail, but sorry to be forbidden to reenter the country for three years. The privileged Americans are free, but for the Albanians, life goes on.

Albanians in Kosovo are close enough to Bosnia to know that no amount of human suffering will necessarily force Western policymakers to act. But every day I spent there, I heard the same things: "What is America going to do? NATO needs to wake up and help us."
Meanwhile, as the West cranks out "strongly worded statements," the atrocities continue. Serbian soldiers keep pouring into Kosovo. They are setting up more checkpoints, and violent attacks on Albanian peasants are not restricted to the Drenica area, but are taking place all over the province. At last count there were more than 40,000 refugees. Some even showed up in Sarajevo.

As long as the conflict does not spill over the borders, sending thousands more refugees into NATO-member countries, the West seems content to stand by and watch. Conversations with officers at the American embassy ("We are doing all we can") made this clear to me. There will be more Drenicas. Madeleine Albright's declaration that "we will not rule out force" and the decision to place an arms embargo on Yugoslavia are pathetic gestures. It is getting very late for the Albanians.

Peter Lippman is a carpenter and human-rights activist from Seattle, Washington. He has been working as a translator and refugee-relief worker in Bosnia since the fall of 1997.


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