Letter from Skopje
A Kosovo Albanian Family in Macedonia

By Peter Lippman

July 6, 1999

Peter Lippman lived and worked in Bosnia from September, 1997 to July, 1999. In March, 1998, he visited Kosovo to observe the non-violent movement for Kosovo self-determination. At that time he was arrested, jailed, and expelled by the Serbian authorities.

After finishing his work in Bosnia, he went to Skopje, Macedonia to interview Kosovo Albanian refugees.

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I flew from Sarajevo to Ljubljana and stayed in my hotel throughout my overnight layover, pulling together some last thoughts on my refugee project in Bosnia. A cow mooed outside my window as I looked at the Slovenian mountains becoming transparent in the dusk. In the news, the great militant leader of Albanians Adem Demaci said he hoped the Serbs fleeing Kosovo (now it's up to 75,000) would come back. I hope they come back too, minus the criminals, because if there are no Serbs in Kosovo, there will be that much more reason for them to want to have a war ten or twenty years down the line.

Wesley Clark, head of NATO, said he "didn't see a ten-year occupation of Kosovo." I'd be surprised if it's shorter than that, unless there's some drastic democratization in Serbia itself pretty soon. Speaking of which, there are demonstrations against Milosevic taking place now in Cacak, Belgrade, and Novi Sad. The pensioners are demanding his resignation, as are the pseudo-democrats in the Alliance for Change. Zoran Djindjic has returned to Belgrade from the safety of Montenegro and continues to agitate. It will be interesting to see what Milosevic can do with this situation. I will not be surprised at all if he manages to hang on.

Serbian President Milutinovic went to Kragujevac to make a speech to the Serbs about how they had "saved Kosovo": Kosovo is still part of Yugoslavia, protected from the Albanian terrorists by the United Nations. There were Serbian refugees in the crowd. One of them yelled, "Then why aren't you telling us this in Kosovo?"

Meanwhile over a half million Albanian refugees have returned to Kosovo. The refugee population in Macedonia, recently around 300,000, is now down to 40,000 or so. 45,000 houses were wrecked in Kosovo, so life will be difficult there for a long time. People were also unable to plant their crops, so they will be depending on relief food for a year.

In Montenegro the Yugoslav army has been threatening the peace. There is a movement for independence there and the U.S. government has come out categorically against it. I also do not think it's a good idea, but it's a natural response as long as someone like Milosevic is in power. And the U.S. administration thinks it can overthrow Milosevic just by exhorting the Serbian population to do so. Over 40,000 Yugoslav troops are in Montenegro now. They are driving their tanks up and down the coast road, scaring the tourists away and thus further ruining the Montenegrin economy.

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I arrived at Skopje to find my old friend Dardan waiting at the airport for me. He has three brothers and three sisters, all with families, and all but one of whom were in Kosovo up until March of this year. Miraculously, all of these families got out of Kosovo and survived. Dardan grew up in Pec but came to Skopje long ago. His parents and one brother were still there. Ismail and his family went to Montenegro and then to Albania.

At Dardan's parents' house in Pec there were some 75 Albanians, displaced from nearby villages and other parts of the town. The army came there and shot into the ceiling, and gave them five minutes to leave. They all ran away, running out the doors, through the windows. "through the walls," as Dardan said. Dardan's mother and father were split up on the street and the father, Ylber, was arrested by the Serb police. He is over 80. They took him with thousands of other men to a sports arena and held them overnight. The arena is near a military installation. Dardan's theory is that the Serbs were holding them there to be targets of a NATO bombing. The bombing did not happen, and the Albanians were let go the next day.

Ylber went back to his house from the stadium. He ended up as unwilling host to a group of Serbian soldiers who started sleeping there. They would play with Ylber, pointing a gun at him. Then one soldier would say, "Don't kill him, he's old, he's going to die anyway." Ylber watched the soldiers carrying his furniture out of the house. Dardan told me that he prayed to die.

After a week, Ylber got out of the house and went to a neighbor's. This was a mixed couple, an Albanian man and a Croatian woman, and the army had told them they could stay.

Ylber was stuck in Pec for most of the war. It was almost completely empty, "like a ghost town," Dardan said, only animals wandering around. Dardan was not able to get in touch with Ylber. Finally he got in touch via ham radio with a Serb neighbor of the mixed couple, who told Dardan, "Your father is waiting for you to come get him." Finally, two weeks before the withdrawal of the Serbs, Dardan paid a Serb to drive Ylber to Prishtina, and another to bring him to Skopje.

Dardan's sister Safete is here in Skopje with her son. She had escaped Gjakova by bus to Albania after one and a half months of Serb terror during the bombing. She and Zana went up to Gjakova this weekend to look at her house and at the state of the town. Safete said that her house is intact, although some things have been stolen. "The soldiers drank brandy in our kitchen. They took our television and some pictures. Why some pictures? They know they are important mementos to us. They can't sell them, they'll just destroy them, like they wanted to destroy us."

Safete was stuck in Albania, as the Macedonia was not going to allow any refugees to come into the country from there. Later, Safete got across the border "via connections" that Dardan had arranged. Safete told me that many people were killed in Gjakova. 1,200 men were taken away to a Serb prison in Pozarevac, Serbia, including an uncle of Zana. Others are turning up dead, as Safete said, "In the houses, in the basements, under bridges, and by the river."

Safete told me that all the Serbs who lived in Gjakova have now left the town. She said, "As far as I'm concerned, I hope they stay gone. They participated in the killing and stealing." She said that some of the Roma left, and some stayed. "Those who stole things left. The others stayed."

Ismail's three cute kids are staying with Dardan and Zana for now. Ismail and his wife have gone back to Pec, but their house is no more. Both the old house and the big new house, surrounded by a high wall, were torched by the Serbs as they were preparing to leave town. However, Ismail is living in a partially intact room in the house, depressed, cleaning things up. Dardan said that he wanted to "save the children from the horror." He pointed at Arben, Ismail's 8-year-old. He joked, "This is the next generation of the U.C.K. (KLA). He will be a commander. The police are ladybugs, right Arben?"

Dardan scoffed at the idea that Albanians left Kosovo because of the NATO bombardment. He said, "People were overjoyed when it started. They were calling us here from Kosovo. Here in Macedonia, Albanians were celebrating in the streets." The Macedonians, on the other hand, were very unhappy. There was a series of demonstrations against NATO in Skopje, and a great amount of tension between Macedonians and Albanians in Skopje.

Dardan told me that Pec and Gjakova, further south, were the worst hit. The old market center of Gjakova is completely burned. Pec is even more destroyed, but more people were killed in Gjakova. The Serbs wanted to make an Albanian-free corridor in this western area along the border with Albania. Very few Serbs had lived in Gjakova - it was 97% Albanian.

In the evening Dardan and I got together with Teresa, my Advocacy Project colleague who has come down from Geneva to work with me on a short research project. We are going to be talking to women leaders of non-governmental organizations to find out how Albanian civil society is pulling itself back together. Teresa was with the group that went to Kosovo last year to observe the demonstrations. With our connections from last year and her massive contacts via e-mail, we will be in good shape to meet with a lot of people.

Teresa has visited Prishtina twice in the last week. It is only an hour or two from Skopje. She has seen houses torched on the side of the highway. Some of these may belong to Serbs who fled, or to Rom (Gypsies) suspected of collaborating with the Serbs. In Prishtina Teresa met our friends from last year, the people we stayed with and those who translated for us. Their reunion was joyful. People were living with fear there for three months. They were afraid even to take a shower, for fear that the soldiers would come at that moment to expel them.

Teresa found out that one of the most dangerous times in Prishtina was when the Russians got the jump on NATO and entered the town prematurely. At this point the paramilitaries realized their time was up and they had to leave. They made a last rush to kill educated people and steal their cars, possessions and money. Safete told me that the Serbs were taking so many things that they couldn't carry them all. She said that now people are finding some of their belongings stacked in warehouses.

Dardan's sister Pranvera and her husband Pano are the parents of Ariana who lives in Seattle. Ariana has two brothers, Ismet and Kemo. They were stuck in Gjakova. Ismet is married and has a young daughter. At a certain point the two men were going to go off and join the KLA. Pano told them, "Fine, take your wife and daughter too. Who is going to take care of them when you get killed?" They all ended up going to Albania, and have been stuck in Tirana. Their house, however, is intact, and they should be returning soon.

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Dardan told Teresa and me, "This is the best government we've ever had here in Macedonia. Before, when there were disturbances in Kosovo in the early 1980s, they were even worse here than in Serbia. I was a citizen of Macedonia, but I went to Pristina University, and graduated in 1981, right when the disturbances happened. I went to those demonstrations, although other people knew a lot more about what was going on than I did. When I came back to Skopje, the police called me in for an 'informative conversation,' which lasted three hours.

"My father had brought us down to Skopje from Pec to live here in the 1960s. The oppression from Rankovic (Tito's Minister of the Interior) against Albanians at that time was so bad that we had decided to move to Turkey, but we stopped here. My father ran a shop. He would tell the Italian tourist customers here, 'Albanezi e Italiani sono fratelli. (Albanians and Italians are brothers.) Mile novo cento quarenta i uno, due, trei, Mussolini, molto bene.' And the Italians would walk away. That was the only time in this century, since the Serbs took over Kosovo in 1916, that we felt free. The rest of the time, we have always had to look over our shoulder."

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Yesterday we started our work, slowly. We had a brief interview with Ibrahim Mehmeti, a native of Skopje who works for Search for Common Ground. Ibrahim gave us some information about the organizations that have been most active in Macedonia in taking care of the refugee crisis. We got onto the subject of the international reaction to NATO's intervention. He said,

I know that the pacifist opposition to the bombing was strong. Pacifism is a nice thing. I am the biggest pacifist. But this is not pacifism, to stand by when people are being killed. That is like when a man is drowning, and you will not jump in the lake to save him, because your shoes are dirty and you are an environmentalist.

Ibrahim told us that the atmosphere in Macedonia is much more calm than when there were 300,000 refugees here. However, when the Serb capitulation was declared, there was a fight in Tetovo between Macedonians and the celebrating Albanians on June 10th. 1,000 people were involved.

I asked if the defeat of the Serbian occupation would take the wind out of the sails of the extremists in Macedonia. He explained to us that the formerly extremist party, the VMRO, was in the government coalition and had already toned down its extremist rhetoric considerably. It had been Slavic nationalist and anti-Albanian, but had in fact joined one of the most democratic government formations ever in Macedonia. The touchy position of Macedonia between several stronger countries, equivalent to hanging on the edge of a cliff, has made its government act sensibly. There is no rule in this area that politicians have to act rationally, but in this situation, that has been the case. "The VMRO was out there on the street in Tetovo, telling their people to go home," he said.

I asked Ibrahim what would have happened had NATO not intervened when it did. He said, "The war would have spread to Macedonia. The Serb forces and the KLA were fighting, and the Serbs would have followed the KLA into Macedonia. Then the Albanians in Macedonia would have gotten involved, and then the Macedonians would have also. It would have exploded."

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After writing this letter, Peter traveled to Kosovo. For his correspondence from there, click here.

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