Kosovo Revisited |
By Daniel Williams
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia When reporters in Kosovo were ferried to Istok prison in late May to view the wreckage of a NATO airstrike, they saw the bodies of 19 ethnic Albanians who had been listed as bombing victims. The corpses were in the prison's inner courtyard, where the brick walls had been scarred by shrapnel and the ground was cratered by explosions.
But Serbian authorities took the reporters back two days later, after two more attacks. This time, the official version -- that bombs again were to blame -- did not match what reporters saw at the scene, where 25 more ethnic Albanian corpses were on display. The corpses were piled in the foyer of a clinic. Except for a ruined dining hall, however, no new bomb damage was visible inside the prison, and none of the newly dead had been crushed, or touched by the concrete dust that covered the dining hall floor.
Masked riflemen in fatigues, meanwhile, moved around at the rear of the prison. Guides said they were special security. But the only ethnic Albanians around were either dead, or forlorn figures employed to drag corpses away.
That was one of the most sinister and mysterious of the 16 days I spent in Kosovo during May as NATO planes pursued a campaign of growing fury against Serb-led Yugoslav forces, who were waging their own brutal campaign against Kosovo's secessionist guerrillas and ethnic Albanian civilians. In visits around the enflamed province -- escaping NATO bombs, dodging rebel snipers and navigating Serbian checkpoints -- I was trying to glimpse the heart of the conflict. But while day after day I was confronted by horrible or dramatic scenes, the meaning of what I was seeing was often elusive or inaccessible.
The tattered and burned landscape hinted at the terror visited on ethnic Albanians, who made up 90 percent of the Serbian province's prewar population. However, the fear in their eyes and their suspicion of outside visitors made it difficult to get a full version of the horror. In interviews, you always felt something was missing; that more was going on than was visible.
So at war's end, with Yugoslav forces forced to withdraw and NATO peacekeepers in charge, I tried to revisit places and people I saw during the fighting -- returning not only to the prison but also to the tragic scene of a mistaken NATO bombing, to an Orthodox convent, to a retired Serbian schoolteacher suddenly fearful of his ethnic Albanian neighbors, to a pair of friends trying to bridge the ethnic divide.
It was not only to see whether there were secrets to uncover, but to observe changes in a world that, in a matter of days, had turned upside down. Kosovo's rulers were now the fearful and fleeing; its rebels and victims now the rulers. The repression and bombing were over, but much of the mystery remained.
On my last day in Kosovo, for instance, I returned to Istok prison. It apparently had not been revisited by any other outsider. A sign saying "Danger -- Mines" blocked the single road to the entrance. But three soldiers from the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army agreed to scout ahead.
Once inside, it didn't take long to see that ugly things had happened -- things that had nothing to do with bombing. At the clinic where the 25 bodies had lain, mattresses and pillows lined a hallway I had not been able to see before. Some had bullet holes and dried blood where heads might have rested. Bullet holes and splattered blood marked walls. A copy of the Hippocratic oath hung at an angle in one office.
In a cellblock, bullet holes marred inner walls and more mattresses bore dried bloodstains. At the rear of the compound, piles of clothing filled a cowshed. Again, walls bore bullet pockmarks. Mattresses and clothing were stuffed into open manholes.
Januz Januzi, a KLA official in the town of Istok, said he believed up to 100 bodies of slain inmates were in mass graves in the countryside. He said ethnic Albanian residents of Kosovska Mitrovica, to the east, saw buses taking survivors toward central Serbia before war's end.
Somewhat shaken, I asked Beke Berisha, one of my human mine sweepers, for insights he might offer to help me understand what I had seen. "I've seen worse things," he said.
One of the most horrifying of NATO bombing blunders took place outside the village of Korisa in western Kosovo. Near midnight on May 14, jets struck two encampments where Serbian police had forced traveling refugees to spend the night, claiming that the nearby border with Albania was closed to traffic.
About 400 ethnic Albanians died along with two policemen. When I reached the scene, I saw smoldering corpses. But when I returned this time, twisted tractors and ashes were all that remained.
Hatixhe Kukaj, an elderly farm woman, survived the blast. Now free to talk without fear of punishment by Serbian police, she related how she and other members of her family had hiked to the hills that night. Her nephew, Abdullah, was a fighter for the KLA and they were seeking to be protected by him and his fellow guerrillas.
During the war, it was impossible to find anyone who would talk about the KLA. After the war, it has been hard to find someone who did not want to talk about it -- and to claim kinship with one of its members.
Kukaj spent the rest of the war after the bombing in the brushy hills. Serbs shelled the area and sent ethnic Albanian messengers to urge the civilians to come down. Kukaj and her group of two adults and three teenage children resisted.
"We didn't want to be blackmailed by police or paramilitaries again," she said. "We would stay in the mountains, even if it meant to die."
Fighting in the hills continued even after a peace agreement was signed. When Serbian forces withdrew last week, Serbian civilians fled too. The KLA is in charge now and Abdullah serves on a committee trying to organize street security and repairs.
Osman Ahmetaj dropped by Kukaj's house. He also was a NATO airstrike survivor; 33 members of his extended family died in the Korisa air raid. But he did not carry a rifle during the war. "I had to tend to my father," he explained. "He is 102 years old."
Abdullah Kukaj remarked, "I too have an old father." He turned to a reporter and said, "Ahmetaj was just afraid. It was a time to choose and sacrifice."
Ahmetaj shot back, "I think 33 people dead is enough sacrifice."
Thirty-one years ago, at the age of 12, Mother Superior Anastasia pledged herself to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the cloisters of Devic monastery in central Kosovo. For much of the past two years, the KLA has dominated the hills around the 400-year-old stone complex and harassed the nuns, sniping, stealing their crops and scaring off visitors.
During a visit while the fighting raged, Anastasia defended the Serbs' brutal war on ethnic Albanians, blaming the KLA for starting it.
Two Sundays ago at 6 a.m., Serbian police left a border post near the monastery as part of the NATO-imposed withdrawal plan. Three hours later, 30 KLA guerrillas broke into the monastery, scratched KLA initials on an old fresco of a saint, shattered icons, cracked the marble top of a sarcophagus containing the remains of an ancient monk and stole four tractors, a Volkswagen sedan, three generators and gold ornaments.
They beat the priest and threatened to rape nuns unless Anastasia turned over money hidden in the monastery. She reportedly gave them thousands of dollars and German marks. NATO had not yet occupied the wooded region; no one outside came to the rescue. When French soldiers on patrol stumbled upon the occupation last week, the rebels fled.
"To be honest, we expected it to happen," Anastasia said, her voice edgy. "The KLA kept asking us why we were not leaving. They think that if they finish the people, the monastery is finished, too. But we will stay. That is our duty."
French paratroopers guarded the monastery, a machine gun pointed out the front gate. In Srbica, a few miles away, ethnic Albanians celebrated, mingling cheers for the arrival of NATO forces and chants of praise for the KLA.
In the southwestern town of Urosevac last week, Radoslav Veljkovic, a retired schoolteacher, was desperate. Angry ethnic Albanians were milling about near the square where a mosque and church stand side by side. They were shouting that the Serbs should leave.
Buses stood ready at the station. But ethnic Albanian workers said the buses belonged to the company, and the Serbs could not take them. Veljkovic was stranded in suddenly hostile territory. "What are we to do?" he asked. "No one is here to help."
It was a strange counterpoint to our previous conversation in May, when Veljkovic poured out his dislike and fear of ethnic Albanians: they dealt drugs, they were dangerous, they wanted to take Kosovo from the Serbs. It had always been like that, he said, recounting how ethnic Albanian brigands assaulted his grandfather in 1921, killed him and yanked out his gold teeth.
Last week, he thought he was reliving his grandfather's horror. "Look at them," he whispered. "They want to kill."
No Serbs came to work at the bus station. Before, they held the top jobs. But ethnic Albanian workers have taken over, electing managers and opening the dingy station for business. Finally, they arranged a compromise with NATO to escort the Serbs out and ensure the return of the buses. By then, Veljkovic was nowhere to be seen.
Slavko Lukic, a retired Serbian accountant, and Ejup Fejza, an ethnic Albanian father of three and candy company representative, were Pristina's odd couple during the war. I met them when I first arrived in Pristina. They lived next to each other in the hilltop Dragodan district and depended on each other for company.
Lukic was the guardian angel: One of his sons had connections with the army. "Slavko was correct with us," Fejza said the other day. "He did nothing wrong, and put in a good word for us."
Now, with the Yugoslav army gone and NATO troops on the street corner, Lukic is the insecure underdog. KLA guerrillas strut in some Pristina neighborhoods. Word of the exodus of Serbian civilians fills him with dread. He worries that his pension, in Yugoslav currency, will soon be worthless in a Kosovo that already prefers to deal in German marks and U.S. dollars. He stroked his hair nervously.
"So, how is it? Is it safe for Serbs?" he asked me on the first visit in a month. "I want to stay. I have lived here peacefully. You saw that. You were here."
Fejza tried to comfort him. "You didn't do anything wrong," he told him over a glass of vodka in Lukic's garden. "You need to fear no one."
Privately, Fejza frets. Someone said Lukic's sons were seen looting houses in Dragodan, his hilltop neighborhood. "It was stupid. They make things hard for their father. But, I insist, Slavko should stay."
He said he plans to put in a good word about Lukic with an uncle, who, it turns out, was a physician for the KLA.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company