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  • Analysis: The Serbian Perspective on War

    By Daniel Williams
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, June 20, 1999; Page A19

    PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 19 The man in plain green paramilitary clothing had shot his way into Premtin Gojani's three-story house, robbed the family of money and jewels, and killed Gojani's 72-year-old father by shooting him in the mouth. The gunman said he had to hurry, Gojani recalled, because NATO peacekeepers were arriving the next day.

    "Tomorrow I will go back to Serbia, and I won't be able to kill any more Albanians. So I must do it today," the gunman said. Gojani said he would have been killed, too, but the gunman was frightened off when someone approached on the street.

    The killers, arsonists and looters who terrorized ethnic Albanians all over Kosovo during the 11-week war wore a variety of uniforms and operated in diverse ways. What they had in common was a relentless urge to punish the Kosovo Albanians, who made up the vast majority of the province's residents. The Albanians are hated by Serbs because of the recent civil war here and ethnic tensions dating back to World War II and even the Middle Ages.

    Now that most Serbian forces have withdrawn from Kosovo, the victims are able to speak more freely about their assailants, and international war crimes investigators are trying to gather information about them for prosecutions. So far, though, few individuals have been identified, and the picture that has emerged has many facets.

    Kosovo Albanians say their tormentors came in green clothing, plain clothes, soldier's fatigues or the gray-blue of the police. Sometimes they wore masks.

    The assailants usually spoke Serbian, but sometimes had Bosnian or Croatian accents, and on rare occasions they spoke Russian or even French. Often they traveled in groups but sometimes acted on their own.

    Although in military terms, there was a division of labor among the soldiers, police and paramilitaries, it appears that no branch was exempt from taking part in attacks of some sort on civilians, according to descriptions provided by ethnic Albanians who stayed in the country throughout the conflict as well as by refugees who fled the country.

    All uniformed personnel operated under the eyes of the other branches. Perhaps only specialized units like those involved in air defense, which operated solely against NATO jets, will be able to exempt themselves from responsibility. In a few cases, Serbian civilians took part in the abuses, especially with looting.

    At bottom, the Kosovo conflict was a civil war. It was originally between forces of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government and ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who wanted independence for Kosovo, a province of Serbia, which is the dominant republic of the Yugoslav federation. As is often the case in civil conflicts, the foundations were well laid for a dirty war full of brutality and atrocities. Serbs are taught that the ethnic Albanians are interlopers, people who infiltrated Kosovo by stealth and have no legal right to be here. Moreover, 50-year-old grudges are alive. During World War II, some Albanians sided with the Italian and German occupation armies in Yugoslavia as a way of freeing themselves from the Serbs. The Germans slaughtered tens of thousands of Serbs, so this war became a kind of revenge.

    Even older historical grudges prevail: Some Serbs consider the ethnic Albanians the descendants of oppressive Turkish rulers who conquered Serbia in the late 14th century.

    The sad history of Yugoslavia in the past decade also played a role. Serbs see themselves as a main victim in the breakup of Yugoslavia. They resent that tens or hundreds of thousands of Serbs were expelled from Croatia in 1995 in the Croatians' own "ethnic cleansing" campaign of forced deportations, yet no one indicted the Croatian leadership for war crimes. Serbs are endlessly mystified by attention paid by the West to Albanian refugees.

    "No one cared anything about the Serbs when we were driven out," said Vesna Markovic, a refugee from the Krajina region of Croatia. "We were suffering and no one cared."

    The official characterization of the KLA as terrorists the group's tactics included assaults on police and harassment of civilians made the Serbs feel like righteous victims. One day over coffee at a lonely police outpost near Srbica, a platoon commander offered a list of alleged KLA crimes: shooting cars on the main roads, throwing grenades at police vehicles, rape and robbery. "You tell me," he said accusingly, "would any country not defend itself against this? You would use any means possible. So do we."

    Expulsions of civilians often had the effect of clearing areas that were home to KLA guerrillas. However, that objective does not explain why, for instance, Pristina, a small city that experienced little prewar guerrilla activity, was cleared of at least half its population.

    Refugees who stayed behind and fled to the countryside were preyed on by soldiers, police and the dreaded paramilitaries.

    In the mountains, the Serbs say the KLA used civilians as shields. The rebels say instead that the army was after the civilians, and the guerrillas stood as their only protection.

    There were some incidents that seemed designed to terrorize individuals: the assassination of human rights activist Bajram Kilmendi early in the war, and the police grenade attack on the house of a KLA soldier in Poklek that held 50 of his relatives. Still, many Albanian leaders survived in their homes, and the targeting of prominent figures was not widely practiced.

    No one seems to know the names of assailants. Fear may still be a factor. Shukri Bublaku, an elderly resident of Srbica, advised: "Punishment of the guilty would be good. But really, no one here believes there will be punishment. If I give you a name, I am the one who is going to be punished. People have long memories in this country, you should know that. We will not forget what they did, and they won't forgive us. No one wants to add to their troubles by calling out names.

    "If you see the man who hurt you, do something about it. That's what we think. Talk will do no good," Bublaku said.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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