Tuesday, January 3

The Dogs of War

[What's written here was meant to be included with 'Oh, Mercy', but in the end it was turning into a book, so I decided to cut it in half. I'm not sure how useful it is to read that one first, but there will be a few comparisons to Albania, so perhaps it might be best to start there.]

After spending Christmas day trying to escape Albania, I arrived in Pristina [Kosovo] early Monday morning. Guide books [and popular opinion in Serbia] is that it's a very dangerous place, but all of this is exaggerated. At least for Westerners.

The province is technically still part of Serbia, but all of the administration is handled either by the Kosovars or the U.N. Still, there are peace keeping soldiers all over the place. And they come from just about any nation that you could name, including African countries that are quite possibly worse off than Kosovo itself.

Kosovo is populated almost exclusively by 'Ethnic' Albanians. The term seems a little odd to me. But the point is that they can trace their ancestry back to Albania, even though they don't even speak the same language anymore. It's something along the lines of the German spoken in Germany versus that of Switzerland.

Despite the ethnic ties to Albania, Kosovo is much more organized. This could be because of the presence of the U.N., but I think it's more a leftover of the much greater efficiency of the ex-Yugoslavia. Although Yugoslavia was also run by a dictator [Tito], he was much more intelligent than the nut-case who was running Albania. Yugoslavia became one of the most prosperous communist countries in history, with comparatively little poverty. It stayed that way until Tito's death in 1980. Things slowly started to unravel, and ethnic tensions started to rise. In the end, Milosevic decided that might made right, and the whole thing went up in flames.

Most of the Serbs that had lived in Kosovo for generations were driven out by reprisals committed by the Ethnic Albanians after the Serb troops had withdrawn. This was an embarrassment for N.A.T.O., as ethnic cleansing was one of the main reasons that they intervened in the first place. At that time, though, it was the Serbs that were trying to drive the Albanians out of the province, mostly towards Albania, but in some cases to Macedonia or Montenegro.

The Serbs that remain generally live in enclaves, which are like glorified prisons. They can't go anywhere without being followed by either Albanian Kosovars or N.A.T.O. forces. Yet they're too proud to leave. One starts to wonder when pride becomes more of a liability. It's hard to imagine what would possess someone to subject their family to living in such conditions. The closest comparable situation that I can think of are the 'settlers' in the occupied territories in Israel, but there, the heavy artillery is on their side.

I had the contact of a very nice guy from Pristina, Tim. He offered to let me stay at his place, along with his brother and two sisters. Especially in Kosovo, it's rare that a family has less than four or five children. They all live in a two bedroom apartment, but the girls offered to sleep in the same bed so that I could take one of theirs. Again with the amazing Balkan hospitality.

Tim told me stories of the horrible abuses his family was put through during the war. They were forcibly evicted by the occupying Serb forces, and his father narrowly escaped being killed, which would have happened had they left a day later. Being a doctor, he was accused of aiding the enemy forces by the Serbs, for having cared for injured soldiers of the K[osovo].L[iberation].A[rmy].

It's hard to understand exactly what happened leading up to the war in the first place. The argument of the Serbs is that the K.L.A. was a terrorist organization [they had planted several bombs prior to the outbreak of the fighting, killing several Serbs], and they took appropriate actions to stop them. At the very least, these actions were far too extreme, about as logical as trying to swat a fly with a sledge hammer. But this was a typical strategy of Milosevic. The Serbs don't want to let go of Kosovo as a province [despite having no jurisdiction over the area since 1999], since they consider it to have always been Serb territory. In the popular Serb opinion, a small number of Albanians immigrated to the area centuries ago, and slowly out bred the Serbs, eventually becoming the majority. They also consider it to be a center of Serb culture, yet tragically, most of the churches and other buildings of cultural significance were all destroyed during the fighting.

The Ethnic Albanians say the opposite, that they have been a majority for many centuries, but at times most of their population was driven out, reducing their numbers to a minority. Hence they consider themselves to have the natural claim to Kosovo. Unfortunately, everything that I've read says that it's not really possible to know which side is right.

The two ethnicities have never gotten along, with one of the only quiet times being the more prosperous years under Tito. Still, Kosovo was always the poorest province of Yugoslavia, and by a wide margin. The average revenue in Kosovo was only about one quarter that of Yugoslavia as a whole. The vast majority of Ethnic Albanians will settle for nothing less of full independence, which includes the northern strip which is still mostly populated by Ethnic Serbs. I'm told that that region is the richest in natural resources, and the Ethnic Albanians see it as a key to advancing the Kosovo economy. Yet because of the demographics, Serbia has an especially strong claim to being able to hold onto it.

Negotiations about the status of Kosovo are set to begin this month, and will hopefully conclude by the end of the year. The problem is that unless a compromise can be reached, there is a very real chance that fighting might break out again, yet probably on a smaller scale. Serbia may even try to send in troops once more. Although this is hopefully just a hollow threat [For the sake of all parties involved], the Serbian government being willing to make the threat is very sad. As though the Serbian people haven't suffered enough, the government may be willing to subject it's citizens to yet more sanctions and hardships. And it will be over something that is of comparatively little value.

The biggest question in this whole saga is whether N.A.T.O. was justified in intervening. The mainstream Western media gave an almost unanimous yes, in some cases calling it the first 'good' war [there's a sickening phrase] since World War 2. It was said that N.A.T.O. was stopping a genocide. Yet, after the conflict was over, there weren't nearly enough dead found to justify the term. The war in Bosnia resulted in over 20 times as many dead. There is no doubt that parts of the Serbian military were committing horribly acts of brutality, similar to what happened in Bosnia. Killing innocent people to intimidate others, as well as setting up rape camps. Yet the worst atrocities started after the N.A.T.O. bombing began.

Although it would be nice if politicians were always honest, and if N.A.T.O. really did intervene on a purely humanitarian basis, there are many other arguments given that seem quite plausible. One that the American tacticians themselves gave was that Macedonia was being flooded with refugees, which was a major strain on the economy. Should Macedonia have been sufficiently destabilized, not only by the economy, but also by the large minority of Ethnic Albanians that had been in Macedonia for generations, the country may have collapsed. Albania, Greece, and Bulgaria could all make claims on Macedonian territory, and might have been drawn into the conflict themselves in one way or another. Turkey also piped up about defending their former subjects [as well as fellow Muslims]. This was starting to sound very similar to how World War 1 began. Milosevic was constantly trying to talk Russia into intervening on his behalf. Although it was almost unthinkable that the war would have gone global, it might have grown to encompass the entire region.

There's no question at all that how the intervention was handled was retarded. Most of the people that suffered in Serbia from the bombing were [as always] civilians. N.A.T.O. destroyed, among other things, the Beograd television station, the Yugoslavian Chinese embassy, and many bridges over the Danube River, which runs through Novi Sad and Beograd. They killed many civilians while they were at it. The destruction of these bridges caused havoc for the residents. The Americans could have easily targeted Milosevic himself, instead of dumping more problems on the innocent.

Equally disgusting was the strategy of the K.L.A. [or at least the hard-liners there-in]. They've said that, since they couldn't hope to match the Serbs on a military footing, there plan for independence was instead just to provoke the Serb government to the point where they would start to pound Kosovo. This would in turn bring in the Americans, who would drive out the Serbs, thus giving Kosovo the independence that it wanted. If this really was their strategy, the disregard for civilians here is sickening. What's also sad is how things turned out almost exactly as they wanted.


Moving on to a lighter note, after leaving Kosovo, I caught a bus to Macedonia. Macedonia is one of the few countries in Europe that I needed a visa for. They were also a part of Yugoslavia, and were the only province to have obtained independence peacefully. This was in large part due to timing, as they declared independence when the Yugoslav army was already completely tied up in Croatia and Bosnia.

The capital, Skopje, was a typical big city, somewhat grey. I also visited a town called Ohrid, in the south, which was very pretty. There was a small monastery next to a lake, called St. John's, which had an appeal that's hard to describe. Sitting in front of the monastery and watching the sun set over the lake was a nice way to end a day.

After leaving Macedonia, I went to Bulgaria, arriving in Sofia just in time to celebrate the New Year. I spent the night with a Bulgarian couple, Cvetelin and Sonia, drinking wine and chatting at their apartment. I've been staying with Milena, who was raised in a smaller town in central Bulgaria before moving to the U.S. for a few years. Now she's living in Sofia in order to figure out if she wants to move back to Bulgaria. Just as with the other people that I have stayed with, it's been a great time.


I've written enough about these last two weeks to fill ten entries, but in the end, it's been quite nice to get all of this off my chest. It's been a fascinating learning experience.


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