On a July visit to Kosovo, I stayed with some friends in the western town of Djakovica, the scene of a particularly high number of murders during the recent NATO intervention. I sat in the living room while an Albanian Kosovar I'll call Agron,a man with a sad expression built into his face, told me of what he had seen.
"On the second day of the bombing, the Serbs took our neighbor away," Agron said. "I still don't know where he is. I watched from the attic of the house, when three men in masks came and took the family out from next door. They killed four people in the yard. I was waiting for them to come kill me."
Agron then brought out a death announcement with 20 photographs on it. These were all cousins of his. First they were killed, and then the house they were in was set on fire.
Shortly thereafter I was visiting an Albanian family in Pristina, in an apartment building where both Albanians and Serbs lived on the same hallway. Some Albanian vigilantes had been threatening the Serbs.
The family I was visiting was on good terms with the Serbian neighbors, and the father, Ibrahim, tried to defend them. The vigilantes said, "They're Serbs, what are they waiting for? Why don't they leave?" Ibrahim told them, "You can't go around evicting people like this. My neighbors are innocent. If you can prove they committed any crimes during the bombing, I'll help you evict them myself."
The vigilantes left. I said to the daughter of the family, "I wouldn't want to be in their position," referring to the Serbs. She said, "Neither would I. I already was." The vigilantes came back a few days later when the father was not there,and broke into the Serbs' apartment. They hit the mother of the Serbian family on the head with a pistol and ordered the family to leave within a half hour. The Serbs packed up and left.
I observed this eviction and called KFOR (NATO's "Kosovo Force") when the vigilantes left. The British soldiers who arrived told me, "We have a complicated job. This is going on all day. I make 10 arrests every day, but there are always more people to take these bandits' place. Look out the window and you'll see what kind of situation we have here."
I looked out the window into the darkness and saw a house in full blaze two blocks away. Another Serb or Roma (Gypsy) family had been evicted.
During my several weeks in Kosovo, Albanians constantly told me, "There were no Serbs who stood up and opposed what was done to us." I also listened to their grievances against the Roma: "They were working with the Serbian police. The police would go into an Albanian-owned shop or house and take whatever they wanted, and then Roma would come in and take the rest. The Roma also put on uniforms and robbed and killed Albanian during the NATO bombing."
"My people are getting revenge now," Ibrahim's daughter Fjolla told me. "But they can never punish the person that did something to them--it's always someone else that gets hurt."
From what I witnessed, it is clear to me that revenge is not the only motive for the actions that are going on against the remaining Serbs and Roma of Kosovo. The absence of law during this transitional period provides an opportunity for some people to enrich themselves. Young men who lost neither home nor relatives are striking out at easy targets. They take the possessions of the evicted families and then take control of their apartments, to rent them to displaced Albanians. In this way they become the de facto owners of property.
I visited a collective center for displaced Roma on the outskirts of Pristina to hear another side of the story. A Rom told me, "This was a conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians. We got caught in the middle." Without an organized body to defend or represent them, the Roma are now the biggest losers in the present situation.
A common accusation today is that the wave of evictions is part of an organized campaign perpetrated by the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army). It is not so simple. The KLA is not an entirely cohesive organization. While there are doubtlessly dishonest people and profiteers in the KLA, there are also good people who wish the best for their community and who desire to cooperate with NATO.
Nor are all profiteers in the KLA. The anarchy is a manifestation of the sudden changes that took place this spring, which caught the whole world by surprise. NATO and the United Nations simply were not prepared for the chaos that ensued, and they are now scrambling to establish order. Meanwhile the criminal element that exists in every society is taking advantage of the momentary absence of a state.
However, there are plenty of intelligent and sophisticated people who would be capable of running Kosovo honestly if they only have the opportunity. At present only the United Natons and NATO can do what is necessary to create order. The early establishment of a strong protectorate that ensures justice on all sides is critical to the future of Kosovo. NATO must put its foot down.
Peter Lippman is a human rights activist and free-lance journalist based in Seattle.
Article first appeared in the October/November 1999 edition of the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs.
Reprinted with permission.
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