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30 August 1999

A just war also has its dark sides

In Kosovo, the victims have turned oppressors. Why are we surprised? asks Melanie McDonagh

By Melanie McDonagh

Quibbles about murder: now there’s a thing I loathe. Killing an innocent human being is wrong – can we, just for the purposes of argument, get that much clear? For good measure, can we throw in that duffing up old ladies is wrong, that forcing people from their houses is wrong, that even threatening to kill people is wrong? And now that we’ve sorted that much out, maybe we can turn to the question of Kosovo. Because in the nature of things much of the attention of reporters and pundits has turned to the situation of Serbs and gypsies in the newly liberated Kosovo. And they don’t like what they see.

Neither, come to that, did I. I spent some of my time on my last visit to Kosovo, a month ago, ferrying Serbian pensioners from Urosevac – that is, my friends did so. These Serbs had been attacked in their homes, beaten and threatened with death by Albanians. In this magazine, I wrote about pleading with American K-For to send in a tank to protect the Orthodox church and the Serbian priest’s house – but K-For told me there weren’t enough tanks. Well, the priest’s house has now been burnt and the priest has left. Now there’s an American tank in front of the place, but it’s too late to do any good.

As Tony Blair pointed out when he visited Pristina, Nato did not fight a war against ethnic hegemony in Kosovo so that Serbs might be persecuted. What makes the attacks even more disgusting is that some appear to have been organised by a group connected with the Albanian mafia, sometimes described as the BIA, which drives Serbs from their homes in order to sell their homes, cheap, to returning Albanians.

The war was worth fighting, and that needs saying. There is grotesque oppression throughout the world, but it was worth trying to obtain justice for one pivotal bit of Europe, and, in an important sense, we did so. If we could have looked unmoved at ethnic cleansing in our own patch, how much credibility would we have anywhere else?

The rhetoric and behaviour of vengeful and opportunistic Albanians is profoundly unattractive, but the backlash against Kosovar Albanians as a people is just warped. Can we just rewind a few months? Over 880,000 people were forcibly expelled from their homes during the cleansing of Kosovo, and an estimated 10,000 were killed, very often in the most brutal fashion. French peacekeepers have found evidence of the disposal of human remains in the vats of the Trepca mines: piles of shoes and clothes, which were removed before the last Serbian military left. As I write, around 2,000 Albanians are in custody in Serbia, in conditions that can only be imagined, because humanitarian organisations are denied access to them. In the previous Serbian offensive, from August 1998 – well before the Nato bombardment – about 400,000 Albanians were expelled from their homes and 2,000 were killed.

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According to the testimony of innumerable refugees, the killers included local Serbs, not just outside paramilitaries. If the greater part of the Serbian population left before K-For arrived, it was at least partly because many Serb civilians in Kosovo were implicated in the cleansing. Some voluntarily participated; some were conscripts. None of this excuses the murder or intimidation of a single Serb, but it is the context in which those murders and beatings happen, and, without that context, nothing can be understood.

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One of the unhappiest consequences of the attacks on Kosovo’s indigenous Serbs is that it makes it more difficult than ever for Serbs to come to terms with their own actions. An Albanian dentist, who was expelled from Pec, spoke for many Kosovar Albanians when he said: “They must apologise for what they did. They must say that what they did was wrong. Otherwise there can be no living with them.”

Small wonder that Serbs are, yet again, obsessed by their own victimhood rather than the culpability of their government for systematic mass murder, when old and vulnerable people are being attacked in their own homes. When I visited the patriarchate at Pec, there was a line of loyal Serbian refugees outside – angry, frightened women and old men. But when I asked them who was responsible for the devastation in the town, they answered unblushingly: “It was the Albanians. They burnt their houses before they left.”

It was a lie; they knew it was a lie; but the lie cannot be gainsaid under these circumstances.

Before being tempted to wash our hands of Kosovo, perhaps we should bear in mind that this is only the latest part of the unravelling of former Yugoslavia. There is still unfinished business from that part of the war when we did stand by and watch ethnic cleansing take place. In north-west Bosnia alone, in 1992, 10,000 people were killed – as many as were killed in Kosovo altogether. Yet seven years on, the camps have been forgotten; there has been no attempt to recover the bodies. Even now, we have not recovered the mass of bodies from the massacre of more than 7,000 people at Srebrenica. Over a quarter of a million people were killed in Bosnia. The one answer to the fools who try to tell you that Nato actually caused mass murder in Kosovo is that 70 per cent of Bosnia was systematically cleansed of non-Serbs, without any intervention from outside.

Kosovo is a mess; but if we had simply allowed events to take their course and the trajectory of ethnic cleansing and systematic murder begun last August to continue, we would now be in an incomparably worse situation. For all the destruction then, for all the backlash now, it remains a just war.