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28 June 1999

Now the Serbs need our help

We have got it wrong again. Kosovo should have many more troops

By Melanie McDonagh

Before I get going with the story, can I draw the moral? Or rather, the practical suggestion that it seems to call for. In short: please can we have more K-For soldiers in Kosovo? Because in Urosevac, in southern Kosovo, there aren’t nearly enough.

It’s an American sector and, when I was there, frightened, elderly Serbs were gathered round the church, looking for sanctuary from the threat of KLA people who had entered some of the Serb houses, taking their televisions, beating elderly men and threatening violence. The priest had called for help from the K-For commander in the morning and several hours later he and his parishioners were still waiting, scared out of their wits. In a situation where returning Albanians are mixed with opportunistic looters, what the Serb community needs is K-For patrols and, specifically, a tank outside their church. It’s a place of sanctuary, that church. The US officer is very nice about the matter but he explains: “You have to understand, ma’am, that there are thousands of incidents happening all the time all around town. But I will make that point to my commander.”

I tell you, it’s worrying. The time for a peacekeeping force to be in place, in very great numbers, is right at the start. If you want Serbs to remain in their homes, you need a ruddy great force of soldiers to be visible and available and to patrol by night as well as day. (In Pristina the British soldiers are visible by day but short on presence at night,w hen much looting and stealing actually happens.) It’s not much use calling in reinforcements when the Serbs have actually left for fear of intimidation from people who are vengeful or plain opportunistic.

There, that’s the moral. And before the moral-equivalence people get going about how the Serbs are having just as bad a time as the Albanians did before, can I interject to say that it isn’t so? There isn’t parity of evil here between the cleansing of the Albanians, which was systematically ordered by the state and mind-blowing in scale, and what is happening to the Serbs, which is small in scale, individualistic and opportunistic. But if we are to take seriously the notion that Kosovo is for all its peoples, regardless of ethnicity, the priority now is for those vulnerable and fearful Serbs to be protected by the western armies.

Now I can get on with the story. It’s about a man and his wife, who fled from an old and beautiful village called Nerodimlje. The village was mixed; they were Serbs. And they lived together with their neighbours in the kind of friendly intimacy that you only get in the Balkans.

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When the cleansing of the Albanians happened in that little town, the husband – a strikingly handsome man, bearded, with strong cheekbones – saw, as did the other Serbs, what was happening but, unlike the other Serbs, he did something about it. “I said to the commander of the regular forces that they shouldn’t be attacking women and children, that it wasn’t proper war, that they were doing bad things.”

The commander ignored him. The man also told the Albanian who worked for him that, if he liked, he could stay with them for protection. But because of what was happening, the Albanian fled with the rest. Like other Serbs who talk about the ethnic cleansing of Albanians, the man puts much of the blame for the atrocities on the paramilitaries who came from outside. And, surely, they had the bloodiest hands. But he also says that local police and local Serbs took part in the cleansing: “young men, mostly, who’d been drinking too much”. Which made his action more striking.

When one of his neighbours was expelled from his home, he came to the husband to ask whether he might leave some of his most valuable things with him; his tractor, especially, which had been very expensive. He said, “Of course”. And because he did that, he was hauled before the police three times, who interrogated him about why he was looking after Albanian goods, and whether he was an Albanian spy. In short this was a man who had nothing to fear from his neighbours; his son was in the Yugoslav army, but when the returning Albanians came back, he had, he said, “clean hands”.

When the mayor of the town phoned him, as he did the other Serbs, to say that K-For was coming to Kosovo and that the Serbs must run away because they wouldn’t be safe from them, he stayed put. The other Serbs left after that command from the local government; he and his wife, however, went to the local KLA commander and asked for a guarantee. “No problem,” said the commander. “Go back home.”

They did but what they hadn’t bargained for was the non-KLA opportunists who came to them that very day. Three men dressed in black. One of them was an Albanian he knew, to whom he had sold property ten years before. They asked him for his revolver, but he had already given up his revolver. One of the men, who came from Albania proper, put a knife inside his mouth. The local man rehearsed decade-old grievances including how the wife, a teacher, had never taught in Albanian whereas they, Albanians, had to learn Serbian. They must start to learn Albanian, that very day. They beat the husband on the shoulders and hit the wife on the back of the head. They locked them in their shed and said they would be back for them, to find their weapons. Then they left.

The man and his wife climbed out through the window and walked to Urosevac, where we met. Who was to blame, I asked the husband, for what had happened? “The local police,” he said simply. His wife put it even more simply. “The people who did the worst things have got away,” she said. “It is the innocent who are paying the price now.” And it is those innocent people who need the protection of the western forces.

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