Commander Beard, a youthful Fidel Castro lookalike in combat fatigues, brushed the snow from the brim of his cap. No, we couldn’t film his unit, he said, because it was too dangerous today. Tramping up the steep, muddy mountain path to the abandoned farmhouse on the Kosovar/Serbian border that served as his base, we had heard the boom of mortars. A small group of scouts from Commander Beard’s unit of the Pre-evo, Medveda and Bujanovac Liberation Army (UCPMB) had run into a patrol of Serbs. They had exchanged fire. No winners, no losers, just another day in a small war in a remote part of the Balkans.
The rebels of the Pre-evo Valley see their struggle as identical to that of the Kosovar Albanians, which ended in Nato’s bombing of Belgrade and the humiliation of Slobodan Milosevic. Ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the region’s population, but a geographic and historical accident means it comes under the administration of Serbia proper rather than Kosovo. At the end of Nato’s bombing campaign in 1999, most of the valley was incorporated into a buffer zone designed to separate Serb forces from the occupying Nato troops in Kosovo. Neither the Serb military – other than lightly armed police – nor international forces are allowed in.
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas have filled the void, moving almost unchallenged into the region, which they now control. The fighters say the area should be incorporated into Kosovo, and see no reason why Nato should not support them as it supported their Kosovar brothers. But Nato disagrees. The Kosovars were fighting Slobodan Milosevic, architect of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, mastermind of ethnic cleansing and massacres. These rebels, on the other hand, pose a challenge to the new, fragile democracy in Belgrade. Milosevic was ousted last October, after a miraculously peaceful election and series of street protests; Vojislav Kostunica, the elected president of Yugoslavia, may be a Serb nationalist, but he is recognised as a democrat. He knows that a new military campaign in the Pre-evo Valley would mean an end to international goodwill, not to mention aid and investment, so he is holding back his troops.
Nato now regards the Serbs as the good guys, and has lost patience with the Albanians. Many of the new rebel group are former fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army who are supposed to have disarmed and knuckled down under international administration in Kosovo. “They depend on us, and we’re sick to death of them,” said one Nato official.
None of which makes sense to Commander Beard. “Kostunica is even more aggressive than the dictator Milosevic,” he said. “Milosevic lost power because he was not effective enough in quelling the Albanian civilian population.” To the fighters, the Serbs are their historical enemy. They will continue the war that started in Kosovo, in southern Serbia and in Macedonia.
It is on Macedonia that Nato is focusing at present: three Macedonians soldiers were killed on 4 March in a border skirmish, and officials fear that further incidents could spark violence among the country’s 30 per cent Albanian minority. This in turn could tip the fragile balance in the Balkans once again into all-out war.
After persuasion, the commander finally agreed that it was not so dangerous after all to take us to see his unit. A few young men in smart uniforms were commanding positions protected by drystone walls over a wooded valley. Veterans of several TV news reports, the rebels were keen to leap enthusiastically out of trenches and look fierce staring down the barrels of their light machine-guns and mortars. After a cold, wet hour of filming, we returned to the abandoned farmhouse. The fighters sat on a carpet round a traditional Albanian open fire, reached inside their combat jackets and took out their mobile phones for an animated discussion on network access.
On the other side of the valley, the Serbs are baffled by the change-around in the situation. “I fought in Kosovo,” said a paramilitary policeman. “It was just the same. The Albanians would try to provoke us. But the difference is now we are told by our commanders and politicians not to shoot back unless our lives are at risk.”
Most of the Serb paramilitary units that carried out the major war crimes and atrocities in Kosovo have been disbanded, or are confined to drug-smuggling and general crime in Belgrade. Whatever the Albanian fighters say, there is no evidence that the Serbs are carrying out massacres in the Presevo Valley. But the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav Army is still based in the main towns, and the purple-uniformed interior ministry police strike fear in the hearts of Albanians. The Serbian vice-president, Nebojsa Covic, has proposed to pull the most hated forces out of the area and replace them with less contentious units. “As a country and a people, we have to solve this problem without war,” he said, “[with] the integration of the Albanian community into the state and the system.”
Milosevic’s Balkan wars slowed down Serbia’s economy and it is now more than a decade behind neighbouring Hungary and Romania. The new government fears that a new war would leave Serbia in ruins for another decade. “We could solve the problem by force, we could clean up the whole area, but what would we do the next day?” asked Covic.
The Albanians see this as just another chapter in their long history, but, for Nato, history has moved on. Western leaders want a stable Serbia and no more wars in the Balkans. Close the book, they say, put it back on the shelf and may it gather dust for as long as possible.
Lindsey Hilsum is the diplomatic correspondent for Channel 4 News