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Letter From a Traveller to the President of the Republic

by R?gis Debray

On returning from Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo I feel morally bound to pass my impression on to you: I am afraid, Monsieur le Pr?sident, that we are taking a wrong turning. You are a practical man. You have little time for the intellectuals who fill the media with grandiloquent and peremptory near-misses. And that is good, for neither have I. So I will stick to facts. Everyone has their own version of those, you will say; to each his own. Certainly those I was able to observe on the spot during a short visit – a week in Serbia (taking in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and Vramje and including four days in Kosovo visiting Pristina, Prej, Pritzren and Produjevo) between 2 and 9 May – do not seem to correspond with the words you have been using, in good faith but from a distance.

I hope you will not think me biased. I had spent the previous week in Macedonia, watched refugees arriving, listened to their testimony which horrified me along with many others. I wanted at all costs to go and see “from the other side” how such an outrageous crime was possible. Having a rooted distrust of Intourist-style journeys and journalistic bus trips, I asked the Serbian authorities if I could have my own translator, my own vehicle and the right to go and talk to anyone I wanted. They agreed to these conditions and respected them.

The question of the interpreter is an important one. For I had already discovered, somewhat to my cost (and how could it be otherwise?), that in Macedonia and Albania it is possible to fall into the hands of local dragomen, mostly members or sympathisers of the KLA, who make their network and expertise available to newly-arrived foreigners. The accounts of exactions are too numerous for anyone to be able to doubt some basis of truth for them.

Nevertheless some of the accounts I recorded turned out, when later checked in the places where they had happened, to be exaggerated or even inaccurate. Of course that makes no difference to the scandal and ignominy of this exodus.

What is it you keep telling us? “We are not making war on the Serbian people but on a dictator, Milosevic, who has refused to negotiate and has cold-bloodedly programmed the genocide of the Kosovars. We are limiting ourselves to destroying his repressive apparatus, a task which is already well advanced. And the reason why we are still making air strikes despite regrettable targeting errors and involuntary collateral damage, is that the Serbian forces are continuing their ethnic cleansing operation in Kosovo.”

I have grounds for fearing, Monsieur le Pr?sident, that all of >these words are misleading in the extreme.

1: “Not making war on the Serbian people…” You may not know that the Dusan-Radevic children’s theatre adjoins the television building in the heart of old Belgrade, and the missile that destroyed the one damaged the other. Three hundred schools, altogether, have been damaged by bombs. Children are left to their own devices and not attending classes. In the country there are even some who collect toy-like yellow explosive tubes (model CBU87). The Soviets used to scatter similar fragmentation bombs in Afghanistan.

Demolition of factories has left a hundred thousand workers kicking their heels, and living on an income of 230 dinars – about ?10 – a month. Nearly half the population is unemployed. If you are hoping to turn people against the r?gime by these means, you are making a mistake. Despite the lassitude and shortages I did not notice any real fissures in the sacred union. A young girl in Pristina said to me: “When four Chinese are killed, citizens of a great power, the whole world is up in arms; but when it’s four hundred Serbs it doesn’t seem to count at all. Strange, wouldn’t you say?”

I certainly did not witness any of the carnage wrought by NATO bombers on buses, refugee columns, trains, the hospital at Nis and other places. Nor the raids on Serbian refugee camps (Majino Maselje, 21 April, four dead, twenty injured. The refugees I mean are the four hundred thousand-odd Serbs whom the Croatians deported from Krajina unseen by cameras and unheard by microphones).

To stick to the places and incidents of my stay in Kosovo, the NATO spokesman, General Wertz, declared: “We have not attacked any convoys and we have never attacked civilians.” This is a lie. In the hamlet of Lipjan on Thursday 6 May, three kilometres from any military target in any direction, I saw a private house that had been demolished by a missile, causing the death of three small girls and their grandparents. The next day, in the Gypsy quarter of Prizren, I saw two other civilian cottages which had been reduced to rubble two hours earlier, with several victims buried in the ruins.

2: “The dictator Milosevic…” My contacts in the opposition – the only politicians with whom I conversed – reminded me of the harsh realities. Autocratic, swindling, manipulative and populist, Mr Milosevic has nevertheless been elected three times: dictators only need to get elected once. He respects the Yugoslav constitution. There is no single party, and his own does not have a parliamentary majority. No political prisoners, just changing coalitions. He is virtually absent from the everyday landscape. People can criticize him in public, and they do, but on the whole nobody pays much attention to him. There is no “totalitarian” charisma weighing on people’s minds. The West seems a hundred times more befogged by Mr Milosevic than his fellow-countrymen.

To mention Munich in connection with him is to overturn the relationship between the weak and the strong; to imagine that a poor and isolated country of ten million inhabitants, one that covets nothing outside the frontiers of the former Yugoslavia, can be compared to Hitler’s overbearing and overequipped Germany. If you hide your face too thoroughly you become unable to see.

3: “Genocide of the Kosovars…” A terrible business. I only came across two accessible Western eyewitnesses. One, Aleksander Mitic, admittedly of Serbian origin, is the AFP correspondent in Pristina. The other, Paul Watson, an Anglophone Canadian, is the central Europe correspondent of the Los Angeles Times. Having covered Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, the Gulf war and Rwanda, he is not what you would call green. Somewhat anti-Serb, he had followed the Kosovo civil war for two years and knew every road and village. A hero, so modest. When all the foreign journalists were expelled from Pristina on the first day of the bombing, he had gone to ground and stayed there, continuing to move about and observe.

His testimony is therefore balanced and, taken in combination with other evidence, convincing. The worst exactions were committed in the first three days of the deluge of bombs – 24, 25 and 26 March – with burning, looting and murders. Some thousands of Albanians were then ordered to leave. He assures me that since that time he has not found any trace of crimes against humanity. Of course these two scrupulous observers cannot have seen everything. And I myself, still less. I can only testify to Albanian peasants returning to Pudajevo, to Serbian soldiers standing guard outside Albanian bakeries – ten of which had reopened in Pristina – and people wounded in the bombing, Albanians and Serbs side by side, in the 2,000-bed Pristina hospital.

So what happened? According to the two eyewitnesses, the sudden superimposition of an international air war on a local civil war (and an extremely cruel one at that). Let me remind you that during 1998 1,700 Albanian combatants were killed, along with 180 Serbian police and 120 Serbian soldiers; the KLA kidnapped 380 people and released 103, the rest (including two journalists and 14 workers) having either disappeared or been killed, sometimes after being tortured. The KLA said it had 6,000 clandestine members in Pristina, and its snipers (I was told) went into action as soon as the first bombs fell. Judging that they could not fight on two fronts, the Serbs then seem to have decided to expel manu militari NATO’s ” fifth column” or “land forces”, in other words the KLA, especially in the villages where it was impossible to distinguish its members from the rest of the population.

Localized but undeniable, these evacuations are described by Serb forces as “Israeli-style” and would certainly be recognized by an old Algeria hand like yourself (from the days when a million Algerians were rounded up by us and shut in camps surrounded by barbed wire in order to “drain the water from around the fish”). As in Algeria, obvious traces were left here and there: empty villages, houses burned to the ground. These military clashes caused civilians – mostly, I am told, comabatants’ families – to flee before the bombing started. According to the AFP corrspondent their numbers were very limited. “People took refuge in other neighbouring houses,” he told me. “No one was dying of hunger, getting killed on the road or fleeing into Albania or Macedonia. There isn’t the slightest doubt that it was the NATO attack that started the humanitarian catastrophe snowballing. Until that moment, in fact, there was no need for reception camps at the frontiers.” Everyone agrees that in the first few days reprisals were unleashed by so-called “uncontrolled elements”, with the probable complicity of the local police.

Mr Vuk Draskovic, the deputy prime minister who has now started to distance himself from the r?gime, is among those who told me that they have subsequently arrested and charged three hundred persons with exactions committed in Kosovo. Cover-up? Excuse? Apology? Nothing is out of the question. Later the exodus continued, but on a smaller scale… on orders from the KLA which wanted to group its supporters; for fear of being thought “collaborators” (with the Serbs); for fear of the bombs (since no one can tell the difference between Serbs, Albanians and others from 20,000 feet); to join relations who had already left; because the livestock had been killed; because America was going to win; because it was the ideal moment to emigrate to Switzerland, Germany or anywhere… All these reasons were given to me on the spot. I bring them to your attention, but do not guarantee their truth.

Is it possible that I have listened too attentively to the “people over there”? To do the opposite would be racist. To define a whole people – Jewish, German or Serbian – a priori as criminal is unworthy of a democrat. After all, during the occupation France made the acquaintance of SS divisions manned by Albanians, Muslims and Croats, but never by Serbs. The Serbs are a pro-Semitic and stubborn people; ten nationalities coexist in Serbia itself; could they really have gone nazi fifty years too late? In any case a number of Kosovar refugees told me they had only escaped the repression through the help of Serb neighbours and friends.

4: “The destruction of the Serb forces, which is well advanced…” Sorry, but in fact the Serb forces seem very fit indeed. A young sergeant picked up hitchhiking on the Nis-Belgrade motorway asked me what was the strategic reason for NATO’s furious attacks on civilians. “When we soldiers go to town we have to drink warm Coca-Cola because there’s no electricity. It’s a nuisance, but we can live with it.” I imagine army units have their own generators.

In Kosovo, you have damaged bridges (easily bypassed using nearby fords, when they are not still usable); destroyed an airport of no importance; demolished empty barracks; burned discarded army lorries; bombed helicopter mock-ups and wooden artillery pieces artistically scattered about the fields. This is all very well for battlefield video images and indoor press briefings, but what happens later? Remember that the Yugoslav armed forces, formed by Tito and his partisans, are not like most regular armies: scattered and omnipresent, with underground command and storage centres, set up to meet a long-term conventional military threat (for some time a Soviet one). This is an army that moves cattle about with its artillery to baffle infra-red detection devices.

It is no secret that in Kosovo there are 150,000 men under arms, aged between twenty and seventy (no age limit for reservists), of whom only 40-50,000 are in General Pavkovic’s Third army. Messages are relayed effectively by walkie-talkie radio, and the Yugoslavs are themselves jamming telephone frequencies, as the KLA had been using mobiles to pinpoint targets for US bombers.

As for the expected demoralization, do not believe in it. I am afraid that in Kosovo they are awaiting our troops with equanimity and even with a certain impatience. A Pristina reservist buying bread, AK over shoulder, told me: “Land intervention by all means! At least in a real war there are dead on both sides.” The NATO planners’ war game is taking place 15,000 feet above reality. I beg you, do not send our sensitive and intelligent Saint-Cyr graduates into territory they know nothing about. Their cause may possibly be just but they will not be waging the defensive war (let alone the sacred one) that – rightly or wrongly – the Serb volunteers of Kosovo and Metohija will be fighting.

5: “They are continuing with their ethnic cleansing …” I was angered by the accumulation of car number plates and identity documents – taken from people leaving – at the frontier post on the Albanian border. The reply given me was that it was feared the “terrorists” would use them to disguise their own and their vehicles’ identities to re-infiltrate Kosovo. Much may have escaped my own modest investigations, but the German defence minister was lying when he said on 6 May that “between 600,000 and 900,000 displaced persons have been located inside Kosovo”. In a territory of only 10,000 square kilometres that would certainly have been visible to an observer travelling on that same day from north to south and from east to west. In Pristina, where tens of thousands of Kosovars are still living, it is possible to dine at an Albanian pizzeria in the company of Albanians.

Could not our ministers visit the terrain to question unexcitable witnesses, people like the Greek doctors with M?decins sans fronti?res, like priests and ecclesiastics? I am thinking particularly of Fr Stephen, the Prior of Prizren, who is singularly level-headed. For this civil war is not a religious war: the innumerable mosques are intact, with only two exceptions according to what I was told.

You can buy a country’s foreign policy – as the United States is doing with various countries in the region – but not its dreams or its memory. If you could see the looks of hatred on the faces of Macedonian police and customs officers when the nightly convoys of tanks from Salonika to Skopje are passing, driven by arrogant escorts wholly unaware of what surrounds them, you would understand without difficulty how much easier it will be to enter this “theatre” than to get out of it. Would you then, like the Italian president, have the courage or the intelligence to abandon unrealistic postulates, to seek with Ibrahim Rugova what he has called “a political solution on realistic foundations”?

If you do, a number of realities will force themselves on your attention. The first is that there is no solution without a modus vivendi between Albanians and Serbs, as Mr Rugova insists, for there are two or more communities in Kosovo, not just one. Without getting entangled in the war of statistics caused by the absence of trustworthy census figures, my understanding is that there are a million or more Albanians, a quarter of a million Serbs and another quarter of a million members of other communities: Islamized Serbs, Turks, Gorans or montagnards, Romanies, “Egyptians” or Albanian-speaking gypsies, these last having taken the Serbian side for fear of what a Greater Albania would mean to them. The second reality is the high probability of a resurgence of fierce internal warfare, an episode in a secular to-and-fro, the act I without which the present act II is incomprehensible, but which was itself the result of earlier oppression.

At the moment, politicians seem to be seeing everything in terms of analogies with the past. It is still a good idea to find the least bad analogies possible. You have chosen the Hitlerian analogy, with the Kosovars as persecuted Jews. Allow me to suggest a different one: Algeria. Mr Milosevic is certainly no de Gaulle. But the civilian government is confronted with an army that has had enough of losing and dreams of waging war in earnest. And this regular army rubs shoulders with locally-born militias that might one day come greatly to resemble a sort of OAS.

And suppose the problem did not arise in Belgrade but in the streets, the caf?s and grocers’ shops of Kosovo? The fact is that the men I am talking about are far from reassuring. On one or two occasions I found myself the object of fierce criticism verging on the ugly. I owe it to the truth to say that each time this happened it was Serbian officers who came to the rescue and saved my bacon.

You remember de Gaulle’s definition of NATO: “An organization imposed on the Atlantic Alliance which is no more and no less than the military and political subordination of Western Europe to the United States of America.” One day perhaps you will explain the reasons that have led you to modify this assessment. In the meantime I must confess to feeling a bit humiliated when, on asking a member of the Serbian democratic opposition why his president had rushed to receive some American personality before a French one, I received the answer: “Look, it’s always a better idea to talk to the organ-grinder than his monkey.”
Originally printed in Le Monde on May 13.

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