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Life in Pristina

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The following is a transcript of Paul Watson’s interview with the
Canadian CBC radio program As It Happens, on April 13.

PAUL WATSON (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist working for LA TImes, has been in Pristina since bombing started, interviewed 4/13)


Interviewer: In the midst of a war there’s more than one version of the truth. The NATO allies say hundreds of thousands of Kosovars have been driven from their homes by Slobodon Milosevich. That his troops have been practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide on a scale rarely seen. That’s why, we’re told, NATO will continue its assault. But Serbians claim that what’s really driving Albanians from their homes are NATO’s bombs. That there are no mass killings, no mass graves. Paul Watson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from Canada who has been living in Kosovo since the bombing began. He now writes for The Los Angeles Times and we reached him in Pristina.

Q: Paul, I don’t know, are you being bombed tonight?

A: Things are quiet at the moment. That’s mostly because there’s heavy cloud cover right now and there’s a light rain. But we had some bombing in the daylight hours this morning up until noon and slightly past that.

Q: Has the shelling or bombing of Pristina, has that been going on pretty much since day one? Or has it been stepped up in recent days?

A: The daylight attacks have increased in the last few days. But there has been pretty constant nighttime bombing. Those who see the steady diet of NATO briefings on CNN or other networks wouldn’t see a lot of what’s happening in Pristina or elsewhere. There’s a very select number of slow motion videos which are shown in those. Some of the targets that were hit last night here around 1:40 in the morning, most of which I saw from my window. It’s quite easy to count the explosions. They’re loud and heavy. And in the mornings I simply go out and look to see what is left. Those that were hit last night included a graveyard, a children’s basketball court outside an apartment complex, and the main bus station.

Q: Were these all mistakes, too?

A: The cemetery is one that was hit. It’s the second time it’s been hit with large craters where there used to be graves. Those two detonations, the first one on April 7th and this one in the early hours this morning, are maybe 100 yards at most from fuel storage tanks. The children’s basketball court I am still trying to figure out. There is no sign of tire marks or track marks from armored vehicles or anything to suggest that there was a military target in the sort of something that might have been hidden in among apartment buildings.

Q: Also, how much damage has been inflicted on Pristina altogether?

A: The very center of the city is devastated. The government buildings have been hit. The main special police or ministry of interior police headquarters has been hit. A residential area, the oldest street, in fact, in Pristina which was ethically mixed. In years past it had Jewish residents next to Serbian residents, next to ethnic Albanians, next to ethnic Turks. That took a direct hit. The post office was hit, etc.

Q: Who is left living there?

A: I join pretty regularly every day like anyone else food lineups. And I can hear Serbs talking on one side and ethnic Albanians talking on another. I from time to time have lunch or chat with more liberal Serbs in the city and they tell me about friends who they deliver food to each day who are ethnic Albanians. There are a lot of people on the streets. Even this morning at 10 o’clock in the morning as large explosions were rocking highrise buildings in the center of the city there were people strolling up and down and oohing and aahing as if they were watching a fireworks demonstration.

Q: Because we’ve heard that there is imminent starvation in some pockets of Kosovo, do you know–

A: My movements outside of Pristina itself, the capital, are not restricted by government order. I have been able to get out. I got out yesterday, for instance, on a 70 mile drive down to the southwest, the city of [Jackavitsa] which is right on the Albanian border. In driving through that territory which took us straight through the central part of Kosovo most of the villages are deserted. It’s a very eerie feeling to drive through them. You don’t see soldiers. You don’t see anybody. There were refugees moving in a large convoy of about 150 vehicles in one section, about 50 more in another. As for seeing refugees living out in the open without food I have not seen that myself. I can’t say whether it exists or it doesn’t.

Q: The people who are still leaving, are they being chased out by Serbs? Or are they, in fact, fleeing the bombing?

A: I am certain that it’s a mixture of both. I have spoken personally to people who said that they were ordered to leave their homes by police in black masks. I’ve also spoken to people who are simply terrified. One should also remember that there are many Serbs who have left this city. There are many–there was a convoy of ethnic Turks who left the city. Sometimes the police I think are sincerely trying to give some sort of protection so that as they leave at least to a point their belongings are safe. But one unfortunate fact with the NATO air strikes is that they have stirred a pot, in a sense. And we shouldn’t be surprised that it has spilled over. And in spilling over it has created anarchy in the countryside. There was anarchy in this city for several days. And in that anarchy there are people, civilians, people in uniform who are carrying out very unfortunate acts.

Q: Well, we are–I mean the stories we’re hearing from the refugees coming into Albania and Macedonia are simply terrible, as you probably know. They are talking about having guns put to their heads, having everything taken from them, including their identity papers. Their houses are torched. Their sons and fathers are shot in front of their eyes. None of that happened in Pristina?

A: I’m not saying it didn’t happen but I’ve been up and down ethnic Albanian neighborhoods several times at tremendous risk when some of that firing was going on. I’ve looked in the streets. There are no corpses. There were none then. There are no–there’s no obvious evidence that you would expect. I, for instance, have been in countries where there were massacres, Rwanda being one of them, Somalia being another. It’s very hard to hide anarchic, wholesale slaughter of people. There is no evidence that such a thing happened in Pristina. That’s not to say that it didn’t happen in other villages. I would be surprised if it didn’t given the nature of this conflict. I’ve been here several times for some weeks over the period of the past half year. Massacres have occurred before. I would be surprised if they’re not occurring now.

Q: But sporadic more than the norm. Is that what you’re saying?

A: Certainly more than the norm. But I think–this is something that people should start doing now that we’re into the third, almost into the fourth week I guess. I’ve lost count. I see, and this is not a justification of anything, but I see a pretty clear pattern up until yesterday, for instance, of refugees leaving an area after there were severe air strikes. In the case yesterday the large number of refugees we saw were apparently leaving from an area around the airport just outside of Pristina. That airport had been hit very hard in the previous two days. In hearing reports from those refugees after they arrived across the border they told journalists in Albania and Macedonia the police came to their houses–pardon me–that they had fled to the hills to avoid the air strikes. Police then came to their houses and said if you aren’t going to join us then get out. Go to Albania. None of this justifies anything. But I don’t think that NATO member countries can with a straight face sit back and say they don’t share some blame for the wholesale depopulation of this country. If NATO had not bombed I would be surprised if this sort of forced exodus on this enormous scale would be taking place.

Q: NATO countries, of course, are saying that the Serbs were massing troops along the border getting ready to come into Kosovo and carry out just such an ethnic cleansing. Whether NATO bombed or not.

A: Again, I don’t represent any point of view in this argument. But look at it from the Serb point of view. Again, they saw NATO building up for air strikes and they were warned in very great detail by Commander Wesley Clark and others who visited Belgrade and laid out the maps and told them what was going to be hit, they saw it as leading up to a ground conflict which it may well be leading up to. If you anticipated a massive air and ground attack against your country it would make sense to lay out some defenses.

Q: When the bombing started most of the reporters left or were forced to leave Pristina. You have not had any trouble with Serbian authorities?

A: Threats are made. I cannot tell you that I feel safe here. But at the same time I don’t think that as a member of a NATO country I should leave. These acts are being carried out on behalf of ethnic Albanians against Serbs by governments who represent us. And if we choose to flee and just leave people to it I think that’s disgraceful. If someone cares to threaten me I say go ahead, do it.

Q: Given the passions that have been unleashed, Paul, do you think, though, that the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who must still be in Kosovo, who have not crossed the borders into Montenegro or Albania, Macedonia, are they in danger of their lives?

A: Certainly. The nights, for instance, are still cold here. There are pregnant women giving birth, presumably out in the open or if not out in the open in one of the many houses here that have no roofs and haven’t had roofs since last summer. In those conditions I’m sure that there are people in very, very desperate need of food, medical care and clothing. But the chances of them getting that while NATO is conducting air strikes I would say is nil.

Q: Do you think there’s any chance that Serbs and Albanians are going to live together again in Kosovo? Or is all of that gone by the boards?

A: I spoke to a very interesting, very liberal minded Serb gentleman the other day on this very subject. He ran a Norwegian funded conflict resolution project. He was representing the Serb side and an ethnic Albanian woman representing the other side. And the project brought together teenagers from both ethnic groups. And the point was to try to show them that they had more in common than not because of the music they listened to, the clothes they wore, etc. This person said to me in tremendous despair that he couldn’t see this project ever working again. He said he had had a long distance phone call with his Norwegian sponsors and they had pleaded with him to try to keep an open mind. To tell him that look, this conflict will end someday and people like you are going to have to try to piece it together. But he shook his head and said I just can’t see how.

Q: Are there Serbs in Pristina who are opposed to Milosevich?

A: Yes. This is one of them. There are many people in Yugoslavia who three weeks ago were openly opposed to Milosevich. Those people when you speak to them now and this is not a propaganda campaign, there’s no gun at their head, they explain very frankly that the first casualty of this conflict was the democracy movement. That nobody whether he believed in democracy or not could possibly stand up when his country is being attacked with the force that it’s being attacked 24 hours a day and stand up and say that they’re against the commander in chief.

Q: Paul, NATO doesn’t seem to have any other plan at the moment except to keep bombing. They maintain that eventually if they drop enough bombs, send enough cruise missiles, Milosevich will have to capitulate. There will be no fuel, no supplies. Do you think that will happen?

A: I wouldn’t predict such a thing. But I can tell you what people tell me every day and the morale is still high here in the streets. You would be surprised. People here are prepared to take a lot. And in a campaign which they know is doing its utmost not to strike civilian targets and is restricted to fuel dumps and that sort of thing, in this current stage I think they’re quite willing to take it for a long time. But if NATO does start to hit as they did yesterday at 2:45 I think it was in the afternoon, a civilian car driving along the main street of Pristina and these incidents start to happen more often, perhaps that would have a negative effect on morale. But I’m old enough to remember through my parents what happened during another famous air campaign when the Germans tried to destroy British morale by the blitz and it didn’t work.

Q: Bombing London. Did you see that car hit?

A: I was about five to 10 minutes behind it. I can tell you it’s not a pretty sight. There was a man in the back seat with a hole the size of a fist outside the back of his head.

Q: All right, Paul. I hope we’ll be able to talk to you again.

A: Thank you. I hope so.

Q: Thank you very much.

A: Thank you.

Q: Bye bye.

Q: Paul Watson spoke to us from Pristina. He is a Canadian journalist who works for The Los Angeles Times.


End of Recording

Thanks to Jared Israel for transcribing the interview.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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