Inside Kosovo, the Human Rubble of War
"There’s a Natural Mystic blowing through the air. If you listen carefully now you will hear. This could be the first trumpet, might as well be the last. Many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die. Don’t ask me why, things are not the way they used to be. I won’t tell no lies."
Natural Mystic, Bob Marley & the Wailers
Bob Marley is dead, but the lyrics he once sang with the Wailers live on, reverberating in my head every time I click the shutter of my camera while standing amidst the ruins of war. When I sit down and start typing on my ancient laptop keyboard, writing stories of suffering and dying, Bob Marley’s ghost sits by my side and reminds me to tell no lies. I listen very carefully.
Truth, the oft-mentioned first casualty of war, doesn’t always die on the battlefields–or in the newsrooms–of the world. Information about what really happens to the victims of war, unfiltered by baneful politicians and biased propagandists, is easy to obtain and report when covering a conflict from the field. After being confronted by the reality of war, it isn’t a difficult task to search out and destroy the lies offered up by public relations firms, desk-bound scribes or the natural mystics currently at work in the White House.
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The rubble has been removed from Kosovo, carted away and buried in the same earth as the human victims of war.
Three years after the bombs stopped dropping from the sky, the destroyed homes and shops owned by Albanians have been replaced by thousands of new structures. Kosovo’s re-building program has been very successful, providing Albanians with housing that would satisfy wealthy arms merchants and retired generals. As targets of both sides during the 1999 war between Yugoslavia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Albanians suffered and lost throughout a conflict that lasted 78 days. Construction of the new multi-story buildings has been an integral part of the international community’s efforts to restore dignity and respect, as well as shelter, to the Albanian population of the Serbian province of Kosovo.
The only evidence of that terrible conflict visible in 2002 are the remnants of the Serb and Roma communities and, unlike the 78 day plight and flight of Albanian refugees in 1999, their conflict has lasted for more than one thousand days. Only a small fraction of the pre-war ethnic minorities remain in Kosovo, living in semi-protected enclaves where shelter is a luxury and freedom is a fading memory. The Serbs and Roma live in small houses, crowded apartments, sagging tents, bug-infested shacks and pre-fabricated boxes. They also live in unrelieved fear of their Albanian neighbors, protected by an international cadre of soldiers and police officers more often interested, with a few heroic exceptions, in earning money than in providing a safe and secure environment for Kosovo’s ethnic minorities.
The Serbs and Roma are the human rubble of war.
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A journalist writing for the Guardian (UK) newspaper recently visited Kosovo. His report from Mitrovica was informative, included quotes from officials and citizens, and didn’t pull any punches when assessing the situation in the volatile city located along the banks of the Ibar River.
"Almost three years after the end of the war in Kosovo, the United Nations is being accused of failing in the province and effectively allowing it to be split into separate Serb and Albanian entities," wrote the journalist. "A report by the International Crisis Group, a respected political think tank, says the UN has let the Serb government extend its grip on Serbian-speaking areas of Kosovo, leading to its partition."
In other, more precise words, the journalist reported that the Serbs, after being terrorized by the Kosovo Liberation Army in the years prior to the 78 day long bombing by NATO–and after having their lives and homes destroyed in revenge attacks during the succeeding three years–are now being accused of creating the enclaves where they are forced to live. Simply put, the Serbs are responsible for building their own prisons.
This is Kosovo today. A land where murders, rapes, assaults, thefts and contradictory opinions abound.
According to the Guardian journalist, the International Crisis Group blames the Serb government for partitioning "Serb-speaking areas" of Kosovo. I can confirm that representatives of the ICG are out and about, driving their sparkling clean sports utility vehicles through Albanian-speaking areas of Kosovo. But, as to their assertion concerning the "grip" held by the Serb government, I can only report that the various nationalities that make up the police and military forces in Kosovo do not include any Serbians. Except for a few token Serb policemen–who would need to be protected if assigned to walk a beat in Albanian neighborhoods–security in Kosovo is provided by Albanians, Americans and other non Serb-speaking peoples.
During my visits to Kosovo, the only stranglehold that I have noticed is that of the Albanians on the throats of the ethnic minority populations. And, the ultimate partitioning of Kosovo is being accomplished, not by Serbs, but by Albanian leaders who are proclaiming independence from the weak and isolated Serb government. The ICG report was, undoubtedly, researched and written by well-meaning people who want to see an end to the injustice and violence in Kosovo. They just forgot to get out of their vehicles and wade through the human rubble. The Albanians in Kosovo are no longer an oppressed minority. They dominate the police and government, control the press and, unbeknownst to the folks at the ICG, oppress the Serbs and Roma. The Albanians are not in the grip of anything other than a frenzy to gather money, dominion and friends.
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Obilic is a dusty town west of Pristina. The towering chimneys of a power station are the tallest structures in the valley where Obilic is located, visible from miles away, dominating the landscape just as the Albanians now dominate the power structure of Kosovo. A few Serbs–and one abandoned Orthodox Christian Church–remain in the town, as yet unmolested, protected by KFOR soldiers and UNMIK policemen. The only large concentrations of ethnic minorities in Obilic live in refugee enclaves situated in the shadow of the power station, and the smells emanating from the chimneys compete with the odors of rotting garbage, dirty children and smoky fires.
The residents of the refugee enclaves include Roma men, women and children who were cleansed from their homes during the war in Kosovo. The Roma live in structures that could be described as shacks if they were constructed to house humans. The shelters are pieced together from scraps of wood, cardboard boxes and thin sheets of tin. The leaky roofs are held in place by old automobile tires. Inside, the soot from wood-burning stoves stains walls, ceilings and people. The floors are made of dirt in the dry areas, and mud where water seeps in from the outside. The furniture consists of wood boxes and, for those who can afford the luxury, filthy carpets.
Scott Taylor, a well-respected Canadian military affairs correspondent, recently visited the refugee enclave near the Obilic power station. His report from the field presented the current situation in Kosovo in a different light than did the trumpeting of the International Crisis Group.
"The housing program also illustrates the vast discrepancy between the allocation of funds to Albanian Kosovars and other ethnic minorities," stated Taylor in an article published in the Ottawa Citizen. "Throughout the Albanian sectors ‘monster’ homes–many larger than 7,000 square feet–are being built. Along the main roads are dozens of new hotels and service centres, complete with car washes, supermarkets and cafes. By contrast, inside the isolated minority enclaves there has been little reconstruction…"
Scott Taylor walked through the squalor, and he talked with the people who live in misery and despair. He got out of his vehicle and waded through the human rubble. Taylor told no lies.
There is a natural mystic blowing in the air and, in Kosovo, it stinks worse than the pollution spewed out from the belching chimneys at the Obilic power station. It is a mystery to me as to why the International Crisis Group could spend so much time and money on a report that completely reverses the true situation in Kosovo but, as Bob Marley wailed, "things are not the way they used to be."
James T. Phillips is a freelance reporter and photographer. He has covered wars in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. He can be reached at: email@example.com