July 14, 2008

An Abominable Blood-Logged Plain

“The war in Bosnia will look like a tea party if Serbian nationalism runs wild in Kosovo.” U.S. Representative Eliot Engel

“The whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain.” From Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West, 1941.

Strange country, Kosovo.

It’s European, but it isn’t Christian. It’s majority-Muslim, but it is not anti-American. Foreign soldiers are hailed as liberators and protectors rather than occupiers. Most Western countries recognize the majority-Muslim nation’s recent declaration of independence from Serbia, but not a single Arab country has done so – partly, perhaps, because Israelis as well as Americans are thought of as allies and friends. The United Nations is widely perceived as offensive, incompetent, corrupt, and deserving of banishment.

Ethnic Albanians – who make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population – suffered apartheid-like conditions and ethnic-cleansing by Serbian Nationalists in the 1990s. They were history’s winners, though, in 1999 when NATO finally had enough of Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. He and his Serb allies kicked off four wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the final war in Kosovo threatened to overwhelm and destabilize the rest of Southeastern Europe.

Albanians in both Kosovo and Albania proper are well aware that the United States led the international effort to stop the chronic violence in what remained of Yugoslavia, and they’re well aware that the United States led the international effort to roll back communism all over the world. History has been as hard for them in the last half-century as it has been for their Arab co-religionists, but in dramatically different ways, and with dramatically different results.

I spent several weeks among them shortly after their declaration of independence to investigate the world’s newest country. The attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Terror War that followed pushed Europe’s troubled Balkan Peninsula almost entirely off the media map. But Kosovo is a brand-new Muslim-majority nation forged in violence and war with the help of American soldiers. Most countries still have not recognized its independence. Like Israel and Taiwan, its very right to exist is on trial. It deserves more attention than it has been getting.


The capital, Prishtina, is hard to love at first sight. Never before had I seen a European capital so thoroughly degraded by modern and communist architecture. Very little of old Prishtina remains.

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Prishtina, Kosovo

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Old Prishtina, Kosovo

Brutal communist-era monstrosities proliferate across Eastern Europe, but in Prishtina you will find them even in the city center where more aesthetically pleasing traditional buildings should be.

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Kosovo's National Library is a spectacular modernist failure.

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Rumor has it that a communist apparatchik attended the building's opening and asked why the scaffolding hadn't been taken down yet.

Newer construction is a bit softer on the eyes, as it is almost everywhere in the world, but there is no urban planning and no formal or informal design code. Houses, apartment buildings, and office towers are often built illegally, without permits, wherever they happen to fit.

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New neighborhood, Prishtina, Kosovo

Property taxes on homes don't kick in until construction is completed, so unfinished houses are literally everywhere. Prishtina at first glance is a jarring assault on the senses, and a devastating rebuke to both communist and modernist architecture.

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It wouldn't be fair, though, to judge Kosovars on their built environment. The average person who lives in Prishtina is no more responsible for its botched condition than people who live anywhere else – and that was doubly true when Kosovo was ruled by a communist dictatorship that was foreign in all but name. The only European country I’ve seen with as much obvious physical evidence of decades of oppression and misrule is Albania.

The city of Prizren provides an interesting contrast.

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Here is a city that still looks more or less like it did before the arrival of communists with their bulldozers, their clipboards, and their blueprints. Prizren looks, as Prishtina once did, like the Eastern-Western hybrid that it is. It looks vaguely Turkish, specifically Kosovar, and thoroughly European. This is a city you'll want to visit if you go there on holiday.

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Old Buildings Prizren.jpg

Hardly any tourists visit Kosovo, even though much of it is charming and the prices are lowest in Europe. It is off almost everyone's radar. Most who think of Kosovo at all still assume it is hostile or dangerous. It is neither. Two short years before the ill-fated date of September 11, 2001, Kosovo still resembled the “blood-logged plain” Rebecca West famously described in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, her famous pre-World War II travelogue about her journey across Yugoslavia.

Kosovo today reminded me of other countries that were blood-logged until recently. In 2003, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman belatedly discovered Poland. “After two years of traveling almost exclusively to Western Europe and the Middle East,” he wrote, “Poland feels like a geopolitical spa. I visited here for just three days and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me.” That's exactly how I felt when I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, and that's exactly how I felt when I arrived in Kosovo.

American flags fly in front of private homes, private businesses, and public buildings.

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They are sold at sidewalk kiosks all over the country, along with t-shirts thanking the United States in English. I saw spray-painted graffiti on a wall in a village that said “Thanks USA and Bush.”

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President George W. Bush is deeply admired in both Kosovo and Albania, but no U.S. president tops Bill Clinton in the public affection department. A main street leading into Prishtina’s downtown was renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard. An enormous mural of the former president greets visitors on their way into the capital from the airport. Small businesses are named after him, too.

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A small business named after former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Prishtina, Kosovo

Vizier Mustafa is sculpting a statue of Clinton which will soon be erected somewhere on Bill Clinton Boulevard. “He is our savior,” Mustafa told a Reuters reporter. “He saved us from extermination.”

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Vizier Mustafa sculpting a statue of former U.S. President Bill Clinton (copyright Reuters)

The Hotel Victory sports the world's second largest replica of the Statue of Liberty on its roof. A taxi company named Victory put the Statue of Liberty on its doors. I found another replica on someone's private property in the small ethnically mixed town of Vitina.

Hotel Victory Prishtina.jpg

“We are more pro-American than you are,” one young Kosovar told me.

“We really like Americans here,” a waiter said when he learned where I’m from. “Americans are our best friends in the world. UK is second.”

“Thank you,” I said. “We appreciate that. Some people don’t like us.”

“Bad people,” he said.

Restaurants abound with American names: Memphis, Hemingway, Route 66. I even found a patisserie and disco bar named Hillary, after Hillary Clinton.

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I stood in front of “Hillary” and snapped a couple of pictures. A man rose from an outdoor table and said something to me in Albanian.

“Do you speak English?” I said.

“I asked you why you are taking pictures of my café,” he said. He sounded slightly annoyed and suspicious, but only slightly.

“I'm American,” I said. “And I like your sign.”

“You are from USA?” he said. “Please come in!”

I walked up the stairs and stepped inside.

“Look,” he said. “This is even better.” And he showed me enormous pictures of both Bill and Hillary Clinton on the wall.

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“What is your name?” he said.

“Michael,” I said.

“I am Ilir,” he said. “Ilir Durmishi. It is Christian name.”

“Ah,” I said. “So you're Christian.”

“No,” he said. “I am Muslim. My father just wanted me to have a Christian name.”

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Ilir Durmishi, owner of the “Hillary” patisserie and disco bar, Prishtina, Kosovo

He gave me two shots of espresso and a cigarette. We talked about American politics.

“Do you think Hillary will win?” he said. This was shortly before she lost the Democratic Party's primary nomination to Barack Obama.

“It’s possible,” I said, although I doubted she would.

“I think she will win,” he said. “I like Hillary, but I love Bill. He is my guy. You understand why?”

“Of course,” I said. And I did. His country wouldn’t exist if it were not for Bill Clinton.

“Kosova good?” he said.

“Kosova good,” I said.

“Serbia?” he said.

What was I supposed to say? I didn't want to say “Serbia good” and offend him, nor did I want to condemn an entire country just to appease him. I split the difference and made a so-so motion with my hand while bracing myself for what he might say.

“There are good people and bad people in Serbia,” he said. I relaxed. He was reasonable. “Maybe the leadership is bad, but some Serbs are good. I have Serb friends here. They like to come and have coffee in my cafe.”

After we chatted for a few more minutes, I fished into my pocket for some money to pay for the coffee.

“No,” he said.” It is from house. God bless you.”

Later I had coffee with a young Albanian man just around the corner from Ilir's Hillary Clinton cafe.

“Kosovo is a success because we wanted a change,” he said. “We are not like Iraqis or Palestinians who don’t want change and seem to enjoy living in poverty. Here everyone is thinking about progress and the future.”

The past, though, is always present in Kosovo. Events leading up to the bitter separation from Serbia aren't discussed all that often, but it's impossible to think about Kosovo's independence without recalling the blood-logged events that led to it.


When the future of Yugoslavia looked dim and precarious, Slobodan Milosevic looked for a way to rise in power and keep it. He found one when he transformed himself from a communist apparatchik to a Serbian Nationalist. In 1989 he visited the Field of Blackbirds near Kosovo Polje where medieval Serbian ruler Tsar Lazar was defeated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1389.

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The Battle at Kosovo Polje, 1389

“No one has the right to beat you,” he said to an enormous crowd of budding Serbian Nationalists. “No one will ever beat you again.”

Milosevic, instead, beat ethnic Albanians – who make up the overwhelming majority of Kosovo's population – once his power in Belgrade was secured.

Slobodan Milosevic

First he summarily revoked Kosovo's political autonomy and purged thousands of Albanians from their jobs in Kosovo's government sector – an enormous sector in a communist system – for no other reason than because they were not Serbs. He replaced their police with his own. As Yugoslavia came apart in Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia, Albanians formed their own parallel institutions and civil society entirely apart from Milosevic's oppressive regime. Ibrahim Rugova, the literary academic and pacifist, became the widely respected leader of this parallel state and presided over a movement committed to non-violent civil resistance.

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Ibrahim Rugova, literary academic, pacifist, and Kosovo's first president. He is considered by many to be the Father of the Nation.

Milosevic ramped up the oppression, though, and sent tanks into Kosovo. Massacres and brutality predictably followed. Rugova’s steadfast insistence on a pacifist response led to his temporary marginalization and the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla movement.

Thousands were murdered, raped, ethnically-cleansed, tortured, and “disappeared.” Neither side was angelic in this fight. There are no innocents in the Balkans. Milosevic, though, had the Yugoslav Army at his disposal, and well-trained and well-armed Serb paramilitary fighters that sometimes called themselves Chetniks. The KLA had a small number of angry and badly-trained men with meager equipment.

Pictures of the missing are still on display in central Prishtina. I swallowed hard while remembering scenes just like this one in New York City just after Al Qaeda’s violent assault on Lower Manhattan. It is extremely unlikely that any of these people are still alive.

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Full-blown war broke out in 1999 between NATO and the largely ineffective KLA on one side, and the remnants of the Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitaries on the other. Milosevic’s forces were eventually driven from Kosovo, NATO and Russian forces moved in on the ground, and the KLA was disbanded. Rugova was elected the first president of a de-facto independent Kosovo once institutionalized pacifism was a safe and viable option again.

I interviewed entrepreneur Luan Berisha who experienced all this as a civilian. My friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me. Sean and I visited Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro together before he headed home and I settled in for a longer stay in Kosovo.

Before we had a chance to cover the war, Luan Berisha wanted to get a few things out of the way.

“Listen,” he said. “All Albanians, all Kosovars, they feel more close in all ways to the West that to the Arab world. Why? Because still none of the Arab League countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence. The reason why is because Libya and many other countries are linked with Serbia. Israel would have recognized us by now, but politically they can’t. If they do, we are automatically doomed for another 59 countries not to recognize us. I think very highly of Israel. I like Jewish people a lot.”

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Luan Berisha (Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere)

I knew before I traveled to Kosovo that Albanians think highly of Jews and of Israel, but I was frankly surprised by how often it came up in conversation. Albanians differ radically from Arabs in almost every cultural and political respect you can think of, but nothing, I think, separates the two more than this.

“We have very much in common with Israel,” he said. “In Albania and Kosovo we are in support of Israel. I would never side with the Muslim side to wipe Israel off the face of the world. 90% of Kosovo feels this way. The reason why is we sympathize a lot with the people who have suffered the same fate as us. We were Muslims even in the Second World War – stronger Muslims than we are now – but even then we protected them with our lives. Our grandfathers protected the Jews wherever they were in the region.”

A large percentage of Kosovars are atheists and agnostics, but Berisha described himself as a Muslim – not as a nominal Muslim by family heritage only, but as a practicing Muslim who prays and visits the mosque. Yet he took us to one of Prishtina’s finest restaurants and ordered bottles of red wine for the three of us to share. He drank more alcohol than Sean and I did.

“What was the war like in 1999?” I said. “We watched it on TV.

“The situation became more dangerous,” Berisha said, “because the Serbs became more aggressive. They used more ruthless methods.”

They certainly did. 90 percent of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were displaced, or “cleansed.” Almost half were driven out of the country entirely. These people would never have been able to return to their homes if it weren't for the U.S. and NATO. That was the point of driving them out in the first place. Milosevic did to Kosovo what Hamas would do to Israel if Palestinians had the military power to do so.

“I sent food support and other needed supplies to the population affected by the war.,” Berisha said “That means I had the opportunity to visit the areas directly affected. War zones. In Prishtina, it was normal. The lights were on. Normal in the sense that we had gotten used to being beaten by Serb police and to being offended for the last 10 years. It was daily common life, it was nothing new. But in the countryside they were having very bad experiences. I saw dead bodies on the road.”

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Village, Eastern Kosovo

Hardly anyone in Kosovo rode out the war without incident, including Berisha.

“I was with my parents,” he said, “my whole family. Fifteen of us were sent to a train station at gunpoint.”

“This actually happened to you?” I said. “In 1999?”

“Yes,” he said, “in 1999. We were expelled from Prishtina, central Prishtina. Old town. The Serbs came to my house. For thirteen days I lived in my own home. It was a close neighborhood, and we had to open walls that separated the houses, so in case the Serbs came we could run through the walls from house to house. Now, after thirteen days, on the fourteenth day, a Serb neighbor came to my house and he said Luan, call your dad. I called my dad. My Serb neighbor said For your well-being, as your neighbor, I am advising you to take minimal belongings and leave. Because tomorrow they will come and kill everybody they find here..”

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Prishtina, Kosovo

It's worth underscoring the fact that Berisha's Serb neighbor intervened on his family's behalf. Not everyone who gets caught up in violent conflicts like these behaves badly. Not in the Middle East, and not in the Balkans.

I later met an Albanian man who ran into the burning house of his Serb neighbors and saved the lives of two people, at great risk to his own, during retaliatory attacks by an enraged Albanian mob. “Did you see your Serb neighbors again after you saved them?” I said. “Yes,” he said. “What did they say?” I said. “They said thank you.”

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding why I’m drawn to places like Kosovo and Iraq where human beings treat each other with such savagery. I might not be able to do it if it weren’t for the stories of decency and heroism that I also uncover. Often I go back to the words of Philip Gourevitch in his book about Rwanda that bears one of the most disturbing titles I have ever read. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families “Like Leontius,” he wrote, “the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge – a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world.” Perhaps it’s just a conceit on my part – or maybe projection – but I like to believe books like his help prevent societies from becoming future subjects of books with titles like that one. Maybe, though, that isn’t right. Berisha himself gave me evidence to the contrary just a few moments later.

“We had no option,” he said. “We took only the clothes we had on. My father could only walk a few meters at a time because of his heart problem. He had had an operation in Belgrade the year before and could not walk. I had my cousin suffering from drug withdrawal. It was a mess. We had to leave. The whole neighborhood, about 200 of us, we went to the end of our neighborhood, and there were seven Serb soldiers with their rifles cocked. With just a click they could shoot us. They took everything of value from us. Jewelry, money, anything of worth. Then they said Get the fuck out to the train station. There were rumors that the Prishtina football stadium was filled with Albanian citizens. We were scared of that. We reached the train station. There were about 15,000-20,000 people on the field by the station. The train was there. We had seen Schindler’s List. Everything comes into your mind, you know? Then we got into the train. Getting on the train was hell. It was a fight for survival. We had elderly, we had sick, we had kids. You don’t know if your sister is going to be left, if your father is going to make it. You don’t know what is going to happen.

“Anyhow, we got into the train. At the time, we did not know where the train was going. A lot of rumors as we got into the train. I got into the last wagon of the train with my family, and with the rest of the neighbors who had gotten out. The train started, it stopped. We got out of the train. The last wagon, they take everybody out. They said whoever they take out they are going to kill. And it was our wagon. When we got out of the train, my family, our neighbors, normally they would take the young girls and separate, they would take the males and separate, and they would leave the elderly or kill them. When I stood out, I found Serbian paramilitary forces. Chetniks. Not with beards, but Chetniks, with Serbian flags and God knows what, like idiots. Criminals. In between them was an Albanian guy talking with the Serbs and telling them who is good and who is bad. That guy is choosing who they are going to kill. And they take people out.

“I was scared they were going to take a member of my family. My sister. If they had taken my sister it would have been good to kill her. But they wouldn’t kill her, they would rape her, they would...God knows. We went out, they took us to another wagon. They stopped again in another city and, again, the military police entered the train wagon and took people out. I don’t even want to tell you what happened to them. When we reached the border with Macedonia, we got out of the train. The Serb police and paramilitaries were saying to people don’t go off the fucking tracks because everything is mined. Now you have kids, elderly, they were fucked up, they were not hearing it.”

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Albanian children, Prishtina, Kosovo

“Why Macedonia?” Sean said.

“They didn’t care where,” Berisha said. “They expelled 800,000 Albanians in 3 months. When we reached no-man’s-land, there were about 100,000 people living in the open in cold weather. Pregnant women were delivering. People were dying. The refugees were very ill-treated by the Macedonians. I was there three days. And now I think it is not human to screw up this bad. Believe me, at that time, when you watched Schindler’s List, you sympathize with the Jews. But without going through that situation yourself, it is impossible. Now when I watch Schindler’s List, goose bumps go all over my body. Before that, it never happened because we had never suffered like the Jewish people, thanks God. But it was the same process. Mentally, it destroyed us. We suffered a lot. If we had the chance then, we would have killed them. But after that... Are we killing Serbs anymore? No, Serbs are living here. We are not slaughtering anybody. We are not on a witch hunt anymore.”

He mentioned Schindler's List. He and his family saw the movie before they were loaded onto trains during an ethnic-cleansing campaign in Europe. What Milosevic did to Albanians was less severe than Hitler's industrial-scale extermination of human beings at death camps like Auschwitz, but I recall seeing the movie myself and feeling relieved that nothing remotely like that happens in Europe anymore. It seemed appropriate, at the time, that Steven Spielberg shot the film mostly in black and white. The dramatized events took place long ago, after all. Mass ethnic warfare was supposed to be a thing of the past. At least in Europe. But it wasn’t, and maybe it still isn’t.

“In one city,” Berisha continued, “they took a family and put them in the basement. The soldiers went and pissed on them. When they left they threw grenades on them. It killed them all except for one kid who survived. This is what I can never explain to myself, and I cannot justify, what human beings can do. Even beaten, on drugs, you cannot do that. I don’t know how it is to experience killing children. For nothing. Why? Because they are Bosnians, because they are Albanians, because they are Serbs. Because they are bloody Croatians! As I said, it is difficult to forget about it. The more you think about it, the more you get different thoughts in your head. So it is best, right now, we ignore that, and try to move forward, and hopefully, in a better life, we will really forgive one hundred percent. We forgave them for what they have done in a sense, but not truly from our hearts. Because they have never accepted it, what they have done. To this day they say that we are the villains, that we are the monkeys with tails. Today.”

He visits Belgrade once in a while. One night, he said, he went out drinking with Serbs who didn’t know he was Albanian. He kept his identity secret for hours. Eventually, he said, a well-known writer dredged up the hoary old notion that Albanians live in trees and have tails. Berisha could no longer resist, so he told them.

“Then I stood up from my chair,” he said, “and said I am sorry, I cannot sit in this chair any longer. They said Why. I said There is no hole for my tail! Then they started laughing. As much as I was offended by this, I was very happy for them to see that, for fuck's sake, you guys, you have been burned with propaganda. You live 400 kilometers away, and you know nothing about us. You jackholes.”

I spoke to several Albanians who traveled to Serbia recently, and the worst they encountered was rudeness. According to Albanians, it's the same for Serbs who travel to Kosovo.

“Let Serbs come to Prishtina from Belgrade,” Berisha said, “with BG license plates on their cars. Let them come. Nothing will happen. People may not like them, but nothing will happen to them, because 2004 cost us a lot. It cost Kosovo our earlier independence and recognition by the UN. We had to wait another 4 years.”

He is referring to the explosion of violence in 2004 following rumors that Serbs chased Albanian children into the Ibar River where they drowned. Serb and Albanian gunmen fired shots at each other from their respective sides of the river. Mobs of enraged Albanians burned Serb churches and houses for three days. According to U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz, 16 churches and 110 houses were destroyed. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were wounded. Kosovo was hardly in a position to declare independence after all that.

“Was the international community worried you would do something crazy?” I said. “Mistreat Serbs?”

“Indeed,” he said. “If you ask anyone about 2004, they will say what a fucking mistake. It screwed us up.”

Kosovo has been de-facto independent from Serbia since the war ended, but even now the country is not fully sovereign. The United Nations administers much of the country, and NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) provides most of the security and is the closest thing Kosovo has to a real army.

American military officers believe the war will start up again if KFOR were to withdraw its soldiers. I didn't meet a single person who believes otherwise. Serbs think so, Albanians think so, and Americans think so. It would be naïve and foolhardy to believe soldiers can be withdrawn from a war zone just because the fighting has stopped. Sometimes that's possible, but that's rarely true shortly after an ethnic war.

“The most important thing is for KFOR to be in Kosovo,” Berisha said, as did so many others. “KFOR is the ultimate thing that has to be here.”

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American soldiers, Vitina, Kosovo

“What do you think would happen if KFOR left?” I said.

“A big war,” he said. “Definitely.”

“With Serbia?” Sean said.

“With Serbia,” Berisha said.

“Not just with the Serbs in Kosovo,” I said, “but with Belgrade?”

“With all of Serbia,” he said.

When I briefly visited Bosnia I was told by a long-time resident British consultant that the U.N. and NATO have scaled back their presence dramatically during the past couple of years. Bosnia is troubled, politically deadlocked, and has an uncertain future, but I didn't get the sense that international soldiers are required to prevent an apocalyptic disintegration. Kosovo isn't like that. Not yet.

The war in Bosnia was much more destructive and violent than Kosovo's, but only because NATO intervened seriously in Kosovo after impotently dithering in Bosnia for many years. Serbian Nationalists always wanted Kosovo more than they wanted “cleansed” land in Bosnia. Kosovo is tranquil today for the most part, but that could change if the perfect storm of bad decisions were made. It's hard to imagine Kosovo exploding worse than Bosnia did, but many people who live there or have spent more time there than me think it could happen, at least theoretically, and are determined to ensure it doesn't.

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Destroyed house, Prishtina, Kosovo

“If you go to Krusha e Vogel in Kosova," Berisha said, "you will find most of the households without males. You find most of the women, if not old, raped. That means some of them were pregnant. This ill fate, Bosnia suffered even more. Many women in Bosnia were left pregnant. Today, their kids are considered bastards in Bosnia. They don’t have a future. They are ill treated by Serbs, they are ill treated by their parents, they are ill treated by the whole bloody country.”

“They are ill treated by the parents?” Sean said.

“Yes, definitely,” Berisha said, “even the mother. I have watched a lot of documentaries about it, they are having horrible problems. Horrible problems. I went to Belgrade, and I am still trying to say to myself that not all Serbs are bad. And I hope I am right.

“You are right,” I said. I met a handful of terrific Serbs in Belgrade – in particular the well-known and respected writers Filip David and Predrag Delibasic – who know very well that Albanians don't have tails, did not deserve to be ethnically-cleansed, and should not be shackled to Serbia against their will.

“Because what they have done,” Berisha said, “is they have destroyed that woman’s life, and they have destroyed the new life that comes to be born. And they have created a mess – in Bosnia, in Croatia, in Kosovo, whatever they have touched. Bosnians and Croatians, they defended themselves. Croatians, when they took action to take the Serbs out, they committed atrocities beyond imagination. But they had to take the bloody Serbs out of the country. They had to fight. When you fight for your own house, your own family, believe me, you don’t see in black and white. You see only black. There is no gray or white. Only black.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 14, 2008 11:40 PM

Wow, thanks for another great report. It's going to take a while to digest that one - lots to think about.

Posted by: ProtestShooter Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 9:10 AM

I was working and living in Europe when a lot of this started, both in Bosnia and Kosova. I remember thinking about the old slogan after the Holocaust "Never Again".

That was a lie, and what I saw in Bosnia proved it.

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 10:09 AM

Many women in Bosnia were left pregnant. Today, their kids are considered bastards in Bosnia. They don’t have a future. They are ill treated by Serbs, they are ill treated by their parents, they are ill treated by the whole bloody country.”

OK, Mike, you are now in weird Balkan cultural territory, for ALL the peoples in the region have a millenia-long history of bride-stealing and rape. It disappears for a generation or two and then surfaces again. People are far more related than they like to think - you yourself noted that you can't really tell a Serb from a Kosovar by looks.

The persistence of this trait along with cultural hatred between peoples so closely related mystifies me.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 10:54 AM


Yes. And what really surprised me, although it probably shouldn't have, is how much Serbs and Turks look alike. Serbs are Slavs from (originally) Northern Europe, and Turks are (originally) from Central Asia.

There's a whole lot of mixing going on. Ethnicity in the Balkans is in the brain, not the DNA.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 11:10 AM

True true,

though children resulting from rape would be in an awkward position regardless of the ethnic hostilities present in Kosovo. The child reminds the mother of the act of rape, whether she cares or not about the rapist's ethnicity or mental conception thereof.

I am surprised that they didn't abort them before they were born. Perhaps birth control facilities were not available around that time, or did the mothers keep these children out of religious considerations?

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 2:08 PM

Ahh those "good" ol' days...

It was a stormy Wednesday night, date 31st of March, 1999 when for the first time in my life I saw the death with my own eyes. Comparing to the day that was sunny, the night was rainy and thundering. It was 7 in the afternoon, when the Serbian army forces aided by some paramilitary units, started to enter house by house, and gathered by force around three thousands people from my quarter. Terrified as we were, with a few belongings that we could get in that hurry, we were instructed to follow them. After half an hour of walking, frightened by all those militia forces that were threatening and ordering us all the way, we arrived at the train station.

Our arrival there was just another routine movement, for there were thousands of others waiting for something - a something that I only realized when I asked a guy who replied that that something was a train. Only then I realized their crazy idea of deporting the population of the entire town. Being in the middle of town that was waiting for a train to get deported, I had the feeling of the most miserable and forgotten man on this planet.

But around midnight a strong noise of the airplanes was heard, and my town gathered at the train station suddenly stood up and started to ovate NATO…USA…NATO…USA…NATO. That was the hope, the noise of the airplane proved that we were not forgotten, that the world was thinking about us. Soon after that though the gun shoots were heard all around the place, a dark silence swallowed every breast of the people. Everyone crouched down. My town and I crouched down from the cold of the night and of the fate. NATO and our hopes stood high, very high.

My town and I remained down, very down. In the mercy of the brutal armed forces, and in the cruelty of that night, there, in that small train station of the suburb of my town, where the tragedy of deportation of the whole town was happening, several old people died. They died from the agony and traumas, convinced from the fatality of life and the day of calamity. But at that night, not only the death but also the life paid a visit to us. Three babies were born without knowing that their lives could end in every minute. Snuggled from the cold, I was trying to get some warm, and thoughts that were striking my head had to do with those small innocent creatures. I feared for them as much as I feared for my town, though I knew that nothing was more fantastic than life, than reality.

Posted by: DardanGator Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 3:57 PM

Meeting Arabs and Muslims on the campus of my school is fun because when I tell them that I am from Kosovo( you know, born in the wrong place, at the wrong time), they immediately think that I am a Muslim. So they say in Arabic: "Peace be with you" (selam aleikum), and I very often respond by saying in English: "Hell yeah, why not!" It confuses the crap out of them. Then, I have of course to confess that my old prophets are Thomas Paine and Jefferson, but in some regards, Carlin, Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have taken their places.

Most people who have visited Kosovo have reached the same conclusions regarding the importance of religion in the lives of Albanians in Kosovo, Michael, and I am glad that you write about your experience in the Balkans and other regions of the world. Keep up the good work!

I personally think that the Balkans is genetically mixed. Were they to do a DNA comparisons, people would be shocked. Many, many armies have passed through the region over the years, especially during the old days, where armies marched on foot... stop by villages, raped, killed, and moved on... tactics...

Posted by: DardanGator Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 4:44 PM

As always Michael, thank you for your insightful pieces. I wonder, did you have an opportunity to speak with any Serbs who still live in Kosovo particularly in the enclaves outside of Mitrovica?

Posted by: zellmad Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 9:11 PM

Zellmad: did you have an opportunity to speak with any Serbs who still live in Kosovo particularly in the enclaves outside of Mitrovica?

Some, yes. They are interesting, complicated people. I'll get to them in print, just not quite yet...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 15, 2008 10:15 PM

Finally, we reach Kosovo!!!!!!!!!!

As I suspected it was worth the wait.

Thanks for bringing Ibrahim Rugova to our attention. He was a very interesting figure.

Posted by: Freedom Now Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 2:15 AM

Sorry Soloman2, the Turks originally came from the far north. Turkish and Hungarian are closely related to Finnish.

Posted by: redmanrt Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 3:56 AM

Thanks for the continuing posts on the Balkans, Michael! However it strikes me that pictures of the more threadbare or fought over parts of the world always end up looking like Tiajuana or Juarez or Baghdad.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 9:10 AM


This is slightly off topic but, I've never been to Kosovo and I'm curious: Did they have bidets in their bathrooms over there? In Albania they're a standard bathroom accessory and it took me time to learn to live without one in North America.

Do Kosovars also use them? If you saw them, did you like them?

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 9:32 AM

Hi Michael,

Overall, thoroughly enjoyed the piece, so thanks.

Some things bother me so I have, as usual, posted a response on my blog.

To avoid any thread hijacking, please can any comments on my commentary be posted on Limbicnutrition and not here. There me might engage in fruitful debate or entertaining vituperation without irritating Michael or his readers.


Posted by: Limbic Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 10:20 AM

> Ethnic Albanians – who make up 90 percent of
> Kosovo’s population – suffered apartheid-like
> conditions

Like Mexicans in Texas?

Posted by: Onslo Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 11:24 AM

Medaura: Did they have bidets in their bathrooms over there?

I don't remember seeing any.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 12:02 PM

Like Mexicans in Texas?

Do Mexicans in the US suffer under apartheid conditions? I guess the Mexican-American governor of neighboring New Mexico might have an opinion on that.

But it is true, since our constitution allows us to enforce apartheid laws based on race or ethnic heritage, Mexicans are required by law to eat peppery food (and to own many popular restaurants serving such food). Also, no one gives them jobs. This is why millions of Mexicans have been so desperate to cross the border.

I hope I don't have to include the sarcasm tag..

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 1:04 PM

Onslo: Like Mexicans in Texas?

If you have anything intelligent to contribute to this discussion, say it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 1:58 PM

I too am interested in Ibrahim Rugova, but when I went to go look for any of his books, I couldn't find any translated into English. Do you know of any resources where to find out more primary source information on Ibrahim Rugova or other intellectual leaders? I love your reports because you get to speak to Serbs/Kurds/Lebanese/etc. directly, but I'm also looking for materials written by leaders and such.

Posted by: Guy Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 4:14 PM


You might be able to find books by Rugova translated into English in Kosovo and Albanian, but I didn't think to look for them.

Medaura (Kejda) who posts here might know better than I do. She is Albanian, and she lives in New York. There might be a good Albanian bookstore in the city.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 4:23 PM

I enjoyed this.

You know why all this stuff, terrible in some ways, is a welcome palate cleanser?

It's a bleeding obvious smack in the face that Islam has virtually nothing to do with to correlation of the Middle East and human depravity.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 7:21 PM

I can make a good argument that you're a little too hard on Ibrahim Rugova.

He comes off to some extent as an implicit joke in your article:

Rugova was elected the first president of a de-facto independent Kosovo once institutionalized pacifism was a safe and viable option again.

But what you don't make clear to your audience was that without NATO, the net result of the turn to the KLA would have been all of those atrocities - and those atrocities would have effectively been a consequence of the KLA. Not morally, but empirically.

I'm not morally judging the KLA - I'm making the unappreciated case that non-violent civil resistance might have easily have turned out to have been the smart option. It was the KLA's emergence that triggered the change in the Milosevic metaphor from Mubarak to Hitler.

Questions of morality aside, violent resistance is not always a winning strategy. Sometimes it gets you annihilated where you were not in fact headed for annihilation previously.

Posted by: glasnost Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 7:27 PM


Michael, Guy,

I am a bad Albanian: not much into the Albanian issue, at least not enough to read books by Albanian authors. Wouldn't know if there's a good bookstore in New York City. I will ask my mother in Albania though, and she should be able to tell me if there are any publishers there who carry selected translated works of Rugova. They will probably be expensive though, with international shipping and whatnot. But I will ask just in case.

Guy, check this thread in a few days. I'll put up any information as soon as I have word from my mother.

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 7:40 PM

Glasnost: I can make a good argument that you're a little too hard on Ibrahim Rugova. He comes off to some extent as an implicit joke in your article.

I didn't mean it that way at all. He is (was) truly an excellent and visionary leader. If he were facing someone other than Milosevic, he would never have been temporarily marginalized in the first place.

I am not a fan of the KLA, but I can certainly understand why many Kosovars eventually preferred armed resistance to pacifism considering what they had to put up with. It speaks very well of them, I think, that they went with Rugova after the war and shoved the militant leaders aside.

Kosovar Albanians could teach many things to the Palestinians. Palestine would be a real country right now if they had leadership like Rugova's.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 8:13 PM

It was the KLA's emergence that triggered the change in the Milosevic metaphor from Mubarak to Hitler.

Milosevic was pretty unkind to the Croatians too.

Do you have any examples of where non-violent resistance successfully worked to warm Milosevic's heart and save thousands of lives? If not, then you have no basis for blaming Milosevic's actions on anyone but Milosevic.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 8:25 PM

say what you want, but if not for the KLA Kosova would have never gotten independence. Had Albanians rolled over again and begged Slobo they might have been spared the rapes, murders and destruction but what can you do when the other side goes for total war against everyone. Albanians have been resisting since 1912, in more than one form (it took 30,000 partisans to crush the post WWII rebellion after Tito didn't keep the promise of uniting them with Albania)!

For the record: The rapes were not a byproduct of war, they were a tool of war, used to spread panic, and utterly destroy the society, making any return to Kosova much harder. Search "serbia rape as a tool of war," a lot of academics have written books on this and now (post 1990's wars) it is IIRC a crime of war. They don't like to be reminded, but they did it, and Mladic and Karadzic are still at large.

Regarding KLA: Every person with a gun was "KLA" so any jerk or thief or criminal who did something bad was labeled KLA. It does not necessarily mean that those actions were ordered of approved by the leadership (which in itself was not clearly defined) or that the leadership itself is angelic but I thought to add that.

Kosova was the poorest region to begin with and for the past 20 years it only saw more neglect followed by a general destruction. I hope with some EU and US aid it starts building up. Here's an interesting fact: "Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. Half of its roughly 2-million-strong population is under the age of 25...[and] more than 65 per cent of the population are younger than 30. "
balkaninsight.com/en/main/news/11704/ Build factories, give them jobs and reap the rewards.

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at July 16, 2008 10:26 PM

For some reason the racial mixing there reminds me of some recent consternation in the DNA ID field. It turns out that up to 20% of us are chimeras: blends of cells and body parts from two separate embryos. It's a bit like Siamese twins, but happening much earlier so that you get a single body -- but with two distinct cell lines. Sometimes it shows as different coloured eyes, for example. But in any case, the DNA from germ cells would be different from that in some other parts of the body, which can confound ID testing.

Posted by: Brian H Author Profile Page at July 17, 2008 2:29 AM
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