A year in Kosovo: from Serbian oppression to the Wild West

Raymond Whitaker

The Independent - 19 December 1999

Avoid Malisevo on market day: if I were composing a travel guide to Kosovo, that would be my first piece of advice.

When I first made acquaintance with it, Malisevo – the "s" is pronounced as a "sh" – was the most sinister place in the Balkans. The Kosovo Liberation Army had seized the town in 1998 during a brief and bloody attempt at conventional warfare against the Serbs, and unwisely declared it the "capital" of liberated Kosovo.

In revenge the Serbs levelled Malisevo. Driving down its snowy, ruined main street at dusk in January, with not a soul about bar the heavily armed paramilitary police of the Serbian interior ministry, was to know how Albanians felt under Serbian rule. You shrank down in your car and tried to make yourself invisible.

That was the biggest change when I returned in June, just after the Serbian forces had been replaced by multinational peacekeepers. Now it was the Albanians who were walking tall and the Serbs who were creeping about, if they dared to venture out at all. Despite the thousands of dead, the devastation on all sides, the long summer evenings outside the Grand Hotel in Pristina were like one big party. Cars raced past with red-and-black Albanian flags flapping from the windows; joyous reunions were taking place on every side.

Not, however, in Malisevo. The town had suffered so much destruction, so many dead, that life was slower to return. But Kosovo this year has been a place of changes as sudden as those of its climate – until you open the curtains in the morning, you never know whether you will be greeted by rain, sunshine, heavy snow or an overnight thaw.

Descending into Malisevo on a Thursday this month, I was confronted by an impenetrable mile-long traffic jam. Market stalls lined both sides of the street and hundreds of people were strolling past them, narrowing the passage still further. Two lines of K-For military vehicles, heavy trucks delivering aid, tractors and the myriad private cars that now clog every road in Kosovo were trying to push through the crowds. It took an hour to get from one end of town to the other and my appointment in Prizren was a dead loss.

From grim oppression in January to euphoria in June to chaos in December: that has been my experience of Kosovo in 1999. The highway to Pristina from the snarled-up Macedonian border, where truck drivers wait for days to pay the taxes and bribes necessary to gain entry to Kosovo, is a good barometer of the changes. At the beginning of the year the restaurants and petrol stations along the way were open, but doing next to no business in a stagnant Serbian-run economy. All were destroyed in the war and in the summer you had to buy your fuel, often containing more water than petrol, from sellers waving bottles at the side of the road.

Now Serbian place names have been defaced on every road sign and at the turn-off to south-western Kosovo the names Kukes and Tirana have been added. All the filling stations have re-opened and more are being built. The same with restaurants and bars: a flood of investment has come into Kosovo, much of it from the crime lords of northern Albania, feeding off the influx of K-For troops, UN officials, journalists and the hundreds of aid organisations whose logos cover every available surface. Fortunes are being made by some, widening the gap between the top and the bottom of Kosovar Albanian society.

After the Serbs removed Kosovo's autonomy a decade ago, the Albanians did their best to ignore the authorities. They set up their own schools and clinics in private homes and went into business for themselves, funded to a large extent by remittances from relatives working in Germany and Switzerland. The Serbs, clinging to their state jobs, were often worse off.

Now the UN is in charge but the Albanians are still going their own way. And, without the sense of shared adversity which used to bind them, the result is anarchy. Pristina is a crazy place where the street and traffic lights do not work, there is no phone or postal service and the water and power are off for several hours a day, but everyone is frantically doing business amid the destruction. You can buy anything you need at street stalls and eat and drink well at restaurants equipped with their own generators. "We must wean the Albanians away from their parallel administration mentality," a UN official told me, but the Albanians do not appear to be listening.

The price, of course, is that guns rule. At first they were used against the Serbs, who were often driven out despite the protests of Albanians who knew them. In the past few weeks Albanians have increasingly become the victims. When it comes to crime, Kosovars – many still recovering from the shock of spending time in Albania during the war – are unanimous that the problem comes from there. But there are political attacks as well, often blamed on the former Kosovo Liberation Army, which seems to have no shortage of weapons despite having supposedly been disarmed by Nato. "If you want to see how many guns there still are in Kosovo, just be here on Millennium Eve, when they'll all be fired in the air," one resident of Pristina told me.

For all the Wild West atmosphere, Pristina and the other large towns of Kosovo will be considerably better off this winter than the countryside. Rural Albanians took the brunt of Serbian brutality this year, as they have done every other year, and many who lost everything have migrated into the towns. But as the year 2000 comes in, hundreds of thousands of people across Kosovo will be huddled in tents or one hastily repaired room of their wrecked homes, just trying to keep warm.

Seeking out these pockets of deprivation, we stopped at a curve on a mountainous road to answer the call of nature. A short way down a dirt track leading off the road, I came across piles of clothing slowly rotting into the soil and a moment later noticed the bullet casings still littering the tarmac where we had parked. Such relics of the summer's horrors are a sobering reminder, not only of what Kosovo has been through in 1999, but of how far into the new millennium its inhabitants will have to go before they can hope for something like normality.


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