The Age
Is Kosovo safe only while we watch?


Wednesday 12 April 2000

PRISTINA - Is Kosovo safe for the repatriation of refugees? The question is so impossible to answer, discussion is reduced to semantics in a few futile generalisations.

Superficially, everyone here is "safe" - that is, the Serbs in Serbia are not allowed within five kilometres of the border with Kosovo. And the rudimentary police force is taking an embryonic hold on daily law enforcement.

KFOR soldiers maintain a reassuring visibility, and all breeds of internationals are working for aid organisations, so there is a sense that enough of the world is right here among the rebuilding for any serious infractions of the restless peace to occur.

Sort of. On my first night here, I woke at 2am to the sound of a machinegun burst about one kilometre away. It lasted for five seconds and pierced the night with a murderous sound.

The next morning, my hosts shrugged it off as a fairly regular event. Who is shooting at whom in the night? No one knows.

Yesterday I was taken 30 kilometres down the pot-holed road to Podujevo, just seven kilometres from the border with Serbia. We stopped to see the grave of trooper Daniel Holt, of the King's Royal Hussars, who is buried where he was shot by Serbs on July 26 last year. The first peacekeepers in Kosovo were not safe, but that was months ago, so surely ...

Outside Podujevo, we drive perilously through a running creek to reach a farm. Are these people "safe"? Well, yes, although they live and work within 200 metres of a Serb military position that was bombed out of existence by NATO.

Ahmet and Abdullah Xhemajli ask me whether I'm frightened as we trudge across the fields to see the blasted earth and vehicle wreckage caused by NATO's accurate strike. Should I be frightened? They laugh grimly and point out that we are picking our way through an area rumored to be a minefield. I make sure they walk a few metres ahead of me.

Around the bombed vehicles is the detritus of war: an upturned helmet is home to some rank water, a gas mask lies among some brambles, and what looks like an unexploded shell is buried just a couple of centimetres in the ground.

Again, all this is mute evidence of a past horror, but what is it like for Kosovars right now? Would you send people back to this place?

This is the dilemma haunting the Australian Government.

You can stand amid the slow-motion chaos that is central Pristina today and watch the young women, arms linked, walking warily, hardly smiling or acknowledging anyone's glances. They dodge cars and, I am told, try not to think about the reported kidnappings. Yes, mostly you can argue they are "safe" - provided they don't wander the streets unescorted after dark.

And the sensitivity levels are still running off the meter. I wanted to photograph a street vendor selling CDs, but was warned off. Probably illegal merchandise, so he doesn't want to be recognised, I am told.

Well, then, can I photograph the "clear your weapons here" sign on this UN building? No, says the guard, that would not be a "safe" move.

In the bigger towns outside the capital, such as Ferizaj and Podujevo, the burnt hulks of cars and houses talk far too starkly about the human - inhuman, actually - tragedy that was the Kosovar expulsion.

Rebuilding is steady, now that the first winter has passed, but even outside Pristina, the disorganised bustle and post-traumatic, shoulders-hunched darkness of some of the victims suggests an uneasy existence.

Kosovo is "safe", if you want to call it that, as long as KFOR and UNMIK stay, and as long as the rest of the world keeps an eye on this potentially beautiful corner.

But what happens when they leave? And when we stop watching?

For Meri Xhemajli, whose diaries were published in The Age while she stayed at Puckapunyal last year, safety is a relative condition. She gets a lift in the Oxfam bus most of the way home from work but has to walk the last few hundred metres on unlit, unmade lanes, usually by herself. Like most others here, she lives with the prospect of danger.

It might never happen, and Kosovo one day might be the place it certainly could be, but what will we all say if even one of those repatriated from Australia comes to harm?

The government is basing its decisions on the advice of the United Nations. So it must, because what else can it do?

But to live here, you need to feel a little bit more reassured than that.

Original article