Kosovo, four years later
Stars and Stripes June 29, 2003
After all the killing, Valdet Varoshi pined for a simple thing: a pizzeria.
On the main street of his town, there are warbling calls to prayer and hissing cymbals from boomboxes and an abrasive haze that settles only with a storm, and then it’s mud.
Inside the Morea Pizzeria, though, there’s a sheen on the tables and the petrol grit gives way to the smell of new wood, of carpentry. The tables are glossy and dark, deep-grained and cherry-stained, and there’s a genuine look of surprise when someone new walks in. Waiters smile and zip, silverware chiming.
Varoshi literally built his pizzeria. The woodworker first endured the war, then he endured the years when customers would stiff him for the doors and window frames he’d hew for them.
After the NATO bombing shrank the Serbian paramilitary back to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in the spring of 1999 and sent 900,000 Albanians flooding back home, Varoshi and his country faced a new life. But with Kosovo now in a neverland between Serbian province, international protectorate and free country, Varoshi found he couldn’t get a small-business loan. But the woodworking wasn’t working out.
So he saved. He sawed, pounded and painted. And now, four years of peace this month and $25,000 later, his pizzeria is finally open.
Despite these twin triumphs, Varoshi is uneasy.
“You can’t plan your life,” he says. “You don’t have any kind of vision about what’s going to happen tomorrow. You have to live for today.”
Albanian Kosovars gush over their war victory via Bill Clinton and NATO. They also chafe under the rule of anyone but themselves. So, while they’re relieved over a lack of guerrilla gunfire in the morning, the spark behind their war is neither quenched nor fueled: Kosovo still wants independence.
That demand, left unmet by the U.N. resolution that stopped the war, grows in volume the longer Kosovo enjoys an enforced peace. And angst over the outcome weighs on people such as Varoshi.
The two names of his town reflect this stasis: It’s Ferizaj to Albanians, Urosevac — the Serbian — if you ask anyone else, including Uncle Sam.
In Pristina, the capital and a midget Manhattan for international types, Hasan Bytyqi praises the U.S. military and its Kosovo Force allies for checking Serbia. The newsstand owner says that since the war, people feel freer to say what they’d like and travel where they’d like.
“KFOR is doing its job,” Bytyqi says.
But he gripes about the U.N. overseers, whose ranks include police officers from around the globe. There are nearly as many Indian cops as American, a diversity Bytyqi clearly despises.
“Bangladeshis and people like this come here and try to solve our problems,” the kiosk man complains over the city’s white noise. And he predicts friction until Kosovo becomes its own nation.
“Even if it takes two years, five years, 10 years or more, we’re going to get independence.”
Some share that opinion tenfold, and with a gulp of Tabasco sauce.
In April, two former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army inadvertently killed themselves trying to blow up a bridge near Mitrovica. One of the men was a fire brigade commander in the Kosovo Protection Corps, the ostensibly peace-loving civil emergency force composed of former KLA fighters. Police arrested a third man, a KPC spokesman, in connection with the bombing. All were believed to be agents of the Albanian National Army, the latest in an alphabet soup of independence- minded guerrilla groups that have fought in Kosovo, Presevo and Macedonia.
Lt. Gen. Fabio Mini, the Italian commander now running peacekeeping in Kosovo, recently told NATO that gangsters and terrorists remained the region’s greatest poisons. Mini’s spokesman, British Squadron Leader Garry Bannister-Green, would tell a press conference afterward: “The threat comes from within Kosovo itself.”
As the anniversary of peace approached, it trucked smack into a blizzard of studies and speeches on what to do with Kosovo. Though news crews had abandoned the Balkans for Afghanistan and Iraq, the world was still mending the frays of yesterday’s war.
“Very few people are interested in the underlying reasons for a conflict,” said Jan Oberg, director of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research in Sweden, and a longtime acquaintance of Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova. War makes headlines. “Peace is boring.”
Peace nonetheless plods on.
In May, Janet Bogue, deputy assistant secretary of state for the region, told the House International Relations Committee that Kosovo wasn’t ready for that last lap to independence. Her analysis praises free elections and the Kosovo Police Service, the units of homegrown cops groomed by international counterparts, but finds true rule of law elusive.
She worries over government offices illegally run by Belgrade exclusively for the use of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. She worries over witnesses to crimes who still fear the mob. She worries over the disastrous economy. Unemployment is up to 50 percent, or even 70 percent in some areas.
“I think unemployment is increasing because lots of international agencies that were here are leaving,” says Vullnet Sylna, a 22-year-old studying economics in Pristina. Sylna fears the job market that awaits him after graduation. He will certainly have plenty of competition. According to the United Nations, 54 percent of Kosovo’s population is younger than 25, and more than 60 percent of everyone under 30 is without work.
Sylna also worries Kosovo isn’t ready to run itself.
As evidence, he frets over the frequent power failures of the electricity company, dubbed by some at the United Nations as “Tyrannosaurus KEK” for its appetite for foreign subsidy. The service has already devoured more than $400 million for renovations.
In the end, Bogue and Sylna agree, though many ethnic Albanians would not.
Bogue endorses the U.N. maxim of “standards before status.” That means Kosovars need to meet eight benchmarks — from running a balanced budget to playing nice with Belgrade — before tackling the final status question. Kosovo’s roads sprout a variety of billboards pitching the standards, adorned with a bubbly baby wide-eyed at the future, or a smiling grade-schooler next to the caption, “Practice makes perfect.”
“We believe that a decision today on final status would risk destabilizing Kosovo and the broader region, which has only now emerged from a decade of crippling conflicts,” Bogue’s address concludes. “An immediate decision on final status would inflame those in the region who seek violent solutions.”
Gen. Agim Çeku, commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps, believes the United States backs independence. Çeku says an agreement could be reached within the next two years, though phasing in sovereignty could take longer. And he plans for his KPC to become the new military.
“I do believe there is considerable international support from many nations for independence in Kosovo, particularly in the USA and U.K.,” Çeku says. “However, there are also countries who will object, mainly through historical and ethnic connection, and their objections will make a difference despite the overwhelming wish of the majority of residents in this region.”
Çeku concedes, though, that Kosovo’s economy and legal system need more work.
A recent progress report by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticizes a fractious and unproductive Kosovo Provisional Government. During the first three months of 2003, it adopted a whopping four laws, but managed a row with the head of Kosovo’s U.N. operation, Michael Steiner, over a proclamation painting the war as a class struggle and pure of taint on the Albanian side.
“That’s just crazily inaccurate,” says Whit Mason, an American aide to Steiner.
The proclamation might have also impeded prosecution of Albanian war criminals.
“Potentially, it could be used as a legal argument,” Mason says.
The government also tried to block recognition of a Serbian- language university in Mitrovica. Kosovars say Serbs should attend classes in Pristina. Mason contends those students just wouldn’t be safe.
He nonetheless portrays the young legislature with sympathy.
“This is their first experience really debating and doing whatever they’d like under the law,” Mason says. Politicians sometimes confuse democracy with institutions, or “software and hardware,” in Steiner’s words.
Kosovo, then, suffers the migraine of a Windows install.
“It’s screwed up for a reason,” Mason says, “not just because the people have been through a few seasons of bad weather.”
Not such good fellas
Kosovo seems relatively calm. Yet it remains an asylum for gangsters and extremists.
Last year, there were 68 murders compared with 500 to 600 in the second half of 1999 alone. And Mason says U.N. police solve 75 percent of those murders.
“That’s higher than in some EU countries,” he says.
But Annan’s report also mentions a busy mafia. In the first three months of this year, there were grenade and other attacks against U.N. police stations in Pec, Pristina and Mitrovica. Annan believes them reprisals for police victories in the war on organized crime.
Brig. Gen. Daniel Keefe, commander of U.S. forces in Kosovo, sees terrorism and the mob firmly linked to joblessness.
“If you’ve got a lot of people unemployed,” he says, “that’s idle hands.”
Human trafficking runs rampant in such a climate. The International Organization for Migration is handling more cases of women forced into prostitution by such crime rings, but it isn’t sure whether the number of victims is up, or just the number of reported cases.
“Kosovo was a transit country. Now it’s a source country for victims,” says Tamara Osorio, spokeswoman for IOM in Kosovo. Foreigners forced into sex slavery in the country come from Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Albania and Macedonia. All told, the IOM has handled more than 370 such cases since 2000. The women are often tricked, thinking they are on their way to respectable jobs in Germany or Italy. Instead, mobsters seize their passports and rape and beat the women into submission.
Things can also get ugly for Serbs and other minorities, women and men alike. Minorities are returning to their hometowns, with 182 people making such moves in January and February alone. But once there, they can face trouble. An April report by Amnesty International lambastes the treatment of these minorities, describing them as prisoners in their own homes.
Two young Serbian women are described as living with their grandmother in Prizren, their house fenced in and ensnarled with barbed wire. Someone still broke into their home through the roof. Soldiers wound up living with the family and even doing the family’s shopping.
“The fear of traveling outside mono-ethnic enclaves has contributed to feelings of imprisonment and exclusion and denied minorities access to basic rights and services such as housing, education and medical treatment,” Amnesty International says in a press release.
On June 3, a Serbian couple in Obiliq and their adult son were beaten to death in their beds. The culprit then tried to burn the house down.
The mother was 78. The father was 80. The son was mentally disabled.
Though it appeared to be an ethnically charged killing, U.N. police spokesman Derek Chappell says investigators have not concluded a motive.
As chief administrator, Steiner told the London School of Economics in January, “People in Kosovo say there have been more Kosovo Serbs killed after the war than during it.”
Whether because of that or in spite of it, Serbs were actually able to keep U.N. police out of their enclave of northern Mitrovica until November.
Many internationals find one of the biggest obstacles to straightening out the Balkans is a tribal mentality, a morality based on concentric circles of relationships and alliances — “who’s your guy” — rather than objective ideas of right and wrong. People might not want to rat on a thug who torments civilians because the guy used to be a war hero. Or he’s somebody’s cousin. Or he simply killed “the other guys” — my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
After the war, wise guys also became the literal authority in many areas, the nearest thing to law in a lawless land.
“Anytime you have anarchy, people look for security and criminals can provide,” says Chappell, the police spokesman. “… You owe allegiance to them. You then have a tough time trying to escape that.”
In all these reports, one of them stands in a chilly corner alone. The influential Center for Strategic and International Studies announced in April that it backs independence, and challenged the legitimacy of the U.N. Interim Mission in Kosovo, or UNMIK. Its report endorses more assistance for Kosovo, and emphasizes convincing Serbia that letting Kosovo go is in its best interest. The province already has a prime minister and a president, certainly executive trappings of sovereignty.
“The continued ambiguity over Kosovo’s status and the virtually unchallenged authority of UNMIK,” it reads, “raise the specter of a new form of colonialism, administered and shaped by a predominantly Western European cadre of officials.”
The authors would likely find friends at the Morea Pizzeria.
Despite the vaporous future, Kosovo largely lacks the muscle and rattle of armor.
Officials say that’s a good thing. You can’t have Smallville calm in a town that looks like wartime Sarajevo.
Though locals often complain over U.N. inefficiency and praise the obvious brawn of NATO, both top soldier and international cop believe parking the tanks was a good thing.
“I think there is a sense of normalcy,” Keefe says. Drivers obey the rules, at least somewhat. People stroll the sidewalks, shopping or just gawking, rain or shine or smoggy afternoon.
When NATO troops first arrived, some 50,000 strong, they did everything. Ran checkpoints. Even escorted a Serbian kidney patient to dialysis treatment. Now, they number about half their original strength. And local and international police run much of the show.
“I push my commanders to work with the police, and let them take the lead,” Keefe says.
When they arrived about four years ago, there were 7,000 American soldiers serving in Kosovo. Now, there are about 3,000. That number is only expected to drop.
That doesn’t always go down well. Police officials say the Albanian Kosovars found solace at the sight of M-16s and Humvees, regardless of their effectiveness against normal urban problems.
“The fact is, a tank is no help against a burglar,” Chappell says.
Soldiers running a checkpoint also can’t see the alley mugging around the corner.
“Peacekeepers don’t investigate things,” says Barry Fletcher, deputy spokesman for the UNMIK police.
Nevertheless, the troops are popular, and particularly the Yanks. A recently minted building in Pristina is dubbed Hotel Victory, and props high a replica of Lady Liberty.
Soldiers joke about future arm-wrestling champs, children in cars, who wave at following military convoys for impossible stretches of highway.
Though fewer in number, Keefe hopes that his soldiers — white troops, black troops, troops of Asian descent, all working together — will inspire Kosovars to get along.
“When I talk to Albanians [or] Kosovo Serbs, I certainly emphasize that,” Keefe says. “I tell them straight up: Part of our strength is our diversity. I really believe that.”
Keefe says, too, he’s a believer in the Marshall Plan-esque ideal of the U.S. soldier as smiling liberator who treats Albanians and Serbs with equal respect.
“I think that’s something American soldiers are known for.”
But when the last soldier leaves, what will happen to Kosovo? A restless people await independence, and a resentful Serbia resists. Such was the situation in the late 1990s, though with exponential wrath and blood.
“None of the root causes have been dealt with,” says peace proponent Oberg, who negotiated between Belgrade and Kosovo’s Rugova from ’92 to ’96. “Bombing only makes things worse.”
Oberg calls the resulting expulsion of Serbs “the largest single ethnic cleansing that’s happened in the Balkans.”
Many in NATO would certainly disagree. But whatever the case, the Kosovo novel remains unfinished. And strong wills vie to write the final chapter.
In Valdet Varoshi’s hometown, a ways from his pizzeria, through the traffic and the cops and the crowds daring belching trucks, there sits a Kosovo Protection Corps station. Next to the KPC station there is a small building. On the small building someone has scrawled graffiti.
The graffiti warns, in English:
“We will either find a way, or make one.”