PRISTINA, KOSOVO, January 2007
Serbians go to the polls tomorrow (Sunday January 21st 2007) where the future of the troubled province of Kosovo will be top of the agenda. Almost 90 per cent of Kosovans are Albanians and in 1999 NATO intervened to stop ethnic by Serbian forces. After that the Serbs claimed they were targeted by Albanians and eight years the UN still runs Kosovo backed up by 17,000 NATO troops. After tomorrow elections, the UN is to begin concrete moves that are expected to lead to some form of recognized independence.
‘Put your hands above your head,’ said Snjezana Nizevic, her arms raised high, showing us what to do. ‘Now open you hands and face your palms out. Breathe in deeply. And very quickly bring your arms down, clench your fists and breathe out forcefully through your nose.’
The room was filled with a huge exhalation of breath and we all looked around, like school kids, to check each other’s performance.
No, we weren’t at an evening yoga class. It was mid-morning in the office of Zhevat Mexhuani, the Commissioner of Prisons for Kosovo, one of the many Albanians being groomed to become European-styled technocrats should Kosovo ever be allowed to run itself.
Some years back he found his job impossible because a third of the prisoners he had under lock and key kept trying to injure themselves or commit suicide, a sign that they were suffering trauma and depression from Kosovo’s long history of ethnic violence.
In came Snjezana, our teacher, a Croatian, who works for a British charity, the International Association for Human Values, and she’s been coaxing Kosovo’s prisoners to go through her breathing exercise course known as the Art of Living.
‘It’s not just the prisoners,’ she said. ‘When you suffer trauma like people in Kosovo, you can’t get up, you can’t relate to your family, you’re filled with anger, you’re passive, you feel there’s no point in doing anything, you have flashbacks, you simply cannot function.’
‘So,’ I asked Zhevat, the prison commissioner. ‘Has Snjezana’s course worked?’
‘Oh, yes, he said. ‘In 2004, we had three hundred self-injuries and we only have just over a thousand prisoners, and several suicides, but in 2006 only 21 self-injuries and no suicides at all.’
Kosovo was the last ethnic-cleansing ground from the vicious break-up of Yugoslavia. In 1999, NATO bombed its way in and the United Nations has administering the place ever since – keeping an uneasy peace between Serbs and Albanians.
Kosovo gives an insight into what’s actually needed to carry out a military intervention. With a population of only two million, the international community keeps 17,000 troops there and that’s with no insurgency and a fairly good infrastructure. In Iraq, with a population more than ten times that, there are only 160,000 troops – and a full-blown insurgency.
We drove into the Drenica Valley with its beautiful rolling green hills, dotted with red-roofed houses, and winding farm tracks to see a prison officer, Ibrahim Imaraj.
On raised ground by the road near his farm was a grave for nineteen members of his extended Albanian family, including women and children, and in the farm yard itself there was a white-washed wall pock-marked with the bullet holes from the attack by Serb forces that killed them eight years ago.
It was easy to imagine the horror. An idyllic, remote family home, with panoramic countryside views and the sounds of children’s laughter. Then gunfire and sudden death.
But impeccably polite and cheerful, Ibrahim meets us wearing his prison guard uniform. Very quickly other family members appear, and his conversation was completely different to what I’d been used to hearing in years of covering the Balkans and its grudges.
‘I’m not much interested in politics,’ he said. ‘Honestly, I don’t care what they’re talking about now. What I’m interested in is leaving the past behind.’
Travelling through Kosovo, this became a familiar refrain – as if over the years people have had time to work through their anger and start looking ahead.
Aleksandar Krstic, an 82-year-old Serb farmer, held up a bottle of his potent home-brewed liquor inside which he keeps a metal cross, indicating the religious difference between the Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians.
‘What do you think about Kosovo getting independence from Serbia,’ I asked.
He threw up his arms. ‘It doesn’t matter to me who owns this place. They can call it Fantasia for all I care. Let’s face it, life wasn’t that good under the Communists and dreadful with the Italians in the Second World War.’
Old checkpoints, once manned by NATO troops, are now mostly abandoned. Rusting barbed wire is pushed away up against the road side and a huge bill board of a smiling Bill Clinton towers over a city main street – together with a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
Snjezana has trained up a trauma breathing teacher to take over from her – Vehbi Rafuni, a former Kosovo Liberation Army fighter, who once had a dream to create a Greater Albania. His eyes are sometimes dead, sometimes alert, always shifting. He carries the face of a man damaged by war. He showed me pictures of guerrilla training camps and mass graves that he keeps on his I-pod, flicking through them as if they were holiday snaps.
‘Do you have a message for the insurgents in Iraq,’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Stop killing each other. War makes a person sick in the head for many years.’