SKENDERAJ, KOSOVO, November 2007
The Serbian province of Kosovo is holding elections next week (November 16th) where full sovereign independence is an issue that none of the main parties disagree on. In 1999, NATO ended Serbian control of Kosovo after fears that the province of two million could spiral into ethnic cleansing. Since then Kosovo has been administered by the UN which remains supported by 16,000 NATO troops. Kosovo’s leaders say they plan to make a unilateral declaration of independence if a final round of negotiations with Serbia break down in December. Serbia says it won’t accept and now has the powerful backing of Russia, while the Kosovars believe they are supported by the United States.
“Evening in the Drenica Valley, the heartland of Kosovo Albanian nationalism. We are in a café in the small town of Skenderaj waiting for a phone call. The customers are all men, all generations, smoking and drinking in clusters, eyes flitting occasionally towards a television screen where a chat show is focusing on Kosovo’s upcoming independence – as if it’s a given.
Above the bar are pictures of leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the guerrilla group that in 1999 fought with NATO to expel Serb forces from the province. At that time, many of the customers here would have been signed up members.
There’s no laughter amongst them now, more an edge of anticipation, a glimpse of society that feels it can only survive on low trust and looking after its own.
The phone rings and our interpreter has a short conversation. “We wait here,” he says, “Another twenty minutes.”
Earlier in the day, I had been in the Kosovar capital, Pristina whose landmarks pay tribute to the 1999 American-led intervention. A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands on the roof a hotel and a huge hoarding of Bill Clinton covers the outer wall of city centre building. All this within a predominantly Muslim society resonates well in Washington.
I was going round the main political parties trying to work out why the mindset of this community is so locked into getting full sovereign independence. It’s not as if they didn’t already have security and enormous good will – and funding – from the international community.
“You cannot have economic development unless you have sovereignty,” explained Veton Surroi, the leader of new centre-left party called Ora. “If we accept a lesser position than independence we would have continuous conflict,”
“Hold a moment,” I said. “What about Taiwan? It’s one of the richest places in the world, but it has no official status at all.”
“Taiwan has a totally different historical perspective,” he countered.
“All right,” I said. ” Let’s say you have independence. What is your party’s policy towards health care?”
“We advocate free health care.”
“How much will it cost?”
“We have a budget.”
“You can’t give me a figure?”
“No. Not now.”
He admitted he hadn’t yet worked it out, and sent me to see his party’s workers, young educated men with degrees from American and European universities.
“If you had a choice between first class health care and independence,” I asked, “what would you go for.”
“All Albanians would die for independence,” said one, with another chipping in from the end of the room. “It’s like asking a Manchester United fan to choose between his team and health care. It’s just not possible.”
Outside it was raining, and getting into the car, I stepped into a huge puddle caused by a pot-hole. Then, I noticed strewn right along the edge of the road piles and piles of rubbish, just left, rotting. A stray cat picked its way through. “I suppose you need independence to clear up the rubbish and fix the roads,” I said irritably to our interpreter.
“You don’t understand, do you,” he said. “Tonight, I’ll show you.”
Which is how we found ourselves in the Drenica Valley café that evening, and when the phone rings for the second time, we leave.
On a street corner, heading out of town, we pick up an intermediatory who had been calling us. He directs us along a narrow road to a junction with a dirt track, where we meet a middle aged man, head shaved, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. We drive up the track and stop at a derelict building. The man puts on a Balaclava helmet so we can’t identify his face. He’s unarmed and claims to be a member of the Albanian National Army, a guerrilla group banned by the UN administration.
“If we see that we are not going towards the goal of independence we will start implementing our military plans,” he said. “Which means we will protect our land from Serb forces.”
“But there not here,” I said. “NATO’s here.”
“We have information that Serb militia units have entered Kosovo. We are recruiting in large numbers to protect our people.”
“Is it really worth it after nearly ten years of peace to bring back this spectre of violence?”
“Not only ten but even twenty years after it is worth to start a struggle and fight against those who do not want Albanians to live on their own land.”
Had it been anywhere else, with his pot belly and his slogans, he might have cut a laughable figure. But on his wrist was a shrapnel wound from the guerrilla war on the 1990s. War was his comfort zone.
“But if you do this,” I asked. “What about America who liberated you?”
Through the black wool of Balaclava, his eyes, lit up from the side by our vehicle headlights, were sharp and uncompromising. “America,” he said. “America is our biggest friend and ally.”