Kosovo: No easy answers

Near midnight March 24, after 20 straight hours absorbing television, radio and Internet news about Kosovo and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, I collapsed on the rug with CNN flickering above my skull, waiting for the New York Times to arrive.

The same five television reports had been looping since long before I opened my first bottle of $3 Trader Joe’s Merlot. They reminded me of the background paragraph I always had to place in my news articles on the ethnic Albanian troubles: 90 percent of Kosovars are of Albanian blood and the Islamic faith. Serbia revoked Kosovo’s self-rule in 1990. Oppression and violence are getting worse. A war could spill into neighboring Balkan countries, perhaps dragging two NATO countries into the horror – Greece on one side, Turkey on the other.

It’s finally come down to that.

My crazy friend Samet, an ethnic Albanian Yugoslav who grew up in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, spent half of his 33rd birthday Wednesday typing news of the airstrikes to me over Internet Relay Chat (IRC), translating the nervous online conversations among Kosovo’s Albanians.

"Strong explosions in Pristina," said someone called Vetvetiu.

He was answered by Lorita: "Podgorica (Montenegro) has been hit, too."

"There goes the electricity," typed Zog, from just outside Pristina.

"That one shook the walls."

"Serbs burning shops in Pristina," Vetvetiu adds. "It’s gonna get hot here."

Now and then a Serb propagandist would slip into the IRC rooms, hurling abuse in Serbian or English – anything but Albanian: "We just shot down four of your NATO planes! Who will save you now?" It reminded me of the ugly arguments I often heard in Macedonia, where I lived in 1996. I sometimes filed stories from there that few newspapers were interested in printing. On Tuesday, President Bill Clinton asked Americans to find Kosovo in an atlas – exactly what I used to ask American editors to attempt.

To understand the dark soul of Serbia’s delusional leadership, you need only listen to the bucket of filth named Radmila Milentijevic, a former spokeswoman for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic who kept popping up on the news today. She says her beloved Slobodan would never, ever, engage in anything so ugly as ethnic cleansing. Those four wars he started? Not his fault. At least the Russians see it that way.

There are nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and at least that many Serbs who won’t be happy until the last Albanian is killed. That’s the simple part.

The real problem is the same as it was in 1389 – when the Serbs were beaten like dogs at the Battle of Kosovo – and 1945, when Nazi Albania was broken up by the Allied forces and Kosovo was handed back to Belgrade.

You know you’re screwed when ancient history defines your life in 1999.

So the ethnic trouble in southern Yugoslavia isn’t new; the only new ingredient is wholesale slaughter – and it takes a Bosnian-style massacre to get America’s attention. Just add a ruined, shamed Russia and a legacy-obsessed Clinton who had hoped the conflict would just go away and now has to recast himself as the (too late) humanitarian. A recipe for international horror.

Abiding genocide

Back to the TV. Pat Robertson, looking meek and old, is speaking authoritatively about Russia’s broken pride and the corrupt business practices of Moscow.

Robertson spoke eloquently of Russia’s finance minister, of the collapse in social services, of Zhirinovsky’s fanatical nationalism, and of the bond between Serbs and Russians. Then the pretty Muzak rose up and a Christian Broadcasting Network money-begging spot filled the screen. It showed nervous little Kosovar kids gathering blankets and coats before leaving their village homes. CBN wanted money to send a planeload of blankets to the freezing losers. Maybe it was just all the glasses of wine, but my eyes began to tear up.

There are many dark roads for a journalist with unorthodox political beliefs, but suddenly feeling At One with Pat Robertson is not a path I was prepared for.

Dear Christ, now Steve Forbes is on CNBC, mumbling like a wrinkled mannequin on Tylenol 3 about the "strategic interest" of dealing with the "festering sore" of Southern Europe. Forbes, despite his handicaps, is in favor of doing something about the outrage in what used to be Yugoslavia. Another strange politico with whom to find myself in agreement.

The CNBC anchor claims that half of the Republican presidential candidates are rabidly opposed to using NATO bombings as a means of stopping the Kosovo slaughter. Add that sick, racist pig Trent Lott and the drooling homophobe Dick Armey, and you’ve got a GOP cheering section for genocide.

Scores to settle

Yugoslavia. That word used to mean something.

To the West, it meant a quasi-communist land of good people making good money and having the luxury of demanding philosophical freedom. To the Eastern Bloc, it was nirvana. The Magyar borders were porous, and the beautiful shores of Croatia and Montenegro – along with the gorgeous mountains of Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia – drew tourists from Russia, Poland, the old Czechoslovakia, and the whole rusting Iron Curtain. "We lived in the promised land," my friend Samet says of his youth.

When I lived there, Yugoslavia meant a place mostly free of rich American tourists and annoying Australian backpackers. Sadly, the Serbo-Croatian and Bosnian wars kept me from enjoying that rich historical land too much. By the time I could officially call Yugoslavia my home, it was a splintered mess. I lived in a place that wanted to be called Macedonia, but the Greeks to the south demanded that it be called something different; those filthy newcomer Slavs certainly weren’t the ancestors of Alexander the Great.

My postal address concluded with "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," in order to keep the Greeks from going nuts. FYROM – it rolls right off the tongue. Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov nearly died over such trivial crap when they blew up his car. Maybe "they" were Greek terrorists, maybe Serb nationalists who wanted to stay with the doomed Yugoslav federation, maybe just a bored group of thugs with a car bomb to spare.

He recovered. He’s a tough old man. Gligorov’s ability to keep Macedonia’s Albanians and Slavs from strangling each other has worked fairly well thus far.

But thoughtful moderates are not so popular in the Balkans. As I type these words, a huge mob is attacking the United States Embassy in Skopje. Three years ago, Samet and I covered a demonstration by ethnic Albanians from the region. They were demanding NATO and United Nations involvement in the simmering ethnic war an hour’s drive to the north. I spent the hot afternoon gathering quotes and arguing with the ethnic Albanians’ political leaders, and then slipped into the nearby United Nations HQ to drink whiskey with soldiers from Texas. Like me, they had to repeatedly explain to the folks back home what the hell Kosovo was.

Gligorov, who used quiet diplomacy to leave Yugoslavia without a battle, has a truly rotten job: president of a majority-Slavic nation flooded with ethnic Albanians who can rightly claim a bloodline to the Ancient Illyrians (the "Illyrium" seen on maps of the Roman Empire) and bordered to the north by near-brothers who can’t stop thinking about their Kosovo defeat at the hands and swords of the Ottoman Turks, six centuries ago.

Marshal Tito – a partisan genius and diplomatic magician who kept the hateful tribes of south Slavia from killing each other – often said that he couldn’t retire because nobody else could hold Yugoslavia together. Milosevic has been proving Tito right every day since 1987, when he first took charge of Serbia. A paranoid, bloodthirsty cretin with a curious ability to survive his own sick actions, Milosevic is to Tito what Richard Nixon was to George Washington.

Nothing would make Milosevic happier than killing all 2 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and dragging half of Europe into a long, bloody ground war in the process. Moderation and diplomacy are of no use, despite the best efforts of Albright and Holbrooke and Hill and Dole. Of course, shutting down Milosevic isn’t going to erase the centuries of tribal insanity that make the Balkans such a charming place – but if Serbia’s war toys are blown up, maybe they’ll have to carry out their next round of genocide with rocks and sticks.

The Web goes to war

Views and information on the crisis in the Balkans have flooded the Internet. The links below are just a sampling:

- Jim Goldman, Silicon Valley reporter for San Francisco's KRON-TV, reports on Kosovo as the first Internet War. Quicktime or RealVideo required.

- Slate magazine has been running a series of "secret dispatches" from an anonymous correspondent in Belgrade.

- Through his Red Rock Eater News Service, Internet scholar and commentator Phil Agre has distributed his thoughts on the intersection of the Kosovo crisis and the Net. His discussion of the successes and failures of the Internet in this crisis is one of several Kosovo postings (by himself and others) available through the RRE archive. Related links are scattered through the postings, but the posting "intensifying genocide in Kosovo" includes a particularly extensive list. Other links passed along by Agre include: NPR's directory of relief agencies helping displaced Kosovars, The French organization Doctors Without Borders' Kosovo web page, and Federation of American Scientists' military analysis resources (which is a compendium of crisis links in and of itself).

Of particular interest on the Internet -- and much discussed at RRE -- have been the fate of independent Belgrade radio station B92, which is now closed and whose founder Veran Matic was imprisoned briefly during the current crisis. Matic has written in opposition to the bombing in the online magazine Salon.

Meanwhile, an international support group based in Amsterdam works to support and disseminate the work of B92 and what remains of independent journalism in Yugoslavia.

Noted opposition scholar Noam Chomsky has written a detailed analysis against intervention in "The Current Bombings: Behind the Rhetoric", arguing that by invoking the need for humanitarian response, the United States, in fact, becomes a rogue state and a threat to world order.

Writes Chomsky: "A standard argument is that we had to do something: we could not simply stand by as atrocities continue. That is never true. One choice, always, is to follow the Hippocratic principle: 'First, do no harm.' If you can think of no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing. There are always ways that can be considered. Diplomacy and negotiations are never at an end." Noted scholar Edward Said takes a similar stance in "Protecting the Kosovars," one of several related pieces presented by ZNet. — W. Kim Heron

Ken Layne, a former freelance journalist in Yugoslavia, is now editor of Tabloid.net, a muckraking online magazine. This article was originally published by the MoJo Wire (www.motherjones.com), Mother Jones magazine’s online sister publication.

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