The Book: Kosovo…the “extreme of guilt”…February 2008…
The bus from Belgrade to Pristina crosses into Kosovo as the sun is setting. This is a different border crossing than the one where I entered Kosovo a few weeks before with J and D. We are now more to the East, away from Mitrovica and the heavily Serb regions. Unlike at the previous border crossing, which hadn’t seemed like a border at all, first the Serb and then the UN guards get on the bus and check our passports. Foreigners get a stamp on a white piece of paper from the UN guards. The Serb guards look through everyone’s passports, but do not give a stamp.
I look out the window. The plains of Kosovo are surrounded by mountains and heavy, floating clouds. There is an emptiness. It is the same feeling I’d experienced in La Guajira in Colombia last April. But Kosovo is not the end of the continent. It is locked between countries. Yet it maintains a feeling of disturbed empty space.
Traveling in 1937, Rebecca West writes in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, “Kossovo more than any historical site I know, arouses that desolation. It spreads peacefully into its vast, gentle distances, slow winds polishing it like a cloth passing over a mirror…It has the look of innocence that is the extreme of guilt. For it is crowded with the dead, who died in more than their flesh, whose civilization was cast with them into their graves.”
A long line of red lights lead my eyes up the road to the outskirts of Pristina. The evening traffic back up is stretched twenty minutes outside the city. As the bus crests a hill I see the expanse of Pristina as clumps of dull green lights luminating from homes that are thrown together, almost barrio style scramblings across the hills. Several apartment buildings rise near the edge of the city. UN vehicles and police cars flashing blue lights speed around. It is too dark to see much else. Prishtina seems a city of mismanaged chaos.
Upon arriving in Pristina, Rebecca West wrote, “Prishtina was one of the capitals of the Serbian monarchs, for they had a peripatetic court to cope with the immensity of their new country…We blinked at a dull and dusty little village.”
Fifty years later, Robert Kaplan adds in Balkan Ghosts, “The first warnings of Prishtina was a jumble of wooden stalls illuminated by sodium lamps, clapped together against prefabricated apartment blocks that appeared to reel like drunks on cratered hillsides.”
I meet a woman who works for the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “No one exactly know when independence will be declared. I think it will happen by the end of the month. Or by mid-March.”
Getting excited, she leans forward.
“We’ve been told to carry radios at all times because when the declaration is made the cell phone network will get overloaded and probably go down.”
She says that there will also be shooting. Celebratory fire from the Albanians. Hopefully nothing from the Serbs.
And hopefully nothing at the Serbs either.
Because of the expected shootings, celebratory or otherwise, she has been advised not to go outside when independence is declared.
“What goes up must come down. I’m going to go out anyway though. No way I’m going to miss it.”
Trying to provoke her, I call her an imperialist. The Kosovo Government is very much controlled by the international organizations present in Kosovo.
“That’s a bit simplistic. The international community works very much alongside the Kosovo Government. There is much cooperation,” she says.
Whatever her definition of cooperation, Kosovo is an international colony. Every morning I see German and Dutch and American members of the UN, OSCE, and other international organizations drive door to door in their acronymed jeeps picking up members of their carpools for the ride down the hill to the compounds and tall glass buildings where they work.
Their presence is justified by arguing that if the 1999 bombing campaign to stop the Serbian onslaught had not been followed by the commitment of the international community more war would have broken out across the region. Albanian separatist movements in neighboring Macedonia and Serbia’s Presevo Valley were expected to have continued. Instead they were halted by negotiations led by the international community.
The continued presence of the internationals in Kosovo also helped justify the bombing campaign and intervention in the affairs of other countries. During the war Serbia viewed the Albanian separatists as a domestic issue, a problem that they could solve on their own without the meddling of outsiders. When Milosevic’s brutality forced the international community to become involved, it set the precedent for international intervention across the world.
Of course, intervention happens out of a collision of national and moral interests. Kosovo is an ideal strategic location. Kosovo is a place that can be used. The American built Bondsteel, their largest military base in southern Europe, outside of Prishtina to serve as a convenient location to house planes and troops should Germany ever get tired of hosting them at Ramstein. Situated geographically on the outskirts of Europe, Kosovo is also a convenient place to carry out attacks on the Middle East and Russia and even Asia, should the need ever arise.
For the Albanians the choice to accept the internationals in return for Kosovo was much more simple. After the end of the war in 1999 there had been no administration in Kosovo. While there was the semblance of an Albanian government that had negotiated with the internationals, the war had mostly been carried out by individual groups all calling themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). They lacked the infrastructure and money to govern and while they almost certainly would have preferred to make an attempt by themselves, they accepted having their lands controlled by foreigners as the international presence guaranteed that the Serbs would not return and independence would most likely happen somewhere down the road, which for them was the most important thing.