Kosova went to the polls on March 22, to re-elect Dr Ibrahim Rugova as president and to elect 130 members to the country’s second Parliament, even though the first Parliament, elected in 1992, was never able to meet. Despite Serbia’s murderous attack on the Drenica region early last month, and subsequent attempts to disrupt the elections, a massive 85 percent of Kosovars turned out to vote.
Polling was largely uneventful, even though Serb security forces were continuing their operations in some parts of the country. Polling in the Drenica region had been postponed because of the situation there, where some villages remain sealed off and there are reports of continuing Serb atrocities. However, as we went to press, post-election tensions between Kosovars and Serbs in the capital Prishtina were high and more trouble was feared.
The Kosovars’ determination to go ahead with the elections despite the current circumstances reflect a desire to demonstrate the falsity of the Serbs claim to control Kosova. Kosova unilaterally declared independence following a referendum in 1990, the year after the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic annulled the region’s autonomous status within Serbia. Since then, Serbia has maintained no government presence except its security forces. However, the Kosovars’ ‘parallel government’ has also only been able to operate to a limited extent. Civil government in much of Kosova consists largely of ad hoc local community organisations, which have performed excellently in difficult conditions. But the international community has refused to recognise Kosova’s independence, hence Serbia’s blatant attempt to try to reassert its rule.
Serbia’s major operations in Drenica ended on about March 8, although some areas remained sealed off. The focus then shifted to politicking, with the Serbs’ seeking to show that the operations had been limited to police actions and that they are reasonable rulers trying to reach a settlement with the Kosovars, while the Kosovar government of president Ibrahim Rugova tried to use the international attention to secure some degree of support and security against future Serb attacks.
When the news of the Serb attacks emerged in late February and early March, many observers were reminded of the opening salvos of the Serbs’ genocidal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Subsequent events have tended to confirm this impression. One major similarity is the Serbs’ chameleon-like ability to show different faces to different people at different time. Even as details of the Serbs’ atrocities emerged, they acted as though nothing was happening and offered the Kosovars talks to discuss future constitutional arrangements. The Serbs were also creating and displaying ‘evidence’ of their goodwill and desire to be reasonable everywhere where outsiders could see them, while ruthlessly destroying evidence of their crimes behind the scenes. It is clear now that Serb army units were involved in the operation, alongside some of the fascist paramilitary organisations which were responsible for the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war.
Details of the Serbs’ actions make grim reading. It is now clear that well over 100 people died in different towns and villages throughout the region. The claim that the operations were against armed groups has been totally disproved. The bodies of 13 children (9 boys and 4 girls), 12 women and 7 elderly men were found in a single family compound in the village of Prekaz, near Skenderaj (called Srbica by the Serbs). Over 60 people are reported to have been killed in this area. Even more died in the area around Peja (Pec), where one house was subsequently discovered to have been burnt down with women and children locked in the basement. Fourteen bodies were found here, too badly burnt to be identified. Other bodies found in the area, including those of children, had been killed by single gunshots to the back of the head.
Several thousand have been driven from their homes and are refugees in surrounding areas. Many were forced to spend days hiding in woods or fields, unable to return to their homes or to escape the area because of Serb roadblocks and snipers. Two little girls were found frozen to death under a hedge near the town of Klina on the morning of March 11. No rapes are reported, which some observers attribute to the attention this tactic attracted in Bosnia. However, several women have reported to medical centres with gunshots wounds apparently intended to injure and maim without killing. Meanwhile, attempts at relief work were deliberately hampered. Kosovar doctors have reported being prevented by Serb police or soldiers from treating some victims who subsequently died.
There can be no doubt now that a major operation verging on genocide took place, designed to terrorise the population and scare them out of the region. Whole villages are now reported to be deserted, with returning refugees finding their homes looted and, in some cases, booby-trapped or mined. However, the wider political significance of these events remains unclear. Here parallels with Bosnia are of limited value. While the factor of Serbian nationalism is common, external and internal circumstances are quite different. Externally, the eyes of the world are now on the region and, as demonstrated, any action will be noticed. Internally, the key difference is that the Kosovars make up some 93 percent of the area’s population, while Serbs constitute a tiny and shrinking minority. In Bosnia, a large, local Serb population supported the ethnic cleansing and played a major role in it. In Kosova similar operations would be far harder to sustain on a large scale.
What exactly the Serbs want is unclear. Last year, the Serbian Academy of Sciences, a think-tank closely linked to the government, published a discussion document which proposed that Serbia should withdraw from Kosova, arguing that the high Kosovar birthrate was constantly reducing the proportion of Serbs in Serbia as a whole. Another proposal was that Serbia should cleanse and annex the northern part of Kosova and let the rest go. Interestingly, Drenica is in the area which would be retained by Serbia under such a scenario.
The Kosovars, meanwhile, have little option but to put their faith in the international community which let the Bosnian Muslims down so badly. But the international community has consistently refused to recognise Kosova’s independence, and is unlikely to do so now.
Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1998