An estimated 1.7 million Kosovar Muslims have been expelled from their homes in the three weeks since NATO launched its airstrikes to protect them on March 25. Tens of thousands of men have been killed, and at least 100,000 men more are missing, feared dead.
Of these, about 1 million have been forced out of the country altogether, while some 700,000 are estimated to be displaced inside Kosova. The former, most of them living rough in ‘camps’ set up by international institutions in Macedonia and Albania are only slightly better off than the latter. Thousands have frozen or starved to death because of a lack of the most basic supplies. Water-borne diseases are the next major threat in camps with only the most rudimentary sewage facilities.
The tragedy, which dwarfs that in Bosnia a few years ago in intensity if not in scale, can be traced directly to the west’s decision to bomb Yugoslavia on March 25. Kosovars generally had been demanding that NATO intervene to help them; but the west’s strategy was not what they had in mind. Instead of driving the Serb troops and special police out of Kosova, NATO aircraft and missiles were targetted on strategic targets in other parts of Yugoslavia. By the end of the first week of bombing, according to an analysis published in the UK press, NATO had destroyed precisely one Serbian tank in Kosova. Meanwhile, the Serbs had launched perhaps the most savage and intensive campaign of ethnic cleansing ever seen. Kosovars were being driven out of the country en masse. In the capital Pristina, which had been largely uneffected by the Kosovar war until shortly began the western bombings started was sytematically empties.
Thousands of Kosovars were rounded up and forced to walk to the borders with Macedonia and Albania in guarded processions, taking only what little they could carry. Others were sealed into trains which were then sent across the border.
One feature of the exodus which was quickly noticed was the remarkable absence of males between the ages of 15 and 50 among the refugees. It quickly became apparent that the Serbs were deliberately arresting them and keeping them inside Serbia. Some may be in concentration camps, but large numbers, if the Bosnian experience is any guide, are likely to have been killed.
Another Serb strategy has been to deliberately divide families, sending grandparents in one direction, mothers in another and children in a third. In the chaos of the border crossings and the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, the chances of locating lost family members are remote. All camps have thousands, of children separated from their families, lost and trying to fend for themselves in the chaos.
By one standard, however, these are perhaps the luckier ones. As in Bosnia, rape has again become a weapon of war in Kosova. Young women, and even pre-teenage girls, have been pulled out of convoys and gangraped. Those who survive the perils of the journey out of Kosova before the Serbs closed the borders and insisted that the refugees remain inside Kosova face greater difficulties. They are almost as unwelcome in Macedonia as in Kosova, while Albania is ill-equipped to deal with so many people, despite international help. Macedonia has forcibly evicted thousands of refugees to other countries, without telling them where they are going, At this stage too, families have been separated.
While the KLA has tried to fight back when and where it could, the exposure of many of its top leaders in the politicking running up to the war weakened it even before the bombing started. The intensity of the Serbian onslaught shattered the Kosovar’s limited infrastructure and the chaos caused by the huge movements of people made any sort of co-ordination difficult, especially as the KLA is a people’s army, and many members were concerned for the safety of their families.
As in Bosnia, the Serbs have deliberately targeted the local community leaders, teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professional sections of the community, to deprive it of leadership and experience. Journalists and writers have also been targeted.
In Albania, the KLA has stepped up recruitment among those young men who have managed to escape, as well as young women. But the west has said that it will not help the KLA in any way, still recommending a political settlement. They are also determined not to send ground troops in. The result is that, with the exception of isolated pin-prick attacks from NATO aircraft and missiles, which have done as much damage to Kosovar property in Pristina as to the Serbs, Milosevic’s men have a free hand.
The situation in Kosova remains chaotic and unreadable. What is certain is that the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who have been displaced, few will be able to return to their homes soon. The west’s present strategy is unlikely to lead to any meaningful progress towards either the refugees returning to their home or the attainment of political rights for the Kosovars. The main problem is that the west is not genuinely willing to address the main issue, that of the Serbs’ false claim to Kosova. By insisting that Kosova must remain within Serbia, the west is ensuring that the problem is will remain for the forseeable future.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1999