The following piece is brought to us by Iseult Henry, author of Hiding Genocide in Kosovo. She penned it as part of a collection of Kosovo-oriented essays titled Kosovo: The Score. The occasional highlighting is my own, and just a reminder to American readers: “Kosovo” means “of blackbirds”, as in “field of blackbirds”.

An observer at a Crow’s Court

Many times during my working career in Kosovo I often thought of the stories my father used to tell me about his youth growing up in County Kerry in the South West of Ireland. He…spent a lot of time up in the Kerry Mountains where he had the opportunity to see a whole variety of natural phenomena including once, a crow’s court.

This is an unusual happening rarely seen but alluded to often in medieval literature where a great congregation of crows surround one of their fellow crows. The birds pick out one unfortunate victim who will act as the ‘accused’, they then isolate the ‘accused’ while they sit on different branches around it, preening themselves, with each adopting what appears to be a different role ranging from prosecutor and judge to ordinary court flunkey. For a period it seems like there is a lot of cawing, the crows are busy building the case. Invariably the accused is found guilty and suffers the consequences [as] the rest of the group descend on the victim and it is pecked to death.

Following the trial and execution of sentence, the murder of crows [a group of crows is called a murder] takes off, leaving the battered corpse of the accused to rot. Nature watchers have never understood this phenomenon: why the group feels the need apparently to pick on one of their own number blaming it for all their ills and then partake in a very public, elaborate ceremony, the fatal outcome of which is clearly determined from the beginning. One might ask what this has to do with Kosovo. In an analogous way, everything.

I landed in Skopje [Macedonia] on the evening of August 23, 1999, stayed overnight in the Hotel Bristol and was driven to Pristina the next day, the 24 August. I had no pre-formed views or opinions about what was happening in Kosovo or for that matter in any part of the former Yugoslavia. I had been planning to work in development in Central America and viewed my assignment in Kosovo as something of an aside, of strictly short-term nature, maybe a few months at most.

I have several memories of the drive from Skopje to Pristina: …[In the] villages near Lipljan up as far as Laplje Selo and Caglavica…[w]hat struck me was that despite the conflict there seemed to be a lot of farming activity going on. Another memory was the sight of houses burning on either side of the road, small villages in the distance were ablaze and there seemed to be a lot of smoke everywhere. The Albanian driver informed us that these were Albanian villages that had been ethnically cleansed by the Serbs; he informed us that the Serbian army had burned all the houses and he pointed to several villages where allegedly massacres had taken place.

It was not until some time later when I started working in the area that I realised that these were actually Serb dwellings in Serb villages, in places like Stari Kacanik, Grlica, Staro Selo, Talinovac, Srbski Babus and Babljak. Moreover, considering that the Serbian army was forced to withdraw from Kosovo in early June 1999, some 10 weeks earlier, it was hard to see how they could have torched these houses and ethnically cleansed all these villages. Here I was on 24 August 1999, ten weeks later, looking at burning buildings and destroyed houses that had quite clearly only been torched a few days previously.

As we approached Pristina I was struck by the number of satellite dishes on all the apartment blocks and buildings. I did not have a satellite dish on my house in Ireland. I was paying for my own postgraduate studies in the National University of Ireland in Dublin and at the same time I was paying a hefty mortgage on my house. A satellite dish was certainly not a priority and was a luxury I could not afford at that time. In briefings prior to my departure I had been led to believe that the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were poor and deprived yet this did not tally with the vista that opened up in front of me as we drove into Pristina. I came to realise that, as I got to know Kosovo better, why items such as satellite dishes were a priority. Here, where so many flats and apartments in urban areas were illegally seized and occupied, one did not worry about mortgage repayments and as I was to discover later, property belonged to those who wanted it and not to those who actually owned it. All property was up for grabs.

My office was located across the road from the UNMIK police car park beside the radio station, where there were dozens and dozens of red and white jeeps, (we used to call them the Coca Cola police cars). I remember seeing them parked there day after day as I crossed the little bridge into town. I could not figure out why they were there for months and months without once moving out. This period between August 1999 and April 2000 was a time of unprecedented ethnic cleansing and yet here were these brand new police cars that had made it to a carpark in Pec town but got no further than that. Like many other aspects of the international presence in Kosovo this too was a smokescreen.

The night of September 27, 1999 was in some respects the initial ‘wake-up call’ for me as to what was going on in Kosovo. I went to bed early with a book while my colleagues went out to have a pizza, about the only thing on offer in those days. I will never forget when the shooting started, it was unremitting. I lay in bed with my head under the covers, disbelieving the scale and intensity of the attacks which went on into the early hours. That night saw the UCK go on a killing spree, rampaging through the Serb areas of the town, burning, looting and killing mainly elderly Serbs. This all-night rampage happened in a territory where the conflict had officially ended some four months previously and which had the UN as administrators and as police and which had troops from many western countries making up the KFOR contingent supposedly to provide security. The next morning as I made my way warily down the town, the first thing I saw was a body face down in the river. It was not the only one left lying around the town but Italian KFOR had been busy that morning clearing away the bodies. Ironically and not un-coincidentally, the very next day was the deadline for the handover of weapons by the UCK [KLA].

I was working on a social development project in Pec. In my first six months I worked only in Albanian villages as that was the area of responsibility designated to us by UNHCR. Not only were we not working in the last Serbian village near Pec to have survived the onslaught after June 1999, Gorazdevac, we were specifically told not to go near the village and above all, when driving past it we were advised not to make eye contact with the Serbs in the village. We were told that the inhabitants of Gorazdevac were thieves and killers and were very dangerous as they were all armed. Many times I had been told that they had stolen everything from the Albanians — cars, fridges, televisions, etc. I was warned that if I ever went there I would be raped, beaten and finally murdered.

While most of the internationals believed these scare stories and some tragically enough still do, I found it hard to believe that a village with a church at its centre and with mainly elderly people sitting around the village square could be the evil place that it was made out to be. I first went there in February 2000 as a private individual, that is without the ‘imprimatur’ of my organisation. I travelled in the back of an Italian armed personnel carrier having been told by the soldiers to stay out of sight in the back. What I found there was the exact opposite of what I had been told. People were poor, very poor. Very few people had televisions and there were a lot of elderly women who were in a very difficult situation as they had no accommodation. Despite their difficulties people were very hospitable towards me and on my first day I was offered my first pork meal since leaving Ireland…[Editor’s note: Why the absence of pork in Kosovo — even to the non-Muslim internationals? After all, we were and are told that the Albanians aren’t the Muslimy Muslims.]

One of the first projects that I initiated in the village was a social housing project for these women. When I started working there the following month, in March 2000, I encountered great hostility from my colleagues both international and local Albanian. They threatened me, bullied me and one [female Irish colleague] even pushed me down the stairs of our office but I persevered and, then as now, saw nothing wrong in trying to help these poor, unfortunate people who had done nothing wrong to anyone. But what really frightened me was the terrible hatred displayed towards these people, even the look in peoples’ eyes when I mentioned I was going to Gorazdevac.

One international colleague who reluctantly helped out on a project which was the rehabilitation of the cultural centre in the village square managed to rehabilitate only half of the roof, stating the other half was beyond repair. Later another international NGO completed the roof and their engineer assured me that the other half of the roof was quite easily repairable, stating that from an engineering perspective there was nothing wrong with it and they quickly repaired it.

This was the type of blind prejudice that one encountered if one tried to be fair in one’s work in Kosovo and especially when a development project for Serb recipients was put forward. Social exclusion was the order of the day. It was a prejudice that was unrelenting, that led to hatred and ultimately a completely bigoted outlook on the situation in Kosovo. The same colleague [an Englishman] who refused to finish the roof later verbally abused me for going to the village to work at weekends; however the only way to keep working there was in my own time at weekends. He stared into my face inches away from me screaming at me for working in Gorazdevac. At one stage I thought he was going to bite my nose off and it was the nearest I had come to being beaten up.

When villagers wanted to leave Gorazdevac they had only one bus which was escorted in and out of the village by KFOR. The Serbs were allowed only one bag which was searched repeatedly. The whole setup was as if the powers that be wanted deliberately to humiliate these people. As a witness I shared in their humiliation, that ordinary human beings should be treated in such a manner. This was the first time in my life that I had come across people who had no freedom of movement and I could not understand how the people who were holding them hostage and who were rampaging around killing and looting and burning were not subject to any type of restraint. The hatred against these people, the Serbs, was palpable, intense and shocking to me. There was nothing hidden about it, the hatred was overt and encouraged and perhaps this was one of the reasons that I decided to stay on in Kosovo and to try to do something to redress the balance. ‘Out the window’ went my plans for working in Central America. I had stumbled across a situation in modern Europe on the eve of the twenty first century where there was a systematic denial of basic human rights, where one section of the population had overnight become less than second class citizens and all this in a place that theoretically at least was a UN Protectorate and under the protection of NATO. One question kept coming to mind and that was how could there be such violations of basic human rights in a UN Protectorate? Who was the UN actually protecting? And who was indicted for repeatedly violating human rights? No one! And when one mentioned the violations and difficult situation of the Serbs, one was threatened and nearly beaten up.

In October 2000 I moved to Pristina to work with an international aid agency. As time went on and as I gathered more experience from my field trips around Kosovo — I had an unfortunate habit of venturing outside the well-controlled “editorial confines” of my office — a different picture from the one we had been led to believe continued to emerge. Gorazdevac was not an exception, but the rule. Throughout Kosovo, Serbs and other non-Albanians were suffering similar discrimination. It became increasingly clear to me that international aid in Kosovo from the outset was reserved for those who were judged to be allies of the West and whom the media had branded as the victims. Serbs and other non-Albanians were the guilty ones and the international effort in Kosovo clearly followed that line. Many measures were taken to give the semblance of upholding law and order and justice and human rights but these, without exception, proved to be part of the smokescreen, the appearance of everything and the substance of nothing. I remember one day meeting the UN regional administrator for Mitrovica [David Mitchels] outside the UNMIK offices in Pristina and he told me that Kosovo would be better off if all the Serbs were gone. I thought that was an amazing statement for any person to make but especially from a person in his position.

There was a systematic, one might say almost regimented, effort on the part of one’s Albanian colleagues to present a very one-sided picture, in which the Serbs were quite clearly the baddies and the Albanians the victims. Had I, like many internationals, stayed in my own cocoon/ivory tower — that is my office relying only on local Albanian commentaries and western media information which was rarely more than downright propaganda — I too might have meekly served my time in Kosovo having convinced myself or at least [tried] hard to convince myself that Kosovo was a black and white issue and that NATO’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ was not only justified but was the only way to impose peace and justice.

As the time passed and I stayed in Kosovo longer than I had ever intended, I saw more and more evidence of the campaign of ethnic cleansing. If Albanians or internationals ever mentioned a particular incident it was usually to condone it saying it was natural that there might be some attacks on the Serbs. There was always a denial, a refusal to acknowledge that there was an orchestrated, far-reaching campaign going on around us to rid Kosovo of all remaining non-Albanian communities especially in the urban areas. Even after the concerted and well organised pogrom of March 2004 which targeted non-Albanian areas throughout Kosovo, the international community maintained its façade of normality and denial, its unspoken campaign of appeasement. I heard people put the 2004 pogrom down to the fact that the Albanian population was frustrated and that is why mobs destroyed over 1000 houses, 30 churches and displaced over 4,000 people. To this day the Serbs displaced in the March 2004 pogrom are still living in containers (supplied by the Russian government) in Obilic, Gracanica, Ugljare and Kosovo Polje.

Sometimes stories were spread attempting to deflect attention away from the real culprits or to put more blame on the Serbs. Often these stories were ludicrous but they were still passed on and on and on especially by internationals who had newly arrived in Kosovo.…[A]nother story that was doing the rounds especially in 1999 and 2000 was that all the beautiful medieval monasteries and religious sites dotted around Kosovo, and for which it is justly famous, were originally Albanian edifices which had been usurped by the Serbs. One does not have to be an expert in Byzantine religious architecture and art to recognise that these monasteries and other religious sites in question such as Decani or Pec Patriarchate, both in West Kosovo were clearly Orthodox in design. Anyone capable of reading could access the correct information that these monasteries were endowments of the Serbian kings given to the Serbian people for posterity. The particular line of argument, that the monasteries were all originally Albanian, was invariably curtailed when I asked the simple question:

‘If that is so why then do the Albanians keep trying to blow them up?’

I never got an answer.

However, I did not stay safely ensconced in my office and in the company of other internationals who were self-righteously engaged in their anti-Serbian crusade. I travelled to non-Albanian areas, not just Serb areas but also the Roma camps and settlements (such as the lead-contaminated Roma camp in Zvecan for those displaced in 1999 by the UCK in south Mitrovica), the Gorani in Gora, the Croats in Letnica, all of whom, since the arrival of KFOR and the UN in Kosovo and the departure of the Serbian security forces, had been on the receiving end of the violence. What ensued in June 1999 and culminated in March 2004 was a war of terror against an innocent civilian population including Albanians who did not see eye to eye with the UCK and their masters.

This violence was directed solely at civilian targets — men, women and children regardless of age or infirmity. It was an unremitting war, a war of terror and intimidation intended to drive the non-Albanians out, in some cases aided and abetted by certain contingents of KFOR.

While many Serbian villages were ethnically cleansed, all towns south of the Ibar were cleansed of their Serb and Roma populations. The tales of woe of places like Lipljan, Obilic, Kosovo Polje, Caglovica, Vitina, Urosevac etc are horrendous. The town of Vitina had over 3,500 Serb inhabitants in 1999. Over a year later there were just a handful left living huddled around the church. There are thousands of such stories. The elderly Serbs in Urosevac were put on buses and taken to the administrative boundary with Serbia proper after 1,000 of them had spent nearly a week penned behind a corral in the centre of the town with no facilities while the UCK went on [a] rampage and burnt the town and killed anyone who looked like a Serb. One UNHCR staff member told me that she went to get medicines for them and when she returned she was told that the US army had driven them away in buses to their new homes — collective centres in Bujanovac in south Serbia where many of them still reside and many others have died of a broken heart. (In reality they were the lucky ones — many of those who stayed behind in the villages were tortured, beheaded, raped and murdered.)

Consider just one of the incidents that happened in the town of Obilic. Despite the sustained assault against them, there were still some Serbs and Roma residing in the town of Obilic by March 2004. However, these residents were targeted by the mobs on 17 March that year as part of the Kosovo-wide drive to cleanse areas south of the Ibar, especially in central Kosovo near Pristina. One particular incident stands out in terms of the failure of the international community to protect ordinary people. During the attack on Obilic in which many Serb houses were burned, the entire female population of the Roma settlement in the town, that is dozens of girls and women between the ages of about 14 and 60, were stripped naked and marched through the streets near the town centre by the mob, many of whom were armed. Incredibly, there were soldiers from the British KFOR contingent present in the town that day who witnessed the incident but did not intervene. Perhaps they were under orders not to. Whatever the reason, their inactivity was mirrored elsewhere in Kosovo by the actions, or I should say the inaction, of KFOR who did not turn out to protect those being attacked or who in most cases simply stood by and watched. Others scurried off to their bases. However there were some exceptions. During the March 2004 pogrom it was the actions of soldiers from the Irish KFOR contingent who travelled from their base in Lipljan, acting on their own initiative, who saved the lives of all the non-Albanians in Obilic in those frightful days.

Another example of the almost unbelievable suffering meted out to the innocent is the case of the Nikolic family from the town of Urosevac, whom I am proud to call my friends…There is the mother Dani (Daniela) now in her 80s, born in Slovenia; she came to Urosevac when she was eighteen to visit her father, an officer in the Yugoslav army. While there she met her husband to be and after they were married they settled in Urosevac town. Daniela had two daughters, Santipa and Liljana. Both daughters were academically gifted, one becoming an architect and the other an engineer. The Nikolic family was an old distinguished family in the town which had contributed much to the development of Urosevac over the years. In 1999 they still owned a part of their large house, the rest of the house had been taken off them by the communists.

Their age and inability to be a threat to anyone did not save them from being targeted by the UCK. Although they escaped the initial onslaught against the Serbs in Urosevac, their house was visited many times in June and July 1999 by armed UCK men who stole what they liked. They were all assaulted; all of them had their teeth broken. Santipa, being the only able-bodied member of the family (Liljana is a paraplegic due to a car crash some years ago and the mother Daniela is blind), would venture out to look for food but was attacked on several occasions and beaten literally black and blue. They were protected for some time by Greek KFOR who stationed armed guards at their front door. Despite all the difficulties, they stayed in their own house until the March 2004 pogrom when a mob of more than a thousand men surrounded the house. A video tape of the attack on the house survives which I was able to obtain and it shows clearly that at one end of the town a thousand-strong mob was able to surround the house of three ladies while at the other end of town Greek KFOR were trying to defend the church from another mob.

Eventually US KFOR came to rescue the Greek contingent shortly before the interior of the church was torched and some Greek soldiers were badly burnt. US KFOR also came to the Nikolic house and forcibly removed the three ladies who were carried out under a hail of stones and other [projectiles]. Liljana who was paralysed from the waist down was hit on the leg by a rock but did not realise she had sustained a broken leg until later. The destruction of their house meant not only the tragedy of losing their family home but also the loss of 18,000 books from their library, many valuable musical instruments and a priceless fresco by the famous Renaissance painter Giotto of the Blessed Mother which was more than 400 years old. The last vestiges of European civilisation in Urosevac burned with these objects.

The Nikolic ladies were dropped off at the Greek army base where they found other Serb survivors of the final assault on Urosevac. They were not brought to the large US army base Camp Bondsteel nearby despite their need for urgent medical attention because, as it was explained to them later by a US KFOR soldier, US KFOR did not want the local Albanians working on the base to know that they were treating wounded Serbs there. Some ten or eleven days later they were brought to Camp Bondsteel for medical attention but in the meantime one elderly lady had died.

The Nikolic family was returned to the Greek army base in Urosevac where they still reside today — apart from a brief interlude in Greece where Greek KFOR wanted them to stay…They were and are determined to return to their house in Urosevac although no one from the international or the local Albanian authorities is anxious to rebuild their house or facilitate their return. Indeed the house has now been completely cut off by new buildings and their access has been denied; the only way for the Nikolic family to visit their house or what remains of it would be by helicopter. Their father’s factory has been privatised by the UN-established Kosovo Trust Agency without their knowledge or consent. One soldier said to them recently that the Albanians deserve the factory as there are so many of them and they are very poor and they need employment. The answer he received was, would you give your factory to poor people who come into your country? Despite all the hardship, they remain determined to stay in their beloved Urosevac…However, the bottom line of all this is the simple and stark fact that Urosevac, like all the urban centres of Kosovo, is not safe for Serbs to return to and that the property rights of the displaced count for nothing. No one, international or local, is prepared to stand up for basic human rights. It is as plain and simple as that.

I could fill many books with anecdotes about how I came to realise how a clear and awful wrong has been done in Kosovo. It must be remembered that before I came to Kosovo, although I was not entirely naïve, I did still have a basic belief in the system of international law and in organisations mandated to uphold and protect justice and human rights. My time in Kosovo completely changed everything and opened my eyes to the real workings and infernal machinations of the international system. Like the time I met with a senior representative of the UN established returns office in Pristina in February 2005, who quite blatantly told me that Serbs would never be allowed to return to Kosovo. He told me that there was no serious intent to facilitate the return of the Serbs to Kosovo and he stated that the structures established supposedly to facilitate return were nothing more than a smokescreen.

Then there was the British diplomat in Belgrade who self-righteously proclaimed to me that ‘the Serbs were on the wrong side of history’

The agricultural land that I had seen on 24 August, 1999 covered in sunflowers is today little more than a concrete jungle of newly constructed warehouses and concrete structures, many of which were built illegally; other plots were sold by Serbs at below the market value simply because they could not continue to live in collective centres and needed the financial resources to move out of the collective accommodation…

That the Serbs of Kosovo are being wiped out is without question, that the eradication of their history and culture is on course is also without question. The UCK has destroyed most of their churches (150 in total, some of them monasteries dating from medieval times), their graveyards have been desecrated and used as dumps, the bones of their dead used as hockey sticks, their villages have been plundered and renamed. Their young have been forced to flee.

I began with my father’s story of witnessing a crow’s court. I too have witnessed such an occurrence. However, the murder of crows that I witnessed ganging up on their selected and helpless victim are the enemies of truth and justice and human rights in Kosovo, the crow in the middle of the court is the Serbian people of Kosovo on trial for no discernible reason, guilty before the trial, sentenced to death and executed without mercy.

I was not brought up to hate nor was I brought up to take part in a witch-hunt. The Kosovo situation brings to mind the William Golding novel I studied at school, ‘Lord of the Flies’, where Piggy is killed by the mob for no reason other than he was different and wore glasses and a scapegoat was needed. I was brought up to believe in decency and respect for my fellow human beings.

I have discovered that I cannot turn a blind eye to the lethal cruelty of the mob nor can I turn a blind eye to those who support and appease the mob in the interests of containment and protecting their own credibility. I will not turn a blind eye to the cruelty of those mandated to uphold the law and to resolve conflict in the Balkans and not to sow the seeds of the next one.

(Just an aside: Notice this sentence from the essay above: “Despite their difficulties people were very hospitable towards me and on my first day I was offered my first pork meal since leaving Ireland.” Why the absence of pork in Kosovo — even to the non-Muslim internationals? After all, we were and are told that the Albanians aren’t like “those” Muslims.)