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Kosovo on Hold

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Pristina/Gracanica, Kosovo

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Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine...

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Clouds of blackbirds still do go wheeling and shrieking above Kosovo Polje, the bleak and windy site of the great Turkish victory over Serbia (and Albania) in 1389. The Field of Blackbirds itself is now surmounted by an ugly if imposing monument, on which is inscribed: "Those who have a Serb heart and do not come to fight for Kosovo will have neither male nor female children, crops or wine. They will be damned until they die."

Despite or perhaps because of its tribalism and bluster, this is a strangely unimpressive incantation: Millions of Serbs have had offspring--even female--and harvested the crops and the vintages without obeying the injunction. And the damned ones are those who fled Kosovo in abject terror and defeat, rather than face the consequences of what their death squads had done here. They saved neither honor nor territory. Today, the place where Slobodan Milosevic launched his terrible career with a demagogic speech to the Kosovo Serb chauvinists on the 600th anniversary of the battle in 1989 is guarded by soldiers of the UN. A few furlongs down the road, a jerry-built housing project, constructed for Serb settlers from the Krajina in an effort to shift the demographic balance a bit, is now occupied by Kosovar Albanian refugees.

A certain kind of Western intellectual, before the war in Kosovo, was addicted to saying that the province was Serbia's Holy Land or Jerusalem: a place of sacrifice and redemption and consecrated sites. Actually, what Kosovo was for many years was Serbia's West Bank or Gaza; a territory where the indigenous majority could be treated like dirt in the name of spurious ancient mythologies.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has had a lot to answer for here in helping to identify race and nation with faith and in promulgating an essentially fascistic view of the national question. However, the little town of Gracanica, just ten miles outside the capital of Pristina in the opposite direction from the Field of Blackbirds, affords a nice contrast. In this enclave of Serb inhabitants, and operating from the base of an exquisite little monastery dating back even earlier in the same fourteenth century, may be found Archbishop Artemije Radosavljevik and his secretary, Father Sava Janjic.

"Father Sava," as he is known, runs an extensive Kosovo-Serb website and describes Milosevic as "the cancer of Europe." He helped protect Albanians during the pogrom of last year, and has publicly accepted Serbian responsibility for the attempted erasure of the Albanian presence--Christian, Muslim and secular--in the province. Currently, he is battling to avert reprisals against the remaining Serb population. For this reason, he and his bishop logically and morally oppose the ongoing expulsion of Albanians from the Milosevic-dominated enclave in Mitrovica. As my comrade Stephen Schwartz so dialectically put it, the Serb extremists want to keep Kosovo part of Serbia; Father Sava wants to keep Serbs part of Kosovo.

This distinction is narrow but very deep. And it is not, by the NATO powers, well understood. Fourteen NATO armies and several UN contingents occupy Kosovo soil, as brazen an interference in anyone's "internal affairs" as could be found. Yet they do so under a mandate that proclaims the "territorial integrity" of federal Yugoslavia. When Bernard Kouchner, the French human rights activist and UN proconsul, speaks of political arrangements for the territory he is allowed to go no further than bromides about "autonomy." When elections are mentioned, as they are in a somewhat embarrassed tone, they are understood to be merely "local" and "municipal." (Incidentally, all tests of Kosovar opinion show that if real national elections were held they would be easily won by Ibrahim Rugova, the former leader of the civic and nonviolent resistance, and badly lost by the KLA.)

The absence of principle and direction is palpable and visible. All those army engineers and all that hardware, and almost a year later the power is out in the capital city as often as not. The roads are still pitted and scarred, the landscape is strewn with debris, the salaries of the international and humanitarian community seem to be paid ad hoc. The telephones don't work, even though Kosovo may become the first place in the world to have an all-cellphone network by the end of this year. This high-tech improvisation only emphasizes the other failures. However, Pristina does have a thriving subculture of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs, and in one of these I met a senior European on Kouchner's staff. He carefully listed and answered my criticisms: The NATO countries had promised too much too soon; there was a crisis of high expectations among the Kosovars after what they had been through; the Serbian occupiers had sabotaged a good deal before running away; some important jobs had been given to incompetent KLA sympathizers in the first chaos of victory. But then, having performed his bureaucratic duty as an international civil servant, he said: "You live in Washington. Why not ask what half a day of bombing cost, compared to what we need here?"

I didn't quite know how to tell him that this irony--if it is an irony--is subject to diminishing returns. The American right was generally against the rescue of Kosovo in any case, while much of the left--including myself for a time--consoled and continues to console itself with the half-truth that intervention only made matters worse. In fact, the Kosovo war marked the first and only time in the twentieth century that ethno-fascism was stopped, and reversed, while it was still in progress.

The Albanian people, who were forcibly segregated from contact with the world for longer than any European population, are yearning to make up for the lost time. They seem to have picked the wrong election cycle in which to present their inconvenient selves, but all talk of our own "multicultural" values is vacuous while our regime splits the difference between Milosevic and Father Sava, or between Serbs in Kosovo and Kosovo in Serbia.

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