Christmas in Kosovo
Christine Stone
British Helsinki Human Rights Group

Special to

For the nuns and monks of the Serbian Patriarchate at Pec in Kosovo Christmas 1999 will be a sombre affair. Huddled in their monastery together with a few refugees, only the protection of Italian KFOR troops stands between them and an angry Albanian rabble outside. The beauty of the place contrasts all too sharply with the ugliness and chaos that exists all around them.

More than 25,000 Serbs (a quarter of the town's population) lived in Pec before NATO's war to liberate Kosovo. None now remain. The town was always a rather confused muddle of small shops, narrow streets and rickety vehicles, but it was lively and bustling. The confusion and bustle are still there but Pec is now the thing of nightmares. There is only a sporadic supply of power in Kosovo and by 6 o'clock in the evening with no lighting and heating the town empties. An eery silence falls which even Kfor soldiers fear to penetrate alone. Crime is rampant.

Southwestern Kosovo along the border with Albania suffered the greatest damage during the NATO campaign. KLA fighters reinforced by equipment and weapons from across the border were at their strongest here. In anticipation of a NATO invasion the Yugoslav army cleared settlements to avoid retaliation from snipers and other hostile elements that might be lurking in the area.

The war has caused widespread destruction, both from the bombing as well as the burning and looting of property – although some kind of discrimination seems to have operated. A house that is a burnt-out shell stands next to one totally unscathed. It is said that the destruction somehow bypassed the property of big, local mafia types, both Serb and Albanian. However, unlike the Warsaw ghetto, for example, the place was not totally flattened for its 'insubordination'.

Public hygiene is nonexistent and piles of garbage lie everywhere: discarded clothes and household equipment compete with rotting animal carcasses for a place by the side of the road. Although the squalor is blamed on the vacuum left in the public services by the departing Serbs, surely one of the many international organizations in the town could have arranged for some kind of garbage collection? But these bodies seem to do nothing more than ride around in four-wheel drive vehicles creating traffic jams that would rival a New York rush hour.

The whole world is here: the Irish, Danes, Japanese and Saudis as well as strange NGOs with names like "the Village Development Project". Added to which, there are the KFOR military vehicles – the APCs, jeeps and, occasionally, the odd tank as well as the ubiquitous UN, OSCE and EU contingents. This massive international presence hogs the thoroughfares all over the province fighting for space on an antiquated road system with the many local cars, often without number plates, that career around loaded with people and produce.

For, if the birth of Christ is a sad time for the few inhabitants of Kosovo's monasteries, it is Christmas every day of the week for the average Kosovan. Despite complaints from some local human rights groups that they are now 'forgotten' aid is still pouring in, clogging up the main thoroughfares leading into the province. Everything is free: building materials, household equipment, clothes. A lot of it never even reaches its destination, being re-exported and resold, particularly via neighbouring Albania. Some more honest aid workers will admit that the profusion of goodies has corrupted many ordinary Kosovans and is, anyway, unnecessary being totally out of proportion to the need .

None of this largesse has reached the inhabitants of the Patriarchate. The mostly elderly nuns grow and cook their own food. Priests come in rotas from nearby Montenegro and stay for a 'tour of duty'. Father Jovan Culibrk expressed gratitude to the Italians for their protection. But the monastery lies in an exposed place surrounded by wooded hills where snipers can hide and with an adjoining road leading down the mountains from a nearby Albanian village. Two grenades were thrown into the monastery compound in September and the Italians themselves have been targeted.

Since the end of the war some 80 churches and monasteries in Kosovo have been desecrated or destroyed. All those still standing have 24-hour KFOR protection, even when the congregations have fled. At Djurakovac groups of men in black leather jackets hovered menacingly around the large parish church guarded by Spanish soldiers. Father Jovan said that many soldiers who had seen the destroyed churches were upset and wept at the sight. In fact, KFOR soldiers and officers often visit the Patriarchate. Their names and thoughts are inscribed in the monastery's large visiting book. The Germans inscribe the most fullsome comments usually meandering on about Frieden (peace) and Versöhnung (reconciliation). But the Father is grateful for their visits and says everyone is welcome although he dreaded the arrival of General Wesley Clarke. Luckily for him, the proposed visit never materialized.

The church of St. Dmitri, one of the three churches that make up the monastery, now contains the furniture, icons and other paraphernalia rescued from the destroyed churches. Nothing there is of any particular value but these things meant something once upon a time to some people. The sight of these forlorn objects and their fate is reminiscent of the Bolshevik attacks on churches and monasteries in Russia after the Revolution.

Ten miles away at the monastery of Decani the same sad scenario is played out. Decani is one of the most beautiful churches in the Balkans with an unusual combination of Venetian exterior and Byzantine frescoes within. It lies at the end of a wooded lane outside the town of Decan (where few Serbs once lived ) and is easier to protect than Pec. But it came close to disaster during the war when cluster bombs fell nearby. Refugees fled here during the June 'hiatus' including Albanians fearful of the wrath of the KLA but now they have all gone.

The few refugees in Pec told their stories. Three men from local villages had returned to help with odd-jobs in the monastery. Their houses, land and cattle had been confiscated or destroyed but they all said they would like to return home. They would be happy to live again with "their Albanians" but they echoed many people when they claimed that strangers had come into the area since the war ended and they were fearful of them. Anyway, there can be no question of these men and their families going home whatever General Rheinhardt might say. Unless there is a radical change in the status quo their days in Kosovo are over.

What really happened when NATO started its bombing campaign in March? The experiences of Albanian refugees was beamed to the world from the refugee camps in Albania itself and Macedonia. But what about those who stayed behind, both Serb and Albanian?

L (it is better not to give names) is a refugee from Pec now living in Belgrade. He returns to the monastery to interpret for the monks but, although he and his family lived in Pec for over 40 years, he can no longer go into the town itself without an Italian KFOR escort.

L is highly educated, a teacher who speaks English, French and Italian fluently. He is also remarkably objective. He knows that the Albanians in Kosovo have long sought independence but, on the other hand, he always lived on a harmonious basis with his neighbours. In fact, for the first three days of the bombing when NATO flew continuous sorties (sometimes ten times a day) both communities sheltered in the same basements and cellars. Things changed on 27th March when large numbers of Albanians started to leave.

L says that three aggressive-looking men in uniform appeared on the 27th. He cannot say what or who they were but he assumed they were Serbs. They were going round the houses in his district of Pec ordering Albanians to leave. After this the town gradually emptied of its Albanian population although L thinks between 1000 and 2000 stayed. During the war ordinary life somehow continued and people even went to work. There were the bombs, of course, and burning and looting of houses some of which, according to L, might have been done by children.

The nightmare for him and the other Serbs in the town began on 12th June. It took three days between the departure of the Serb army and police and the arrival of KFOR. In the vacuum, an orgy of retribution against the local Serbs, inevitably, followed. Many people took to their cars and fled with the army for cover. Others, like L, were loathe to leave their homes. However, when he saw buildings around him burning he changed his mind and went.

The refugees and the priest seemed to have a far better grasp of what was going on in Kosovo than most starry-eyed Westerners. L knew that both ordinary Albanians and Serbs were the victims of a policy brought about by foreign powers which had nothing whatsoever to do with their well-being. He had worked with the ill-fated OSCE monitoring mission in March which was, he claimed, disbanded at just about the time it was beginning to show results. However, he knew that some of the monitors were there to prepare for what was to come and not to work for peace.

The OSCE is now charged with the task of building democracy in postwar Kosovo. It also supervises the (over 400) NGOs whose presence, paradoxically, seems to make the province even less democratic and more ungovernable. Yet OSCE literature seeks to encourage MORE non-governmental organizations to set up shop.

On the weekend of 10th December the OSCE was cosponsoring a Symposium "The Balkans and human rights on the threshold of the XXI century – reality and perspectives" at the Grand Hotel Pristina with the local Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms. In the hotel's conference room only the sinister glint from co-chairman, Adam Demaci's, glasses penetrated the gloom as delegates droned on about genocide and mass destruction making the extraordinary claim that "affection towards the Kosovars has started to vanish and a lack of interest in sending aid to Kosovo can be noticed" [their English]. As they debated this shocking allegation, aid lorries still struggled bumper to bumper as they crossed the Balkans to enter the province.

But the presence of the hard-liner Demaci and the content of some of the material presented to the conference contradict any pretence the OSCE might have towards promoting multiethnic societies, tolerance or human rights – let alone to upholding the provisions contained in UN declaration 1244. Attacks were even made on Veton Surroi the ex-editor of the newspaper Koha Ditore and the West's favourite Kosovar.

There was talk about the situation of Albanians in 'Eastern Kosovo' referring to alleged repression by the Serb authorities of Albanian villages in Serbia itself. It might come as a surprise to some people to discover that there is still another piece of Kosovo to be liberated.

However, this latest piece of irredentism – the need to protect the population in Eastern Kosovo could be a useful tool for KFOR.

It is widely accepted in Serbia proper that the opposition's strategy of bringing down the Milosevic government by popular protests has failed. Too many people know that Zoran Djindjic, for one, was playing tennis by the sea in Montenegro at Herzognovi while they were being bombed. Djindjic himself is in something of a quandary as he has promised to resign his post as leader of the Democratic Party if Milosevic is still in power by the end of the year.

Further options within Serbia itself are limited. However, there are still a lot of troops and equipment in Kosovo. KFOR no longer needs to patrol the countryside but its heavy armour might come in useful. There are also several dozen German Leopard tanks, the most sophisticated in the European armoury, parked in a compound in the British zone. Waiting for what?

British KFOR troops report regular incursions from Serbia and there are suggestions that Milosevic himself is behind the killing of Serbs. One speaker at the Human Rights Symposium stated that these killings were perpetrated by Milosevic's secret police. Coupled with allegations of human rights abuses in Eastern Kosovo [sic] it is not unthinkable that NATO will itself stage an 'incursion' into Serbia proper.

Rather than fight their way to Belgrade they could set up a small 'occupied zone' from which to launch their campaign to finally topple the regime in Belgrade.

However, although people are disillusioned with politics in Serbia proper and there is little enthusiasm for those in power, NATO cannot be guaranteed a very warm welcome. For, life in Serbia with all the terrible deprivations caused by war and sanctions is not as bad as presented in the Western media. There is food (albeit locally produced rather than imported) in the shops. A BBC report (14th December) stating that food shortages in Serbia "are comparable to those in North Korea" could not be further from the truth. Last Sunday night small food shops were open in the suburbs of Niš while street markets were selling fruit, honey and fresh vegetables. Occasionally, a small queue appears outside a store for something imported like sugar but these are few and far between. Petrol stations are operating albeit fuel is rationed but there is plenty of it on the black market. Lighting and heating work. Some bomb damage – particularly on bridges and roads has been repaired.

It was predicted that the bombing of the heating plant in Novi Belgrade would cause people to freeze to death from cold this winter. But a few inventive electrical engineers twiddled the cables and made the system work. Meanwhile, in Kosovo no one has yet repaired the (bombed) power plant in Priština. This is because the EU is in charge of the province's reconstruction and the plant must be restored to 'EU standards'. Despite Western rhetoric, there has been no shortage of power in Serbia's second city, Niš, according to local residents. Why, then, should the EU make such a production about sending tankers loaded with fuel to the city?

The lessons to be learned are that vast quantities of aid, humanitarian assistance and foreign interference can quickly turn the recipients into zombie-like dependents. Left to their own devices, people are more resourceful. The mosque in Belgrade which helps Muslim refugees from all over the former Yugoslavia is under-resourced. Since the Kosovo crisis began it has only received one delivery of aid from the Red Crescent and nothing (no doubt due to American pressure) from large Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Nevertheless, a steady stream of people receive some kind of aid and the premises are being expanded to include a restaurant and school.

This is not to say that Serbia and its hundreds of thousands of refugees do not need help. But that looks less likely to happen than ever. The latest list of Yugoslav citizens who have been forbidden to travel abroad contains the name of Rada Svetkovic, head of the Yugoslav Red Cross. A Christmas present from the West donated with its usual boot to the face.

Christine Stone is director of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group which observed the presidential election in Macedonia. Other reports on Macedonia by BHHRG can be found on the Group's web-site at

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