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On the spot: The battle of Orahovac

25 July 1998 Deserted streets, looted shops, demolished vehicles, and a destroyed city center reflect how unfortunate any town in the Balkans becomes when someone starts liberating it. Orahovac, a town famous for its wine and brandy, had the misfortune to be "liberated" twice in a space of five days; first by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and then by Serbian police and army.

Reporters were allowed into the town on Wednesday, July 22, and saw that the town has indeed been liberated from most of its population and their property. Although the Serbian authorities promised to restore the water supply, electricity, and telephone communication as soon as possible, and thus "bring Orahovac back to life", it is more than likely that this won't happen for quite some time.

The battle of Orahovac was prepared very thoroughly. It should have been an upgrading for the KLA, which has, up to that point, fought only in villages where it has strong support among local inhabitants. "The plan was to start with smaller towns, where the ethnic Albanian population is largely dominant, and then move on to the cities. Small towns are convenient because there are no troops in them", said a source close to the KLA, unwillingly admitting defeat in Orahovac.

The town was an ideal target for many reasons. There are no troops, 80 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian, and conquering it would have given a major strategic advantage to the KLA, for it would have formed a corridor between Drenica and the border region in southwestern Kosovo.

However, the ethnic Albanians also hoped to strike a decisive psychological blow to the Serbs, after which a triumphant march into Kosovo's capital Pristina would have been a matter of months if not weeks. The battle started on Friday evening with simultaneous attacks on a number of the town's strategic objects - the police headquarters, the post office, the hospital, and the hotel. A few days before the offensive, the KLA discretely deployed troops in nearby villages from it stronghold Malicevo. Most of the town's inhabitants of both nationalities knew what was coming but couldn't believe that it would actually happen. "I couldn't believe our neighbors would do this to us", said the town's Serb mayor who was heading to his ethnic Albanian barber for a haircut when the attack occurred.

But the very same person spoke to the Belgrade daily Politika Ekspres only a few days earlier and said he expected a "major terrorist attack on Orahovac". There were people who took the situation seriously from the start. Many Serbs and ethnic Albanians had evacuated their women and children before all hell broke loose. Trenches had been dug in a nearby village and the Park Hotel turned into Serbian police headquarters.

KLA fighters, on the other hand, literally walked into the town's post office, schools, and the hospital after kicking the petrified staff out and taking some of them prisoners. Official Serb sources say that most of those kidnapped and sent to Orahovac are nurses and doctors of the Orahovac hospital.

"The worst thing is that we don't know whether they took the nurses to torture them or treat their wounded," said a Serb from Orahovac who was lucky enough to be in Prizren that day.

Taking the police station and the Park Hotel wasn't quite so easy for the KLA. In fact, all the fighting was for the two buildings and an apartment block that the Serbs made their fortress. At first it seemed that the KLA had the upper hand because all three facilities had been surrounded and exposed to persistent crossfire. Although both sides used light artillery, the sniper was the most common weapon while the population sat in the town's basements without food and water, awaiting the outcome of the battle. Although KLA fighters had light artillery and recoilless cannons, and the Serbs’ much heavier artillery in Velika Hodza and military positions out of town, it seems that both sides had made an effort not to be too destructive.

"You can see quite clearly that we have liberated the town without destroying anything here," said Colonel Milan Sipka proudly showing the post office building, which indeed remained intact even though it was one of the KLA’s strongholds in Orahovac. However, another 15 buildings in the town's center were thoroughly demolished with light artillery and cannons.

As the situation was basically unchanged after three days of fighting, both sides apparently decided to declare victory and test each other's mental strength. All Belgrade newspapers had the headline "Orahovac liberated" on their front pages last Sunday and Monday, while the KLA commanders said there were no more Serbian police in the town. Neither side allowed reporters into Orahovac, but demanded the audience to take their words for granted. The battle was actually decided on Monday, when the police and army deployed reinforcements from Prizren and Djakovica. The KLA fighters expected that and dug trenches in the village of Bela Crkva on the Prizren-Orahovac road. The weekly Vreme's reporter, who visited the village a few hours after the battle, could see for himself that it was defended by the KLA very professionally. Local police and troops said they needed several hours to take the village although they were vastly superior in arms and firepower. But the Serbs eventually took Bela Crkva and the KLA had no choice but to retreat to Malicevo as the Serbian police and troops marched into Orahovac.
It is impossible to determine the exact number of casualties because both sides are apparently trying to minimize their own. Ethnic Albanian sources say they had less than 40 killed in the fighting, most of whom were civilians. They also said that many of them had been tortured before they died. It was impossible to confirm the allegations as the photos of some of the alleged victims were actually taken in Drenica four months ago. Serb sources reported two dead and nine wounded policemen, adding there were four civilian casualties. The toll looks very optimistic bearing in mind that the battle raged on for fours days and nights. The Serbian police also said that they kept only 20 ethnic Albanians in detention out of the 200 they arrested immediately after the fighting stopped.

Finally, one must hope that both sides had learned their lessons from the conflict. The ethnic Albanians should know that military victory is a lot further than they thought while the Serbs must now realize that Kosovo can't be defended by force effectively and that it pays off to avoid civilian casualties. The true battle of Orahovac will be won if its inhabitants return to the town.
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