On the Spot: Fruits of Defeat
8 August 1998
For the eighty-year-old Sahit Hotij, a farmer in the village of Banja, near Malisevo, the war in Kosovo began early Monday morning, July 28. Running away from the Serbian police and army which entered Malisevo that day, Hoti fled to a nearby forest with a few family members, but old and decrepit as he was, he soon fell behind and remained all alone. Only seven days later was he accidentally found by a relative who was looking for his cattle in the forest.
“I had a little water, but a man can’t just live on water. I was very afraid, especially at night,” tells Hoti, sitting in front of the demolished store in Banja. His house, by contrast with those of his neighbors, is still in one piece, but the biggest part of his family is still fleeing, hiding in the surrounding hills.
“No one will come back until the police leaves the village,” says Hoti. “I’m old, so I don’t care one way or another.”
DESOLATION: Hoti’s story is by no means unique. The same fate is presently shared (according to UNHCR estimates) by around two hundred thousand people who left their homes from the beginning of the conflict in Kosovo.
The greatest part of this group is still in Kosovo, while the newest clashes resulted in tens of thousands of new refugees. Along the eighty kilometer Pristina-Malisevo-Prizren road, which a VREME journalist traveled on Tuesday, August 5, no village or town was left in one piece, while every last one was deserted. Starting with the police checkpoint in Komoran, twenty kilometers south of Pristina, the terrain is spotted with monotonously desolate sights: boarded up or burnt houses; desolate, occasionally burnt fields; cattle roaming aimlessly, waiting in vain for someone to give them food and water; empty cartridges of every caliber all over the asphalt. Even though fighting stopped several days earlier in that area, on both sides there were houses still burning, and in some places dead cattle emanate an unbearable stench. The most frequent life form along the road are Serbian Policemen, mostly scattered through trenches and bunkers which only recently held members of the Liberation Army of Kosovo (UCK); there is an impression that they are seeking protection more from the heat, than from a possible counterattack.
“A few nights ago they shot at us from the forest,” a policeman tells, his bloodshot eyes and unshaved stubble indicating signs of exhaustion. “We were saved by the fact that they have no clue about warfare: they shot all around us, but did not hit anyone,” he says. In Malisevo, which until recently represented the center of UCK “liberated territory”, that is to say a sort of Albanian “Republic of Uzice”, one comes across typical sights for towns which carry the name “liberated”: empty streets, looted stores, and here and there burnt houses. It is interesting that the remains of ruined and burnt houses do not carry any signs of bullets or shrapnel fire, which indicates that they were not damaged during fighting. Both Serbian and Albanian sources agree on the fact that Malisevo fell virtually without resistance: UCK and the majority of the population fled into the hills before the police entered the town.
In statements for foreign media, UCK representatives explained this “tactical withdrawal” as an attempt at saving lives: at the moment when the Serbian offensive began, beside the fifteen thousand residents, Malisevo also contained around twenty thousand refugees from nearby Orahovac, after the UCK attempt at taking that city failed. In fact, had UCK not hurried clumsily two weeks ago to “liberate” Orahovac, the Serbian police and army would have probably had many difficulties in Malisevo, which had been preparing for defense for months. The moment thousands of people fled from Orahovac to Malisevo, UCK found itself in an impossible situation: “the liberated territory” was left without its natural, logistical support (food and supplies for Malisevo mostly came from Orahovac), while the command chain broke under the weight of refugee demands for food, medicines and accommodation. In this way UCK lost its only “liberated community”, in the same way in which it had conquered it: virtually without any resistance. Namely, there have not been any Serbs in this community for some time now, so that several months ago UCK easily occupied this city by setting up roadblocks on access roads, established a headquarters in a two-story house and declared the area “liberated”. The mentioned house was ceremoniously burnt on Tuesday before the eyes of the VREME reporter.
RECIPE FOR CONQUERING: The loss of Malisevo, whose importance was more symbolic than military, is reflected by UCK moral throughout Kosovo, and it appears that the most unpleasant surprise came to them in the absence of a reaction by the international community (the slogan “Long live UCK, long live NATO” on a wall in Malisevo testifies to this naive hope).
That is why it was decided in Belgrade that the offensive should be spread to include Drenica, where the UCK has established bases from March of this year and where it has not succumbed to police sieges. During the first two weeks of August, the famous “front-line” villages of Lausa and Vojnik fell, just like a chain of less important bases, and while this text is being written, news is being expected on the fall of regional UCK headquarters in Jablanica and Acarevo.
On the basis of reports of foreign reporters who succeeded in getting through to Drenica these days, the recipe for conquering villages around Drenica consisted simply of several days of heavy artillery bombardment from a safe distance, after which the police would enter the villages without resistance.
According to reports which have been confirmed by more than one source, in the conquering of Lausevo, teargas was used for the first time in Kosovo, being fired from a helicopter: the village is simply littered with cans of this gas. Even though Albanian media are trying to spread reports about Serbs bombing Lausevo with Fozgen (a lethal, colored poison), the described symptoms (coughing, tears and stomach muscle spasms) indicate that simple teargas is at issue. Thanks to the described tactic, the police and the army had only several casualties during this offensive, while the total casualties on the Albanian side amount to around three hundred.
The biggest number were killed in battles around Orahovac; given that UCK withdrew from Malisevo and the villages around Drenica before Serbian forces entered, it is supposed that there were far fewer casualties in those confrontations. At the same time, Serbian security forces achieved similar success in the region of Losa Reka, near Djakovica, where the UCK regional headquarters was located in Samonica, while taking several less important bases in neighboring villages.
The Commander of Smonica, former Yugoslav National Army Officer, Naim Maljoku, was seen alive, lightly wounded somewhere in Kosovo. At this moment, beside Acarevo and Jablanica, battles are still being waged only around the town of Junik, near Djakovica, where supposedly the better part of the UCK command has taken shelter. Serbian sources are giving contradictory estimates on the possible outcome of the battle: while some claim that the battle will continue until the fall of Junik, as the last bigger UCK base, others say that security forces will not enter the town because of increased pressure from the international community.
IN THE SHADOW OF TYPHOID: The international community, which was fairly cool to the fall of Orahovac and Malisevo, has began to twitch its fingers nervously after the Serbian offensive spread to Drenica and the border belt. This nervousness, manifested by ever sharper threats which are coming from Western capitals these days (including the seat of NATO), is the result of the realization that the military-police offensive, beside the fact that it was carried out with far less brutality than was the case in Croatia and Bosnia, has lead to a human catastrophe which will be very difficult to handle.
Enormous numbers of people are hiding in forests and on hills, without food or water; the better part of this year’s harvest will not be collected; unburied corpses and cattle carcasses could soon result in an epidemic which would most probably quickly spread beyond the war-torn region. It is startling that those who like to shout slogans that “Kosovo is the Serbian Jerusalem”, are completely unmoved by the prospect of cholera and typhoid breaking out in this “Jerusalem”, but are almost gleefully leaving international humanitarian organizations to deal with this problem as best they can.
Owing to such stolid and shortsighted logic, representatives of the international community have visited the region before any Serbian or Yugoslav officials, which in itself indicates how sincere the authorities are in protecting the “integrity of Serbia and Yugoslavia”. While representatives of UNHCR and the Red Cross are painstakingly attempting to establish the number and distribution of refugees, Christopher Hill, American Ambassador to Macedonia and Contact Group Mediator for Kosovo, has been seen in Malisevo and Orahovac. After visiting the region and talking with a group of Albanian refugees, Hill emphasized the need for increased international presence in the region, and stated his impression that the call of the Serbian authorities to Albanian refugees to return to their homes is fairly insincere, just like the promise that there won’t be any repression over a broad section of the population.
“Would you feel better if someone from the international community were to visit you every day?” Hill asked a group of nervous refugees in the outskirts of Malisevo.
“We have been promised many things, but we are not hoping for anything any longer”, was the answer.
When accounts are settled, it turns out that Belgrade should not be too happy about the successful military and police operations. Admittedly, UCK has suffered heavy defeat, but Serbia got at least fifty thousand new refugees who are its citizens (this must be constantly pointed out), along with the possibility of famine and disease. On top of that, even though NATO armed intervention is not looking likely for now, the last week has certainly not helped Serbia in coming out of its international isolation. And finally, it is an illusion that UCK has been destroyed: the great numbers of desperate refugees are fertile ground for recruiting new generations of fighters, who could easily prove more dangerous than their predecessors. That is why this moment should be used in order for a real effort to be made in returning the fearful refugees to their homes, and in fixing the consequences of the battle; immediately after this, a developed platform on the new status for Kosovo would need to be put forth. If these vital steps are not made, this Serbian victory, like so many other ones in the past, will turn into catastrophic defeat.