Saving Kosovars?

By Corey Levine | 1999-05-01 12:00:00

The other night at a party I met someone who works for the Department of Defence on the Kosovo crisis. When I asked how he felt about working there at this time, he jokingly said, "Well, it's not like we're rounding up Jews." But I thought to myself, "since Canada is an active participant of the current NATO mission in Yugoslavia, we are helping to bomb Serb civilians." It was at that moment that I realized I was irrevocably opposed to the current NATO incursion.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a Milosevic apologist or a Serb nationalist, like those voices in the media who are busy equating NATO's actions with Nazi atrocities. Having worked and traveled extensively throughout the former Yugoslavia, I have seen up close the kinds of atrocities committed in the name of Serb nationalism. While all sides during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia committed atrocities, the Serbs were responsible for much of the terror and destruction committed in the name of national "liberation" as witnessed by the number of Serbs indicted for war crimes at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as opposed to the number of Croats or Muslims indicted for similar offenses.

Living in a Police State

I have also seen up close the kind of police state that existed in Kosovo before this current crisis. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Bosnia, I assumed that I would have become used to a militarized atmosphere. But I soon discovered that a heavily armed military presence in a conflict or post-conflict situation is not the same thing as a police state. For one thing, everything in a police state looks "normal" on the surface. It is the insidious nature of what lies just beneath the surface that is the frightening aspect of living in a place that is so tightly controlled.

Living in a police state, you have limited access to uncensored news, particularly about what is happening in your own backyard. If you are Kosovar Albanian, you are probably unemployed, under-employed or employed in work not related to your profession, since in a country where most professional jobs are state controlled, you have been fired because you are Albanian. You probably monitor everything you say and everyone you meet in public. You live in fear of being arrested, possibly tortured, with your home or your livelihood destroyed. You are susceptible to constant harassment and forced bribery by the police simply because of being a majority in the province where you reside in Yugoslavia.

If you are Kosovar Albanian, you lived in this state of fear, harassment, terror, and oppression for ten years - ever since Milosevic reneged on Kosovo's autonomy (guaranteed by the Yugoslav constitution of 1974), that allowed you to work, play, and generally conduct life peaceably with your Serb neighbors. But for ten years now you have existed in a state of Gandhian nonviolent resistance to the loss of your autonomy; setting up a "parallel" system (underground Albanian schools, health care services, media, and even a system of tax collection) that boycotted all state institutions and allowed you to live in protest against the regime. Mind you, all these activities were illegal in this police state.

I have a friend, a Kosovar Albanian I'll call Selma. While availing myself of her hospitality in Kosovo, I have seen her stopped, harassed and forced to pay many German marks (the unofficial currency throughout the former Yugoslavia) in "fines" for breaking laws that don't exist. I have seen her inability to practice her trade, journalism, for many years now. I have laughed with her that while enjoying a tape of the music of the Cannes award-winning film "Underground" in her car, we were "safe," since no Serb police would harass, arrest, or fine her for playing music that is considered pro-Serb. I have visited her in her home but have not been able to return the hospitality because her passport had been taken away several years previously.

Selma is "Cleansed"

Last week I got word that Selma and her family had been "cleansed" from their home in Pristina. For two frantic days my heart was in my mouth awaiting news of what had happened to her. Had she been killed? (She was well-known to the local Serb authorities.) Had she been forced to flee into the woods or had she been able to cross a border to relative safety? Finally I heard that she was in the no-man's land of Blace, on the border with Macedonia, with 150,000 other refugees. She has now been moved from there, has become a person with a name again, instead of one among many thousands of "faceless refugees" and is settling in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, hoping to continue her work with refugees, now as a refugee herself.

How long will Selma and her family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Kosovar Albanians, remain refugees? NATO claims that its bombing campaign will ensure that they will be able to return home in the near future with an international military force to protect them. So why then am I opposed to this war being waged against Yugoslavia?

When NATO first began its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, I was an ambivalent but interested bystander. Polls indicate that as the bombing campaign has gathered steam and as the carnage and nightly parade of human misery increased, so has public support for NATO intervention. My reaction has taken the other trajectory. Why? Simply put, two wrongs do not make a right.

As the bombing campaign continues, so to does the war of words. Both NATO and the Yugoslav government, via the media, are engaging in an increasingly active campaign of disinformation. Like all wars, this one must have its enemy - one against which to rally a unified public. However, although Milosevic does deserve condemnation, demonizing him is not the solution. The more a tyrant and oppressor is demonized by the other side, the more likely he will then be seen as a hero to his people - a David taking on his Goliath.

Thus while the bombs rain down and the spin doctors declare Milosevic the latest personification of evil incarnate, I know that he who should be indicted for war crimes and who is one of the architects of the violent balkanization of Yugoslavia, will probably now be portrayed as a heroic figure in folk songs sung by Serb youth for generations to come.

Death of a Chance for Democracy

If the first casualty in war is truth, then surely in this war, it has been followed closely by the death of a chance for democracy in Yugoslavia. Any opposing voice to Milosevic and his authoritarian rule has been silenced as the public unites against the enemy "from without." Witness the brutal murder a few weeks ago of dissident journalist, Slavko Curuvija, on the streets of Belgrade.

Now that NATO has created a bully (even though Western leaders had previously considered Milosevic someone with whom they could "do business,"à la Saddam Hussein before his invasion of Kuwait) we find ourselves caught in a schoolyard mentality. Backing down from the bully will make us seem "weak." It's the age-old equation. The more a leader feels emasculated on the domestic front, the more determined he is to show in the international arena what he's made of. Looking weak is the last thing NATO wants as well. NATO, in the post-Cold War nineties, more than ever needs to find a raison d'être for its existence. Yugoslavia, previously on the fault lines between East and West, will do quite nicely.

Yet, not only has the bombing created the political effect opposite to what NATO intended, it has allowed the bully to solidify his authority. For the ordinary people of Yugoslavia a siege mentality has set in - us against them - as the bombs explode around them, destroying lives, property, and livelihood. So now we have two sides hardened in their stance, each unwilling to back down.

Thus, unless NATO brings in ground troops and takes over the whole of Yugoslavia to secure an international protectorate for Kosovo, there can be no winners and losers in this war. Only after a loss of untold lives, the worst refugee and humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War Two, and massive physical and economic destruction (all of which may exacerbate the unrest and instability in the region) will a stalemate occur. Spin doctors on both sides will declare victory and claim the upper hand. Countless innocent lives will be destroyed so that the pundits can say that neither side backed down.

The realpolitik bets have been laid and the winner will take all in a nasty Hobbesian game of international relations. But what about the other sides to the bombing?

This is a Just War?

We've been hearing a lot about such concepts as a "just war," "moral duty," "humanitarian intervention." Yet what do we win by turning a third-rate, barely functioning country into a pile of rubble? Is this humanitarian intervention? We read about "collateral damage," a military euphemism for loss of civilian life and destruction of civilian property, rather than the real hardship sustained by the people of Yugoslavia - Albanians and Serbs alike. It is moral injustice to turn human suffering into bland military-speak.

People say that Milosevic must be stopped, but the current military action has created the perfect cover for Milosevic to perpetuate exactly the atrocities the West was hoping to avoid. We are witnessing the beginning of the same intractability that we have spent the past 50 years encouraging in the Middle East. Oppressed and now landless people give birth to generations of impoverished refugees with nothing to live for but the mythologized "motherland." Yet, this conflict was not a text whose script was already written. Contrary to popular belief, the bloodletting in the region, current conflict included, has not been due to "ancient hatreds shrouded in the mists of time" as it has been described.

Poetic license aside, this kind of imagery is dangerously misinformed and misguided. Not only does it smack of paternalism, it ignores the harsh political and economic realities of why Yugoslavia went up in flames in the first place.

To be sure, the Serbs do hold Kosovo as their birthright. They have regarded Kosovo since 1389 as the cradle of their civilization and they will not give it up without a fight. On the other hand, the Kosovar Albanians have never been thrilled living under Serb domination. This leads us back to the original polarization between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. Take away minority rights and autonomous politics, spoon in political and economic instability, stir with oppression leading to fear and revolt, leading to more oppression. Toss in some NATO bombs which tip off large scale human suffering and a major humanitarian crisis and then we have a recipe for an intractable cycle: violence begetting crisis begetting more violence.

NATO is supposedly defensive

NATO claims that the case for waging war against Yugoslavia can be found within the doctrines of international law. However, there is a strong case that in fact this current campaign of NATO contravenes international law, including NATO's own Charter which establishes NATO as a defensive alliance, in which the use of force is restricted to responding to an aggressive attack on a member of the alliance.

Then there is the Chapter VII mandate from which NATO is deriving its moral right to bomb Yugoslavia. According to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter (Articles 39 through 51) the U.N., acting through the Security Council, is exempt from the doctrine of non-interference in the internal matters of a nation-state only if the situation is deemed to be a threat to international peace and security. However, U.N. mechanisms and institutions have been completely side-stepped in this conflict. With China and Russia as permanent members of the Security Council, NATO knew that it would have to sidestep the only body legally mandated to carry out such an action, if it wanted to follow through on its threats.

While the case against NATO bombing of Yugoslavia could be argued on moral grounds, or opposed because it contravenes international law, what about my friend Selma and her family who were forced to flee their home in Pristina in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their back because of the Serbian war against the Kosovar Albanians?

Well, whatever the outcome of this war, there will be no victors, only losers. The biggest losers will be the hundreds of thousands of displaced Kosovar Albanians who will hardly be able to return to their homes in the foreseeable future. Where are they to go instead? Who will foot the bill for their resettlement? The second biggest losers are the citizens of Yugoslavia. Their country will take years to recuperate from the physical and economic devastation incurred by the bombing, ensuring they live in penurious circumstances in which the international community will ultimately foot the costs.

And finally, we too will lose. Our moral grounding as promoters of human rights and the rule of the law has been a "collateral" casualty. The ability of our international system to intervene for humanitarian purposes has also sustained damage. For Selma's sake I hope we learn quickly that the cost of this campaign may be too high.

Corey Levine formerly worked with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly in Bosnia and now lives in Ottawa.

Peace Magazine May-June 1999

Peace Magazine May-June 1999, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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