I AM BEING greatly entertained by Ian McGill’s world tour and commentary thereon. Since I share a penchant for the out of the way, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on a trip I made to Kosovo this year.
It is a number of years since the fall of Milosevic, a number of years since Kosovo has been recognised as a independent state, and the Balkans have resumed their status as a ‘far away country of which we know little’ despite the tireless efforts of Paddy Ashdown, amongst a few others. Yet Kosovo is a marker not of the success of intervention but of its failure. The world places a sticking plaster on a problem and hopes it will go away. The province – it is difficult to call it a state since it isn’t really one – is littered with KFOR camps. The Serbs, now on the defensive, have withdrawn to enclaves within the province and to Mitrovica in the north where most of the mineral wealth resides.
The Serb enclaves, often containing stunning medieval churches, bubble with anger and poverty. The seat of their Patriarchate lies surrounded by barbed wire and armoured vehicles at Pec, a place of great beauty and peace. At Prizren in the south near the centre of the town is a burned out maze of streets. A local shrugged when asked him what had happened and he said that this was where they had burned the Serbs out a few years ago ‘after all they did it to us’. That wave of attacks led the Serbs to produce a book ‘Crucified Kosovo’ of the churches, many of them medieval, that have been torn apart by the Albanians and left unprotected by KFOR. Hard to believe looking at the burning wreckage that this happened a mere eight years ago.
In Pristina, an unholy mess of bad modern building and traffic featuring a statue of Bill Clinton and, rumour has it an Avenue Tony Blair, near their Parliament there is a wall of photographs. These are the ‘disappeared’, those whose bodies were never recovered after the Serb massacres and whose relatives are still fighting for the right to know. There were 1700 fading pictures here, raw with pain. It was a searing memorial. South of Pristina, a mere few miles, is the field of Kosovo Polje, the Field of the Blackbird, where we stood where Milosevic uttered those fateful words ‘you will not be beaten’. Yet like the whole battle of Kosovo, a drawn struggle, riddled with treachery and confusion as to what actually happened, this speech too and its reporting in the west are full of contradiction and confusion. Some even see it as a plea for tolerance!
What is increasingly clear is that by the time of the Kosovo conflict the West had an agenda for the disposal of Milosevic. The shocking images of burning villages and fleeing people are fixed in our memory. Yet how many wonder if in fact it was NATO bombing that they were fleeing? In Prizren the house where the League of Prizren that is the first manifestation of the Albanian independence movement has been painstakingly rebuilt from scratch. Yet that house had remained untouched until the bombing began. It was on that day when the Serbs realised there was nothing left to lose that the real campaign seems to have begun. I am no Serb apologist, any biography of Milosevic reveals a cold repellent populist, empty of anything except the desire for power but what I am increasingly aware of is the sheer manipulation of the media and of ourselves. It is a manipulation that is happening again in Syria where more reasoned commentators note that the Assad government was one of the few in the Middle East where complete religious tolerance was practised and where as much as half the population may well support Bashir Assad for fear of what has happened in Iraq where a multi-ethnic society layered over thousands of years has been systematically stripped to a simple Sunni / Shia narrative.
And once the West has achieved its short term tactical objective of the removal of this leader or that regime what is left? In the case of Kosovo an embittered bruised Serbia whose historic heartland has been ripped from it, an Albania that does not want the trouble that Kosovo would be, an area of land whose borders are not in its control and a state with no real economy supported by handouts. Yes, much has been done to try and improve economic conditions, yes time dulls the desire for revenge but one cannot but feel that anaesthesia is not a solution. Those who enter wars without any idea of the exit but with a promise of prepacked democracy as an identikit ‘solution’ to every problem simply export a problem for future generations.
As despairing as I was of two peoples who simply believe that ‘they did it to us’ was reason enough to simply do it back and so on until the end of time, I was even more despairing at the naivety and folly of Western leaders who as Talleyrand remarked on the House of Bourbon ‘have learned nothing and forgotten nothing’.
From this strange place without identity, surrounded by other countries that either do not want it or cannot have it, supported by western handouts, it was a breath of fresh air to reach the cheery barrow boy mentality of Albania. Somehow the whole place was healthier, the atmosphere clearer and while Albania has a rich and varied history, it is not one that lours over, oppresses and conditions its people day by day. Seldom has the simple desire to make money seemed so fragrant.
In all of this it is rare indeed, and painful too, to find myself praising Alex Salmond for his controversial stance on the bombing, ‘unpardonable folly’ was a phrase which resulted in howls of outrage across Westminster. It was a strangely courageous statement from a politician with an almost pathological desire to avoid giving offence to any vested interest, doubly so as being during an election. Whether or not one agreed with him he was at least asking an important question. This of course was when the SNP's policy at least had the clarity of being outside NATO and he could plough his own line. It might perhaps be appropriate to remind our First Minister that with his new friends in NATO he too would now be joining in the war he used to condemn so vigorously.