If you’re ever in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, you’ll want to swing by the Government building.
(It’s called the Government building because, well, that’s where the government is. The Parliament, the Prime Minister, the President, and half a dozen or so government agencies are all squashed into one huge building downtown. It’s sort of refreshing. Imagine being in London or Berlin and just popping down to “the government”.)
Why? Because there are these photographs. Between two and three thousand of them… closer to two, I think. The government building has a fence around it; and, since the building is pretty large, the fence is easily a couple of hundred meters long. And it’s covered with the photographs of Kosovar Albanians missing in the 1999 war.
It’s not a very cheerful display, obviously. But it’s certainly food for thought. And if you walk the length of the fence, you’ll spot some patterns.
— Instead of death dates, the photographs have “last seen” dates. Most of these are in late March or April — right when Operation Horseshoe, the Serbian government’s ethnic cleansing program, was going at full blast. There are none from before the war, and few from the last month or so.
— The missing are about 80%-90% male. That’s consistent with a common pattern in the Balkan wars, which was to kill all the men in a town but chase the women and children out. Also with the pattern of Albanian bodies excavated from mass graves in Serbia; these are mostly male as well.
— On the other hand, the age distribution is pretty flat. There are boys, teenagers, young men, old men.
— All occupations are listed: farmer, lawyer, electrician, doctor. If anything, there’s a slight bias towards white collar occupations. Again, consistent with what happened elsewhere in the Balkans in the ’90s.
— Everybody’s an ethnic Albanian. There are no Serbs, of course, but also no Gypsies, Turks, Bosniaks, or anyone else. Granted, the Albanians were the primary targets and victims of Horseshoe. Still.
Random thought: in most common law jurisdictions, it takes seven years for a missing person to be formally, legally, dead. Sometimes you can speed that up with a declaration from a court; but the general rule is, if Uncle Bob walks out for cigarettes one morning and never comes back, it’s going to take seven years before Cousin Carl can formally claim title to the farm. The Kosovo war was exactly seven years ago… started on March 24, 1999, ended on June 10.
No photographs have come down off that fence for a long time. The missing have stayed missing. No surprise, since Belgrade methodically destroyed the bodies of Albanians killed during the ethnic cleansing — some by dumping into the Danube, and some by incineration. Most of these people probably ended up as ashes at the bottom of a blast furnace.
— A digression on historiography. During the Kosovo war, wild estimates of the number of Albanian dead were bandied around… fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, “several hundred thousand”. After the war, Western journalists went into Kosovo and found that, not only were there not several hundred thousand dead, there were no mass graves either. So the pendulum swng the other way: in late 1999 and 2000, there were dozens of stories about how NATO had lied, many with the strong implication that Belgrade was innocent after all.
The third phase of the story has only come out gradually (although a few commenters — most notably NataÅ¡a KandiÄ‡, executive director of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Center — had been predicting it since the war’s end). It turned out that Milosevic, learning the lessons of Bosnia, had set up a fairly elaborate mechanism to dispose of the bodies. The world didn’t start grasping this until 2001, when the Batajnica mass graves were opened. These contained the remains of dozens of Albanians; but they weren’t in Kosovo. They were in a suburb just outside of Belgrade, several hundred kilometers away.
Since then, about 500 dead Albanians have turned up in Serbia, in one place and another. And there’s been a steady trickle of eyewitness accounts of the disposal of bodies. Former Yugoslav Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said that he believed “about a thousand” dead Albanians had been taken to Serbia for disposal.
But this story has received much less play. As a result, I still meet people who think either that “hundreds of thousands” of Albanians were killed in 1999, or — more often — that none were. (Presumably because the Serb security forces, noted worldwide for their gentle handling of civilians, accomplished the ethnic cleansing without hurting anyone.)
Anyway. Two thousand or so photographs of dead Albanians. What’s the significance?
Well, Kosovo is currently negotiating its final status. Or, to be more accurate, the international community is forcing Belgrade and Kosovo to pretend to negotiate. The final destination is already known; Kosovo will be independent. All that’s left is to hammer out the details (not that the details aren’t tricky and important) and to find out whether the Serbian government can sign (probably not). But negotiations are ongoing. The big issue will be the fate of the northernmost sliver of Kosovo, which is still Serb-majority. Serbs want this to be part of Serbia; the Albanians (foolishly IMO) want it to stay part of Kosovo. This alone will probably be enough to derail the talks, but there are half a dozen other issues (autonomy for the Serbian minority in Kosovo, fate of state-owned enterprises, ownership of lands and business confiscated from Serbs) that could be just as destructive.
If you were a naive outsider, you might think, “Surely this is the time to turn down the dial on nationalism. Any negotiated compromise will involve disappointments. So let’s stop feeding peoples’ hatreds and fears, and start preparing them for a settlement that will let us move forward.”
But there are other ways to think about this. Such as, say, “Now is the time to strengthen our resolve, by remembering the wrongs that have been done to us, so that we will gain a full measure of justice for our people.”
So the photographs are still up. And I’d bet money they’ll still be up a year from now.
Kosovo: just because nobody’s paying attention, doesn’t mean it’s gone away.