Report from the Front Lines in Kosovo by David Hartsough
Much media attention has been given to the six of us American members of PEACEWORKERS, who spent three days in a Kosovo prison in March. But we believe that attention should be directed to the much larger jail called Kosovo, in which two million Albanians reside, and to the nonviolent movement of hundreds of thousands of people—students, old people, men, women, and children—who are courageously resisting the oppression and violence of the Milosevic regime.
PEACEWORKERS is a non-governmental organization which works to support peaceful resolution of conflicts in places such as Chiapas and Tabasco, Mexico and in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. We traveled to Pristina, the capital of Serbia‘s southern province of Kosovo, at the invitation of the student leaders of the nonviolent movement. While there we met with many people active in holding together a society under attack.
We were appalled by the conditions under which the ethnic Albanians, who are 90% of the population, have to live. Eighty-five percent are unemployed. They are not allowed to use the school and university buildings. The medical facilities have been closed to the Albanians, and the police threaten, beat and even kill them, just for being Albanians. Recently there have been massacres by police of villagers in the Drenica region in which over 80 people were killed. For the Albanian population this represents an intensified reign of terror, in which no man, woman, or child is safe. All police, military, courts and the official media are controlled by the Serbian government.
What is historic and quite newsworthy, we believe, is the response of most of the Albanians, who have opted for nonviolent resistance. For the past eight years, since the Serbian crack down began, they have engaged in passive non-cooperation with the Serbian authorities. They have developed a parallel school system meeting in private homes and storefronts, as well as health clinics, and even a parallel government which collects voluntary taxes to fund the school and medical systems.
Since last October, the university students have found the courage to carry out active nonviolent demonstrations calling for the right to return to the university buildings from which they were expelled seven years ago. This has paved the way for the hundreds of thousands of Albanians who are now almost daily demonstrating for an end to the violence of the Serbian regime. Just after the massacre in Drenica in early March, we watched over 100,000 people march through the streets of Pristina carrying candles and pictures of Mother Theresa. The march ended at the Catholic church with an interfaith memorial for the victims.
The next day we accompanied 20,000 women who were attempting to march thirty miles from Pristina to Drenica, carrying loaves of bread to the refugees who had fled their homes when the massacres took place. The Serbian police were (and are still) allowing no food or medicines to get through, and members of the International Red Cross received death threats for trying to get medical assistance into the area.
Another day tens of thousands sat silently on the main street of the city facing the police in full riot gear with automatic weapons. The people have overcome their fear and are determined to be free. We had the feeling that the whole society is determined to continue the demonstrations across Kosovo in an attempt to wake up the conscience of the international community to bring pressure to bear on the Serbian regime.
There is increasing attention on the Kosovo Liberation Army, composed of Albanians who, unfortunately, feel that the only thing the Milosevic government understands is force. We believe that such violence will be dangerous and counter-productive, but increasing numbers of Albanians are likely to take this route unless the international community pays more attention to the nonviolent struggle. Kosovo is truly an explosion waiting to happen.
Why has the international community so far refused to heed the Albanian people’s urgent plea for an end to the repression in Kosovo? The people of Kosovo are increasingly considering taking up arms. At the same time, many of the people we talked with hope that the international community will force an internationally mediated solution to the conflict as finally happened in Dayton, but before a war, rather than afterwards. President Clinton stated on his recent trip to Africa that it was a tragedy that the international community had not acted quickly enough to stop the genocide in Rwanda. Isn’t the time to act now in Kosovo?
While we were in jail, a settlement was reached to implement the education agreement which opens the school buildings in Kosovo from the primary level through the university to all students—Albanian and Serbian. The keys to the Institute of Albanian Studies were handed to the Albanians on March 31. All the buildings are to be open to all students by June 30. This is a tremendous victory for the student nonviolent movement. The Serbian Rector and the Serbian students, however, have vowed not to allow the Albanian students into the university.
There is great danger of violence ahead. The students in Kosovo will not have a National Guard to accompany them into the schools, as happened in Arkansas when four African-American students attempted to attend Little Rock High School back in 1955. International attention and support will be their only protection.
The Serbian government needs to know that the eyes of the international community are on them as the students attempt to go back to the buildings paid for by their families’ tax dollars. The presence of international journalists and human rights monitors is desperately needed in Kosovo. Letters of concern should be sent to President Milosevic. Letters also need to be sent to our own government officials saying we cannot stand by while more slaughter and ethnic cleansing of the people of Kosovo takes place. This conflict needs an internationally mediated resolution, before another war rather than after. The International community needs to respond to peaceful and nonviolent movements, not just to violence and war.