Friday, April 16, 1999
In order to gain a clearer picture of the ongoing humanitarian crisis and violent conflict in Kosovo, the Carnegie Endowment's International Migration Policy Program hosted a breakfast briefing with two prominent Kosovar Albanian activists. Vjosa Dobruna, a pediatrician, directs the Center for the Protection of Women and Children in Pristina, which, along with its medical services, monitors humanitarian conditions and human rights violations. Aferdita Kelmendi directs Pristina's Radio-TV 21 and is a leader of the nongovernmental community in Kosovo. Their work caused both women to be targeted for persecution by Serb forces, forced into hiding, and to flee to Macedonia during the second week of NATO airstrikes. Since their arrival in Washington, they have pursued a rigorous schedule of public education and meetings with Administration officials and members of Congress.
This report summarizes their remarks, as well as those of moderator Kathleen Newland, senior associate and co-director of the International Migration Policy Program, and members of the audience.
Welcoming panelists and audience members, Kathleen Newland expressed her gratitude to Dr. Dobruna and Ms. Kelmendi for their willingness to share their experiences and insights, and noted, "It is hard for us to imagine from the comfort of our homes and offices what people in Kosovo have been subjected to."
Dr. Dobruna began her remarks with a look back at her last visit to Washington in June, 1998. "After one of the meetings," she said, "an official remarked that it seemed like we were exaggerating the conflict and that the American community wouldn't believe us. Unfortunately, we were right. The reason we are here now is to bring the voices of the Kosovar Albanians, especially those who are still trapped within Kosovo."
"During 15 months of war, we have seen all the brutality you could imagine in Kosovo," she continued. "Two weeks ago, ECHO (the European Community Humanitarian Office) assessed that 45 percent of all Kosovar villages had been burned to the ground. Now we are hearing that over 80 percent are burned down."
Dobruna said this destruction shows a "pattern of hate" that is similar throughout Kosovo, in which Serb forces besiege a village or town first by shelling it, and then send in paramilitary forces that terrorize civilians, plunder shops and homes, and set fire to whatever remains. "Every part of Pristina is burned down now," she said. "It was a beautiful city." She said that the old parts of cities and architecturally distinct villages, especially, seemed to have been targeted for destruction. She pointed out that this activity continues "right now while we are talking here."
"But the most tragic thing for me was seeing people who fled to the mountains and bushes last summer, when 417,000 were displaced," said Dobruna. Many of these people have been living in the mountains for four to seven months now. After the accord between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and American Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, about 30 percent of this population returned home. She said UNHCR's latest figures put the number of internally displaced in Kosovo at 265,000, but it has not been updated recently. She noted, however, that the borders between Kosovo and Albania and Macedonia had already been ethnically cleansed by last summer.
"As they [Serb forces] continued to go into towns and villages, finally it happened that over one million Kosovars were forced to leave their homes and were deported, the majority at gunpoint," Dobruna said. Also, many people learned before the airstrikes that they would be singled out by Serb forces, she added: "Most of us were informed we were on the list. They targeted community leaders, human rights activists and some politicians."
"When the first airstrikes started at 1:20 p.m., I received a phone call from the wife of a prominent lawyer and human rights activist," said Dobruna. "She said her husband and two sons (the youngest was only 16 years old) had been taken away by policemen. She described the police uniforms and said they told her it was the last time she would see her family. Two days later her husband and sons were found dead in the road. That same night a prominent leader of the trade unions was executed, and three colleagues of mine from Djakovica were killed -- one with his children."
Following these targeted threats and assassinations, "the next step was to go house by house to make people leave," said Dobruna.
"So that day at 3:00 p.m. I left home to go into hiding," she said. Over the next few days, Dobruna moved from house to house, leaving at 5 a.m. -- "the safest time to go out" -- each day to find a new place.
"By March 28 I had had enough and decided to go home," Dobruna said. "I asked my brother-in-law to drive me home and took his children with me thinking maybe the Serbs would be more gentle in their presence. There were seven to ten policemen outside the apartment. They hit the car with baseball bats and beat my brother-in-law. They started hitting us in the head. I was afraid they would recognize me so I had on a shawl and glasses with a child in my arms. They said, 'Money out! Money out!' and stole our bracelets and earrings. When they asked us where we were going, we said 'downtown,' but they told us: 'You are going out of here, go to Albania, go wherever.' Then they directed us toward the exit of the town."
Noting "a large number of police at every corner" on her way out of Pristina, Dobruna said she believed the deportation was a "very coordinated action."
Continuing her story, Dobruna said: "When we were almost at the exit of the town (at a place we call the Circle) there were hundreds of cars all leaving Pristina on their way to border. We kept seeing people just walking and thought they had left on foot. But when we stopped to take them in our car, they told us how their cars and all their possessions were taken. When we finally reached the border [with Macedonia] there was a 16 to 20 kilometer queue. There were probably seven to eight people in every car. The border was closed for 24 hours. During the night policemen would open the doors of cars and take the men. If the men had money, the police took it and let them back in the car. If not… some were never seen again. People who left in small numbers had every document destroyed. In my car, we spent a total of 55 to 56 hours there. I'm one of the lucky ones."
From her experience crossing the border, Dobruna said she believed there was "very well-coordinated action between Serbian and Macedonian police: one side of the border would open while the other side closed so that people would be stuck in no man's land."
When the Serbs opened the border, Dobruna went with 500 women and children into that no man’s zone. She said that there, the railway was close to the main road so that she started to recognize fellow citizens and colleagues on the trains. "It was a terrible picture. You could see only their faces and hands. The trains held probably triple the number of people they are supposed to have and many were in cattle cars."
"But the most tragic situation is for the people who are still inside Kosovo," Dobruna emphasized. "More and more are displaced because the Serbs now have a new game: Kosovars come to the border and Serb police keep them there for three to five days before turning them back. Also, most people from the villages go to the mountains when under attack." Dobruna said she believes there are 500,000 to 600,000 displaced persons in Kosovo, with a high concentration in the Lab region 20 miles northeast of Pristina. "As always, the majority of displaced people are children," she said, estimating that the composition of the internally displaced population was roughly the same as last year: 60 percent children, 25 percent women.
Dobruna cited the increased vulnerability for those in the mountains without food, shelter or medical care, in addition to diminishing food supplies in urban areas. "Two days ago I called one of my friends who lives in the region of Lab. Three elderly men there died of starvation because they had given their rationed food to younger people. I don't see any hope right now for those people who are inside," she said.
"Outside Kosovo, deportees are settled in a different way," she said. "The majority in Macedonia were accepted by the large Albanian-Macedonian community, while most people in the refugee camp [Brazda] were bused there against their will and their families were separated. I was in the camp a whole week before I came here," Dobruna said, "and one of the first things every man and woman said was that they wanted to find out where the rest of their families were." She said that over 30 percent of refugees in the camp remain separated from family members.
Dobruna said Albania conveys a better sense that Kosovars are really welcome and "did the utmost to help people," whereas Macedonian camps are less secure. She told a story of a family that was trying to leave the Brazda camp in order to find their missing children when Macedonian police apprehended them with beatings and threats. But most deportees stay in Macedonia because they want to go back home.
"My story is very similar to Dobruna's," said Ms. Kelmendi, adding that she wanted to "explain something important to human beings."
"After 18 days of sleeping on the floor, I get to sleep in a bed. After many days, I am able to cry," Kelmendi began. "I was unable to cry there because I had to keep my energy and remain calm in order to think of how to save the lives of my children and the security of my family.
"I saw in their faces concern about me," said Kelmendi, "but I knew my biggest concern would have to be about them because I was on the list of targets. If I'd been caught by the police, they would do anything to my family to get some kind of statement from me."
"For three days we were in a field about three kilometers from the border, and we slept in our car. It was really terrible hiding in a car those three very long nights expecting someone will come," she said. "Thank God this didn't happen to us."
"We didn't have food -- only water in the car," Kelmendi said, describing how she and her family tried not to move quickly because their hunger produced black spots in their vision. "In the worst of moments, my daughter asked me to promise that when we arrived in Skopje she would have a big burger. I was scared because behind that question was the question of whether she would be alive, and I couldn't promise that. I wasn't strong enough to defend the lives of my children. So I asked her to wait and see what will come next. Thank God we arrived in Skopje and she got a big burger."
But so many arrive and they don't have anything," Kelmendi continued. "I'm concerned because they are also our kids -- the children of friends, of our society, and maybe the future of your society. They will grow up and bring something to the region and maybe to world society."
"I can't tell you what I don't know, but I can imagine what is happening. People there don't have their voices. Thank God we managed to get here and to tell you part of one truth," Kelmendi concluded. "Let's hope that we will see them again and that the world community will push for all this to stop."
Newland thanked both women for their willingness to relive their experiences. She asked: "What do the people who are caught up in the conflict hope for and expect from this country and the international community? Please share your own thoughts and your sense of the opinions of refugees and deportees."
Kelmendi said that Americans often ask her to give them evidence of the atrocities being committed inside Kosovo. Exasperated, Kelmendi said she points to herself as proof, and to pictures in the media of refugees arriving by train. "This for me was like some bad movie from the second World War in which I have seen the Nazis doing the same to the Jewish people -- just put them on a train and they don't know where they're going. After 50 years, we are realizing where those people went with movies such as Schindler's List. This [crisis in Kosovo] is again a bad movie, a bad scenario of Serbian authorities. And again we are asking: What is happening inside?"
Kelmendi stressed that the international community must be committed to change in Kosovo since it failed to implement a preventive policy. She said the delayed reaction -- provoked only my shocking numbers of refugees -- was due to the abstract nature of preventive policy and to politicians' failure to grasp it. She said she thought the three-year interim period proposed by the Rambouillet peace plan would aid reconciliation between the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians. Furthermore, Serbia needed an interim period as a sort of Marshall Plan in order to establish democracy, Kelmendi asserted. Instead, "we let everything fall in the hands of one guy [Milosevic]. He's ruling us all together. He's ruling you, too!" she said, pointing to the audience.
Dobruna said that Kosovars expect the international community to help them return home in safety. She called on U.S. leadership for protection. "The reason we agreed to the Rambouillet accord was because it included a military part to implement protection forces," she said. "Otherwise, we wouldn’t have accepted the agreement because it was against independence. We need to have a choice of where we want to live, and not be forced out or ethnically cleansed."
An audience member asked: "People from Kosovo have been living more or less harmoniously for generations with Serbs. What do you think is the reason for Milosevic to force people out of this area?"
Dobruna responded: "His reasons are so pathologic that I can't imagine them. Kosovo has some considerable mineral resources, and its power plants supply over 30 percent of Serbia's energy. Yes, Serbs and Albanians lived in a kind of harmony, though there were ups and downs in the relationship. But especially in the last 10 years since Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy, we've just been avoiding (not preventing) the conflict." Serbs excluded Kosovar Albanians from the community to such an extent that they had to develop a "parallel system of living" which Dobruna called apartheid. Starting in 1988, the two communities had no communication and their only point of contact was through the police, she said. "Unfortunately, we can't expect any reconciliation very soon. The violence is so severe that we will need human rights monitors for several decades after this conflict."
A second audience member asked about the accuracy of reports that say Kosovar refugees support NATO airstrikes.
Confirming this, Kelmendi said that during the bombing she herself felt scared knowing she might die from the bombs. "But in choosing between NATO and the Serbs, I will always choose NATO bombs because at least then I will know why I was killed. In Brazda, every one of them [refugees] with whom I have talked said they were not afraid of the bombings because they knew the threat was not against them."
Kelmendi said that refugees give a further response that has not been reported: "In every camp, they are asking for ground troops as a protection to go back home. They know that they cannot go back without ground troops."
Andy Schoenholtz of the Institute for the Study of International Migration posed the question: "Many of us have concluded that airstrikes haven't been able to provide protection for those in Kosovo. In your discussions with NATO leaders, and particularly the White House, did that come up and what was their reaction?"
Dobruna affirmed that she and Kelmendi were urging NATO leaders to recognize the lack of protection provided by airstrikes. However, she said, they remain convinced that airstrikes will succeed and that the use of ground troops poses too great a risk. "Personally, I think there is not enough willingness to employ ground troops. Yet the situation is very urgent. This is not crying wolf. When Kosovo opens with or without ground troops, we are going to find more mass graves, camps, and rapes than we can imagine. Kosovars were living in poverty and famine already for a long time, so this situation is adding to their hardship," said Dobruna.
She also said, "It's strange that NATO didn't foresee the need to protect civilians, because ethnic cleansing was announced so many times for so many years. Milosevic said it, Drasovic said it recently: 'If the Kosovars don't obey, we're going to expel 500,000 and we know how to deal with the rest.' In the beginning, we thought it was for internal use for elections. Now what they promised is happening in full view and still sometimes we don't believe it."
Judith Smelser of the Carnegie Endowment asked for the panelists' comments on the option of arming the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Kelmendi said she did not think arming the KLA would adequately quell violence by Serb police. She said the KLA already has small arms and cannot be armed with heavy guns. She said the only options are the use of NATO ground troops or an agreement signed by Milosevic.
An audience member asked about repatriation: "It takes a leap of faith to hear what has been happening over last 10 years and then to hear you want to go home. Where will you find the spiritual leadership to guide your people, especially the children under 19, to live and return in peace?"
Kelmendi responded: "The two populations have lived parallel lives for many years. With protection on the ground, you can make many projects. NGOs will work on conflict resolution and reconciliation projects, as they would have during the [Rambouillet] three-year interim."
Astri Suhrke of the Carnegie Endowment asked the panelists to elaborate on their views of the KLA: "What kind of support have they had in recent years? Do you think the KLA will become a more organized force in the future?"
Dobruna responded: "The inactivity of Kosovar leadership combined with Serbian violence motivated the KLA. When it began to take action it was a big relief for Kosovars -- somebody was finally trying to protect a single life in Kosovo. Yes, right now the UCK (KLA) is the leading organized group among Kosovars. A majority of Kosovars has great sympathy for the UCK -- even people who don’t believe in violence or the use of force. When we started being deported, everyone thought: 'If only we had something in our hands, maybe we would be better prepared when they come to take us from our homes.' That’s how the UCK started, by the way -- the majority are farmers trying to protect their own lives after being kicked out of their homes. Many members are from villages where they've suffered big losses of family."
Finally, an audience member asked whether NATO could have predicted that airstrikes would worsen the situation.
Dobruna said the mass exodus was "obviously not foreseen." "Milosevic is a person who wants only power," she said. "I don’t think he cares about the Serbian population and what they think. He has forces to keep the population under control, even though the Serb population was not very strong or liberal. Kosovars were involved in alternative groups in Belgrade, which were marginalized… This kind of genocide doesn’t happen every day. There is no excuse for NATO not to take action."