Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Not Sorry Enough

When questioned the Serbs still in Kosovo distance themselves from the atrocities that took place during the conflict, but returning Albanians are angered by their version of events.
By Fred Abrahams

The 13th century Patriarch of Pec (Peje), one of the centres of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is an icon-laden jewel at the entrance of the lush and dramatic Rugovo gorge in western Kosovo. But inside its stone walls sits a depressing collection of greying monks and forty bedraggled, desperate Serbs waiting for a ticket out, all protected by Italian NATO troops.


"The Italians are helping us locate and bury the dead," says Father Jovan, an English-speaking monk who came to the Patriarch three weeks ago from Montenegro.


He interrupts his chat with a visitor to accept a bag of face masks and rubber gloves from a soldier in full combat gear. More than thirty local Serbs have been buried since he came, he says. And another thirty from the area are missing and feared dead.


The gloom and desperation amidst the physical beauty speaks volumes about the current state of the church, and the status of Kosovo's remaining Serbian population. After ten years of Milosevic's extreme nationalist policies, tolerated or supported by most Serbs in the area, they find themselves disoriented, without hope, and terribly afraid.


In early July the church publicly condemned the Milosevic government for the atrocities perpetrated by Serbs in Kosovo over the past three months. And church leaders express regret for the war crimes that were committed.


But the apologies and sense of responsibility do not run deep. "Parts of Pec were bombed by NATO," says Father Jovan, referring to the utterly burned out shopping district in the centre of the town.


The black scars streaking upward from the windows of the central mosque clearly show that it and all of the surrounding shops were burned from the inside rather than by bombs.


And the systematic expulsion of Pec's Albanian population? "For this you must understand the history," Father Jovan says. "Many Albanians from Albania came here after World War Two. And then they had a lot of children. That is their way." Such is the most moderate view among local Serbs. Yes, bad things happened. But you must understand the context and our suffering.


The equivocating apologies do not go down well with the Albanian population in the Pec municipality that has returned almost to its previous numbers. For them, after experiencing such brutality over the past three months, all Serbs are guilty.


"I buried my family members and I held the bones of my relatives. I couldn't even find the bones of my uncle," said Veibe Gashi, whose fourteen family members were executed and burned by local paramilitaries on May 14 in the village of Cusk (Qyshk). "So what right do they have to stay here? Those with blood on their hands must go. And that is all of them. They are all the same - without a God."


Stories of mass executions abound in this part of Kosovo, and bodies of Albanians continue to be found every day. But even those who lost no family members feel intense bitterness at the Serbian population who they believe participated in the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign.


For the Kelmendi family, the role of local Serbs stares at them from the dining room. Having lived in a beautiful two-story house in an ethnically mixed neighbourhood in Pec, they asked their Serbian neighbor to watch their home when they were forcibly expelled in March on the Muslim holiday of Bajram. Relations with their neighbour had always been cordial, so the widowed mother next door agreed to oblige.


When the Kelmendis returned from three months as refugees in Montenegro they found their home in ashes. With no place to stay, they moved into their neighbour's house, which she had abandoned on the day Serbian troops withdrew from Pec. There they found the less valuable of their own possessions: a table, a chest and some dishes and silverware.


Everything else, a neighbour who stayed in Pec told them, had been carted away in two trucks by the Serbian neighbour who had promised to watch over their home. Now they sit in her house eating meals at their own table with their own forks and knives. "They all played a role," says one of the Kelmendi sons, as he looks out at the crumpled hull of his former home.


But exactly who played "a role" may not be so easy to determine. Most of the true criminals left Kosovo with the Serbian troops along with their newly won war bounty. Left behind now are the old and poor, some of them Serbian refugees from Croatia, who have no money to leave and no place to go. The empty hopelessness on the faces of those in the Patriarch is plain to see.


Rumours swirl among the Albanians and especially the local KLA that war criminals remain. The most likely location, they say, is Gorazdevac, the last Serbian village in western Kosovo.


Approximately 300 Serbs remain, surrounded by Italian tanks and heavily armed soldiers. Every Thursday a bus, escorted by NATO forces, takes Serbian villagers from Gorazdevac to Rozaje, an hour north in Montenegro. But many wish to remain in the village.


Some have even come back, although international agencies question whether their return was on their own volition. It is in Milosevic's political interest, they say, to keep these individual reminders of his defeat in Kosovo as far away from Serbia proper as possible. And their presence in Kosovo is an important political pawn, which is what these people have been for him since 1989.


As in Bosnia, refugee agencies like the UNHCR are faced with the troubling dilemma of providing protection for the local Serbian population or organising their transfer out of the region. To establish a system with little or no long-term feasibility, or to indirectly assist in the process of ethnic segregation?


The larger question is whether Serbs and Albanians can ever live together again. "It is unbelievable what they did to Albanians," says the Kelmendi son. "But look what they also did to themselves."


Fred Abrahams is a senior researcher covering Kosovo for Human Rights Watch.