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 Posted Sunday, May 23, 1999

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Le Monde

PARIS, MAY 13, 1999



By Regis Debray

UPON my return from Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo, I must let you know my impression: I am afraid, Mr. President, that the route we follow is erroneous. You are a practical man. You hardly treasure intellectuals, more or less pompous and peremptory, who dominate the [opinion] columns. This is a point that we have in common. I shall therefore restrict myself to the facts.

Each to his own facts, you will say. Those [facts] that I could garner while there, during a brief stay -- one week in Serbia (Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis, Vramje) from May 2 to May 9, four days of which were spent in Kosovo, between Pristina and Prej, Pritzen and Podujevo -- in all good faith do not seem to me to come even close to matching the words that you have been using.

Do not believe that I am being partial. The week prior, I spent in Macedonia, witnessed the arrival of refugees, listened to their stories. Like many others, I was bowled over. I wanted at all costs to go and see "from the other side" how such a heinous crime was possible. Being distrustful of "Intourist-style" visits, or journalistic tours by guided bus, I asked the Serb authorities to agree to my having my own translator, my own vehicle and the freedom to go wherever I wanted and speak to anyone I wished. This was agreed to, and respected.

Important, the interpreter? Yes. Because I learned to my own detriment -- and how else to learn otherwise? -- that one could, in Macedonia and in Albania, imprudently put one's trust in local go-betweens who, for the most part sympathisers or militants of UCK, offer their [partial] views and their network of contacts to the newly-arrived stranger. The accounts of [such] extortions are too plentiful for one to doubt the undeniable background of this reality.

Certain witness accounts that I collected, upon subsequent checking at the locations of their origin, turned out to be either out-and-out lies or inexact. This, of course, in no way changes the ignominious scandal that this exodus represents.

What are you constantly telling us? "We are not making war on the Serb people but on a dictator, Milosevic, who, refusing all negotiation, is cold-bloodedly carrying out a programme of genocide against the Kosovars. We limit ourselves to the destruction of his apparatus of repression, a destruction which is already well-advanced. And if we continue our attacks, despite the regrettable targeting errors and the involuntary collateral damage, [this is being done because] it remains that Serb forces continue their ethnic cleansing operation in Kosovo ."

I have reason to fear, Mr. President, that each one of these words is fraudulent.


1. "We are not making war on the Serb people..." Do you not know that in the heart of old Belgrade the "Dusan Radevic" theatre for children is next door to the TV facility and that the missile which destroyed the latter hit the former? Three hundred schools, everywhere, have been hit by bombs. Schoolchildren, left to themselves, no longer go to school. In the countryside, there are some who pick up the yellow explosive tubes in the form of toys (CBU 87). The Soviets sowed similar fragmentation bombs in Afghanistan.

Destruction of factories has put out of work three hundred thousand workers -- with an income of 230 dinars, or 91 francs [USD$15.00] per month. About one-half of the population is unemployed. If you think this is the way to turn it agains its regime, you are mistaken. Despite the weariness and the shortages, I saw no fissures in the sacred union. In Pristina, a young girl told me: "When four Chinese get killed, representatives of a Great Power, the world gets indignant; but four hundred Serbs, this doesn't count. Strange, no?"

I certainly did not witness the carnage performed by NATO bombers on the buses, the columns of refugees, the trains, the hospital in Nis, and elsewhere. Nor the raids on Serbian refugee campls (Majino, Maselje, April 21, four dead, twenty wounded). I have in mind some four hundred thousand Serbs that the Croats deported from Krajina without this event being recorded by [journalistic] microphones and cameras.

Limiting myself to the time and places of my stay in Kosovo, General Wertz, NATO spokesman, declared: "We have not attacked any convoys and we have never attacked civilians". Lies. I saw in the hamlet of Lipjan, on Thursday, May 6, a private home pulverized by a missile: three little girls and two grandparents massacred, without a military target within a radius of three miles of the place. The following day I saw, at Prizren, in the gypsy quarter, two other civil shanties turned to ashes two hours [before my arrival on the scene], with multiple victims buried.


2. "The dictator Milosevic..." My contacts in the opposition, the only ones with whom I have spoken, brought me back to the hard realities. Autocratic, fraudulent, a manipulator, a populist, Mr. Milosevic has nevertheless been elected three times: dictators are elected only once, not twice. He respects the Yugoslavian constitution. No sole and unique party. His own party is a minority in Parliament. No political prisoners, no changing coalitions. He is rather absent from the daily discourse. One can criticise him on the terrasses of cafes without fear -- and people do not hesitate to do so --, but nobody worries about it. No "totatlitarian" charisma to be seen. The West seems one hundred times more taken up with Mr. Milosevic than are his fellow citizens.

To speak of him by invoking Munich, is to stand the relationship between the strong and the weak on its head and to suppose that a country that's isolated, poor, and with only ten million population, which desires nothing outside of its own borders of the former Yugoslavia, can be compared to the conquering and superbly armed Germany under Hitler. By wrapping too much veil around one's face, one ends up being blind.


3. "The genocide of the Kosovars..." A terrible chapter. In terms of accessible Western eyewitnesses, I was able to meet only two. One of these, Aleksander Mitic, of Serbian origin it is true, is correspondent for Agence France Presse in Pristina. The other, Paul Watson, an English-speaking Canadian, is the correspondent for Central Europe for the Los Angeles Times. He covered Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, the Gulf War and Rwanda: he is not a green novice. Rather anti-Serb in sentiment, he has been following the civil war in Kosovo for two years. He knows each village and each road. A hero; therefore, modest. When all the foreign reporters were expelled from Pristina, he went into hiding and stayed, anonymously. This has not stopped him from travelling and observing.

His testimony is thoughtful and, compared to others, convincing. Under the deluge of the bombs, the worst extortions had been committed during the first three days (March 24, 25, and 26) with fire, pillage, and murder. At that time, many thousands of Albanians were ordered to leave. He assured me of having found no trace, since that time, of any crimes against humanity. Undoubtedly, these two scrupulous observers have not seen everything. And I, even that much less. I can only testify as to Albanian refugees having returned to Pudajevo, Serb soldiers standing guard in front of Albanian bakeries - ten were reopened in Pristina -, and those wounded by the bombings, Albanian and Serbian side by side, in the Pristina hospital (two thousand beds).

So, what has happened? In their opinion, the sudden superposition of an international air war over a local civil war, this one of extreme cruelty. I ask you to recall that, in 1998, 1,700 Albanian combatants, 180 police and 120 Serbian soldiers had been killed. The UCK had kidnapped 380 persons, and release 103, the others being either killed of missing, at times after having been tortured - among these, 2 journalists and 14 workers. The UCK claimed to have 6,000 underground membersin Pristina, and their snipers, so I was told, went into action as the first bombs were dropped. It seems the Serbs, believing they could not fight on two fronts, decided at that time to evacuate manu militari "NATO's fifth column", their "ground troops"; that is, the UCK, and, in particular, the villages where they were able to disappear within the civil population.

Localised but certain, these evacuations, "Israeli-style" as they were called over there, recall those that took place in colonial Algeria, which you will certainly remember - one million Algerian civilians were displaced by ourselves and stuck in camps surrounded by barbed wire, to "deprive the fish of water" -, leaving behind their traces under open skies, here and there: burned houses, deserted villages. These military confrontations had provoked flight by civilians - for the most part, so I was told, the families of the guerillas - before the bombardment. These were, according to the AFP correspondent, in limited number. "People took refuge in other neighboring houses, noted he. No one died of hunger, no one was killed on the roads, no one was fleeing to Albania and Macedonia. It was the NATO attack that, in no uncertain way, set off the snowball effect, the humanitarian catastrophe. In fact, up to that point there was no need for refugee camps at the borders". During the first days, all will recall, one saw a series of reprisals on the part of so-called "uncontrolled" elements, with the probable complicity of the local police.

Mr. Vuk Draskovic, the Vice-Prime Minister who today has distanced himself, and others, told me of having ordered the arrest and having charged three hundred persons in Kosovo suspected of extortions. Whitewash? Alibi? Guilty conscience? None are to be excluded as possibilities. Afterwards, the exodus continued, but on a lesser scale. As a result of the orders of the UCK, wishing to recover some of their own, or by fear of being classed as "collaborators", or by fear of the bombings - which do not distinguish, from a height of 18,000 feet, between Serbs, Albanians, and others -, in order to join their cousins already departed, because the farm animals had been killed, America will win, this is an opportunity to immigrate to Switzerland, to Germany, or elsewhere.... Remarks heard locally. I repeat them, to call them to your attention, not as a means of caution.

Have I paid too much ear to the "people in the other camp"? To do the contrary would be racism. To define, a priori, a people - Jews, Germans, or Serbs - as being collectively guilty is not worthy of a democrat. After all, there existed, during the occupation, an Albanian, Moslem, and Croat SS division, but never a Serbian one. This hardy and resistant people - more than ten nationalities coexist within Serbia - have they become Nazis 50 years down the road? Many Kosovar refugees told me that they escaped repression thanks to their neighbors, Serb friends.


4. "The destruction already well-advanced of the Serb forces..." I am sorry to disappoint you: these forces are in the pink of health. A young sergeant that I picked up, hitchhiking, on the Nis-Belgrade road and serving in Kosovo, asked me what might be NATO's strategic reason for so single-mindedly concentrating their attacks on civilians. "When we go to town [on leave], where there is no longer any electricity, we have to drink our Coke tepid. It's annoying, but we can live with it." I suppose the military have their own electrical generators.

You have shattered bridges in Kosovo, that the people bypass handily with fords - unless they can actually go straight across, steering between the holes. You have damaged an airport without significance, destroyed empty barracks, set on fire out-of-service military trucks, dummy helicopters and wooden artillery pieces placed in the middle of open fields. Excellent for video images and news briefings, but then what? Recall that the Yugoslav defense, conceived by Tito and his partisans, has nothing to do with a regular army: hidden and omnipresent, with their underground command posts, prepared long ago to face up to conventional threats - formerly, form the Soviet direction. They even move artillery pieces using cattle, to avoid detection by heat sensors.

There are in Kosovo - it is not a secret - 150,000 men under arms, from age twenty to seventy - there is no age limits in the reserves -, of which 40,000 to 50,000 belong to the army of General Pavkovic alone. The walkie-talkies functioning in relays seem in good condition, and it is the Yugoslavs themselves who scramble the channels of communication - the UCK was using portable units to guide US bombers.

As for the hoped-for demoralization, don't you believe a word of it. In Kosovo, they are waiting for our troops in good spirits, I am afraid, and not without a certain impatience. As a reservist from Pristina told me, on his way to buy some bread, his AK on his shoulder: "Let it come quickly, the invasion by ground troops! In a real war, there are at least casualties on both sides". The war game conceived by NATO planners is taking place 15,000 feet above the actual reality. I beseech you: do not send our sensitive and intelligent graduates of Saint Cyr [military college] onto a terrain about which they know nothing. Their cause is maybe just, but it shall never be for them a defensive war and cerainly not a sacred war, as it shall be, like it or not, for the Serb volunteers in Kosovo and Metohija.


5. "They continue with ethnic cleansing..." The car registration plates and the identity documents of those fleeing, collected at the border post facing Albania, left me indignant. There is concern, so I was told in response, that the "terrorists" infiltrate back again, by making use of these to disguise vehicles and people. Much has escaped my modest observations, but the German defense minister lied, on May 6, when he declared that "between 600,000 and 900,000 displaced persons had been living in Kosovo." In a territory of 10,000 square kilometres [3,900 square miles], this would not be hidden to the eyes of an observer traveling, on the same day, from east to west and from north to south. In Pristina, where tens of thousands of Kosovars continue to live, one may eat lunch in Albanian pizzerias, with Albanians at one's table for company.

Our ministers, could they not question, over there, some witnesses with clear heads - Greek doctors from "Doctors Without Borders", ecclesiastics, priests? I have in mind Father Stephan, priest at Prizren, a person that was singularly thoughtful. For a civil war is not a war of religion: the mosques, without number, remain intact - except for two, according to my reports.

One can purchase the foreign policy of a country - this is what the USA does with the countries in this region -, but not its dreams and its memory. If you could have seen the hateful looks that the Macedonian border guards give, at the border, to the convoys of tanks that proceed each night from Salonika to Skopje, upon their arrogant escorts, unconscious of their surroundings, you would have no trouble understanding that it will be much easier to enter this "theatre" than it will be to extract oneself from it. Will you have, as shown by the example given by the President of Italy, the courage, or the intelligence, to reject false premises, in order to search, with Ibrahim Rugova, and in his own words, "a political solution with a realistic basis"?

In such a case, a number of realities require your attention. The first: no solution without a modus vivendi between Albanians and Serbs, as Mr. Rugova asks, because there will not be only one, but two, and maybe even a plurality of communities in Kosovo. Without entering into a battle of numbers due to the absence of a reliable census, I think I understood that there were a million or more Albanians, two hundred fifty thousand Serbs and two hundred fifty thaousand persons belonging to other communities - Islamicised Serbs, Turks, Gorans or mountain folk, romanies , "Egyptians" or Albanophobe gypsies -, who fear the domination of a Greater Albania and have sided with the Serbs. The second: to prevent the start of another ferocious internecine war, an episode of a secular voyage to the past, an Act I without which today's Act II is incomprehensible, but which arose in its own right because of a previous oppression.

Present-day policies are always formulated by making analogies with the past. It is incumbent to establish the least inappropiate analogy possible. You have chosen the Hitlerite analogy, with the Kosovars in the role of persecuted Jews. Permit me to suggest another analogy to you: Algeria. Mr. Milosevic is certainly not de Gaulle. But the civil power has to deal with an army which is tired of being diminished and seeks to be revalorized. And this regular army lives elbow-to-elbow with local militia forces which might, one day, resemble an OAS [Tr. note: Organisation de l'Armee Secrete - a French paramilitary force that came into being in revolt against de Gaulle's granting of independence to Algeria].

And if the problem were not in Belgrade, but in the streets, the cafes, the groceries of Kosovo? The men there, it is a fact, have nothing reassuring about them. They severely took me to task on more than one occasion. And I owe it to Truth to say that it was Serb officers who, coming to the rescue, saved my hide each time.

Recall de Gaulle's definition of NATO: "An organization imposed by the Atlantic Alliance which represents the military and political subordination of Western Europe to the USA". One day, you will clarify for yourself the reasons which led you to modify that appreciation. Meanwhile, I must admit to a certain sense of shame when, in Belgrade, I inquired of a Serb in the democratic opposition as to why his President chose to receive with alacrity some American personnage or other, and not a French one, and he replied: "In any case, it is better to speak to the Master rather than to his servants".

Régis Debray is a writer and a philosopher
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