Paving the way: A Kosovo hero's path from rebel to road-builder
Fatmir Limaj builds hope with new roads.
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"The rest of Europe was moving in ways unimaginable to us," he says. "The spirit of East Europe was everywhere. People in Europe were breathing easier. But for us, the opposite was happening. Europe was moving forward, and we were moving backward."Skip to next paragraph
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Public debate wasn't allowed in the new Kosovo and students rebelled. "We wanted our voices heard in federal Yugoslavia," Limaj recalls. "We wanted to warn the center how dangerous the program of Milosevic was, to stop this crackdown."
For a decade, Limaj and Kosovo waited as the political and spiritual leader of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, reacted to Serbian tactics with a Gandhian strategy of patience and nonviolence.
"After Dayton, all our hopes and dreams fell," Limaj says. "That Milosevic could kill with impunity for years, then present himself as a man of peace ... this was totally depressing for us. There was no hope. We saw what he was doing here. It's true, if a normal person has choices, he would never choose war. But it was either leave Kosovo, or organize ourselves to resist."
Limaj faced justice and earned respect
The former commander plays down his KLA hero status. But Limaj was the first to switch KLA tactics – characterized by guerrilla skirmishes in villages and hiding in the hills – by confronting Serb forces in the open. His units eventually held two main highways and sheltered 85,000 people, a hospital, and a radio station.
Last week, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague offered its first verdict on the Kosovo war. Four Serb generals were found guilty of using systematic force against civilians. But the tribunal acquitted then Yugoslav President Milan Milutinovic, citing Milosevic as mainly responsible: "In practice, it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the 'Supreme Commander,' who exercised actual command authority … during the NATO campaign," stated chief judge Iain Bonomy.
Milosevic died in his cell at The Hague in 2006, during his defense against genocide charges in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Limaj's time at The Hague remains a sensitive one. He was arrested for crimes while serving as KLA commander of the Llapushnik region. He denied guilt, but agreed to face charges. "As much as I didn't agree with the accusation, I felt it was our responsibility to respond," Limaj says. "So I said I would go to The Hague, and was sure justice would prevail."
It was a lonely, worrisome time for Limaj. When he was released in 2005, he bitterly criticized Kosovo authorities for a lack of logistical legal support that he felt would have shortened his trial. "I was not going to be a man afraid of justice. But in a situation like that, you have a million thoughts running through your mind."
When Limaj returned, thousands of Kosovars made a pilgrimage to his home. Two attempts to run for mayor of Pristina failed. But Prime Minister Hashim Thachi gave him the transport ministry, which he relishes.
What Limaj took from Obama's "Audacity of Hope" was the new president's community organizing in Chicago. "He went house to house to understand the people, their hopes and dreams, so by the time he ran for president could speak to everybody."
That will be a task in Kosovo, still divided between Albanian and Serb. "Kosovo's intentions are humane… we don't want to harm or do damage to others… but allow everyone live together in a new state."
Limaj's biggest test may be ahead. Having won hearts as a man who gets things done, and whose name has been added to a centuries-old Albanian heroic folk song – he must now finish the airport road, as well as a new road to Skopje, and navigate construction difficulties. "He's won the initial battle, but now is the real test," says a UN official.
Mr. Mustafa, the editor, adds that "Everybody loves Limaj, but I also long for the day when an ordinary civil servant can give an order, and it is followed."