Warless Kosovo still searching for peace

Harsh realities and cautious optimism greet a reporter who returns to visit with people he met while covering the conflict.

There is no recovery here. Not for the Elshani family, poor, tired, and missing their men. Not in this tiny village in the Drenica valley of central Kosovo.

Three years after the war, three years after the Serbs were driven from the land, I am sitting on the grass behind the Elshani house.

I have been here before, on Oct. 25, 1998, the day the body of 11-year-old Shemsi was brought down from the hills and placed in the lap of his mother, Hasime. The boy, an ethnic Albanian, had been shot by a Serbian sniper just after a cease-fire was declared. I stood and watched as his mother, delirious with grief, ran her hands through the child's blond hair.

For me, it was one of the most haunting images of the war.

So I returned to see how this family endures, and to see once more the face of the mother I will never forget.

But here I am, having just stepped out of the car with Virtyt, my friend and guide, and I am told that she is not here.

It is not surprising. She and her husband left for Germany, I am told, not long after the killing.

"The pain was too much," explains Sofije, who is Hasime's mother-in-law and the matron of the remaining family. "She was very ill. She never recovered from the loss. She went to Germany to find a new life."

Sofije does the talking these days because the men are gone. Her second son, Rashit, was killed in the mountains behind the house during a Serbian offensive. Now Sofije lives with two daughters-in-law and 11 children.

While Hasime and her husband struggle in Germany – they have neither work nor legal immigration status – the remainder of the family tries to survive on a five-acre plot of land, far from Kosovo's larger towns and cities where international aide is evident.

Shortly after the war ended, the Elshanis suffered another setback. One of the children, a teenager, stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs. He was fitted for prostheses in Austria, but has since outgrown them. Nevertheless, when I see him, he has just returned from school and is full of smiles.

At first, the family received flour, sugar, oil, and beans from one of the scores of foreign agencies that came to Kosovo after the war. That help, however, slowly diminished as the years passed. Today, the only remnants of Western assistance are two buckets, painted with American flags, that they use to draw water.

The Elshanis have one cow, but it is not producing milk. They get most of their food from the land – wheat and corn that they grow behind the house.

"For us, life is very hard," says Sofije. "We have no choice but to go on living."

Some progress

The plight of the Elshani family is the harsh reality of village life in Kosovo.

That is not to say there has been no progress here since the end of the war, in which more than 12,000 people, Albanian and Serbian, died. There is a renewed sense of security and freedom on the streets, movement is not limited by police checkpoints, and for the first time in decades, people truly believe life is getting better.

In cafes that were once filled with talk of war, new interests have emerged: careers, travel, even basketball. Students can be seen on the streets in tidy outfits; young entrepreneurs are scrambling to open businesses. Pristina is gridlocked in traffic.

Behind that optimism, however, are the economic challenges facing a small province that is surrounded by hostile neighbors.

"Kosovo is functioning, but only on the broader issues like regional stability and human rights," explains Dukagjin Gorani, a leading Kosovar journalist. "In terms of everyday life and how money from the international community is being spent, we have problems. Ninety percent of the people were left out of the recovery process and are facing serious economic difficulties."

When I visit Mr. Gorani in his home in the hills on the outskirts of Pristina, I immediately see that he is different from the man I first met six years ago. His problem, like that of many intellectuals around town, is boredom. For a man whose ideas helped shape an uprising, boredom is disastrous.

"If I can be defined as a man who had a mission, that mission was accomplished," he tells me. "One of the most important things now is knowing how to handle expectations after the war. Unless one is realistic, desperation is right around the corner. We are finding out that freedom has really sharp teeth."

From war to politics

For the Kosovar Albanians, a great challenge is the transformation from a mentality of war to a mentality of peace. And perhaps none has tackled that more ambitiously than Ramush Haradinaj.

Mr. Haradinaj was the commander of the western zone of Kosovo, and earned a reputation as the Kosovo Liberation Army's most fearsome leader – a cowboy with a bad attitude. Not only did he reputedly deal with the Serbs in a harsh manner – some have accused him of war crimes – but he almost always turned away Western journalists who made it into his territory, myself included.

Today, however, he wears a suit and tie, and he is ebullient as he goes about his new career as politician.

More than most other people I speak to, Haradinaj is full of optimism, despite the fact that he saw heavy combat and lost two brothers.

"Compared to the way we were immediately after the war, there has been a lot of progress," he says, referring to the free-for-all violence and revenge following the Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo. "One way is in the building of houses and infrastructure. The other way is in the functioning of the society."

Haradinaj came from virtually nowhere to claim a solid foothold in the Kosovo political scene. He is one of tens of thousands of people who moved into Pristina following the war, creating a tremendous strain on the city's infrastructure.

I feel this most directly in Virtyt's apartment. For two days, we don't have water. "There's tension between the people who lived here before the war and the people who moved here after," Virtyt explains.

Regardless, Haradinaj is considered a hero, and for him life is sweet. He jogs in the mornings, puts in long work days, and frequents the local cafes at night – accompanied by only a couple of bodyguards, far fewer than most well-known politicians use.

On the streets, meanwhile, vendors sell posters of him dressed in camouflage. A popular book about him has also been printed, called "A Narrative about War and Freedom." He signs it and proudly gives me a copy.

"Every day I learn a lot," he says of his new job. "I sleep well. I eat well. I feel happy."

Serbs who stayed behind

There was a time not too long ago when Kosovo was controlled by the police force of Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial at The Hague on war-crimes charges.

In the aftermath of the NATO bombing, which lasted 78 days in the spring of 1999, many of the Serbian residents of Kosovo fled or were driven from their homes. It was a measure of revenge for the atrocities the Serbs had committed against the ethnic Albanians. The Serbs made refugees of almost half the province (population 2 million), and left behind a trail of burning, looting, and killing.

Some of the Serbs stayed, however, clinging to the land that they consider the cradle of their culture, with its 13th-century monasteries. Those who remain live in small enclaves, under the protection of NATO soldiers, or in the northern half of Mitrovica, which functions as part of Serbia.

One who remains is Father Sava Janjic, who lives in the Serbian Orthodox Decani Monastery in western Kosovo. These are not good times for the bespectacled and bearded priest or his people.

"The situation is quite difficult," he tells me. "You will hear that there are less incidents, but that is because the Serbs are completely isolated in enclaves."

"A Serb can't even have a cup of coffee in front of the parliament without being killed," he adds.

Throughout the war and the period leading up to it, Father Janjic was often the most level-headed spokesman for the Serbian people. He had the ability to stick up for the rights of the Serbs without resorting to nationalist rhetoric. He continues in that fashion today, and even some Albanians respect him – including one prominent local politician who strongly supported him at a meeting with UN officials.

Most of the time, however, Janjic is isolated in the monastery. He and the other Kosovo Serbs feel they have been abandoned by the Serbian government in Belgrade. In Kosovo, they are surrounded by an overwhelmingly hostile ethnic Albanian population.

To get food and other supplies, the priests have to travel some 50 miles to Montenegro under military escort. There are two reasons, Janjic says. First, it would be too dangerous for them to leave their vehicles and shop in the nearby town. Second, the Albanians do not want to sell to them.

As is his nature, Janjic tries to find a positive spin for his predicament. He says he and the others at the monastery have more solitude than any of them can remember.

"It's a certain kind of spiritual relief," he tells me. "We've never had such peace in the monastery."

Two 'brothers' part ways

There is a village called Vitomirica in western Kosovo that is wedged between Montenegro and the so-called "Cursed Mountains." In the summer of 1996, I spent almost a month living there in the small, whitewashed house of a Serbian friend named Boban.

Vitomirica was idyllic then, because Serbs, Albanians, and Bosniaks (Muslims who speak Serbian) used to mingle freely along the paved road that cut through the village. Boban was a part-timer – he came down from northern Serbia only for summers – but he had developed a close friendship with the Albanian brothers who lived across the street, Osa and Hadxi.

Years later, I would learn that, as teenagers, Boban and Hadxi had declared themselves "blood brothers." But when the war came, they went their separate ways. Unable to travel safely to Kosovo, Boban stayed in Serbia year round. Hadxi, meanwhile, took up arms under the command of Ramush Haradinaj to protect his family from the local Serbs – some of whom were Boban's relatives.

When I return to Vitomirica, I can barely recognize anything, until I see the remains of a mansion that one of the villagers had been trying to build. It has been completely destroyed by artillery. A woman with an axe is walking by with her daughter.

They recognize me from years ago, and we strike up a conversation. The mother, who is Bosniak, tells me how their house was burned, how they lost 17 cows, and how there is no work for her husband.

"Look at my shoes," she says, pointing down. "They are broken."

She takes us around to see where the family is living. The reconstruction of their house is typical: They took the bricks from the destroyed mansion to build new walls. A Dutch relief agency gave them materials for a roof.

It's simple, but it's a place to live.

I ask the woman about Hadxi and Osa – even though I have heard the bad news already. She points me down the road.

As we pull up to a small restaurant, a man comes running toward me and delivers a big hug. It is Hadxi, but I barely recognize him. It's almost as if he's aged 10 years since I saw him three years ago. He has a gun on his belt and is a policeman now.

Hadxi confirms what I had heard – that Osa was killed up in the mountains fighting the Serbs.

I ask Hadxi how he's recovered from the war and the loss of his brother, and he tells me that life is OK. He doesn't think about the past, doesn't talk about it. Then he says there is something at home that he wants to show me. His face comes to life.

When we get to the house, I am introduced to his hope: a 2-year-old boy, who looks just like his uncle. "I named him Osa, after my brother," Hadxi tells me. "I think he will be just like him."

I am nervous to ask how Hadxi now feels about Boban, the Serb. There is a long pause.

"Boban never did anything against the Albanian people, so I have nothing against him," Hadxi finally says. "That is why no one touched his house."

It's good to hear that Boban has not been implicated in the actions of his family, who had always been nationalist – and well-armed. But I am disappointed to hear an absence of fondness in Hadxi's voice.

I try one more time, telling Hadxi that I am going to visit Boban next week. I ask him if he has a message for him.

"Yes," Hadxi says, then pauses. "Tell him to give me a call. I want to buy his land."

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