The Muddy Quagmire of Kosovo

by Gilles d'Aymery

February 27, 2000


Note from the Editor: Last week's article, The Business of Manipulation, From Baghdad to Belgrade was read by a bigger audience than usual thanks to a link that Antiwar.com, in the person of Eric Garris, its webmaster, put on its front page. We've received quite a few comments from our readers and are publishing two correspondences that we found particularly interesting. This week, we are calling again on The New York Times to help us make a point on the muddiness of the Kosovo quagmire. In addition, we are reviewing a so-called moralistic essay published in The New York Times Magazine of today. It further demonstrates the muddiness of this entire black and white adventure that is fast becoming grayer than ever.


I may be totally off the mark or it may simply be wishful thinking on my part but I sense a sort of malaise seeping through the collective mind of our Officialdom's pundits. The recrudescence of violence that erupted three weeks ago in Northern Kosovo, in the city of Mitrovica, seems to have taken the holders and carriers of our humanitarian ideology by surprise. It looks, at least to this commentator, that the clarity, the crispiness of the moral compass, ever so present in the American psyche, has gotten slightly fogged over by the recent events, the muddy situation, as though it had become increasingly challenging to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Like, somehow, that violence was not supposed to have happened after seven months of "peace keeping" by the forces of good against those of evil. Evil had been defeated. Our rightfulness had prevailed. We could now turn our attention to more pressing matters at home, like the 2000 elections and other lofty topics such as the economy and the character of our presidential hopefuls.

That is to say, Kosovo had by and large gone under the radar screen.

For sure, there was news here and there, last Summer and in the Fall of 1999. Serbs and Romas were being killed -- a couple of rapes were reported -- or expelled in large numbers. Perhaps 80 percent of those minorities had fled the province for fear of their lives. An unpleasant sight certainly, yet quickly discounted on the premise that revenge was to be expected after the horrendous atrocities that the subhuman Serbs had committed. They were deserving of their fate. It was an unfortunate but fully justified, almost merited, retribution. And the new millennium festivities had a stronger appeal to the pundits and their advertising financiers.

But like weeds perpetually resurfacing, like rain water flowing to the river and the ocean, the facts have kept appearing in strange and subtle (some would say not-so-subtle) ways. As much as the U.S. Officialdom kept the lid on the news, the facts kept emerging, materializing, in other parts of the world such as Europe and Canada, and on the Internet. The once presumed 100,000 killed were nowhere to be found, not even the downgraded figure of 10,000. Yet month after month, the persecution of Serbs and all other minorities has carried on unabated, the KLA has only disarmed on paper (literally), and persistent calls for the total "deserbization" of Kosovo are being heard over and over from the Albanian majority. It's not ethnic cleansing of course -- only the subhuman Serbs are worthy of the appellation. Perhaps, it's the primal need to purify the sins.

However, the question that apparently is no more that assuredly answered is, Who are the sinners? And we all know that when a much-heralded just cause is steadily turning into a muddy quagmire, the first contingent to run for cover will be the pundits and the ideological carpetbaggers.

So, when the violence erupted in Mitrovica, a city where about 10,000 Serbs face 90,000 Albanians, the last place -- should one say bastion? -- where a substantial Serbian minority tries to survive, Officialdom was left in disbelief, confused...and running for cover as fast as it could.

Swans' readers won't be particularly surprised if I use The New York Times headlines of the past couple of weeks to illustrate the point.

After the initial surprise -- gosh, the Serbs are at it again! Or is it the Albanians? Hmm, it's hard to say, not that clear... -- and the usual calls from readers to Stop the Cycle, Break Kosovo Up (February 17, 2000), The Times goes full speed into damage control, underlying, according to a archetypal American mindset, the opportunities created by the explosion of violence. Shock of Kosovo Violence May Prove Incentive for Peace (Feb. 18). It's just a little setback, if any, for the NATO-led peacekeepers, says the journalist, Carlotta Gall. She goes on to paper out the quagmire and quotes all possible involved officials, from General Reinhardt, the commander of the peacekeeping force -- "Basically we are absolutely on track" -- to Bernard Kouchner, the U.N. special representative. Everybody was "really shocked." Even Hashim Thaci and Ibrahim Rugova "were visibly shocked by the fighting." But we can bring calm back to Mitrovica by simply adding more soldiers, police officers, and resources. It's that simple.

Then the next day, Sunday, February 20 -- a day of rest when people have the time to read between a short trip to church and to the mall -- Steven Erlanger leads the readers into the complexities of the brutal events. Indecision Feeds the Dogs of War. Actually, while not surprisingly anti-Serb, the article is quite informative as Mr. Erlanger goes on explaining the contradictions of the goals, and the means to reach those goals, that the Western Powers never fully elaborated for their "new protectorate" (he does use the word, protectorate). He does not conclude that the policy has been a failure, but it does not brag success either. It's a dilemma...

The following morning, February 21, the front page has a color picture of American G.I.'s retreating under a barrage of stones thrown by Serbs. Serbs Stone U.S. Troops in Divided Kosovo Town. The bad Serbs were stoning the good soldiers (Americans) who did not respond to the clash, like the good Albanians had earlier stoned the bad soldiers (French, who are supposed to be pro Serbs). Carlotta Gail leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the situation is indeed messy. Then, to make sure that we don't forget the guilty party, Steven Erlanger writes a long article about the misdeeds of the Yugoslav government of President Slobodan Milosevic: Milosevic Mounts an Election-Year Crackdown on His Critics.

Carlotta Gall is back the next day (Feb. 22), writing that Albanians Rally to Oust Serbs From a City in Kosovo. 25,000 Albanians demonstrated with the understanding of Gen. Klaus Reinhardt. "They want a united city," he said. On the other hand, Mario Morcone, the U.N. administrator in Mitrovica, acknowledges that "he has few ideas on how to deal with the problems." Once again, the reader is left with a sense of an intractable mess. We do all we can do, you know... Obviously, the story would not be complete without yet another reminder by Steven Erlanger of the ever-looming dangers: Yugoslav Troops Mass Around Kosovo Borders. And Barbara Crossette asks, in The U.N.'s Unhappy Lot: Perilous Police Duties Multiplying, "If rock-throwing mobs can turn their rage on well-armed and expertly trained American troops, what can be in store for United Nations police officers when they take charge?" She quotes Richard Holbrooke, the American representative to the United Nations, who considers that the U.N. is not adequately staffed for so many peacekeeping campaigns around the world. "The risks to the U.N. of failure are very great if they don't do it right," says Mr. Holbrooke. Still wondering who's going to be left holding the bag?

However, the time is not ripe for acknowledging failure and laying blame, not just yet. So, the next day, on February 23, Jane Perlez, based in Washington, reports in a front page article that NATO Says Milosevic Incites Violence Covertly in Kosovo. The Phoenix-like indicted war criminal, besieged in his capital, is undermining the peacekeepers. But then, Ms. Perlez manages to convey the message that perhaps Milosevic does not really need to do much for the messy situation to become messier. And she quotes an anonymous official to make the case: "Belgrade is in a great position - a win-win position - and NATO in a lose-lose position." And Carlotta Gall cannot but acknowledge that Serbs [are] on Edge After a Rally by Albanians in a Kosovo City.

So what to do to get ourselves out of the mud in which we've gotten stuck? How can we get out of the hole we've dug ourselves in? Well, why not try the very same medicine that put us there in the first place? Both Jane Perlez and Elizabeth Becker write the following day, February 24, NATO Chief Makes a Plea for More Kosovo Peacekeepers and White House Asks Allies to Bolster the Kosovo Police Force. More help is needed to keep order. Because, of course, order has been reigning for the past eight months...

And Elizabeth Becker repeats the minuet two days later (Feb. 26): Not Enough Troops in Kosovo, NATO says. And Carlotta Gall keeps reporting from Mitrovica that 4,000 Serbs Vow to Defend Town Sector in Kosovo. Damn, those Serbs won't let us breathe, not even for a few days. When will they understand that if they were not there anymore, we could claim victory, pack our bags and go home to a well-deserved parade for our white-armor heroes? And, as a departing gift to the region, we would secure Montenegro's secession from what remains of Yugoslavia -- that is nothing. As for the Macedonians, oh well, tough luck... Ah, how sweet it would be if the Serbs just did not exist at all. Could we erase Serbia from the map? Life would be so much simpler.

And so, another Sunday has come, and Steven Erlanger is back to explain to the readers, once again in between church and the mall, that Torn Mitrovica Reflects West's Trials in Kosovo. In a meandering 2,000-word article the poor Erlanger is left to repeat the thickness and deepness of the Balkan mud that tends to fly all around among the allies and the participants on the ground.

Only eight months into the fray and the staff and editors of Officialdom appear to have lost their own credo, their own compass of the sunny black-and white world in which they live and from which they preach to their flock at will. They appear unable to reach the conclusion that the Western Powers have committed a monumental policy blunder and have been the accomplice of human tragedies on both sides of the divide, tragedies of epic proportions. They've started wavering between the official ideological line and the facts on the ground that refuse to be silenced.

Again, the pundits are still quite far from the recognition that we are witnessing a magisterial failure of our own making. Indeed, in today's edition of The New York Times Magazine, an essay by Sebastian Junger attempts, in moral terms, to once again lay the blame for the Balkan quagmire at the door of the Serbs -- you can read my review of this essay, A Different Kind of Killing -- but the overall conveyed message has become grayer as time has passed. And as much as I do not expect a full recognition soon -- as always it will take a generation or two for accepting the inevitable -- I am confident that we are going to see more blame, whining, and recrimination in the forthcoming months.


This Week's Other Article

Letters to the editor
1) Iraq Sanctions/Bombing by Don Meyer
2) What is it with Barbara Crossette?? by Drew Hamre


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published February 27, 2000
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