Another side to the Balkans

The author of One Woman's War remains concerned about the consequences of Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia.

Eve-Ann Prentice

Topics Politics

The marathon trial of former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic has reached its second anniversary in February 2004, with Serbs continuing to take the brunt of the sentences meted out by the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

It is ironic then that ethnic Albanian members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) – trained and encouraged in the past by the West – have been free to sell Semtex explosives to undercover journalists from Britain. In late 2003, the journalists posed as Irish terrorists determined to blow up British targets with their booty.

Furthermore, one of the KLA men – offloading enough Semtex to down 40 jumbo jets – also stands accused of torturing and killing Serbs in Kosovo during the war there, which led to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. This was a war where the Serbs were seen as the guilty party and the Albanians as victims.

It is significant that the KLA man felt cocky enough to show off a photo of what he boasted was the disjoined head of one of his victims, a Serb, according to the undercover journalist, Graham Johnson, investigations editor of the Sunday Mirror newspaper, and a British Channel Five TV documentary crew.

Where is The Hague when it comes to charging Albanians with war crimes in the conflict that brought down the wrath of NATO on Yugoslavia in the spring and summer of 1999?

Whenever Albanians are arrested by international forces in Kosovo, KLA hardliners frogmarch ordinary moderate Albanians on to the streets to protest the innocence of the accused – and the charges are usually dropped at source. Some Albanians have been handed to The Hague but the number is believed to be tiny; the tribunal says it cannot say how many as it refuses to break down the accused into ethnic groups. A spokesperson admits, though, that the vast majority of those so far charged have been Serbs.

Meanwhile, atrocities by the KLA against the few Serbs who have stayed behind in Kosovo since NATO’s entrance in June 1999 continue under the noses of the international community, while London and Washington proclaim the Kosovo mission a success.

In June 2003, for instance, an elderly couple, Slobodan (80) and Radmila Stolic (76) along with their middle-aged son, 52-year-old Ljubinko, were tortured and killed at their home in Obilic, Kosovo. In the week leading up to their deaths, they were threatened and bullied when they refused to sell their home to a group of Albanians. The killing of the family came just after agreement had been reached for 20 Serb families to return to their homes in that area; the Stolics’ murder was seen by many Serbs as a clear warning not to return.

Although Michael Steiner, the United Nations administrator for Kosovo, condemned the killings as a ‘heinous and perfidious crime…directed against multi-ethnicity in Kosovo’, the UK Parliament took a different view. In a debate on Kosovo on 17 June 2003, Minister for Europe Denis MacShane said he believed the Stolics perished in a ‘family feud’ – a theory he reportedly had taken from an Albanian newspaper in Kosovo.

Most of the Western public is under the impression that all is now sweetness and light in the Balkans after the Western interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. How many are aware, though, that Bosnia is now a base for some hardline Muslim militants? Bosnian Muslims have historically been a very secular, gentle people; the extremist Muslims who have taken up bases in their country are from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and they have found a foothold in Europe largely thanks to the chaos of the Bosnian war.

Many believe that one of NATO’s finest hours was in June 1999, when bombing forced Milosevic to pull his forces out of Kosovo. Is it such a success story when you realise that hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians, ordinary families, including young children, have been forced to flee Kosovo in fear of their lives? They have been hounded out by extremists from the very community the West said it was protecting – the ethnic Albanians.

The big powers do not want people to ask too many questions about any links between the Balkans and the so-called ‘war on terror’ following 9/11. But the links are there.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is Public Enemy Number One in the West. Yet only a few years ago, he was actively encouraged to take up arms by the very people who now want him dead. The Saudi dissident-turned-Afghan warlord and global terrorist played a key role in training and organising Muslim forces in the former Yugoslavia during the wars in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. Why? Because the West was so determined to crush ‘communistic’ Serbs following the fall of the Berlin Wall that it was not as fussy as it might have been in choosing its friends.

Mention the Balkans to most people in the West (including senior journalists who should know better) and their eyes glaze over with boredom or confusion. Yet the wars there in the past 10 years are inextricably interwoven with what is happening today in America, Afghanistan, Iraq and across the world. Washington’s determination to portray the civil wars in Bosnia and later in Kosovo as straightforward battles of good vs evil was based on deceit. Indeed, the lies masquerading as propaganda helped feed the school of terrorism which struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Political and military leaders in Washington should not have been surprised when the monster they helped to create turned against them.

When the World Trade Center was bombed, it was lunchtime in Britain. On the far side of Europe, it was mid-afternoon. Millions of people in Yugoslavia also looked aghast at the horror-film scenes unfolding on their TV screens. But in Belgrade, shock and revulsion was tinged with a sense of realism. Just over two years before, many had watched first-hand as high-rise buildings were turned into balls of fire and reduced to rubble, also by airborne instruments of death. Serbian civilians had felt the violence of Cruise missiles and conventional bombs hitting home in towns and cities across the country as NATO pursued its campaign against the Milosevic regime.

Many Serbs know that the hardline KLA was trained and equipped in part by Islamic Mujihadeen fighters who saw action in Afghanistan against the Russians, from the same stable of Muslim extremism which attacked New York and Washington on 9/11.

When the Bosnian war looked imminent, Britain’s ambassador to Belgrade, Peter Hall, advised a hands-off approach by the West. The Muslim leader of the would-be breakaway state of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, who died in 2003, initially wanted to avoid putting up barricades which he knew would provoke the first shots, but he was persuaded by US diplomats that the West would be right behind him in the coming conflict. Western leaders knew, but chose to ignore, that Izetbegovic had friends in Arab countries and had made several visits to Tehran to see Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he was imprisoned by the Yugoslav authorities for writing an Islamic treatise which was seen as treason.

By 1994 there were large numbers of Mujahideen in Bosnia, including fighters from Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. ‘Muderis’ was the nom de guerre of one Mujihadeen in charge of a 100-strong unit which wore black scarves wound round their heads. Militant Muslims did not stop with Bosnia – some made alliances with extremist Albanians and ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. These ethnic Albanians embarked on a campaign to dominate first Kosovo, then surrounding areas, including Macedonia.

Where it will all end now is anybody’s guess – but it is unlikely to end happily.

Eve-Ann Prentice is a freelance journalist who has covered events in the Balkans for the Guardian, Sunday Correspondent and The Times (London) for 25 years. She is also the author of One Woman’s War, Duckworth Publishing, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), which explores in depth issues raised in this article.

Read on:

‘You are only allowed to see Bosnia in black and white’, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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