A traveller's letter to the
President of the Republic
Le Monde, May 13, 1999
Translated by Srzo Bajica, AfP
Since my return from Macedonia, Serbia and
Kosovo, I have to share an impression with you: I am afraid, Mr President, that
we chose the wrong path. You are a man of the field. You don't overestimate the
intellectuals who are filling our magniloquent and uniform columns. That is
excellent: I don't appreciate them any better. So I'll stick to the facts.
"Yours, that is" -- you may say. Well, to the facts I could notice on
the spot during my short, one-week stay in Serbia (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad,
Vranje), between 2 May and 9 May, out of which four days on Kosovo, from
Pristina to Pec and from Prizren to Podujevo. I should say they do not
correspond to the words that you are using, sincere, and from afar.
Don't think I'm one-sided, partial. I spent
last week in Macedonia. I witnessed the arrival of refugees, and heard their
stories. They upset me, as many others. I wished to go at any cost and see (from
the other side) how this kind of crime is possible,. Since I was never
comfortable with the "InTourist" way of travelling, or journalist
"bus-cruises", I asked from the Serbian authorities that I travel with
my translator and my car, and to have the possibility to go and talk wherever I
want. The agreement was honored.
Is the translator important? Yes! Because I
realized, to my great disadvantage - but how else could one behave - that an
observer may incautiously be taken over by local translators in Macedonia and
Albania, who are either fighters or sympathizers of the UCK (KLA), and are
"lending" their standpoints and their networks to newly arrived
foreigners. Extortion stories are too numerous to be a ground of suspicion
against indisputable reality.
Certain testimonies that I collected proved
later, after checking on the spot, to be exaggerated, even incorrect. All of
this, of course, does not diminish the repugnant scandal of the exodus.
What are you repeating to us constantly?
"We are not at war with the Serbian people, but against Milosevic, The
Dictator, who, refusing all negotiations, planned in cold blood this genocide of
Kosovars. We are limited to annihilation of his repressive apparatus, and this
extermination is already in its late stages. The reason that, dispite hitting
the wrong targets and producing unwanted casualties, we continue with
air-strikes is that Serbian forces in Kosovo continue with operations of ethnic
I have serious reason to believe, Mr
President, that every word in these sentences is a fraud.
1. "We are not fighting against the
people". Don't you know that in the heart of Belgrade, close to the RTS TV
building, there is a children's theatre "Dusan Radovic", and that the
projectile that blasted the TV building also destroyed the theatre? Three
hundred schools all over Serbia have been hit by missiles. Pupils, left on their
own, are not going to schools anymore. In the villages, there are kids who are
collecting yellow explosive pipes in shapes of toys (model CBU 87). Those are
dispersive bombs. Soviets used to throw them in Afghanistan.
The destruction of factories left about 100
000 workers jobless - with incomes of around 230 dinars a month, or 91 francs.
Almost half the population is unemployed now. If you believe that this is the
way to turn the population against the regime, you're seriously wrong. In spite
of tiredness and wretchedness I could not find a single crack in Serbian unity.
One girl in Pristina told me: "When they kill four Chinese people, citizens
of a great power, the world is angry, but four hundred Serbs don't count.
Strange, isn't it?"
I was not a witness of NATO bomber slaughters
on buses, refugee convoys, trains, on the hospital in Nis and elsewhere. I
haven't witnessed the attack on the Serbian refugee camp (Majino Naselje, April
21 - 4 dead, 20 wounded). I'm talking about some four hundred thousand refugee
Serbs that the Croats deported from Krajina without the benefit of microphones
However, I'll stick to the place and time of
my visit to Kosovo -- General Jertz, the NATO spokesman stated the following:
"We never attacked any refugee convoy, and we never attacked any
civilians". This is a direct lie. In the village of Lipljan, I saw on
Thursday, 6 May a private house that a missile had turned into ashes: three
massacred girls, with their grandparents. There were no military facilities for
three kilometers around. The next day I saw in Prizren, in the Gypsy suburb, two
more civilian houses turned into ruins only a few hours prior to my arrival,
with debris still covering several victims.
2. "Milosevic, The Dictator…"
Activists from opposition parties, the only ones I talked to, reminded me of the
cruel reality. Autocrat, cheater, manipulator and a populist, Mr. Milosevic was
still elected president three times in a row. Dictators are elected once, never
twice. He respects the Yugoslav constitution. The system is not a one-party
system. His party is in minority in the Parliament. There are no political
prisoners, or unstable coalitions. As if he were absent from the everyday
landscape. He can be freely criticized on local restaurant terraces - without
any hesitation - people don't care. No "totalitarian" charisma is
present. It seems that the West is much more obsessed by Milosevic than his
compatriots. To mention Munich in connection with him means to turn upside down
the relations of the strong and the weak, and suppose that an isolated and poor
country with ten million citizens that seeks nothing outside the borders of old
Yugoslavia may be compared with predatory, over-equipped Hitler's Germany. It is
hard to see when your eyes are closed.
3. "Kosovar Genocide…" Terrible
chapter. I met two western eye-witnesses. One of them is Alexander Mitic, AFP
correspondent from Pristina, of Serbian origin. The other one is Paul Watson, an
Anglophone Canadian, LA Times Central Europe correspondent. He has reported from
Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, the Gulf War and Rwanda: not a rookie. Pretty
much anti-Serb. He followed the Kosovo civil war for two years, where he knows
every village and every little mountain road. A hero, consequently modest. When
they expelled all the journalists from Kosovo on the first day of air-raids he
stayed in anonymity. And never stopped moving and observing.
His evidence is moderate and coincident with
others, persuasive. Under the flood of bombs, the worst atrocities were
committed in first three days (March 24, 25 and 26). Burning, looting, murders.
A couple of thousand Albanians got orders to leave on those days. He was
convincing me that since then he never came across any proof of crimes against
humanity. No doubt those two diligent observers couldn't see everything. Me
neither. I can only testify about Albanian farmers who were returning to
Podujevo, about Serbian soldiers who are guarding Albanian bakeries - ten of
those have re-opened in Pristina - and about the wounded in bombing campaigns,
Albanians and Serbs, lying side by side in Pristina City Hospital (two thousand
So what happened? In his opinion: the sudden
weight of an international air-war on top of an extremely cruel civil war. I am
reminding you that during 1998 about 1700 Albanian fighters were killed, as well
as some 180 Serbian policemen and 120 soldiers. The UCK kidnapped 380 persons,
later releasing 103 while the others are dead or missing, sometimes after
torture. Among them: 2 journalists and 14 workers. The UCK had 6000 illegal
guerilla fighters in Pristina, and I was told that their snipers started their
action with the first bombs. Concluding that they are unable to fight on two
fronts, the Serbs decided to evacuate "manu militari", "NATO's
fifth column", it's "ground force", that is, the UCK, especially
in the villages where it merged with civilian population.
Localized, but certain, those evacuations, in
the "Israeli way", as they call them down there, and you, as an old
soldier from Algeria must remember those -- we deported millions of Algerian
civilians and locked them up in concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire in
order to "clean the water of the fish" -- left here and there some
traces under the blue sky: burned homes, ghost villages. Those military clashes
caused before the bombing started - civilian escapes - mostly, as they told me,
of the fighter families. According to an AFP correspondent, they were very
limited. "People found safety in neighboring houses" he wrote -
"no one was starving, no one was shot on the road or ran away to Albania
and Macedonia". The NATO attack directly triggered the avalanche, the human
catastrophe. Until that time, actually, there was no need for refugee camps on
the borders. In the first days, everyone agrees, the so-called
"uncontrolled elements", probably with police assistance, stepped up
Mr. Vuk Draskovic, Deputy Prime Minister, who
distanced himself today, as well as others, told me that since that time, about
300 people were arrested in Kosovo. Cosmetic? Alibi? Unclear consciousness? This
all should not be eliminated as possible reasons. Finally, the exodus continues,
but in smaller proportions. Sometimes under direct UCK orders, the UCK wanting
to evacuate their people; sometimes because of fear not to be labeled as
"collaborationists"; fear of bombs, as well, bombs that make no
difference between Serbs, Albanians and others from an altitude of 6000 meters;
sometimes to join their relatives who have left already; or because the cattle
is dead; because the Americans will win; because this might be a chance to
emigrate to Switzerland, Germany or elsewhere… Stories one can hear on the
spot. I'm just mentioning them, not guaranteeing for them.
Have I listened too much to the "people
from the other side"? The opposite would mean racism. Defining a priori one
populace - Jewish, German or Serbian - as collectively criminal is not the
standpoint of a democrat. Finally, during the German occupation, there were
Albanian, Muslim, Croat SS division -- never Serbian. So how come that a
philosemitic and strong nation - in Serbia itself about ten nationalities live
together successfully - became Nazi with a 50-year delay? A certain number of
Kosovar refugees told me that they fled the repression helped by their
neighbors, Serbian friends.
4. "Well advanced destruction of Serbian
forces…" Well, I'm sorry, but those forces are, seems to me, healthy as
can be. A young sergeant I gave a ride to on the Nis-Belgrade highway, on
service in Kosovo, asked me what is the strategic reason for which NATO targets
civilians. When we went out in a city that had no more electricity, we had to
drink warm Coke. Unpleasant, but one can stand it. I suppose military units have
their own power supplies.
You destroyed bridges on Kosovo that can be
easily bypassed over dried-out creeks. An unimportant airfield was damaged,
empty barracks blasted, military trucks out of order burned, along with wooden
helicopter dummies and wooden artillery pieces left on the meadows. Perfect for
video-shots and briefings, but what then? Do you remember that the Yugoslav
defense system, formed by Tito and his partisans, has no connection with regular
army strategies: dispersed and present everywhere, with its underground command
posts, for a long time ready for the conventional threat -- that used to be the
Soviet threat. Over there they move cannons around with ox-driven carriages, to
It is not a secret, in Kosovo there are some
150 000 armed people, between the age of twenty to seventy - there is no limit
for reservists - out of which only 40-50 thousand in Gen. Pavkovic's III Army.
Talkie-walkies seem to be in good order, and Yugoslavs are the ones who are
disturbing the communication networks -- the UCK uses the mobile one to inform
the American bombers.
Concerning the demoralizing that you hope for,
don't trust anything. In Kosovo, I'm afraid, we can expect very brave troops,
not without impatience. As one reservist from Pristina told me, with an AK on
his shoulder, heading to buy some bread in a local bakery: "When will,
finally, those ground troops come! In a real war, there should be casualties on
both sides…" NATO planners' war-games are some 5000 meters above reality.
I'm begging you: Don't send our vulnerable and intelligent Saint-Cyriens into
terrain they know nothing about! Their goal may be a righteous one, but it will
never be a defensive war for them, not to mention a holy war, as it will be,
rightly or wrongly, for Serbian volunteers from Kosovo and Metohija.
5. "They continue the ethnic
cleansing…" At a Yugoslav-Albanian border post I was enraged by the piles
of plates and personal documents of the ones who had left. They told me this
happened out of fear that "terrorists" don't infiltrate again,
stealing them in order to mask their cars and documents. Lots of things could
pass unnoticed to a humble observer such as me, but the German minister of
defense was lying on 6 May when he stated that there are "between 600 000
and 900 000 displaced persons in Kosovo itself". On a territory of 10 000
square kilometers, this couldn't pass unnoticed to an observer who traveled the
same day to the western part, and from north to the south. In Pristina, where
still tens of thousands of Kosovars live, one can have lunch in an Albanian
pizzeria, surrounded by Albanians. Why can't our ministers ask impartial
witnesses -- Greek doctors from "Doctors Without Frontiers", priests,
vicars… I'm thinking of the extremely balanced Father Stefan, the prior from
Prizren. Because this civil war is not a religious one: numerous mosques are
untouched - except for two, as they told me.
It is possible to buy the foreign policy of a
country - that's what the USA does with countries in this region - but not its
dreams or its memory. If you could see the looks full of hate that Macedonian
customs officers and policemen are sending to armored vehicles and tanks
convoys, that are coming every night from Thesalonikki to Skopje, looks aimed at
the arrogant attendants, unaware of their surrounding, you would understand much
more vividly that it's easier to enter this battlefield then to escape from it.
Will you, like the Italian president, be courageous and smart enough to give up
unrealistic presumptions, and seek with Ibrahim Rugova, according to his words,
"a political solution on a realistic basis"?
In that case, there will be a couple of things
calling for your attention. First: There cannot be a solution bypassing a modus
vivendi between Albanians and Serbs, as Mr. Rugova asked, because in Kosovo
there isn't one but two, or even more ethnic communities. Without entering into
the war of numbers, because reliable statistics are not available, I believe I
figured out there are more then a million Albanians, 250 000 Serbs and 250 000
people from other ethnic groups - Serbs converted to Islam, Turks, Goranies or
hillmen, Gypsies - who are afraid of Greater Albanian domination and who are on
the side of the Serbs. Second: Prevent the resurrection of the savage internal
war, the return of the secular Act I, without which the Act II that is now going
on seems incomprehensible, and that came after a long previous oppression.
Politics are run nowadays always using
parallels with the past. Wouldn't it be more practical to find an example that
is less problematic. You chose parallels with Hitler, including Kosovars as
deported Jews. Allow me to propose another paradigm: Algeria. Mr. Milosevic
surely doesn't qualify as De Gaulle. But, the civilian authorities are dealing
with an army that's fed up with defeats and dreams of a good fight. That regular
army is skeptical about self-standing paramilitaries that could easily resemble
a kind of OAS.
And what if the problem is not in Belgrade,
but on the streets, coffee-shops and groceries of Kosovo? Those people, it's a
fact, are not the ones you would wish to rely on. Once or twice they attacked me
severely. For the sake of the truth, I have to say that Serbian officers were
the ones who rescued me every time.
Do you remember De Gaulle's definition of
NATO: "An organization imposed on the Atlantic Alliance that does not
represent anything else but the military and political underestimation of
Western Europe in relation to the USA"? One day you will have to explain
the reasons why you changed this judgement. While waiting for that, I have to
admit that, asking a Serbian democrat dissident in Belgrade why their current
president urgently received a certain American delegation and not the French
one, I was ashamed when he replied: "In any case it's better to talk to the
boss then to his servants."