The Sunday Times
March 28 1999
AT THE Red Cross office near the Turkish bazaar in Tetovo, Kucu was struggling to get his story straight. The Serbian army had attacked Kotlina at 5am and driven all the young Albanian men out of the village, he said. They had watched in horror from the forest as the women and children were loaded into lorries and driven off towards Kacanik, 30 miles south of Pristina. Then the Serbs had burnt the village.
That was not quite the version that Kucu's friend, Enes, related to a different Red Cross worker a few minutes later. The Serbs had herded the older Albanian men into the woods, Enes said. The younger men had run away. It was 5pm - not 5am - when the Serbs had burnt the village. Then the fugitive Albanians had walked through the night for 20 miles to the Macedonian border. They had crossed the Sar Planina mountains to register as refugees from the war that had destroyed their homes.
It sounded a sadly familiar tale of Serbian mayhem, but a Red Cross volunteer exchanged a glance with a Macedonian interpreter. "These men don't look as though they have walked 20 miles," she said, staring pointedly at Kucu's spotless white running shoes. "They look as though they arrived by Mercedes."
The unusually dapper would-be refugees were not the only sign last week that all is not what it seems in the latest western attempt to impose order on Balkan chaos. A conflict promoted in Washington, London and elsewhere as a crusade against a despot looks a lot more complicated to those who live within earshot of exploding Tomahawk missiles.
To be sure, many of the refugees arriving from Kosovo had sinister stories to tell of Serbian barbarity. Some spoke of relatives murdered, of random executions and of groups of ethnic Albanians being led away at gunpoint.
However, not everyone reaching Macedonia had encountered a genocidal Serb. Many had been scared from their homes not by Milosevic's marauding troops, but by the threat of Nato attacks. Others, like the well dressed Albanians, had motives that were hard to fathom through the centuries-old fog of Balkan intrigue and deceit.
In Tetovo, there was speculation that the Kotlina Albanians had fallen foul of their own side. Reports reaching Skopje have suggested that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the underdog resistance unit of Albanian separatist guerrillas, is not always as heroic as it is sometimes portrayed.
The KLA has been accused in the past of forcibly conscripting Kosovo Albanian men into its ranks. Serbian officials have accused it of attacking its own villages if local men refuse to join up.
There were so many discrepancies in the stories of Kucu and his friends last week that Red Cross officials declared it impossible to know the truth about the supposed burning of Kotlina. The men might have been victims of Serbian aggression; they might have skipped town to avoid being drummed into KLA uniforms. These are the kind of Balkan conundrums that are rarely solved by B52 bombers.
Nor was there much fodder for Nato propagandists among the 200 or so refugees waiting to register at a Skopje district police station early on Friday. Mirvei, a tall Albanian woman clutching her four-month-old baby, looked bewildered when asked if Serbian troops had driven her out. "There were no Serbs," she said. "We were frightened of the bombs."
Hunched uncomfortably together on a kerb, an exhausted pair of elderly Albanian Kosovars puffed wearily on Turkish cigarettes as their Macedonian niece launched into a tirade - not against vicious Serbian oppression, but against the "cowardly" immigration policies of the West.
Her 86-year-old uncle, Ajredien, and his wife, Celebija, 78, had a son and grandchildren living in America and other children in Holland, Switzerland and France. All four countries had refused the elderly couple visas. Resigned to their plight in Kosovo, they had abandoned their home in Gnjilane only when Nato bombs began to fall.
By contrast, Shaban Latifi told the kind of story that last week encouraged Tony Blair to label Milosevic a "vile dictator". Latifi stumbled into the Tetovo Red Cross office on Friday and slumped on a step in the muddy garden. He was there for hours before the Albanian-Macedonian interpreter had time to listen to his story. Clutching a wooden walking stick and a blue sponge bag, Latifi, 76, related in a croaking voice how the Serbian army had swept through the village of Ajrodila, near Pristina.
"In half an hour they killed 38 people," he said. His wife and four grown-up children were murdered. The Serbs spared Latifi, who is sick and nearly deaf, but ordered him to leave. A series of bus rides brought him to Tetovo, where he had been told that a Macedonian-Albanian family would take him in.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Latifi's story was that there seemed to be so few others like it in Macedonia, where no more than a trickle of refugees was arriving. This may have been because of fear of encountering Serbian troops, apprehension about the Nato bombardment or a preference for other exit routes.
Red Cross officials say many of the most recent arrivals intend to return to Kosovo as soon as the Nato bombardment stops. Some claim that the end of the Nato airstrikes could bring a fresh wave of 100,000 or more Albanian refugees. Yet there is no sign that the government seriously expects the refugee problem to become unmanageable.
The return of war to the Balkans has in other ways proved a crushing blow for the one former Yugoslav province that had managed to break away from its parent state without bloodshed. During the past few years Macedonia has quietly been emerging as a stable and potentially prosperous mini-state. "Now it doesn't matter whether Serbia bombs us or not," said Margarita Manceva, an English teacher in Skopje. "The economic damage has been done. We have journalists visiting us now, but no tourists."
Perhaps the most threatening development last week was the alienation of Macedonia's 40,000-strong Serbian minority, as witnessed in attacks on western embassies in Skopje. In a seemingly co-ordinated eruption, hundreds of protesters skirmished with police after hurling stones at the American, British and German missions.
The presence in Macedonia of more than 10,000 Nato troops - originally intended for peacekeeping duties in Kosovo but now widely suspected by Serbs of being a back-up offensive force - has had an unsettling effect.
Ljubco Georgievski, the Macedonian prime minister, acknowledged that in addition to the Kosovo refugees the biggest problem facing his country was "the anti-American and anti-Nato sentiment growing among the population".
For many Macedonians there was little consolation when Christopher Hill, the American ambassador, emphasised that Nato forces were "in no way here to threaten or attack Serbia". In the next breath Hill warned Serbia that "any attempt to attack these forces would have severe consequences". Whether Nato likes it or not, its soldiers have become, like so many Balkan armies before them, a part of the problem they were sent to solve.
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