The Olympic airlines plane was friendly. People smoked, and the politically correct was as distant from the Boeing 737 as eastern Europe is from the digital west. I looked at the gray skies over Belgrade as we landed. The terminal was not crowded. I waited for my knapsack. Nothing. The transfer from Tel Aviv through Athens left my large knapsack at Olympic’s air port. I went up to the Olympic offices and the girl there had me sign papers. I could have waited for the knapsack, but for some reason I did not want to.
Perhaps because I had so little money. I had taken only $350. Massa Acher had not been so interested in having me go to Kosovo. They hadn’t understood why it was so urgent for me to go there in the middle of January. They approved half of the sum I had requested and I didn’t take anything. Sometimes haggling is more humiliating than an outright refusal. I don’t need anything from them. When I hung up after the conversation with the editor, I thought about this damned profession: no matter how much I stick my neck out in these places – where I really enjoy travelling – and no matter how lucky I’d been and never mind that I’d always come back with 100 percent success – every single time I’ve had to plead, coordinate deals with newspapers and the television and winkle out funds. A free-lancer – a rent-a-journalist whose importance is breaking through the system and to whom there is no commitment.
I left the telephone and packed the knapsack that had remained in Athens. I sat in the office of Olympic Airlines on the second floor of the terminal and rolled a cigarette. The girl offered me compensation of $50 until the knapsack showed up. I asked for it in German marks, which is a wiser currency for people who want to travel in Yugoslavia. Or what was left of it. At that moment, I did not realize how nice it was of Olympic to have detained my knapsack at the airport in Athens and to have paid me for it.
The airport bus departed, driving through the gray city. It was cold, and I filmed through the windshield. In small pack, there was everything I needed. Two stills cameras. A video camera, twenty rolls of film, a survival kit, a fat book by Rebecca West on her journey through Yugoslavia 60 years ago, cigarettes, a storm jacket and pants and a small bottle of whiskey. I was wearing all my clothes. A fleece jacket, a cloth shirt, a T-shirt, pants, underpants, thick socks and walking shoes. A wind mixed with rain fell on the bridge over the Danube, after which the bus stopped by the central bus station.
Serbian is a Slavic language. Like Russian. My trips to central Asia and Russia had given me a narrow familiarity with the language. I looked at the fax that had been sent to me by Gil Reich, the number two man at the Israeli Embassy in Belgrade. Israeli diplomats have pretty good information about the countries where they are stationed. Curiosity and involvement. I looked at the names that were in the fax: Priština or Prizren? The guide book had remained behind in the large knapsack. I did not expect to meet up with the large knapsack in under a week, at least. “Priština.” I said to the woman behind the counter, counting out the dinars. I walked out onto the concrete area. The light was dim and gray. Six hours to Priština. I looked at faces, trying to puzzle out the differences between Serbs and Albanians. The bus set out on the broad highway south, rain beating down on the windows. The gamble on the trip to Kosovo. Why Kosovo? Because Kosovo looked to me like the place where the next conflict in the Balkans would break out. Because I knew there were troubles in Kosovo. Because I had decided that I would study and touch all the roots of evil in the world. Yes.
In the seats next to mine sat men with children. There were hardly any women in the bus. When we stopped in the dark, after three hours of traveling, the cold outside the bus was freezing. There was no police or army barrier between Belgrade and Priština. A father and his son stood beside me in the dark as I rolled myself a cigarette in the cold. I asked them about the situation. The father, a man of 40, said that it wasn’t good. They were from Prizren. He did not want to talk. Yet nonetheless, perhaps because there were no obvious barriers or uniforms, as someone coming from a regime that has oppressed its neighbors would expect – I did not feel any threat.
At 10 o’clock at night, the bus stopped at Priština. I hate arriving places at night. Who askes me? The taxi drivers said I could go to the Grand Hotel in the middle of town or to a cheaper pension on the outskirts and return to the center in the morning. How little cash I had in my money belt. The first day is always a day of getting organized, permits, documents of various kinds. The hotel was large and gray and dim. I took a room, showered and fell asleep. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
The gamble on the hotel proved successful. On the first floor was the Serbian information center. Anna, a woman in her forties, sturdy and pleasant, greeted me. I asked her about permits. She sent me to the Serbian Information Ministry. I asked her about being a paying guest in the home of an Albanian family.
“I’ll phone a woman I know,” she said. “I’ll tell you when I come back.”
At the Information Ministry there were two Japanese journalists and a girl wearing a beret and walking shoes. The cuffs of her pants were covered in mud.
“So what do you think I’m doing here?” she snorted impatiently. She was a journalist who had been stationed in Yugoslavia for some time and it looked as if the place was shortening her life.
“Do you have any idea where the Albanians’ office is?”
“Get yourself an interpreter and go see them. They will want to see your contact man.”
“Where do I find such a thing?”
“Try at ‘Koha Ditore’.”
She looked startled at my ignorance. “The Albanian newspaper.”
“Where is it?”
“On the main street, a hundred meters from here. They have journalists who speak English,” she said impatiently.
“Good luck,” she said angrily and disappeared into the gloom of the staircase.
I left the building and went downstairs. Where there was no pavement, there was mud. In the direction of the stadium there was a crowd. Ibrahim Rogova, the moderate Albanian leader, was holding a press conference, speaking about killings and the road to peace. He spoke guttural French. Press conferences can be boring if you don’t know the details and are looking for a fragment of a sentence that will complete the puzzle in a report. I went back up to the main street of Priština and found the offices of ‘Koha Ditore’ on the second floor of a building on the main street. I stopped a young fellow near the telephone operator who sat behind a glass window and asked him if he spoke English. He spoke English. I asked him whether he knew someone who would come along as an interpreter.
“Yes,” he said. “Wait a minute.” He disappeared down the long corridor, returning after a few minutes. “I’ll come with you if you don’t object.”
“Tsur Shezaf,” I said, proffering a card. I could not have chosen a less communicative name for the profession in which I am engaged.
“Nasser Miftari.” He shook my hand. “Where do you want to go?”
“To get a permit from the ‘Uchaka’.”
“We left the editorial offices and walked through the streets to a blue iron gate. The man in the office took my press card and Nasser’s identification card, glanced at them and sent Nasser off to photocopy the documents. I waited outside under the cold gray sky. The Albanians did not bother to invite me in. When Nasser came back, we took our shoes off and entered. Cultures. The man behind the desk, the representative of Adam Damchik – the political representative of the ‘Uchaka’ – the guerilla organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army, said that his was the first time he had seen an Israeli in Kosovo. He typed out a permit and signed it. we went back out to the street and tried to find a cab driver who would take us. The cab drivers refused They did not want to drive round between the Uchaka and the Serbian police. We stoped at shoemaker who sat me down on a wooden bench and sewed up the seams that had opened on my hiking boots. The Turkish quarter spread around us. Small streets paved with flagstones and houses with tiled roofs. At the entrance to the hotel, I made up with Nasser that I would phone him that night to see if he had managed to get a car and a driver.
“Ah, there you are,” said Anna as late in the afternoon I walked into the press center. “I’ve found you a home. I’ll phone her.”
I looked at the information sheets put out by the Serbian press center. In an item printed at 3:30 in the afternoon there was a report by the center on a battle at a village called Rachak. According to the report, 15 ‘Uchaka’ fighters were killed and one Serb policeman was wounded. Rachak, I thought to myself. Ten minutes later a plump woman with yellow hair and brown eyes walked in to the office. She shook my hand, introduced herself as Nadzha, and led me to a battered green Renault that was parked downstairs. “This is Adrian, my son. He’s an excellent driver. We have a warm home. In October, we hosted a crew from the Japanese press. How long have you come for? Do you need an interpreter?”
We drove south and turned left at a stoplight and drove two streets up to the top of a hill, passing by small houses and stopping in a parking lot near an apartment block.
“Allow me – I’ll help you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. A small knapsack, even if it is full of cameras, is something I carry myself. By the door, on the second floor, we took our shoes off.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You can come in with your shoes on.” Inside, there was heating on. “Are you hungry?” She set the table and served me dinner. I was hungry and tired.
During the meal, I asked her the price of the car for a day’s work. She quoted a figure, we talked in a friendly fashion and we agreed that the next morning I would go out with Adrian. I found Nasser and we agreed to meet at 7:00 in the morning near the Koha Ditore offices. “Come have some coffee,” said Nadzha. Ibrahim, her husband, was sitting in the living room. He was older than her by several years and wore glasses.
“He’s an excellent clarinetist. Would you like to see a video of him with the Priština Albanian group at Skopje? Now he has no work because people say – How can you play at celebrations when everything here is so sad? Do you like the coffee? Adrian is an excellent driver. He knows the roads very well. Do you want me to come along as an interpreter?”
“I’ve made up with Nasser.”
“Yes, I know him. He’s fine,” said Nadzha. “You will find it comfortable here with us. You won’t be sorry you’ve come.”
I went into the bedroom and read about ancient Serbia in Rebecca West’s book.
In June, 1398, the Serbian armies faced off with the Ottoman army. The Serbs were part of a conglomeration of Slavic tribes that had crossed the Danube in the 7th century and had settled in the Balkan Peninsula. The Balkans had not been empty. The Illyrian tribes, the ancestors of the Albanians, had been living in the Balkan Peninsula for over a thousand years. The Serbs converted to Christianity in 879. The Albanians also became Christians. In 969, the Serbs cut themselves off from the dying Byzantine Empire and founded an independent kingdom that lasted for 200 years. The Byzantines came back and got control of it in the 11th century. In 1217, Serbia again became independent and under King Stefan Dečanski became the major power in the Balkans, taking over large parts of northern Greece and Albania. The Golden Age of Serbia ended with Stefan’s death in 1355.
In June, 1389 the Ottoman armies massed to fight the Serb army at Kosovo. The Serbs knew that they were going to their deaths. In their eyes, then as now, the battle was the last barricade before the Islam that was conquering Europe. Tens of thousands of Serbs were killed in the battle, along with their king. On the night after the battle, A Serb partisan sneaked into the tent of Sultan Muratd I and killed him with a dagger. The Sultan’s tomb, the Gazi Mastan, overlooks the Kosovo plain that is soaked with the blood of the battling armies. On one side is the monument that was erected by the Serbs where in 1989 Milosevic swore that he would never abandon ancient Serbia, and on the other is the tomb of the dead sultan whom the Albanians, who accepted Islam during the 400 years of Ottoman rule, make pilgrimages to ask for fertility. Holy water gushes from a spring in the shade of a spreading tree, and votive ribbons hang from its branches.
At the site of the Kosovo battle, Milosevic made his vow in order to ride the waves of nationalism – which has always been the refuge of so many power-hungry people.
And where were the Albanians all this time. There. The Serbs accuse the Albanians of having accepted Islam in order to receive extra priveleges and became the servants and lackeys od the Turks. Ancient hatreds. Muhammed Ali, who established a dynasty that ruled until Farouk in Egypt was of Albanian origin and came tot eh banks of the Nile with crack Ottoman troops.
At the end of the 19th century, Serbia became independent. In 1929 Yugoslavia became independent. Yugoslavia is the name of the southern Slavic kingdom that brought together Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes and Serbs.
The Albanians, who took part in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century, were annexed to Serbia in 1913 and did not gain independence. Moreover, half a million Albanians left Albania with the Turks and settled in Turkey. The autonomy that had been promised them by Tito during World War II when they fought against the Germans and the Italians was realized only in 1974, and was taken away from them by Milosevic in 1989. Tito, the admired leader, continued the transfer of the population, and in 1954 sent 195,000 Albanians from Kosovo to Turkey after the idea of uniting Albania and Kosovo as the seventh Yugoslav republic did not work.
Do historical and religious hatreds die? The dead are the worst of enemies. Defeats produce more flammable fuel than victories. The force of the inferno of Kosovo. Massada. The Patriarchs’ Tomb in Hebron.
The Serbs retreated northwards after their defeat at Kosovo. The Albanians stayed on and filled the vacuum. Kosovo, with its area of nearly 11.000 square kilometers and its population of 2 million was (until the transfer of 1999), the most densely populated region in the Balkans.
The denial of Albanian independence by Milosevic in 1989 gave impetus to the opposition movement headed by Ibrahim Rogova, a moderate poet who preached non-violent resistance – an Albanian Gandhi. At the same time, under the leadership of Adam Damcik, Albanian guerilla organizations sprang up, under the umbrella name of the Uchaka – the Kosovo Liberation Army, a loose coalition of local warlords who began to lay mines, kidnap and ambush the Serb police. The Serbs ignore Rugova and tried to crush the KLA. This led to the tightening noose of the military regime which became a violent outbreak that was stopped by the NATO bombings in October 1998.
The flimsy agreement, backed by unarmed observers, lasted for three months.
The alarm clock rang at 6:00. Nadzha got up and boiled coffee for Adrian and me. Adrian rubbed his eyes. We went out. I had nothing to leave at home. I was wearing all my clothes and we went down to the parking lot. The battered Renault was covered in a layer of frost. Adrian scraped the frost off the windows with a sharp knife. The sky was clear and cold. Nasser was waiting by the entrance tot eh editorial offices. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“To Rachak,” I said. “There was a battle there yesterday. Let’s go see what really happened there.”
“Just a minute,” said Nasser, taking out large white pages with PRESS printed on them. He stuck the pages to one of the side windows and to the windshield with cellophane tape. I did not know whether this was a good idea in a country where the life of a journalist in Sarejevo was worth $500 to a sniper who hit the target.
the roads were empty. A Serbian police car with policeman by it stood by the roadside. I gave a friendly wave to the police and they waved back. The landscape was flat and frozen, farmhouses, haystacks in the fields, thin smoke coming out of the chimneys. The road got more crowded. After three kilometers two armed men in black blocked the road. “Uchaka,” said Nasser. They looked at the permit from Adam Damcik’s office and let us drive on, firmly refusing to be photographed. Nasser warned me of baited traps that the Serbian police left in houses. The house was blown up and black smoke rose from a haystack that burned in the yard. I climbed the steps to look out over the village.
“Someone’s coming,” said Nasser.
“Ask him what happened here.”
Nasser went downstairs from the second floor. “He says that at night there was a battle here, here and in Petrovo, and a lot of people were killed.”
“Not far, two kilometers from here.”
“So let’s go.”
Along the way stood two KLA men, their hands nervously kneading the Kalashnikovs. An old women and two young women walked along the road shaded by trees and bushes. They asked whether the way to Petrovo was open and whether they could get to the main road. They were afraid to remain in the village. We assured them that the road was open and that we hadn’t seen any Serb police or military. They said that there had been shooting at night. We continued on to the center of Petrovo. The men were gathered there. One of them addressed us.
“There was a massacre,” he said. He was a man of 30, tall, mustached and with protruding eyes. “Twenty people. They are in a little ravine above Rachak.”
“Where is Rachak?”
“Two kilometers from here. He says that if you go with them – they will show you. They are afraid to go there alone.”
“So let’s go.”
“Just a minute.” said one of the KLA men. “The commander wants to speak to you.”
The commander was a short plump man wearing camouflage fatigues. The Serbian police wear blue uniforms. The Kalasnikov is the same weapon. The Uchaka were driving through the streets of the village in Jeeps and pickups, men clustered in the streets and the women inside the doors of the houses. The commander talked about the battle of the previous day. The slaughter.
“We’ll take you,” said an older Uchaka man.
“Don’t take pictures!” said Tonio, a younger man.
I turned the camera on and let it run as we walked. Adrian turned the car around in the mud. We drove through the lanes of the village and stopped under a hill. People climbed onto a heavy open cart hitched to a hairy horse. I raised the camera. In a few seconds, the Uchaka Jeep appeared and Tonio leapt out, blockong the camera lens angrily. “I told you not to take pictures!” he said. His voice ws tension and danger.
“Okay,” I said, taking the camera down from my eye and continuing to film. Nasser and Adrian looked at me. All around there was huge pressure and panic. I turned the camera off. There’s no point in getting shot before you have the story.
“Follow us,” said the older Uchaka man, who was wearing solid green fatigues. When Adrian stopped he came up to us again and warned me not to film. I got out of the Renault and switched the camera on. The cars remained at the muddy crossroads. We climbed the hill. The earth was frozen and frost covered the ground with jagged flowers. The air was cold. The sun had not been shining long. I slipped on the ice and the Albanians who were walking ahead of me looked back to see if I could climb. The village disappeared below. To the north was a broad valley; the Uchaka man pointed to the place where the Serbian tanks and anti-aircraft guns stood that had fired directly into the village. Trees above a ravine beyond the ridge. What does a person think about on the way to seeing a slaughter?
“Here’s the first,” said Nasser.
In the ravine, with a puddle of blood beneath him, lay the first. Frost flowers bloomed on his clothing. We continued climbing up the narrow track. The second man who had been shot lay a bit further on, the right side of his face smashed by a direct hit. Instead of an eye there was a pool of frozen blood and around it the bones of the skull had submitted to the impact of the bullet. I walked slowly up the ravine.
“Come here!” called Tonio. “Look!” he said, pointing at the circle where the bullet had entered the back of one of the men. The charred signs of firing at close range blackened the hole in the nape of his neck.
“I turned towards the cry, the camera kept working, following the twists and turns and I went back to the man who was shot. I look through the eyepiece, bring the picture to the place where the skin was scorched around the bullet hole in his neck, beneath the ear. This death, a clean death, was very violent. I walked slowly up the ravine. Counting the dead. Fifteen. Arranged along a trail of blood where they were gunned down. Another smashed face. It was important to the killer to destroy the face. To shoot into the nose so that the face would implode. To make a photographer go away. The masks of frozen blood on the faces were plastic. At the spot where the ravine joined another streambed, more men lay. Arm over arm, leg over leg. The violent death did nto leave any illusion of sleep or a villager napping in a field. The smashed faces, the flowers of blood that the frost had wreathed around them, the layer of white frost on their clothes.
Above the dead men lay a dog. They had also shot the dog. In a place where lives aren’t worth anything, the death of a dog joins the death of his master.
“Come here,” cried Tonio. I crossed the fork in the ravines, abandoning the slaughtered. “Look!” he pointed to a man with a hole in his forehead. “Not only did they murder them, they also robbed them!” Around the dead man were scattered an identification card, papers, photos and an empty wallet. Who ever slaughtered these men coveted their property. The quiet of early morning.
I was the first person from the outside world to have seen this slaughter. The international media drowsed in warm beds in Priština. The watchdog of the free world was still enveloped in the Balkan night. What draws me to the fields of death? What sense guides me to the places that journalists, in their way, say are good places? What’s good for journalists I bad for people who just want to live their lives. Kosovo is not a place where a person can just live his life, or even be proud of his death.
From below, from the village, rose a wail of lament. The news rolled down the frozen slope and spread among the afflicted yards. The women whose husbands had disappeared in the evening, the children whose fathers had been taken away by policemen and never returned. Coming up the ravine appeared a boy of 13 or 14, his face a mask of tears and pain. “I want my father and my brothers!” he wept.
“Go away from here, you mustn’t see –“ Tonio grabbed him, trying to keep him from roaming eh gullies to seek among the dead.
“Leave me alone!” yelled the boy from within his tears. “Don’t ell me what to do. When you came to the village, you said you would protect us if the army or the police came, and when they came – you ran away!” He got free of Tonio and knelt over one of the corpses, his gasps mingle with the lamentations that arose from the house of the village.
I went back to the place where there was concentration of bodies. One of the Uchaka man counted the dead. “Hold this!” I said to Nasser, handing him the small video camera. The corpses at my feet, the end of the 20th century, the cinema century, the television century, had transformed death from an imaginary event to something that happens better on film.
The valley was calm. The chimneys of the houses were not smoking. The silence of death hung in the air. below, the weeping women gathered From one of the alleys emerged three old men wearing the egg-shaped hats that are the Albanian headgear.
We descended along the frozen slope, passing the women and their threnody. The Ochak drove ahead of us to one of the houses. Several dozen men had gathered outside the walled yard. I asked for the names and ages of the men who were killed. The wait got longer.
“First to arrive were the observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and immediately after them came the Serbian police and the army,” spat one of the men. “Tell me – do they mark the villages so that the police can come and kill us?”
The pages arrived. Thirty-six names. Ages 12 to 70. None of the had been a member or a fighter in the KLA. By evening, the list had grown to 46.
“Are we done here?” asked Nasser.
“Yes. Let’s go back to Priština.”
Adrian drove over the muddy roads. They got warmer. It was almost noon. There were still no army or police barricades. There was still no press and the observers in their orange vehicles ahd just arrived in the village. We got to the main road and turned towards Priština. The news of the massacre had not yet arrived. An OSCE vehicle stood in the square. The inspector was busy with the wireless communications device. He did not want to talk. A reporter for French television got out of an armored Land Rover painted white, with TV written on it in big letters.
“Were you in Rachak?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it worth going there?”
“Are there corpses?”
“Everything a journalist could dream of,” I said to the Frenchman and the international media sprang into their armored Jeeps equipped with satellite dishes and portable broadcasting stations, and rushed to the scene of the slaughter.
It is a great honor to be the first journalist in the Valley of Death.
“Did you tell them?” asked Nasser.
“Yes. Let’s get to Priština.”
Priština looked like it had in the morning. “Can we drive to the paper?”
“Yes,” I said. “You have work to do.”
“Do you think I could use your pictures?’
Adrian had not had anything to eat or drink since the morning. None of us had had anything to eat or drink. I sent Adrian home and told him to wait for a call from me. We went into the editorial offices. The editor and the deputy editor looked into the video eyehole, listening to the news. They asked permission to download pictures into the computer to be printed in the newspaper. I left the one of the rolls I had filmed that morning and Nasser, who sat down in a panic at the computer to write a report. I drove with the graphics editor to an editing computer in a house in Priština. linked up the video camera and downloaded images.
I asked the editor of Koha Ditore to send the image documents to my e-mail address and to the e-mail address of the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. I called home and left a message about the slaughter and the phone numbers of the newspaper and the press center.
Nasser was still writing when I got back.
“I’m going to the press center.
“When should I meet you there?”
“When will you be done?’
“Within half an hour.”
“At four,” I said. “Call Adrian and tell him to come to the press center at four. I’ll be there.” I walked the two hundred meters from the editorial offices to the hotel.
At the press center there was word that the police were displaying an exhibit of weapons they had confiscated at Rachak. I went down to the lobby wher Nasser and Adrian were waiting. Adrian had refrained from eating anything. Ramadan. I shared the chocolate I had bought at the airport with Nasser and drank some water from the canteen.
“To Uroševac, to the police.” Uroševac is 40 kilometers south of Priština. The light was neutral nature. The town was crowded with people and vehicles. Saturday. The market was full. A church and a mosque next to one another in the square. we passed them and headed for the police station – a grim building with armed policemen at the entrance. We left Adrian in the car and went inside.
“How does it feel to go into a Serb police station?”
“Strange,” said Nasser. “It’s a strange feeling.”
A policeman led us to the second floor and the deputy police commander proudly showed us the heavy machine gun, the two light machine guns, dozens of assault rifles, greandes, ammunition, two RPG launchers, bullet-proof vests and black ski masks. The deputy commander was proud of the operation. I asked him why they had raided the village despite the peace agreement or the agreement of October 1998. He said that this was Serbia and though the Albanians were the majority in Kosovo, they were an insignificant minority in Yugoslavia and the Albanian terrorists had killed two of his men and set a mine that had wounded nine others. He was proud of Serb Yugoslavia. The central government.
“This is out country and we will attack the terrorists everywhere.”
“Awere any civilians killed?”
“Who was the commander of the operation?”
“Will you carry out more missions like that?”
“Of course. This is our country. We will attack at any time and any place we see fit.”
The words were so similar to the kinds of words that a person hears in disputed occupied territories.
What led the Serbs to attack? Was it the idea of killing, destroying and burning in order to cause the Albanians to immigrate to Albania and anywhere else outside of Kosovo? Was it the helless fury of the strong stabbed by the weak? And perhaps a new system whereby a village that gives shelter to the Uchaka pays the steepest price there is? The deputy commander, tall, sturdy and smiling who regarded the Israeli journalist in a friendly way knew more than he was saying. Not more than three months went by after slaughter at Rachak before the Serbs began the great transfer.
We rode in silence through the darkness back to Priština. We dropped nasser off by the editorial offices and passed through the center of town.
The day was not over yet. At 6:00 in the evening, William Walker, the head of the delegation of European Community observers, called a press conference. Guards checked the audience of journalists carefully; Wlaker’s English is translated into Albanian and Serbian. Walker called by its rightful name: a massacre. he announced that an investigating judge had been invited from the international court at the Hague. I left the building and went back to the hotel. There are times when the profession of journalism turns into a pursuit of details and people and events and there are times when it turns into long and exhausting waiting.
I asked Anna from the press center when I would be able to speak to someone from the Serb side. She said that Mickey, the director of the Serbian Science Ministry, the senior Serb journalist in Priština, would speak to me when he has time. I sat in the pressroom, where journalists more organized than me had hooked up computers to faxes and were sending articles and reports to the whole world, and I rolled a cigarette, adding smoke to the thick air of the room.
“Mickey can see you know,” said Anna when I walked in. My eyes were smashed with smoke and the sights of the day. I hoisted the small knapsack that contained everything a person needs and I followed her into a room across the hall. Mickey, with a black beard and sharp features, and Radovan Uroševic, bespectacled with a square face, greeted me as I entered. They looked at the reports that were appearing on the computer, on the television screen, and answering the phone.
The phone rang and the secretary transferred the call from the radio. Avi Bettelheim from the Voice of Israel and talked to me about the massacre. The massacre had not got through, despite the reports in the media.
They found time for me after half an hour of waiting and sat down by a round table. Mickey did not speak English and Radovan translated. As interpreters will, he edited what was said while translating it. Mickey gave the usual speech on the Serb homeland. On the battle of Kosovo. On the death of 500 Serbs at the hands of Albanian terrorists in 1998 and the death of 3,000 Albanians.
Radovan Uroševic spoke about the similarity between Israel and Serbia. “The only difference is that you are better friends with the Americans than we are,” he said. “Kosovi is for us like Jerusalem is for you.”
I kept quiet and listened. As far as I’m concerned, Jerusalem — the city where I was born and for which I feel the affection anyone feels for the place of his birth – can go up as is to heaven and stay a celestial city, leaving the earth for human beings. The end of the 20th century. All the technology, my little digital camera that records and films, the e-mail, the faxes, the airplanes and everything – it’s all the same. People are people, a cloud of particles around the selfish gene.
“Because of the American threats we were forced to sign the cease fire agreement in October 1998 and the Uchaka came back and took control of the villages they had fled. We do not have a lobby in Congress and rich Jews I America like you have. And I’ll tell you something – if there’s a war here – the Greeks will intervene on our side and the Turks on the Albanian side and the entire southeastern wing of NATO will collapse – therefore the Americans are trying to break us. And there’s another reason – the Turkmen gas, the energy of the 21st century.”
“No. In Turkmenistan. But the pipeline will pass through here – and whoever controls the junction – controls the money. I’ve worked at the World Bank. I know.”
“It never occurred to me that people had other ideas in mind apart from economic motives. How much damage Marx, Engels and Adam Smith did with their social and economic theories. And perhaps the source of the evil is that the serves do not see the Albanians as human beings equal to them. As in many other places in the world – the long-standing superiority of one group over another creates mental patterns that are unchangeable.
It was nearly 10:00 o’clock at night when I left the smoky room. Nothing unexpected had been said in that room. Was the Greek tragedy an imagined event or a photograph of reality? In their defense, the Serbs and the Albanians can argue that their peninsula is the birthplace of tragedy. I prefer Aristophanes. “Lysistrata.” “The Birds.” I phoned and Nadzha answered and sent Adrian to pick me up from the dim lobby of the hotel.
I took my shoes off at the entrance. The night was freezing, and in the apartment the heat was on, pleasant and lit. Nadzha set the table. I was hungry and desiccated, but a small amount of food satisfied me. I wanted to shower in hot water, wash away the day.
Nadzha knocked on the door of my room, inviting me for coffee in the living room with Adrian, his sister, his father and Hoxa, a poet in his 50s with a poetic mane of hair and rolling speech. He spoke excellent English from the years he had lived in the United States. I liked Hoxa very much, with the warmth and vivacity he brought to that sad room. I went back to my room to bring cigarettes and the bottle of whiskey which I put down on the table. We drank raki and coffee. I asked Hoxa about the events of the day.
“We haven’t seen anything like this since the days of Nazi fascists,” he said. “The feeling of the man in the street is that something has happened that is impossible to conceive. The sight of the bodies of those villagers, 12 or 70 years old, and they shoot them just like that –“
“And what do you feel?”
“Beyond fury. Beyond despair. I have no objecting to people dying in war – this is something that happens and will happen – but like this? No one deserves to die like this – a death without honor.”
“What will happen?”
“Only worse,” he said. “For the Serbs, this is the piece of land that is their cradle, even though they are less than 7 percent of the population, and for us it is our motherland.”
The Albanians are spread over a number of countries. In Albania, the capital of which is Tirana, there are 3.5 million. In Macedonia ther are another several hundred thousand. In Kosovo before the transfer there were 2 million. In Turkey there are 2 million. In Greece, several hundred thousand. And why don’t the Kosovo Albanians go to Albania? And why don’t Palestinians in the West Bank go to Jordan? Are rights preserved? And for how long? Ten years? Fifty? Two thousand years.
“What will happen?” Nadzha asked me.
“What will happen?” Nasser Miftari asked me.
“What will happen?” Radovan Uroševic had asked me.
I had no answers, only a vague and painful sense that it is going to be much worse. We had another drink and talked about the events of the day. The television was tuned in to the BBC. The world was watching the massacre we had discovered.
“And what about tomorrow?” asked Nadzha.
“Wake me at 6:00,” I requested. “I’m leaving with Adrian at 6:30.”
After she closed the door and I had opened Rebecca West’s book abut her journey through Yugoslavia 60 years ago and more, I could still here the voices murmuring in the other room.
“Where to? asked Adrian in the morning as we picked up Nasser at the editorial offices.
“Back to Rachak. The funerals are today.”
“The sky was very clear. White frost had accumulated on the dges of the tree branches. Priština was blanketed in white mist. A featherbed. The nearby villages looked serene. The clear green landscape, the soft smoke wafting from the houses that were waking up and the corpses with the imploded skulls that were waiting frozen and covered with frost flowers in the ravine going up the mountain above the village.
The erect minaret of the mosque shone whitely in the center of the village, the soft dome. Next to the mosque weeping women had gathered, keening for the dead men. The minaret was tall, linear and gray. The sun was low and cold and the smell of smoke settled beneath the frost. Little girls wept on a rough cart hitched to a heavy, decorated horse outside the mosque courtyard. I went inside. The sun sent filings of light into the high space of the mosque. The television crews had not yet come inside. They were filming the mourners outside. On the floor, their bodies touching, the dead were lain out. Arm touched arm, leg lay over leg. In the silence of the mosque, in the yellow sunlight that does makes no distinction between good and evil, the sight of the slaughtered men gathered together, lying in tight rows on the floor of the mosque, was chilling. To the right of the entrance, on a small wooden platform, a father and his three sons were lain out. To the left lay a woman and her two children, their eyes open wide in the innocent astonishment of death. An elderly man led in a struggling small boy, holding him by the arm. He lifted the scarf off one of the shot-up faces, washing the child’s face with tears. The photographers had discovered the corpses, and come in to film them.
“The police are coming!” shouted someone outside.
“Quickly!” shouted an OSCE observer. “We have to get out of the village!”
“What are you here for?” snorted one of the journalists? “To run away when the police come?” The journalists rushed to their vehicles. Light arms fire began to buzz over the walls.
“Just a minute,” I said to Adrian, who had parked the battered Renault among the armored Jeeps of the BBC, the French and the Australians. “I’m going in for a moment to piss.” The living also have their rights. Adrian peeked into the courtyard where I was standing, pissing on the world. As usual, where there’s shooting, the simplest things seem to take a very long time. I prolonged the pleasure, bullets buzzing and hitting the walls.
“What are you doing here?!” roared an OSCE observer, rushing into the orange HumVee. “Let’s get out of here!”
“We have a habit,” I said to Adrian, “of being the first to arrive and the last to leave.” He smiled and stepped on the gas, the observers’ vehicle rattling behind us as the rushed to put distance between themselves and trouble.
“Take us with you,” the Albanian villagers implored the observers.
“We can’t,” said an observer with yellow hair and glasses. “We’re not allowed to support either of the sides.”
We stopped at the edge of the village. The shooting increased. Who is shooting at whom? Why have the police come back? To kill the dead?
“Drive!” I told Adrian, and told him to head for the police station at Štimlje were the observers were parked. The police had gone in because the Serbs had sent an investigating judge called Danika Marinkovic. The observers had come to an agreement between the sides that she would go in with an unarmed guard. The judge did not agree. The police went in armed and shooting. Inside waited the KLA fighters. The battle was inevitable. Near the last house of the village huddled Serb refugees from Bosnia. They had nowhere left to go. A group of fleeing villagers had come to the edge of the village to which had returned in order to be closer to the troubles. “Where should we go?” asked an elderly Albanian who was carrying a year-old baby on his shoulders. His was face fear and wondering and resignation to the terrible world around him.
I recalled the conversation I had with a pro-Yugoslav journalist who argued that the Serbs are losing because they don’t know how to conduct a media war, and I wondered if that was the only reason.
The bodies are lying there. The weeping and lamentations of the living outside the mosque, the frozen blood stains on the floor. The bursts of firing from the Serb police advance into the village. scattering the inhabitants and the journalists so that they can spirit away the corpses. Was the morning of January 16 the beginning of the grand Serb plan to cleanse Kosovo of Albanians? From the distance of three months, it all looked planned. The organized slaughter, the kidnapping of the bodies, the pulling out of the earth from under the Albanians’ feet, the Serbs’ media war designed to depict the Albanians as terrorists versus the Serbs fighting for ancient Serbia – for Kosovo.
“Let’s go,” I said to Nasser and Adrian as the battle continued with no end in sight and refugees crowded the road out of Petrovo and Rachak, walking towards the main road. Most of the observers and the journalists were parked along the main road, listening to the sounds of the battle. They’ll get along fine without me. Two kilometers outside the village, life proceeded as normal. A fertile and sad agricultural land. Unlike the middle east, where the sides battle one another confident that even if it is slow in coming, victory will one day be theirs and therefore they can talk peace, despair enveloped Kosovo like the soft blanket of fog. An endless war without beginning or end, which will be fought by the two sides in the miserable knowledge that there is no other way.
“To Kosovo,” I said, meaning the site of the battle of June, 1389. To Gazi Mastan. The original reason for the current destruction.
The broad field was a disappointment. A stone tower, with dedicatory inscriptions in which Milosevic promised he would never leave Kosovo, in June 1989.
Beyond it stood the tomb of Murat I. I doused my head in the waters of the spring and watched the people who came to ask for children, to make a wish. After the past two days my head was empty of wishes, crushed by the brutality of this place that looks so innocent. In a landscape like the Himalayas or the Hindu Cush, this brutality might have been comprehensible, but it is Europe that is the most brutal continent of all. It always has been. A kind of violent and arrogant cultural pride.
We stopped at Gračanica; the tortured frescoes on the walls, the dimness of the centuries-old Serb church, the remnant and the root of the Serb tie to ancient Serbia, which is Kosovo. All around, it was quiet, an agricultural village on the outskirts of Priština. A Serb village, and next to it, an Albanian village. Invisible wires that it was forbidden to cross.
Adrian dropped me off at the entrance to the hotel and I told him that I would be out late and that I would call home when I was done. Upstairs there were messages waiting for me. People were trying to find for me and they would try again soon.
I rolled a cigarette and when the phone rang it was from Yedioth. They wanted a story for the weekend supplement, fast.
I sat down to write. Without a Hebrew speaking computer and an Internet connection I had not alternative but to return to the methods people once used to chronicle the events of history. Paper and a pen. The young American journalist regarded me with admiration; she stared as I sat here and filled up pages with words. I hadn’t the strength to count the words. I wrote eight pages. When I was in the middle of the story the journalist from The Washington Post asked me if I wanted to go out to eat with them at a restaurant. They were five women and looking for an escort. She wrote down the address of the restaurant for me and set it down beside me. There is something entertaining about the sociability of journalists in a strange place. If only I had the time to be sociable. At 10:00 I finished the story and faxed it to the editorial offices in Tel Aviv, and waited for another hour for them to confirm that they had received the material as we had agreed in an earlier phone call. There was no reply. I was exhausted, my head was exploding after 48 hours of stressful motion, corpses and shooting. I phoned Adrian and he and Nadzha appeared a few minutes later. We drove along through the mists of the cold night. The social gatherings could wait. I was left with very little of the money with which I had set out.
“You’re probably hungry” – said Nadzha. She set the table. “Tomorrow if you like I will go to Podujevo – that’s where independent Kosovo is – they’re really an army there.
“We’ll see,” I said. “It could be that I’m going to Belgrade.”
“I went to my room and fell exhausted into bed.
The phone rang in the apartment. Nurit from Massa Aher asked if I had sent the story and said that if the editorial offices and called hysterically then everything had gone through all right. I told her I would go to the press center and that I would be there until noon. If they look for me, I’d be there.
I said goodbye to Nadzha. After I paid for the room, the meals and the car. I was left with enough money to get to Belgrade.
From the Press Center I phoned the Israel Embassy. “We can give you an emergency loan of $80, said Ayala, the administrative officer at the embassy.
“Don’t you have a less insulting way of putting it?”
“That’s what we give,” she said dryly. “You can ask your newspaper to forward you some money – if they really want to forward you money. Can I ask you a personal question?”
“How does it happen that a journalist gets stuck without any money?”
“I used it up,” I said. “The ATM machines don’t work here.”
“Ah –“ she said, “because they don’t have any.” She was prepared to send a telex to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem so that they could ask Massa Aher to forward me enough money to manage with until the flight home. There weren’t any more phone calls. At noon I went down to the lobby. The journalist from the first day, in the filthy pants and the muddy shoes, was sitting there. “Do you know a nice, inexpensive hotel in Belgrade?”
“Try the Park Hotel,” she said.
I shouldered the small knapsack and walked to the Priština bus station.
Gaga, young Serb woman who smoking as she stood in line, began to chat with me in a friendly way. She was studying English at Priština University and was waiting for her boyfriend to send her a visa so that she could go to Holland. To leave this burning land. She spoke with hostility of the American air attacks and her hatred of the regime in Belgrade. “What can we do – when we went on strike against the government they arrested the strike leaders and threw them in jail and others were fired from their jobs. You tell me – what should be done?” We sat next to each other on the bus that traveled north in the afternoon sun that got softer and softer. “Are you married.”
“Too bad!” she said. “Oh – sorry – that’s not what I meant. Do you have E-mail?” She wrote her E-mail address down in my little notebook when we stopped at a roadside restaurant to drink coffee and smoke. “Are you sure you don’t have any time? I’m getting off here. You can stop and see my city –“
I had not set out with any knowledge or pre-concceived notions about Yugoslavia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albanians. But after one week I did not really feel any desire to make friends with Serbs. Even theose who are not directly involved in these deeds are collaborators with the regime. She said good-bye and the bus moved on. I dozed the rest of the way to Belgrade.
I had five German marks left. I got off the bus and thought about looking for a cheap hotel near the station. And then I felt the exhaustion and the tension and the disgust rising in my gorge. I hailed a cab and said “Park Hotel.” I asked the desk clerk how much a room cost, and without listening, I took the room. My credit card was not worth anything, neither in Priština nor in Belgrade, which believes only in German marks – in cash.
I phoned Ayala from the room. “Your newspaper did send you money,” she said, sounding surprised.
I never had a newspaper. “Do you want to come and get it now?”
“I’m too tired. I’ll come by the embassy tomorrow,” I said and went int to take a shower. Through the running water I could hear the telephone ringing. It took a few more rings to convince me that it was the telephone in my room. I wrapped myself in a towel and picked up the receiver. Ziva. The secretary at the weekend supplement. Only part of the text had arrived. I went over the text with her. All the text had arrived, but it was too short by several hundred words. I promised to send her another few hundred words within an hour.
“We’re putting the paper to bed tonight. Can you make that half an hour?”
“Half an hour,” I said, and I sat down, still in the towel, at the desk pulled out the pages I had written the article on and used the back to write on.
The phone rang 25 minutes later. Pests, I said to the air in the room as I lifted the receiver. Dorit.
“How are we?’
“Great,” I said. I had no idea what she was talking about.
“”You have no idea. Yedioth has been looking for you since noon. They called Priština, but there they said that you had gone to belgrade. We tried to figure out which hotel you could be at in Belgrade and I phoned Teddy Preuss in Jerusalem to ask him where you could be, and then I though of asking him what the least expensive hotel is that he knows in Belgrade and we gave the weekend supplement the phone number of the Park Hotel.”
“Amazing,” I said. It was far more surprising than going to Kosovo without a reason and happening on a massacre. I had never heard of the Park Hotel until that afternoon. I had been certain that Ziva, the editorial secretary, had tried to find me through the embassy and had got the phone number from Ayala. I read out the rest of the text to Ziva and I went to sleep.
In the morning I walked through Belgrade. The people were not nice, nor were they not nice. I crossed the river and climbed in the direction of the embassy. Security guards get younger from year to year, and they eyed me suspiciously. I had left my passport at the hotel. They asked how I dared to walk around a strange city without my passport. I shrugged. These should be my problems. When I entered the office of the administrative officer and said good morning, she was busy on the phone, and she smoothed her chin with her other hand to ask how a person could walk around the streets of a European capital unshaven. My large knapsack was still at the airport. The clothes I was wearing were the same clothes I had been wearing for the past eight days. There are people who see shaving as the last line of defense of human civilization. I took the money that had been sent to me by Massa Aher and she lent me Milorad Pavic’s “Dictionary of the Khazars.” I was hoping to meet Pavic the following day, in an attempt to penetrate the depths of the Serb soul. If a writer is a kind of medium who calls up the subconscious and unconscious of the group that nourished him with its murky and hidden feelings. After shooting some film in the streets I dove intot eh hotel with “Dictionary of the Khazars.” I set up an appointment with Pavic at a cafe that overlooks the lions opposite the opera house, at the head of the pedestrian mall.
I got there half an hour early and sat down on the upper floor, overloking the entrance. When noon passed, I went downstairs.
“Yes,” said one of the waiters. “Mr. Pavic was here, and left. He sits here nearly every day. I don’t know whetehr he will be back.” I went back to the hotel and phoned Pavic.
“I’m sick and my wife is sick and our daughter is sick. I waited for you and you weren’t there.”
I explained to him that we had not seen one another.
“And anyway I came to see you as a fellow writer, a colleague – I don’t give interviews to journalists any more.”
“I’d be glad to discuss literature with you.”
“I don’t feel well – some other time.”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“So I hope that we can meet some other time. I hardly ever leave home. We’re all sick and it wasn’t good for me to go out.”
“Dictionary of the Khazars” is a good book. The moving between Isla, Judaism and Christianity, the entrance into the streams of thought. Yet Pavic is known to be a Serb nationalist and I had no great affection for Serbs after what I had seen, after the passive collaboration of so many of them. Suffering and the fight against the Nazis during World War II do not make people acceptable if they do things that should not be done. I closed the book at the page I was on, refrained from talking to Serbs on the street and flew home.
The massacre set off a series of events that rolled like a destructive and crushing stone to the campaign waged by NATO against the Serbs and also to the acceleration of the transfer plan – ethnic cleansing, one of the most extravagant and chilling performances to have been broadcast live at the end of the 20th century.
What is funny – if war can be seen as amusing – is that that the Serbs decided to crush the separatist aspirations of Muslim Bosnia as an example and a warning of what would happen to the Albanians if they continue on the road to independence. This is how the Serb-Bosnian war got underway and it stopped only with the intervention of the international community, and after genocide, ethnic cleansing and destruction. Kosovo is the next Serb lesson. The Serbs apparently are good at lost wars. They lose and commit suicide.
Nasser Miftari did not want to fight. Hoxa – the Albanian poet who predicted the escalation of the conflict and the NATO intervention. Nadzha in her despiar over what she could bring home to support her household. Adrian with the battered Renault. In the lightning of the cruise missiles, in the trains going from palce to place, I thought of Masser and Hoxa and Nadzha and Adrian. Where are they? What happened to them?
The end of history looks further away than ever. History is what people do. The general trend that is unclear. The struggle over territory. Between group and group. Blood versus morality. And what is morality? And what is history? Does a battle lost 610 years ago count for more than the lives of millions? Are we a cloud of matter that surrounds genes and motivated by a territorial imperative, or does every person have a name? Nadzha and her son Adrian and her husband the clarinetist. And their grandchildren who live with them and Hoxa who came to drink the local arak. And Nasser and his sister, and the shoemaker who sewed up the rips in my shoes in the paved lane in the Turkish quarter of Priština and smiled broadly as I sat there and waited in my socks on the wooden bench and the waiter in the Turkish restaurant next tot eh gray Grand Hotel.
The camera accompanies the cruise missiles and the smart bombs and gets excited about the refugee trains and the aid organizations. A good place for the media is a bad place for people. The cold and distant picture through the television is not the real story. The journalist who is reporting is not a hero. He is not the real story. And what is the real story? The torn flesh of people, each of whom encompasses the chilling pain of an entire life.