Balkans 1996

I often have reason to complain about Facebook, but sometimes it ‘works’ so well, the way nothing in the past ever did, and I am grateful for it.

A short time ago I received a friend request from someone I met only briefly, 18 years ago. Armend was a restaurant worker in Pejë, Kosova, when I was travelling in Kosova and other states of the former Yugoslavia in 1996. It was shortly after the siege of Sarajevo had been broken. Tensions were still high in Kosova, as the Serb-chauvinist government in Belgrade responded to the struggles of the Kosovar Albanians with mass dismissals and repression. I got to talking with Armend and his friends, Murat and Hajra, about the situation, with Armend translating because he was the only one of us who spoke both Albanian and English. I wrote about some of the things we discussed in an article published in The Militant a few weeks later.

Rugova mountains, Kosova, 1996.

Rugova mountains, Kosova, 1996 Photo: James Robb

Later, the three of them invited me to join them when they went hiking up to the Rugova mountains in the region on the border between Kosova and Albania. They were visiting family and friends who spent the summers in the mountains, herding sheep and goats, which they milked and turned the milk into cheese. This was one of the most stunningly beautiful places I have seen anywhere in the world.

Sheep and goats in the shade, Rugova. Photo: James Robb

Sheep and goats in the shade, Rugova.
Photo: James Robb

We walked up through forests abundant with wild strawberries and blueberries – oaks and beeches at lower altitudes, conifers higher up. In the evening we built a huge fire, ate a meal cooked over the fire, drank vodka and a liquor made from fermented goats milk, and sang songs.

Rugova mountain lake

Rugova mountain lake Photo: James Robb

The next day we went to a beautiful mountain lake and had a swim. (The little creatures in the shallows of the lake were newts.

Newts - this species is unique to this one lake

Newts – this species is unique to this one lake Photo: James Robb

My friends called them baby crocodiles, and tried to convince me that the mother lived out in deeper water, where I was swimming). On the way down by a different route, my friends pointed out a little neglected memorial, a sculpture commemorating three local men who had lost their lives fighting side by side for the Partisans in the war which defeated the Nazi occupation and overthrew capitalism in Yugoslavia. One of the men was a Serb, one a Kosovar Albanian, and one a Montenegrin.

Adults from left: me, Hajra, Armend, Murat

Adults from left: me, Hajda, Armend, Murat

The very best experiences I have had while travelling arise out of the recognition that workers living on opposite sides of the globe, speaking different languages, coming from different traditions and experiences, nonetheless have so much in common. This was definitely one of those experiences. We wrote to each other a few times, but soon lost contact through changes of address. Armend never received the photos I sent at the time, and he asked if I still had them. They’re a bit yellowed with age, but here they are. I would like everyone to enjoy the beauty of the Rugova mountains and the warmth and generosity of the Kosovar people, who, despite the huge difficulties they were facing, welcomed a stranger into their midst.

This is the Militant article I wrote at the time.
The Militant  Vol.60/No.31   September 9, 1996  Yugoslavs Remain Unbroken In Face Of War 

SARAJEVO, Bosnia, Yugoslavia – “The war is over for now. But in a month or a year, or maybe 20 or 50 years, it’s bound to start again. The Dayton accords make that a certainty.” Edlin, a young Muslim, was speaking as he helped out in his family’s business, a small cafe in old Sarajevo. He had served in the Bosnian army forces defending Sarajevo from the attacks by the Belgrade-backed chauvinist Serb militias.

Sarajevo 1996. The park in the foreground has been turned into a cemetery

Sarajevo 1996. The park in the foreground has been turned into a cemetery Photo: James Robb

“For three years, we suffered losses, and there were no accords. Then, we began to push back the Serbs, and the Dayton Accords were quickly signed. It prevented us putting an end to the war in a decisive way, so that all the peoples could live together in peace,” he said.

This was just one expression of the sentiment among millions in Yugoslavia who resist the idea promoted by chauvinist forces that they must no longer live or work alongside those of different national origins, as they have done for decades.

Sarajevo 1996: IFOR patrol Photo:James Robb

Sarajevo 1996: patrol by imperialist occupation forces
Photo: James Robb

Under the U.S.-dictated Dayton agreement, imperialist occupation forces claim the right to carry out patrols, inspections, and other probes to assert their military might in the country.

Old city, Sarajevo 1996. Commercial life re-starting. Photo: James Robb

Old city, Sarajevo 1996. Commercial life re-starting. Photo: James Robb

Amid the rubble and destruction of the past several years, commercial life is beginning again in Sarajevo today. In the old city, where the destruction was not as widespread as in some of the newer suburbs, shops and cafes are open, there are children on the streets, and the trams are running. Most basic commodities are available, though prices for food are high, and the water supply is frequently cut. The German mark is the principal means of exchange. Many farms throughout Bosnia lie abandoned, as there are still some 600,000 mines laid, making it dangerous to return. Industry remains more or less at a standstill.

There are still no commercial flights into Sarajevo, but several buses a day connect the city to Zagreb, the Croatian capital. A bus service runs to Belgrade from Lukavica, a village a few kilometers across the Dayton line in an area controlled by the Serb militias.

The NATO occupation forces, called IFOR, maintain a massive presence in Sarajevo. As well as operating checkpoints on the highways leading into the city, and roadblocks across the Dayton demarcation line, they run frequent patrols through the city streets in armored vehicles and, occasionally, tanks. Uniformed soldiers from France, Italy, the United States, Germany, Jordan, Indonesia, and many other countries, mingle with the crowds on the streets, along with many Bosnian police. There is a curfew from 11p.m. to 5a.m.

Most Bosnians this reporter spoke to expressed unease about the Dayton accords, or a guarded optimism at most. “It’s a strange situation we’re in now – not war, not peace,” an office worker said. “I hope the cease-fire will hold.”

Bitterness with the Accords runs deepest among the Serb residents of Sarajevo. “With Dayton, we now have ethnic cleansing American-style,” one told me. He reported several cases of the occupation forces’ complicity with harassment of Serbs living in Sarajevo. “It’s all a matter of real estate. They [the harassers] think, why should I pay ten thousand for this house, if I can get it for nothing by intimidating the occupants into leaving? So they throw stones and break windows, shout “Bloody Serbs”, and no one stops them, not the Bosnian police, not IFOR.

“Our family has been living here, in the heart of Muslim Sarajevo, for 400 years. But now we are going to leave. The multi-ethnic Bosnia the American government talks about is a fraud.”

Under the imperialist-dictated accords, elections are scheduled to be held in Bosnia September 14. To vote, Bosnians must register in the region in which they intend to reside. For many refugees displaced by the “ethnic cleansing” terror of the chauvinist forces, this presents an impossible choice. Either they must return to their former homes, where their safety is still in doubt, or they must register in their place of refuge, and forfeit their right to return to their former homes.

Many Muslims from the territory in the “Serb Republic,” the state set up by the chauvinist Serbian militias in Bosnia, and given de facto recognition under the Dayton accords, face this dilemma. As many as 120,000 Serb refugees living in the “Serb Republic” who left western Bosnia in the last few months of the war are in a similar situation.

There have been reports that the authorities in the “Serb Republic” are compelling these Serb refugees to register in that region, so as to assure a chauvinist electoral victory there. Anxious to project to the world the image of a “free and fair” election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the body supervising the Bosnian vote, has been reluctant to acknowledge that such problems exist, reports the International Herald-Tribune.

PALE, Bosnia, Yugoslavia – A man in blue fatigues with a gun over his shoulder orders me off the bus. “You need a visa,” he says. I show him the visas in my passport for both the Croatian- Bosnian Federation and the Republic of Yugoslavia. “You need a visa for Republika Srpska.” I pay 60 German marks, get a stamp in my passport, and get back on the bus.

In two weeks of traveling in the Balkans, I have now crossed ten `national’ borders, including the “Serb Republic.” I have had to pay visa fees totaling nearly US $400.

Landlocked Macedonia, one of the Yugoslav republics, sits astride two important trade routes: the old East-West route from Western Europe via Belgrade to Athens and Istanbul, and a newly developing one from Italy via Albania to the Black Sea ports. Traveling through Macedonia from Albania to Bulgaria, I counted four new highway tollgates under construction, in addition to several already operating, extracting new taxes from the users of these routes.

Working people in the Balkans are confronted with a choice. One is a future of predatory, expansionist wars among warring gangs, as the would-be capitalists of each country, egged on by the rival imperialist powers, try to solve their problems at the expense of their neighbors. The other road is a voluntary union of the toilers, on the basis of respect for the self- determination of each nation. This was the course workers and farmers of Yugoslavia took in making the Yugoslav revolution in the 1940s.

PEC (Pejë), Kosovo, Yugoslavia – Friday must be a popular day for weddings in this city. This reporter saw four wedding parties in the space of a few hours. In Kosovo, 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians, and weddings are an occasion to dress in national costume and have a procession through the town, singing, and honking the car horns.

One of these processions received an especially warm response from bystanders. On a flat-deck truck laden with people near the head of the procession, some youths had unfurled a huge Albanian flag, a double-headed black eagle on a red background. It billowed out the whole length of the truck. Albanian flags also flew from some other cars in the procession. The wedding procession was transformed into a nationalist demonstration.

Kosovo is a region under military occupation by the Serbian chauvinist regime in Belgrade. A big presence of Serbian soldiers and police keeps a watchful eye on the streets of Pec, stopping cars, searching bags.

In the late 1980s, the government of Yugoslavia responded with brutal repression to strikes in Kosovo and protests against the removal of officials who were Albanian. Scores of demonstrators were killed, Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked, and tens of thousands of Albanians were sacked from their jobs. Many have emigrated to Germany or other European countries, both to find work and to avoid being drafted into the Yugoslav army.

Apartment block, Peja, Kosova, 1996. Satellite dishes became common when Serbian government stopped Albanian-language broadcasting. Photo: James Robb

Apartment block, Peja, Kosova, 1996. Satellite dishes became common when Serbian government stopped Albanian-language broadcasting.
Photo: James Robb

The intensified national oppression of Kosovo Albanians weighs heavily on the region. One visible sign of this is the large number of television satellite dishes one sees attached to even modest homes.

“The government no longer permits television or radio broadcasts in our language, even though we are two million people. Even the television channel based in Pristina [the Kosovo capital] now broadcasts in Serbian,” Armend, a restaurant worker, told me. “So people get the satellite dishes in order to receive broadcasts from Albania. The government tries to jam these signals, too.”

“We live in my wife’s family home, because almost all of her family lives abroad now. Her father and three brothers are in Germany, her two sisters and another brother in Switzerland. In a few years, we might have to follow them. That is when our oldest child turns eight. There is no schooling for Albanian children past the age of eight years – all the schools have been closed down. Our university at Pristina is closed, and occupied by the military.

“Some people try to educate their children at home themselves. But if the soldiers suspect that there is some kind of organized schooling going on – if they see children carrying books into a house, or a mosque, they raid the place and beat everyone up. Even the children.”

“Our leaders have adopted the approach of passive resistance” Armend continued. “Nothing else is possible at the moment. But this situation can’t go on.”

The wedding procession served as a reminder to the occupiers that the Albanian nationalism of the toilers of this region has not been crushed.

BERAT, Albania – Albania today is a country transformed by emigration. With the collapse of the Stalinist regime in the early 1990s, many internal obstacles to Albanians wishing to emigrate were removed. Since that time some 300,000 people, mostly young men – 10 percent of the entire population – have left the country. Italy, Greece, and the United States are the most popular destinations.

Along with the old regime, a large proportion of Albania’s heavy industrial facilities collapsed in the early 1990s. Travelers through the country today pass chemical plants, power stations, glass factories, some of them of immense size, abandoned and decaying. Eliat, a young man who ekes out a living selling paintings of Berat to the few tourists who visit the town, told me, “It’s not enough to live on, what I make from doing this. But since the mill cut back, there are no jobs in Berat.”

Berat, Albania 1996. Huge textile mill "Mao Zedong" shown here was running at twenty percent capacity. Photo: James Robb

Berat, Albania 1996. Huge textile mill “Mao Zedong” shown here was running at twenty percent capacity.
Photo: James Robb

The main source of employment in Berat was once a colossal textile mill. Today it operates at 20 percent capacity. “They have old, poor-quality Chinese machinery. They can’t compete,” Eliat said with a shrug.

Remittances from emigrant workers are now Albania’s chief source of foreign exchange. In place of the products of local manufacture, Albanian cities are awash with imported goods, from Mercedes cars from Germany to bananas from Ecuador. There appears to be little foreign investment in Albanian industry.

Yet, so liberating has been the removal of barriers to emigration, the young men I met at the bar think it is strange that I should ask whether life has got better or worse in recent years. “We weren’t allowed to leave the country before,” they say, thinking I must have misunderstood this point. “Of course it’s better.”

James Robb is a member of the Meat Workers Union in Auckland, New Zealand.


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