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Words at war over Kosovo
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words at war over kosovo

An appeal from Serbian non-governmental organisations:
‘We, as members of civil society associations, have courageously and rationally fought against war and nationalistic propaganda and in support of human rights. We have always raised our voices against the repression against Kosovo Albanians, and demanded the respect of their liberties and guarantees for their rights. We stress that the only connection and co-operation between Serbs and Albanians during all these years has been preserved among civil society institutions. NATO military intervention has undermined all results we have achieved and endangered the very survival of the civil section in Serbia. We demand that the Serbian and international media inform the public in a professional manner and not spur media war, incite inter-ethnic hatred, create irrational public opinion and glorify force as the ultimate accomplishment of the human mind.’

From an official Serbian history:
The Serbs have been living in the territory of Kosovo since the 6th century. That territory is of exceptional importance for the Serbian history and for the cultural-civilizational identity of Serbia – it was the centre of the Serbian statehood and it is important for the Serbs just as the Wailing Wall is important for the Jews. The question of Kosovo is not only a question of territory or of the number of Serbian or Albanian population: it is an inalienable national treasury, indispensable for the identity of the Serbian people.’

On Friday April 9, 1999, Day 17 of the airstrikes, NATO planes flew out on another sortie, just as they had every day since March 24 whenever the weather allowed it. This time, however, it was leaflets they were dropping, two and half million of them, explaining to Serbs why it was that they were under attack.
Some of these may have missed their targets. Certainly right up to Day 75, when an end to the bombing at least seemed possible, many Serbs continued to be baffled as well as distressed by it. Why should any of them believe a NATO leaflet? ‘What’s all this fuss about Albanian refugees? The Albanians have always been trouble.’ Recall the way some people have spoken of, say, gypsies, or Greenham women, and you’ll have caught the tone: irritated, mock-helpless, patronising. But what about the Albanians, and why exactly they are perceived to mean trouble?

‘The political and terrorist’s activities of the present separatists, members of the Albanian national minority in Kosovo, follows consistently the project of the Prizren Ligue from 1878, which envisaged the unification of all Albanians (from Albania, Greece, Macedonia and FRY) and the creation of Great Albania. This programme of unification is still a generally accepted national ideal and political objective of the Albanian extremists.’

To the Serb trucker who spent 10 days driving them from their homes, ‘they’re cowards, those Albanians, they run like rabbits.’ His daughter added, ‘Albanian women smell bad. It’s what they eat.’
Two things about this undeclared war. One: it’s been about attitudes. Attitudes entrenched, attitudes struck or assumed. Attitudes rooted in differing cultures; attitudes changing with the demands of the moment. Attitudes threatened, used as threats. Attitudes at war.
Two: from the start everyone knew that rhetoric, the medium of attitude, would be a major weapon. On Day 64, when it was announced that several thousand additional troops were to be sent out to be on standby for entering Kosovo, equipped ‘with big sharp teeth’, no-one thought that this was because they’d used up all the other ammo. Figures of speech, like clichés, fight wars themselves. So do other rhetorical devices: emotive turns of phrase, hype, spin, tone. From the beginning, rhetorical manipulation was assumed to be constantly at play; but that didn’t stop people from believing it, going along with it, defending it. Rhetoric’s work went on: veiling the real damage, the real killing.
Which is what it’s meant for. It’s good at its job.

In 1389 the Serbs fought a mighty battle in Kosovo; its anniversary is a national holiday. It’s been well said that in order to understand Serbian attitudes you have to remember that they’re the people who annually celebrate a battle they comprehensively lost. That means they put dying for your country higher than winning for it, higher for some even than anything. That means they haven’t forgotten that the battle was between Christendom and Islam; and the Balkans indeed mark the continuing European fault-line between these two great cultures. Serbia and Kosovo were both under Ottoman rule for over 500 years, until the Balkan wars of 1912/13 – when Serbia seized the day and annexed Kosovo and its largely Muslim Albanian population.
It was in 1989, 600 years after the battle, that Slobodan Milosevic told the Serb minority in Kosovo, ‘No-one shall be allowed to beat you.’ And removed the autonomy Kosovo had, largely peacefully, gained in 1974.
And it was in 1999 that a columnist wrote for the New York Times: ‘Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you....You want 1389? We can do 1389.’
Words can get you into situations, and words can keep you there. Threatening words were meant to cow Yugoslavia; and when they didn’t, the threats had to be delivered. And then the bombs had to go on, until someone gave way. The words went on, too.
General Wesley Clark, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (‘a can-do, next-question kind of soldier’): ‘We’re going to systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately – unless President Milosevic complies with the demands of the international community – we’re going to destroy those forces and their facilities and support.’
George Robertson, UK Defence Secretary : ‘We are confronting a regime which is intent on genocide. These airstrikes have one purpose only: to stop the genocidal violence. We are going to hit heavily at his [sic] ability to wage his murderous campaign.’
The New York Times: ‘If NATO’s only strength is that it can bomb forever, then it has to get every ounce out of that. Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.’
General Philippe Morillon, former commanding officer of the UN protection force in Bosnia: ‘Remember how much we were dismayed by Europe’s powerlessness during the war in Bosnia? I don’t see how we can avoid being forced to deploy men in Kosovo. The American theory of ‘zero deaths’ is the best way to end up totally ineffective. Who are those soldiers who are ready to kill and not ready to die?’

Civilian deaths, however, were quick in coming, and set up their own verbal ripples. NATO should redefine its approach, advised one academic: ‘It should first engage in a much more substantial media campaign. These deaths will feed into Milosevic’s propaganda machine.’ Another placed the blame: ‘Milosevic has started a war which is against civilians: his own. NATO has to join a war against the war against civilians.’
The deaths of civilians in attacks on convoys in mid-April gave trouble to NATO’s own propaganda machine. After denial, disinformation, and claims of callous Serb set-ups, spokesman Jamie Shea squared his shoulders: ‘Sometimes one has to risk the lives of the few to save the lives of the many. The pilot dropped his bomb in good faith, as you would expect of a trained pilot from a democratic nation.’
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook carried on firing. ‘We will not accept expressions of regret for the deaths of those people from Milosevic and his media machine. They have killed thousands and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homes. How dare they now produce crocodile tears for people killed in conflict.’ Tony Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell, advising NATO on its media war (‘this is not about spin’), affirmed that ‘part of our job is to expose the lies of the Serb media machine and its role in promoting the conflict’ and tricking Serb civilians into backing their leader.
Serb civilians were indeed subjected to anti-NATO media bombardments at home (where independent journalism was suppressed from the start). An unpleasant, bizarre contest arose: while in Serbia cartoons showed NATO planes flying in swastika formation and headlines screamed ‘NATO NAZIS SPREAD DEATH UNDER COMMAND OF ADOLF CLINTON’, in Germany – Germany – the government launched a propaganda offensive likening Milosevic to Hitler and the refugees to concentration camp victims; the ‘chilling’ images of ‘sealed trains’ carrying Albanians from Kosovo were seized on by the press everywhere.
At the end of April President Milosevic gave his first English language interview, with a US military analyst. ‘Your government is running two wars against our people. One is a military war, and the other is media or propaganda war....You are right, there are a lot of refugees. Everybody’s running away because of bombing. Serbs, Turks, Gypsies, Muslims, of course Albanians are running, deer and birds are running....The refugees you saw on TV were told to say they were driven out by Serbs. Poor Albanians walking through the snow and suffering a lot – and, you know, in Kosovo there was spring, no snow. CNN, Sky, BBC – they are paid to lie.’
NATO was soon to start bombing Serbia’s own state television transmitters and stations, ‘a legitimate target which filled the airways with hate and lies over the years’. Tony Blair declared that ‘these stations are part of the apparatus and power of Milosevic’. A journalist reported from Belgrade that ‘ordinary Serbs, stoked by the images on state television equating NATO with Nazism, have found themselves rallying behind the master of half-truth, almost in spite of themselves’. Serbian rallying, of course, got its own translation in the Western press: people who gathered defiantly on bridges were presented not as brave but as lunatic.
It all depends on your point of view. The dedicated curator of Belgrade’s genocide museum (focused on the victims of Croatia’s Ustache in World War 2) said of Kosovo’s Serb minority, 30,000 of whom were reported to have fled when fighting began, ‘We are witnessing the ethnic cleansing of a historical part of Serbia – something like the fate of the Indians in America.’ Tony Blair on Day 40: ‘Every Kosovan Albanian refugee is fleeing from prejudice and hatred. We are witnessing the repression of an entire community, the mass murder, the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of people just because they are different.’ (‘Witnessing’ is used by neither correctly, and carries a spurious sanctified tone: rhetoric again.)

Veran Matic is the editor-in-chief of B92, Yugoslavia’s leading independent radio, shut down by the authorities on April 2. ‘What can one do under such circumstances? One can report news that is confirmed as far as possible, and is at the same time approved by the authorities. In addition, one can purge one’s language of any trace of hate speech. And hate speech is escalating everywhere. One can almost feel how it gradually creeps under one’s skin, gets into one’s veins.’
As it became clear that NATO’s campaign would not quickly achieve its subtly changing aims (‘mission creep’, as it is called), so the language of aggression became more hateful. It drew on the language of torturers (‘turning the screw’) and the clinical (‘systematically cutting the sinews of the Serb war machine’). But what Veran Matic meant was the language of hatred used by people among themselves, and from which there is always more risk of future vengeance. ‘I fear that hatred will soon darken the horizon, and the fear is stronger than the one I have of F16s and Tomahawks’.
He added: ‘A direct consequence of the US policy in the Balkans [has been] to destroy and silence all alternative democratic voices....In place of an unfettered flow of accurate information, all of us hear only war propaganda – Western rhetoric included.’
Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News agreed: ‘If people turn to broadcasters when we are at war, it is because they want facts, not propaganda. All broadcasters strive to supply these facts. The only exception can be where broadcasts of information might jeopardise soldiers’ lives. Though even that should be treated robustly by broadcasters, or governments will use it as a backdoor route to censorship.’ As they do.
General Jean-Pierre Kelche, chief of French armed forces, on targeting media installations: ‘We consider it an extremely dangerous tool which is warping Serb opinion. We are going to break the network of false information.’ Said one columnist: ‘The weaponry of peacetime politics has been crucial to the prosecution of this war from the beginning.’

In October 1998 Slavko Curuvija printed in his weekly magazine Evropljanin (The European) an article by himself and a colleague, entitled ‘What’s next, Mr Milosevic?’ It was in the form of an open letter, ‘our modest contribution to the struggle against fear’. Here are some passages from it:

‘Everything that Serbs created in this century has been thoughtlessly wasted: state and national boundaries; the status of an ally in two world wars; national dignity; membership in international institutions...The nation has developed a complex as an aggressor, genocidal, vanquished, as well as the last bastion of European Communism.

‘You have degraded the Church, legislature, media, parliament, and the government... Officials of the state you lead demonstrate feudal extravagance and arrogance in the midst of huge misery and poverty. Large companies are run by your cronies.

‘You love secret agreements, mystery, lack of security for your collaborators. You have created a situation in which every official depends on your good grace and is thus forced to conspire forever against each other. The result of these intrigues is that the least able and most unscrupulous individuals are promoted.

‘Organised criminal gangs control circulation of key goods and services. Para-military formations still operate. Street violence and murders are a daily occurrence.
‘You have destroyed the spirit of tolerance by instigating artificial conflicts and propelling confrontations between rich and poor, rural and urban, between Serbia and Montenegro, and police and army. You have turned the students against their professors, the literate against the illiterate.

‘Your excellency: your country, your people and your compatriots have been living for ten years in a state of fear, psychosis, with nothing but death, misery, terror and despair around them. Hungry and humiliated, your citizens have exhausted their spirits and have no strength to make even verbal protests.’

For this verbal protest from a distinguished journalist – no fringe activist but a former policeman and member of the establishment, now a crusader for press freedom – his magazine was fined. On April 9 the regime’s paper Politika Express denounced him as a traitor ‘in the service of American imperialism’. On April 11, near his house, two gunmen shot him dead.
He was not the only dissident to die. But the West still wanted the Serbs to topple Milosevic themselves, scarcely able to understand how fear stifled them: at Curuvija’s funeral, no-one dared speak, least of all to a journalist. ‘We’ve all had a bullet in the head.’ Perhaps we should be grateful that the authorities in this country don’t take dissenting words so seriously that they have the messengers shot.

Professor Fehmi Agani, one of the most respected Albanian intellectuals of his generation and for many years a leader in the Democratic League of Kosovo, pursued a pacifist policy until the breakdown of the Rambouillet peace talks. At that point he saw no alternative to NATO airstrikes. Within days of the start of the bombing, there were reports – incorrect – that Agani had been executed. In fact he had been expelled from his home by Serbian forces.
Two weeks earlier, in Pristina, he had described how in the days of autonomy, Kosovo had been relatively stable.

‘We had a good life. Kosovo participated in the federation in the same way as the republics. It had a parliament, constitution, supreme court, constitutional court, and financial independence. Now, the situation here is quite abnormal. In education, for example, we have schools, throughout Kosovo, which are totally empty. The Albanians want classrooms, but they are not allowed to enter. Sports stadiums, too, are reserved for Serbs. In the administration or the police, all you see are Serbs. So we effectively have an occupation.

‘Kosovo should have the right to decide its own status. Our movement is not secessionist. We simply say we do not accept Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia now is a new state, and it is not our state. It is only Yugoslavia by name. In reality, this new state is Serbia.

‘If we achieve agreement, we will have real institutions, and real politics. Without an agreement, sooner or later war is unavoidable.’

Fehmi Agani went into hiding. Early in May he and his family attempted to escape to Macedonia on a refugee train; but the border was closed and the train turned back. Shortly afterwards Serbian television reported that his body had been found. They claimed he had been killed by the KLA; Agani’s family think differently.
On the eve of NATO’s ‘Operation Allied Force’, he was asked what he thought the future held. ‘God only knows,’ he replied. ‘I don’t even dare to think about it.’
Those of us who are left, in or out of Kosovo, have to think about it very hard indeed. Must it always be true that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history? Must George Orwell’s reminder always be forgotten, that ‘political language is designed to make lies truthful and murder respectable’? We can, after all, choose the words we speak, and those we listen to.

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