First Person: Jailed In Repressed Kosovo

I traveled to Pristina, capital of the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo, last month as an affiliate of the California-based organization Peaceworkers. We met with Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, and observed massive demonstrations by Albanians who were protesting the recent massacre in the nearby Drenica region. Our visit culminated in our unexpected arrest. We were detained and summarily sentenced to 10 days in jail for failure to register our presence in Pristina with the local police. An American diplomat trying to get us released likened this infraction to "tearing the tag off a mattress."

Peaceworkers came to Kosovo as observers on the invitation of the Independent Student Union, one of the leaders of the current series of protests. While in Pristina, we met with a variety of people who are active in holding together the largely underground infrastructure of Albanian society: professors, doctors, journalists and human-rights workers.

Kosovo's population is 90 percent Albanian. As Peaceworkers met with professors, doctors, journalists, human-rights workers and ordinary citizens, we learned how in the late 1980s, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic removed Kosovo's constitutional status as an autonomous province. In the following years, Albanian teachers and professors were removed from the schools, doctors and nurses from the hospitals, and most workers were fired from their jobs. The result was the destruction of Kosovo's economy.

The dean of the philology faculty of Pristina's underground university explained to us how, in 1991, the Serbian regime had imposed an exclusively Serbian-language curriculum. When the Albanian professors refused to teach this curriculum, they were fired. High-school teachers and university professors soon set up a parallel educational system in private rooms, basements and storefronts. We visited an advanced English class in an unheated, empty store. Boxes of bottles lined the back of the room. The students sat on makeshift wooden benches, wearing their coats, hats and gloves. The young teacher shivered as she gave a lesson in prefixes: neo-liberalism, neo-colonialism. Pan-Hellenic, pan-Balkan.

During a visit to Mother Teresa Clinic, the only free OB-Gyn facility in Kosovo, we heard how in 1990, police had entered the hospital in Pristina and fired doctors and nurses with no notice, even in the middle of operations, beating those who protested. The clinic we visited represents a valiant effort at creating a parallel medical system but is pitifully inadequate for a population of 2 million. Women who have given birth share beds for lack of space and must leave the clinic two hours later. We saw three newborns heated by plastic soft-drink bottles filled with warm water. Most women give birth at home now, and the infant mortality rate has more than doubled.

In the nine years since the Serbian government removed Kosovo's autonomous status, repression has constantly increased. For most of that period, Albanians have feared to protest their loss of rights, due to the possibility of violent reprisal. Indeed, random violence against Albanians is the rule. The young dental student with whose family I stayed was recently taken off the bus by a policeman and beaten on the street for possessing a library card, evidence of his attendance in the parallel university system. A high-school pupil I met had been beaten for not being able to speak the Serbian language. And last month's massacre at Drenica, where the police killed around 100 men, women and children, was only the most recent of many atrocities against villagers.

The Albanians' response to the Serbian government's destruction of their social infrastructure and repression has been passive until recently. But presently, two options have appeared: the Kosovo Liberation Army and the nonviolent protest movement led by the students. From inside Kosovo, it appears that the army, most likely a few armed groups in the villages, has no chance of posing a serious threat to the regime, and a strong likelihood of suffering more massacres. Villages in the Drenica area and further west continue to be attacked today by an army masquerading as a police force.

At the same time, my colleagues and I daily witnessed peaceful rallies numbering up to 200,000. Accompanied by journalists and other foreign observers, these demonstrations have managed to encourage defiance of the police state and send a message of resistance that the world has had little opportunity to hear until now. The images of thousands of demonstrators sitting down in the street in front of a line of heavily armed policemen, and of 20,000 women trying to march to Drenica with bread for the villagers in their hands, will stay with me forever. We would do well to support and encourage this grass-roots movement before more Albanians lose their patience and turn to a more dangerous path.

The day I left Pristina to return to Sarajevo, I was taken off the bus and arrested. The police placed me in a room with seven Albanian men who had also been arrested that day. What I saw when I walked into that cell shocked me. The seven men, required to stand in line with their heads down and their hands behind their backs whenever a guard entered, had the most demoralized air I had ever encountered among human beings. It was clear that some of them had been beaten; I could tell by their swollen hands and the bruises I later witnessed in the shower. There wasn't much point in asking the reason; there is none. In the evening of my first day, guards came in regularly, and I saw them slap a boy who could not have been older than 16, for not speaking the Serbian language. Another young man was struck for having attended one of the demonstrations.

Upon strong pressure from our embassy, we Americans were freed after a few days. But life goes on in Kosovo; for the Albanians the difference between being in and out of jail is not as great as one would wish. Kosovo needs more attention from humanitarian-aid organizations, international journalists and human-rights observers. And the West must bear down on the Serbian regime to negotiate with the Kosovo Albanians without preconditions and with an international mediator.

Responsibility for the situation in Kosovo goes to the top of the Yugoslav government, in the person of Slobodan Milosevic. This person should be indicted for crimes against humanity in Croatia, genocide in Bosnia, and now, atrocities in Kosovo. It is time for the West to stop treating him as "a man we can do business with."

Peter Lippman has been working as a translator and in a humanitarian aid organization in Bosnia since last fall. He was part of a group recently invited to visit Kosovo.