Le Monde

A traveller's letter to the President of the Republic

Régis Debray
Le Monde, May 13, 1999
Translated by Srzo Bajica, AfP

Since my return from Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo, I have to share an impression with you: I am afraid, Mr President, that we chose the wrong path. You are a man of the field. You don't overestimate the intellectuals who are filling our magniloquent and uniform columns. That is excellent: I don't appreciate them any better. So I'll stick to the facts. "Yours, that is" -- you may say. Well, to the facts I could notice on the spot during my short, one-week stay in Serbia (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, Vranje), between 2 May and 9 May, out of which four days on Kosovo, from Pristina to Pec and from Prizren to Podujevo. I should say they do not correspond to the words that you are using, sincere, and from afar.

Don't think I'm one-sided, partial. I spent last week in Macedonia. I witnessed the arrival of refugees, and heard their stories. They upset me, as many others. I wished to go at any cost and see (from the other side) how this kind of crime is possible,. Since I was never comfortable with the "InTourist" way of travelling, or journalist "bus-cruises", I asked from the Serbian authorities that I travel with my translator and my car, and to have the possibility to go and talk wherever I want. The agreement was honored.

Is the translator important? Yes! Because I realized, to my great disadvantage - but how else could one behave - that an observer may incautiously be taken over by local translators in Macedonia and Albania, who are either fighters or sympathizers of the UCK (KLA), and are "lending" their standpoints and their networks to newly arrived foreigners. Extortion stories are too numerous to be a ground of suspicion against indisputable reality.

Certain testimonies that I collected proved later, after checking on the spot, to be exaggerated, even incorrect. All of this, of course, does not diminish the repugnant scandal of the exodus.

What are you repeating to us constantly? "We are not at war with the Serbian people, but against Milosevic, The Dictator, who, refusing all negotiations, planned in cold blood this genocide of Kosovars. We are limited to annihilation of his repressive apparatus, and this extermination is already in its late stages. The reason that, dispite hitting the wrong targets and producing unwanted casualties, we continue with air-strikes is that Serbian forces in Kosovo continue with operations of ethnic cleansing."

I have serious reason to believe, Mr President, that every word in these sentences is a fraud.

1. "We are not fighting against the people". Don't you know that in the heart of Belgrade, close to the RTS TV building, there is a children's theatre "Dusan Radovic", and that the projectile that blasted the TV building also destroyed the theatre? Three hundred schools all over Serbia have been hit by missiles. Pupils, left on their own, are not going to schools anymore. In the villages, there are kids who are collecting yellow explosive pipes in shapes of toys (model CBU 87). Those are dispersive bombs. Soviets used to throw them in Afghanistan.

The destruction of factories left about 100 000 workers jobless - with incomes of around 230 dinars a month, or 91 francs. Almost half the population is unemployed now. If you believe that this is the way to turn the population against the regime, you're seriously wrong. In spite of tiredness and wretchedness I could not find a single crack in Serbian unity. One girl in Pristina told me: "When they kill four Chinese people, citizens of a great power, the world is angry, but four hundred Serbs don't count. Strange, isn't it?"

I was not a witness of NATO bomber slaughters on buses, refugee convoys, trains, on the hospital in Nis and elsewhere. I haven't witnessed the attack on the Serbian refugee camp (Majino Naselje, April 21 - 4 dead, 20 wounded). I'm talking about some four hundred thousand refugee Serbs that the Croats deported from Krajina without the benefit of microphones and cameras.

However, I'll stick to the place and time of my visit to Kosovo -- General Jertz, the NATO spokesman stated the following: "We never attacked any refugee convoy, and we never attacked any civilians". This is a direct lie. In the village of Lipljan, I saw on Thursday, 6 May a private house that a missile had turned into ashes: three massacred girls, with their grandparents. There were no military facilities for three kilometers around. The next day I saw in Prizren, in the Gypsy suburb, two more civilian houses turned into ruins only a few hours prior to my arrival, with debris still covering several victims.

2. "Milosevic, The Dictator…" Activists from opposition parties, the only ones I talked to, reminded me of the cruel reality. Autocrat, cheater, manipulator and a populist, Mr. Milosevic was still elected president three times in a row. Dictators are elected once, never twice. He respects the Yugoslav constitution. The system is not a one-party system. His party is in minority in the Parliament. There are no political prisoners, or unstable coalitions. As if he were absent from the everyday landscape. He can be freely criticized on local restaurant terraces - without any hesitation - people don't care. No "totalitarian" charisma is present. It seems that the West is much more obsessed by Milosevic than his compatriots. To mention Munich in connection with him means to turn upside down the relations of the strong and the weak, and suppose that an isolated and poor country with ten million citizens that seeks nothing outside the borders of old Yugoslavia may be compared with predatory, over-equipped Hitler's Germany. It is hard to see when your eyes are closed.

3. "Kosovar Genocide…" Terrible chapter. I met two western eye-witnesses. One of them is Alexander Mitic, AFP correspondent from Pristina, of Serbian origin. The other one is Paul Watson, an Anglophone Canadian, LA Times Central Europe correspondent. He has reported from Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, the Gulf War and Rwanda: not a rookie. Pretty much anti-Serb. He followed the Kosovo civil war for two years, where he knows every village and every little mountain road. A hero, consequently modest. When they expelled all the journalists from Kosovo on the first day of air-raids he stayed in anonymity. And never stopped moving and observing.

His evidence is moderate and coincident with others, persuasive. Under the flood of bombs, the worst atrocities were committed in first three days (March 24, 25 and 26). Burning, looting, murders. A couple of thousand Albanians got orders to leave on those days. He was convincing me that since then he never came across any proof of crimes against humanity. No doubt those two diligent observers couldn't see everything. Me neither. I can only testify about Albanian farmers who were returning to Podujevo, about Serbian soldiers who are guarding Albanian bakeries - ten of those have re-opened in Pristina - and about the wounded in bombing campaigns, Albanians and Serbs, lying side by side in Pristina City Hospital (two thousand beds).

So what happened? In his opinion: the sudden weight of an international air-war on top of an extremely cruel civil war. I am reminding you that during 1998 about 1700 Albanian fighters were killed, as well as some 180 Serbian policemen and 120 soldiers. The UCK kidnapped 380 persons, later releasing 103 while the others are dead or missing, sometimes after torture. Among them: 2 journalists and 14 workers. The UCK had 6000 illegal guerilla fighters in Pristina, and I was told that their snipers started their action with the first bombs. Concluding that they are unable to fight on two fronts, the Serbs decided to evacuate "manu militari", "NATO's fifth column", it's "ground force", that is, the UCK, especially in the villages where it merged with civilian population.

Localized, but certain, those evacuations, in the "Israeli way", as they call them down there, and you, as an old soldier from Algeria must remember those -- we deported millions of Algerian civilians and locked them up in concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire in order to "clean the water of the fish" -- left here and there some traces under the blue sky: burned homes, ghost villages. Those military clashes caused before the bombing started - civilian escapes - mostly, as they told me, of the fighter families. According to an AFP correspondent, they were very limited. "People found safety in neighboring houses" he wrote - "no one was starving, no one was shot on the road or ran away to Albania and Macedonia". The NATO attack directly triggered the avalanche, the human catastrophe. Until that time, actually, there was no need for refugee camps on the borders. In the first days, everyone agrees, the so-called "uncontrolled elements", probably with police assistance, stepped up their actions.

Mr. Vuk Draskovic, Deputy Prime Minister, who distanced himself today, as well as others, told me that since that time, about 300 people were arrested in Kosovo. Cosmetic? Alibi? Unclear consciousness? This all should not be eliminated as possible reasons. Finally, the exodus continues, but in smaller proportions. Sometimes under direct UCK orders, the UCK wanting to evacuate their people; sometimes because of fear not to be labeled as "collaborationists"; fear of bombs, as well, bombs that make no difference between Serbs, Albanians and others from an altitude of 6000 meters; sometimes to join their relatives who have left already; or because the cattle is dead; because the Americans will win; because this might be a chance to emigrate to Switzerland, Germany or elsewhere… Stories one can hear on the spot. I'm just mentioning them, not guaranteeing for them.

Have I listened too much to the "people from the other side"? The opposite would mean racism. Defining a priori one populace - Jewish, German or Serbian - as collectively criminal is not the standpoint of a democrat. Finally, during the German occupation, there were Albanian, Muslim, Croat SS division -- never Serbian. So how come that a philosemitic and strong nation - in Serbia itself about ten nationalities live together successfully - became Nazi with a 50-year delay? A certain number of Kosovar refugees told me that they fled the repression helped by their neighbors, Serbian friends.

4. "Well advanced destruction of Serbian forces…" Well, I'm sorry, but those forces are, seems to me, healthy as can be. A young sergeant I gave a ride to on the Nis-Belgrade highway, on service in Kosovo, asked me what is the strategic reason for which NATO targets civilians. When we went out in a city that had no more electricity, we had to drink warm Coke. Unpleasant, but one can stand it. I suppose military units have their own power supplies.

You destroyed bridges on Kosovo that can be easily bypassed over dried-out creeks. An unimportant airfield was damaged, empty barracks blasted, military trucks out of order burned, along with wooden helicopter dummies and wooden artillery pieces left on the meadows. Perfect for video-shots and briefings, but what then? Do you remember that the Yugoslav defense system, formed by Tito and his partisans, has no connection with regular army strategies: dispersed and present everywhere, with its underground command posts, for a long time ready for the conventional threat -- that used to be the Soviet threat. Over there they move cannons around with ox-driven carriages, to avoid heat-detection.

It is not a secret, in Kosovo there are some 150 000 armed people, between the age of twenty to seventy - there is no limit for reservists - out of which only 40-50 thousand in Gen. Pavkovic's III Army. Talkie-walkies seem to be in good order, and Yugoslavs are the ones who are disturbing the communication networks -- the UCK uses the mobile one to inform the American bombers.

Concerning the demoralizing that you hope for, don't trust anything. In Kosovo, I'm afraid, we can expect very brave troops, not without impatience. As one reservist from Pristina told me, with an AK on his shoulder, heading to buy some bread in a local bakery: "When will, finally, those ground troops come! In a real war, there should be casualties on both sides…" NATO planners' war-games are some 5000 meters above reality. I'm begging you: Don't send our vulnerable and intelligent Saint-Cyriens into terrain they know nothing about! Their goal may be a righteous one, but it will never be a defensive war for them, not to mention a holy war, as it will be, rightly or wrongly, for Serbian volunteers from Kosovo and Metohija.

5. "They continue the ethnic cleansing…" At a Yugoslav-Albanian border post I was enraged by the piles of plates and personal documents of the ones who had left. They told me this happened out of fear that "terrorists" don't infiltrate again, stealing them in order to mask their cars and documents. Lots of things could pass unnoticed to a humble observer such as me, but the German minister of defense was lying on 6 May when he stated that there are "between 600 000 and 900 000 displaced persons in Kosovo itself". On a territory of 10 000 square kilometers, this couldn't pass unnoticed to an observer who traveled the same day to the western part, and from north to the south. In Pristina, where still tens of thousands of Kosovars live, one can have lunch in an Albanian pizzeria, surrounded by Albanians. Why can't our ministers ask impartial witnesses -- Greek doctors from "Doctors Without Frontiers", priests, vicars… I'm thinking of the extremely balanced Father Stefan, the prior from Prizren. Because this civil war is not a religious one: numerous mosques are untouched - except for two, as they told me.

It is possible to buy the foreign policy of a country - that's what the USA does with countries in this region - but not its dreams or its memory. If you could see the looks full of hate that Macedonian customs officers and policemen are sending to armored vehicles and tanks convoys, that are coming every night from Thesalonikki to Skopje, looks aimed at the arrogant attendants, unaware of their surrounding, you would understand much more vividly that it's easier to enter this battlefield then to escape from it. Will you, like the Italian president, be courageous and smart enough to give up unrealistic presumptions, and seek with Ibrahim Rugova, according to his words, "a political solution on a realistic basis"?

In that case, there will be a couple of things calling for your attention. First: There cannot be a solution bypassing a modus vivendi between Albanians and Serbs, as Mr. Rugova asked, because in Kosovo there isn't one but two, or even more ethnic communities. Without entering into the war of numbers, because reliable statistics are not available, I believe I figured out there are more then a million Albanians, 250 000 Serbs and 250 000 people from other ethnic groups - Serbs converted to Islam, Turks, Goranies or hillmen, Gypsies - who are afraid of Greater Albanian domination and who are on the side of the Serbs. Second: Prevent the resurrection of the savage internal war, the return of the secular Act I, without which the Act II that is now going on seems incomprehensible, and that came after a long previous oppression.

Politics are run nowadays always using parallels with the past. Wouldn't it be more practical to find an example that is less problematic. You chose parallels with Hitler, including Kosovars as deported Jews. Allow me to propose another paradigm: Algeria. Mr. Milosevic surely doesn't qualify as De Gaulle. But, the civilian authorities are dealing with an army that's fed up with defeats and dreams of a good fight. That regular army is skeptical about self-standing paramilitaries that could easily resemble a kind of OAS.

And what if the problem is not in Belgrade, but on the streets, coffee-shops and groceries of Kosovo? Those people, it's a fact, are not the ones you would wish to rely on. Once or twice they attacked me severely. For the sake of the truth, I have to say that Serbian officers were the ones who rescued me every time.

Do you remember De Gaulle's definition of NATO: "An organization imposed on the Atlantic Alliance that does not represent anything else but the military and political underestimation of Western Europe in relation to the USA"? One day you will have to explain the reasons why you changed this judgement. While waiting for that, I have to admit that, asking a Serbian democrat dissident in Belgrade why their current president urgently received a certain American delegation and not the French one, I was ashamed when he replied: "In any case it's better to talk to the boss then to his servants."

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