Dealing with the past in Kosov@?

Howard Clark

The past has been a battlefield in Kosovo for the past century. Since Serbia's bloody conquest of Kosovo in 1912, the rival “victim” historical narratives of the Serbian and Albanian communities in the territory have fuelled cycles of ethnic domination and sometimes atrocities. What people choose to remember or know and what people choose to honour or celebrate continue to shape the future.

A decade of repression under Milo¹evic culminated in massacres and the expulsion or flight from their homes of more than half the territory's 2 million Albanian population. Some troops carried out this operation self-consciously with an eye to cheating future war crimes investigators – hence lorryloads of corpses were taken out of Kosovo and dumped in Serbia (the post-Milo¹evic authorities in Serbia have exhumed 936 corpses from mass graves). The fact that there are several thousand people missing - the majority Albanians who “disappeared” in 1998-99, but also Serbs and Roma who disappeared in the second half of 1999 – and that there are larger numbers of displaced people (including perhaps 100,000 Serbs who fled to Serbia where they are not wanted) mean that for many families yesterday's violence does not belong to the past but is an open wound today.

Memory was denied after the Second World War: Tito pretended that the ethnic conflicts fought within that war did not exist. But ethnic memories survived as “hidden transcripts” carried in families and oral culture, eventually surfacing after Tito's death when dissident historians began to retrieve what had been denied. In contrast, after the wars of Yugoslav succession, truth-telling has been viewed as a central facet of social reconstruction. Post-war Kosovo was swarming with foreign journalists wanting to interview Albanians about the horrors, with human rights activists compiling evidence for far-off trials, and with trauma counsellors offering their model of “emotional healing”.

Four years since the war, ethnic violence in Kosovo is at a lower level, but the ethnic polarisation has eased only in a few areas. Meanwhile there are sections of both communities prepared for further violence and the past remains a battlefield.

Memory is partly a matter of choice. From the flag to street names and statues, the Albanians who now staff the state-in-embryo are choosing exclusive symbols. Two of the pivotal bodies of the 1990s' nonviolent struggle – the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and Freedoms and the (humanitarian) Mother Theresa Association – showed a different approach by choosing to honour certain (Belgrade) Serb co-workers, but their gestures did not have much echo.

The ethnicised memory in Kosovo is homogenised and stereotyping rather than the product of a many-sided search for truth that is open to the experience and perceptions of the Other.

In my view, the press is a symptom rather than a cause of such social attitudes. It ought to challenge stereotypes about all Serbs, for instance by honouring Serbian war resisters – or by backing the recent call by Belgrade human rights activists for the reinstatement of the 30 police officers dismissed in 1999 for refusing to go to Kosovo. But it follows rather than leads opinion. These days anybody with other attitudes and with a desire to know about a different type of Serb can make their own connections.

More insidious than press filtering is how people marginalise their own experience. While many Kosovo Albanians were betrayed by Serbs they knew personally, many also owe their lives to an act of humanity at the height of the ethnic cleansing by a Serb (or a Roma or a Montenegrin). However, acts of humanity across ethnic barriers do not form part of the ethnicised narrative in Kosovo – neither for Albanians nor for Serbs.

Fortunately, there are some people who recognise that everybody in Kosovo has suffered. For Igballe Rogova of the Kosova Women's Network, one of the first tasks in her work of support for the emerging Serbian Women's groups in Kosovo is sharing experiences. It took her two years after her family's own betrayal during the war for her to be able to reach out in this way, but now she is emphatic on the need “to hear about each other's past to construct a relationship for the future”.

Howard Clark is a WRI Council member and author of Civil Resistance in Kosovo (Pluto Press – just published in German by Verlag Weber-Zucht & Co). A 40-page paper published by the Coventry University Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation in 2002 includes a more detailed discussion of strategies for dealing with the past in Kosovo – download from http://legacywww.coventry.ac.uk/legacy/acad/isl/forgive/about/public.htm