Remembering Kosova

I’ve just finished reading Shadow Behind the Sun, a book I blogged about a wee while ago. By Remzija Sherifi, a Kosovan Albanian, it tells the story of her life under the oppressive Serbian regime and and the 1999 war, and her family’s escape to Scotland as refugees. Intermingled with this narrative are reflections on the refugee and asylum-seeker community in Glasgow, where she found work.

It’s a brilliant book – told plainly and uncompromisingly, but with dignity throughout. The way that the increasingly fascist (my word, not the author’s) regime in Belgrade began to clamp down on the majority Albanian population in Kosova was a dark time, and while the general drift is known to me, many details were helpfully revealed in Sherifi’s book. She does not hide the facts about what happens to the Kosovans, but neither does she demonise Serbs or find reason to hate them as a race.

The book brought back memories of my own time in Kosova in 1999. Shortly after the war and when the NATO troops had moved in, Kosova was in a state of devastation, but also an exhausted relief and an emerging optimism.

While a decade of UN administration and constitutional uncertainty – still not resolved despite Kosova’s recent and controversial declaration of independence – has led to a something of a reality check, and the euphoria had gone when I re-visited in 2001, there are still things to celebrate. This article on BBC News, for instance, covers the unveiling of a statue of Bill Clinton in the Kosovan capital, Pristina.

The US President in 1999, along with Tony Blair and other NATO allies, led the military action against Milosevic’s regime which – although shamefully late – was successful in ending the war in Kosova and freeing the Albanian majority from around a decade of apartheid. Clinton, Blair and others were seen as heroic liberators by the Albanians, and even the then-NATO press spokesman Jamie Shea was held up as a saviour – it was he they saw on Albanian TV broadcasts every night powerfully repeating NATO’s promise that Milosevic would be beaten.

Indeed, in one of the most surreal moments in Kosova’s time in the headlines, I remember seeing a news report some months after the war, in which Shea – then basically just a NATO civil servant – was utterly overwhelmed on his first visit to the province by a delighted mob of joyous Kosovans all chanting his name.

There are so many stories to tell of my time in Kosova – which, it is amazing to think, was a decade ago – and I’ve never really told it in a formalised way. Although my forthcoming book contains a few tangental anecdotes from that adventure, one occasion not in the book which is worth telling now is when our truck was painted by some Albanian kids in Pristina one afternoon.

Most of what they did was graffiti – misspelt endorsements of heroes such as Clinton, Blair and the UK’s Foreign Secretary at the time Robin Cook. One creation struck me as quite peculiar, though. A tall, dense, red column had been painted by one child, towering over the work of his friends’, and the best way I could describe it would be as a cross between a triffid and a skyscraper. The young artist informed me it was Madaleine Albright.

Two years into the disappointment of the Blair years, our government in 1999 seemed awfully flawed to us; increasingly in the pocket of big business and increasingly unable to avoid perpetuating and exacerbating the inequality and moral bankruptcy of years of Tory rule.

To the Kosovans, however, who sought not political perfection but merely freedom from death, Blair, Clinton and co were everything they’d hoped for. In their eyes, they delivered. They were liberators.

No wonder Kosovans – the Albanians, at least – have built and celebrated a statue to Clinton. The horrors you can read about in Remzije Sherifi’s Shadow Behind the Sun make it perfectly, chillingly clear why.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Kosova

  1. Hmm, kind of disagree with that third last paragraph, Varwell, which sits uneasily with an otherwise balanced blog entry. No matter your own view of the Blair years, I don’t think any serious discontent set in with “us” (to which I presume to read the general public rather than your regular readers) until the Iraq war got underway.

  2. I’d kind of disagree in turn. A number of reasons for disillusionment in those early years spring to mind.

    By then, tuition fees had been introduced and there seemed no end to the problem of student finance (something cogent at the time); Blair’s attitude towards devolution (“sovereignty still resides with me as an English MP”) set the stall out for his views towards Scotland; and there was already a loss to the “good ethics” sheen with Ecclestone’s donation to Labour giving F1 an exemption to the tobacco ad ban.

    They were matters of discontent with me, although I’d admit I was never content with him even before the election, and while these criticisms were widespread they were perhaps not universal.

    However, it was not too early in the Blair years for many people to realise there were serious problems with the Labour administration. Most people in the UK would have had nowhere near the level of satisfaction or adoration felt by the Kosovan Albanians.

  3. No doubt there were issues, as there will always be with any government new or old, but I really don’t think in these early days that there was general disillusionment, except those who were defiantly anti-Labour/Blair from the offset anyway. Even from the Scottish perspective, Scotland being a Labour stronghold, the public were delighted that many years of Tory rule had finally ended. And we even got some devolution into the bargain.

    The British public, not being an oppressed people, are never going to embrace a government with adoring relish, but the relief of these early Blair years were tangible, and though clearly diminishing over the years until the sharp downturn following the Iraq war, in 1999 I don’t believe the general view could possibly be called “disillusioned”.

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