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August 1990

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A House Much Divided

Text by Kenneth C. Danforth (Excerpted from the August 1990 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.)

The jackdaws came at korzo time in Pristina, capital of Kosovo Province in Yugoslavia. Cawing and squawking over the main street, they whirled down in a black mass, then flapped out toward the reddening sky only to swoop back again. It took them an hour to settle on the bare branches of the trees, and their social adjustments as night descended kept the racket going almost until curfew.

The korzo is the traditional evening stroll that people—laughing, chatting, flirting—make in every town in this Balkan country. But in Pristina it had a somber air. Joy had forsaken the town; no bands played; the cry of the jackdaws was the only sound I heard.

Families ambled under the grit-filtered glare of streetlamps, and if they talked, it was in a murmur, fearful they would be overheard. For in a street closed to all vehicles except police cars and armored vans with machine-gun turrets, they walked under the sullen scrutiny of steel-helmeted militia with bulletproof aprons and submachine guns. These citizens of Kosovo, a self-governing province of the Republic of Serbia, could be bludgeoned and jailed just for saying “Republic of Kosovo.”

Serbia had wiped out their autonomy with tanks, troops, tear gas, and terror. Though not many Serbs live in Kosovo, they consider it the sacred heart of medieval Serbia. They cannot stand the thought of losing it to a non-Slavic, non-Orthodox populace whom they call “overbreeding defilers.”

Ethnic Albanians, mainly Muslim and Europe’s fastest growing population, form 90 percent of Kosovo’s inhabitants. They claim descent from the Illyrians, whose homeland this was for centuries before Serbs and other Slavs swept out of the north. Finding “autonomous province” an empty phrase, Kosovo Albanians clamor for their own republic in the Yugoslav federation, coequal with Serbia.

From this confrontation comes violence. Rioting Albanians have stoned and beaten outnumbered Serbs. The state, reacting with brute force, has shot Kosovo Albanians, killing more than 35 since the first of the year.

“Some were just kids, only making the V for victory sign or chanting Lavdi!, which means ‘glory,’ or Demokraci!” I was told in a back-street café.

“Police go into people’s houses and shoot them, branding them secessionists and terrorists” was another charge.

Curfew came at nine o’clock, but I had been advised to be indoors before eight. After that, one is viewed with increasing suspicion. I lingered until 15 minutes before curfew, by then sharing the street only with scowling militia and the man who seemed to come and go from the hotel whenever I did. Everyone else had hurried home, and the jackdaws slept at last.

To understand the emotions Kosovo stirs in the Serbs, you have to go back to 1389, to the Battle of Kosovo Polje—the Field of Blackbirds—one of the largest battles ever fought in medieval Europe. I drove out from Pristina. Thick smoke from a coal-fired power plant blew across the frozen fields, pitch-black earth dusted with snow. Here a Christian alliance tried to block the northward advance of the invading Ottoman Turks.

Losses on both sides were appalling; legend says that birds tore at the corpses for weeks. The battle spelled the end of the once powerful Serbian empire, though more fierce battles lay ahead and the Turks did not occupy the land for 70 more years.

The leaders of both armies were killed. Strikingly different monuments to each stand near the hamlet of Gazimestan. A centuries-old mulberry shelters the mausoleum built where Sultan Murad I died in his tent.

No one knows where Serbian Prince Lazar fell, but a stone tower honors him and the other “heroes of Kosovo.” In the summer of 1989 on the 600th anniversary of the battle a million Serbs came to this hilltop. They were there to wrest victory from an old defeat, saying in effect that a charter of perpetual suzerainty was written in the blood Serbs had spilled there. And they came to celebrate tough new measures under which Serbia was dismantling whatever remained of Kosovo’s autonomy.

Kosovo’s Albanians stayed away.

Now, months later, I was alone at the monument. A bitter wind swirled snow around the base and stung my eyes. Beyond the cleared area, stuck on a ring of bare shrubs, hung plastic trash left behind by the celebrators.

Driving back to Pristina, I was stopped by policemen so that three big buses crammed with soldiers could pull into a military compound. Scores of tanks were parked there, poised for a five-minute dash into Pristina.

Military authorities had closed the airport, so to get to Pristina the day before I had flown to Skopje, in the neighboring republic of Macedonia. At the car-rental agency I had insisted on license plates with an “LJ” prefix—to imply that I was from Ljubljana, in Slovenia far to the north, not Belgrade, capital of Serbia as well as of Yugoslavia. I was following one of two suggestions for traveling in Kosovo. The other was, if an Albanian crowd seemed threatening, to hold up two fingers in a V sign.

* * *

What kind of land is this, where you must be ready with a signal that, with luck, will save your skin? Where you need to make sure your car isn’t from the wrong part of the country?

This is Yugoslavia: 24 million people of 24 ethnic groups and three major religions, writing in both the Latin alphabet and Cyrillic, divided into six republics—six bows drawn tight. The bowstrings sing of hatred, group against group. Civil war is discussed daily in every republic—in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Slovenia and Croatia, the most prosperous republics, threaten to secede but fear an army takeover if they try.

Geographically, Yugoslavia encompasses the diversity of all Europe. On the plains of Vojvodina waves of yellow wheat sweep northward from the Sava and Danube Rivers toward the Great Hungarian Plain. The crystalline Adriatic washes a deeply indented 3,800-mile (6,115-kilometer)-long coast including 725 islands.

But it is the mountains that dominate the land—70 percent of it. The Dinaric Alps lumber fiercely from north to south like a stone stegosaurus, until in Montenegro they lose all semblance of order and rear up in a fearsome immensity of peaks. To go from one side to the other has always been as daunting, in its way, as a journey from the Catholic north and west, facing Austria and Italy, to the Muslim and Eastern Orthodox south, bordered by Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania.

“We’re all supposed to be Yugoslavs,” Zdeslav Boskovic, a lawyer from the Croatian port of Split said. “But scratch one of us and you’ll find a Serb or Croat or something else.” And you don’t need to scratch very much.

I have traveled in Yugoslavia in all seasons, seen every part of the country, and the more I talk to people the more difficult it becomes for me to imagine a Yugoslav. I have learned to take them on their own terms, which means ethnic family yes, country maybe. Diplomatic codes that allow Yugoslavia to get along with the rest of the world do not apply within Yugoslavia.

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