Al-Jazeera on the ‘Serb’ refugees, and the omission of Roma from discourse on Kosovo.

Posted in 1 on May 12, 2008 by Shon

Al-Jazeera English posted a decent article today on Serbs displaced from Kosovo, and a good series of short interviews showing that not all Serbs are crazed cannibalistic ‘Chetniks.’ But Al-Jazeera repeated the same omission of Roma from their story that has become standard in coverage of the area – not insignificantly, as if their figures are true, more than half of the “Serb” refugees are Roma, Ashkalije, or Egyptian! (The latter two groups are related to Roma, although Albanian-speaking.)

According to the Al-Jazeera article, 170,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after NATO drove out the Serbian forces and the returning KLA went on their own campaign of ethnic cleansing. According to an extensively researched first-hand report put together by Voice of Roma in 2002, in which pre-war and post-war populations of 267 areas with Romani populations were surveyed, Kosovo was home to 123,686 Roma, Ashkalije, and Egyptians before the 1999 war. By 2001, only 34,863 remained in Kosovo, either in their places of residence, or in IDP camps. The 88,823 thus driven from the country (not counting the large number of internally displaced) would thus make up 52.2% of the “Serb” refugee population.

Tim Judah, in his article “Serbia: The Coming Storm” (New York Times Review of Books, 53:16, Oct 19, 2006) repeats a similar figure when he casually mentions the KLA displacing Serbs “and an equal number of other minorities”, without bothering to mention who constitute this group of perhaps 100,000.

These numbers, and the distortion thereof, are of great importance for two reasons. First, the KLA cleansing is often forgiven as an “understandable revenge” for Serb military actions in 1998-99. Were the cleansing to be shown to have cleansed equally as many Roma (who have still never been shown to have systematically collaborated with the Serb forces) as Serbs, the truly dire condition of human rights in Kosovo might come to light, and might call into question the legitimacy of the new Albanian-dominated state.

In addition, Serbia has been reluctant to provide adequate aid to the Roma, as can be witnessed in downtown Belgrade, where a shantytown of perhaps 10,000 Roma refugees from Kosovo try to survive. One Rom friend, who worked for over 20 years as the head of electrical engineering in one of Kosovo’s two massive power plants, told me last weekend that he receives no pension for his years of work, since he lives (as a refugee) outside of Serbia. The Macedonian government has denied him and his family asylum in Macedonia, and would have forcibly deported them had UNHCR (the UN High Commission of Refugees) not intervened. If his position as a former highly-placed profession is currently so precarious, both politically and economically as his family struggles to find work as day-laborers in the poor Roma neighborhood of Shutka, one can imagine the disastrous conditions faced by the other 88,000 Roma refugees, and the tens of thousands of IDPs struggling to survive in refugee camps and villages within Kosovo.

On today’s Serbian elections.

Posted in 1 on May 11, 2008 by Shon

Again, readers, you’ll have to forgive me for posting so little. It’s too difficult in the middle of everything to try and have perspective enough to summarize anything for the commendably curious out there. But I feel obliged to share a few stories now that the Serbian election results seem to have come in (the first half,) since I assume a few people might be curious on people’s perspective here.

From afar, I have always been reluctant to show any preference for any of the Serbian candidates. As with most of the Balkans but perhaps to the most extreme degree, Serbia is caught with the dismal choice between nationalistic candidates who risk returning the region to full-blown war, and those that are eager to sell off all of the country’s resources to the global market for a small cut for themselves (and nothing for the population.) However, from here, my feelings have been pretty clear-cut. All around me in the Serbian enclave, new posters have gone up daily for Nikolic, the candidate for the hard-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, often also featuring the gleaming face of Vojislav Seselj, who now sits in the Hague indicted for war crimes as a paramilitary leader in Croatia, Bosnia, and here. On his campaign recently, Nikolic said, “We are ready to defend Serbia’s pride.” Were he to win, Kosovo would very likely return to war, at least around the Mitrovica area which borders green-line Serbia to the north, which the Serbs are hoping to partition in a manner similar to the Serbian Republic in Bosnia. The Serbian Radicals are throwing their lot in with Russia, which, as I’ve written about previously, may well be eager to assert itself on the world stage by backing regional allies. Such a conflict would not only endanger the various residents of Kosovo. “Of course I want Tadic [the pro-European, less-nationalist candidate] to win,” my friend here told me tonight. “If Nikolic wins, he’ll cause the Third World War.” I’m not sure he was exaggerating.

I turned on the Serbian news tonight to see if the results had come in. Tadic was giving a speech, and his seriousness made me think he had lost. I was especially confused why he kept seeming to say that it was important for Serbia to follow the “Arabski put,” the Arab path, and strengthen its ties with Arab countries, until I realized that the “Eu” dipthong of “Europski” (European) sounds more like the American English /ae/ of Arab, while the A of “Arabski” is pronounced /ah/… Damn the Great English Vowel Shift of the 13th-17th centuries. Anyway, I googled the election and let out a guilty cheer that Tadic had won (without noticing the February date – google really has to work on their news engine.) The teenage son of the family I’m staying with asked me why I was happy. I told him that the candidate that wanted war had lost, and the other one was winning. He was old enough during the events of March 2004 (which I have written about earlier on this blog) to be horribly afraid, so he beamed and gave me a big hug.

Over his shoulder, his mother looked at me sternly. We speak all the time, but I had never heard her discuss anything like elections. Usually, she is too tired from laboring to maintain her large household, besides her day job. “Why are you happy? Nikolic should win,” she said.

“But Nikolic is asking for war!” I said.

“Let him. Let there be war. Let the Albanians and the Serbs hate the Roma, let the Albanians and Serbs fight. Let there be war. Either peace, or war. This is not life. I can’t live like this anymore. No freedom of movement, no work, no hope for my children’s future, no standard of living. You know what happened to me the other day?”

Two days ago, she tried to visit her family, now refugees in Macedonia. At the border, she was turned away because her niece was with her, with a different last name. The Kosovo/Macedonia border is a key point in regional human trafficking, so adults cannot (officially) cross the border with someone else’s children. Stranded on the border unexpectedly, she caught a ride with an unofficial Albanian taxi van. He insisted on taking a route around the Kosovo border, though she protested, since as a resident she would have no trouble at the border. He also insisted on a 50 euro ($80) fee for what is usually a 10 euro ($16) ride, which she couldn’t pay. The 6-year-old niece, who has a remarkable intuition, began crying. After making them walk through wilderness around the border, he picked them up again, now with a number of Albanian passengers in the van. For the entire ride back, the passengers asked her threatening questions, whether her whole family had fought with the KLA during the war, where exactly she lived, and so on. Though also a fluent speaker of Albanian (having grown up in an Albanian village among Albanian friends before the war), she kept silent, shaking with fear for the entire long ride, as the niece continued crying. Finally, they dropped them off at the border of their Romani neighborhood inside the Serbian enclave.

I told her I knew about her ride. She looked firmly into my eyes. “I can’t live like this anymore. Let them make war.”

Hours later, the first half of the results indicated that Tadic really had won.

“Tadic won,” she told me. “No good.”

Link to class slideshow.

Posted in 1 on April 18, 2008 by Shon

As promised, here’s the link to a slideshow¬†of photos that the students have been taking. We’ll be taking and posting photos for the next two months, so keep checking back. Most of these great photos are just from the first three students, and we haven’t even learned about image processing yet.

After my last weary blog entry, I have to admit, in true Californian activist passive-agressive style, that I used an ideological excuse to get out of doing something I didn’t feel like…¬† I will true to post again about the situation here, maybe even about the adventures of teaching two computer classes and three hours of English daily, often with no electricity. But for now, my teacherness gloms onto my time.

Thanks for reading.

Reality Stutters.

Posted in 1 on April 10, 2008 by Shon

And now that I made it here, I feel obliged to post something. Friends have been writing me asking if I survived the trek, so I guess I have to write something if I don’t want you all to think I’m dead. Everything I wrote in my book I could only put down in words long after it happened, and I’m remembering why – reality has to be butchered by memory’s selective idiocy before it can be made tellable. Anyway, I’ll try, but it’s going to be more rambly personal than analysis.

I actually almost didn’t survive my first night of travel, thanks to the everlasting danger of Balkan hospitality – an all-night rakija-soaked dance party of 5 in a village-suburb of Budapest, staying with a punk friend met on Hospitality Club. I laid in bed the next day til 6pm considering a hospital visit, until I finally got some electrolytes down. The Hungarians were horrified to see me drink bright blue Gatorade (not an endorsement, as it’s fucking nasty), and lectured me through my hangover haze on the dangers of the synthetic American diet. Then Sina (my fellow travel-mate/teacher) and I made it to Belgrade, where we had an unusually quiet night with some old friends (Nesa and Andrea), and committed the unforgivable sin of staying in on the night of an all-night Kal concert – my chance to party with Belgrade’s Romani cultural intelligencia will have to wait. On our way out of Serbia, Sina (an American of Iranian descent) and I were pulled off the bus by the Serbian border guards, who were convinced he was “a Turk” – I never understood if they meant in the specific sense of a citizen of Turkey, or the more general sense of a swarthy easterner who might carry Serbia’s demise in his veins. They searched all our things thoroughly and made us eat unshelled pine nuts (a gift from our Hungarian friends which we took out of politeness) to assure they were not some pure unrefined drug. They softened when they saw our Roma-related goods (Serbs sympathize with Roma to some extent not only because their nationalist identity relies on Romani musicianship, but because Roma have suffered in Kosovo by the same hand as the Serbs.) We were warmly received by my old friends in Skopje, who have suddenly become a humble chunk of Macedonia’s literati – one of them just sold her translation of “Fight Club” for publication, and another won 2nd place in a national literature competition for his novel on underground living in Istanbul. The next day, with typical excessive consideration, they let us sleep in until 6pm, until our hosts in Kosovo probably thought we were dead (as we promised to meet them at 2pm.)

Anyway, now that I’m here, it’s impossible to know what to tell. The kids here have named me “Meci Meckari” – Meci (/Metsi/) means little bear, and Meckari (/Mechkari/) is the name of the Roma clan who made their living teaching bears to dance to music (by burning their paws with embers, truth be told, but we should forgive them in retrospect.) As I type this, one five-year old friend is chanting “Meci Meckari” at me over and over through her demonic smile with glowing eyes – the joke hasn’t gotten old yet, I guess. We celebrated International Roma day with a family barbeque, and an unusual appearance (in this quietly observant Muslim household) of the beer bottle, for us guests. After spending five days wrestling with customs, we finally got our customs-exempt box of computers. The official who kept us waiting had a giant green book in front of her emblazoned with the word PROTOKOL – straight out of Tuvalu, which I can’t get out of my head lately (particularly Chulpan Khamatova). The kids are so in love with the EEE PCs that I don’t think we can pry them out of their hands for computer lessons. And the English lessons are going swimmingly, but again, are too much of my current grain of existance to think of summurating.

(Meci Meckari, Meci Meckari, Meci Meckari…)

I guess I could talk about how even the most severe of officials grow misty-eyed with us when we say we’re americans, and how our Roma friends are still nervous walking in Albanian areas even within our protective shield of Americanity. How my previous lines on this blog about never having met a non-nationalist Kosovan Albanian or Serb sting with ignorance now, after having coffee with a dissident absurdist local Albanian playwrite/painter (or whatever order those words go in), a good friend of our Rom host, and after drinking with a young Serb ISP hacker who came by to help with our troubled wireless network, among others… That just like all the other ex-Yugoslavs, many here secretly bristle under the ideological monopoly of nationalism without having any idea how to wrest it from dominance… How rumors are rife in Serbia that the right wing may try to stir up trouble here in Kosovo to influence the early elections Kostunica has called in mid-May. Or how Ramush Haradinaj, after being found innocent of all charges from the Hague (much to Carla de Ponte’s chagrin) came back to silence those who agreed to testify against him, and the streets are lined with his billboards – Ramush, Welcome Home! Ramush, we need you! Not that you need popularity to pay for a bunch of billboards.

The one banal insight I might offer came from a walk around the village we took tonight. One visiting non-local friend (in a typically rough exchange of jokage) made reference to a ‘Gypsy’ wife. I’ve always wondered, as I’m sure have some of the readers, how serious the term is (just as countless Eastern Europeans have asked me, But if they call each other niggas, why can’t I?) The word was a minor bombshell, evoking not a few gasps, clicking tongues, and steps backward, with whispered repetitions of the word – “Gypsy?!” Sorry Gogol Bordello and friends in electro-Gypsyland, I’m not trying to get all PC, but I don’t think the locals would buy your whole “we’re down so it’s cool” schtick. Dig on what really happens with the people you’re claiming. Not that I’m one to represent.

Which brings me around to my final point. Rather than try to represent people here, I think the next posting will be a link to a website we’ll be setting up as part of our computer class. Like another one of my recent heros, British videographer Phil Collins, we’re going to try and frame up some trans-cultural encounterage while leaving the ‘content providing’ up to the represented themselves. Whether we can manage to slap fifteen janky laptops onto one wireless router in a little Romani village in central Kosovo remains a question. Stay tuned.

On the eviction of Serb protesters from the Mitrovica courthouse.

Posted in Kosovo on March 17, 2008 by Shon

It appears that every one of these postings begins with a retraction. At least you know I’m honest, that I’m dragging you along in my process as I’m thinking it out myself. I’d be a little embarrassed, except all the would-be experts I read don’t seem to be doing much better.

In the first analysis that I put up about the situation in Kosovo after the declaration of Independence, I wrote that I had initially feared a new outbreak of war, particularly as Russia seemed to be actively establishing itself in the region by signing energy contracts with Serbia and Bulgaria and eager for a show of its returning power on the geopolitical stage. On the other ‘side’, the ethnic Albanians would certainly take to arms before allowing Belgrade to ever take back their hard-won gains. The u.s. and other western powers have committed to exercising control of the region through the Albanian government. Like Israel or the Saudi royal family, the Albanians make great allies exactly because of their regional unpopularity – they realize that they’d have little chance of retaining their position without u.s./western support, whatever conditions it might come with, e.g. for neo-liberalization and a continued military presence. Contrary to some other lefty analysists, however, I don’t claim that Albanian claims of independence (which, in their current form, began to be voiced in the late 60’s) were somehow cooked up by Western powers; I don’t think whatever legitimacy they might have, after 10-20 years of living under apartheid, is automatically invalidated by their utility for western imperial interests. If only things were so simple!

However, I concluded the previous post by guessing that, after some initial symbolic protest by Kosovo Serbs, there was little chance (in the short-term) of serious conflict. Serbs in Serbia are exhausted after 20 years of war, sanctions, and isolation. The majority will quietly refuse to back any more hopeless military disasters, despite the rhetoric. Everybody seems willing to fight except, ironically, the very forces whose aggressive centralism drove the break-up of Yugoslavia. Let me repeat once again, I am speaking of forces in the political sphere, which I do not see as ever having represented the opinion of the majority of Serbians.

Reading the news this morning, however, made me realize something terribly obvious. As Serbs opened fire on international forces in northern Mitrovica, and attempted to seize a rail line elsewhere in northern Kosovo, the similarity to the violence which preceded the wars in Croatia and Bosnia gave me pause. In those situations as well, the majority of inhabitants never supported the war. They protested, they voted, but they were ultimately left without a political voice. As a number of academics have argued, the media war and the ‘ethnic’ wars were themselves methods of demobilizing opposition, rather than organic results of some historically endemic hatred. The opinion of the majority of Serbians (or Croatians or Bosnians) not only wasn’t considered in making war, but the main reason for the wars may have been keeping these opinions from counting. Political elites threatened by change were thus able to remain in power. Any Americans who have hesitated, even for a moment, to express their dissent in the “post 9-11” environment might relate in some very small measure. In all of the above cases, the wars might most accurately be viewed as state elites waging war on their own populations, through the images and the bodies of The Other.

Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica dissolved the government two weeks ago, blithely stating, “The government will function in a reduced capacity until the elections are held,” supposedly because his opposition (President Tadic) is ‘going soft’ on the Kosovo issue. A struggle for control within the Serbian state through the Other is again underway. Given that Serbs could never hope to regain control of all of Kosovo at this point, their best hope lies in the partitioning off of Mitrovica (with their half of the $5 billion dollar Trepca mining complex) and the rest of northern Kosovo, which ajoins Serbia and in which they are a large majority. And if nationalist Serb forces have learned anything through their experiences in Croatia and Bosnia, it is that aggressivity and war-mongering are always rewarded with the prize of partitioning.

The fact that the private sentiments of the majority of Serbians lies against a new war, as it did against the previous wars, may or may not end up mattering. Clearly President Tadic is in a better position than Milosevic’s opposition was in the late 80’s. We can hope that Kostunica is no Milosevic. The nationalist right does not have the advantage of surprise this time. However, compared to the position of Serbs in Croatia in 1991 which set off the 90’s wars, Kosovo Serbs (and other non-Albanians) really are in a vulnerable position, have much more legal precedent for objecting to independence, and, most importantly, seem to have much stronger international (Russia, China, and several EU states) sympathy and support.

As an aside, for those curious about the project with Voice of Roma to teach ESL classes to Roma, it all depends on what Serbian President Tadic called the danger of “escalation of clashes in the entire territory.” As of today, my friend in the Gracanica enclave, which we’ll be teaching in, says that the situation is quiet, but they haven’t heard yet from Roma in Mitrovica. Gracanica is 25 miles from Mitrovica, which is a long ways in terms of lines of power. But as one of the largest enclaves of non-Albanians in Kosovo, it would not remain neutral if the conflict becomes serious. The precedent of clashes and cleansings under internation eyes in 1999, 2001, and 2004 are not encouraging.

*****

As a final note, rather than enclosing my whole original rant in response to the Tariq Ali interview with Global Balkans, I have decided to foist the responsiblity over on a couple links. Last May, an interesting CIA document on Yugoslavia from 1970 was finally released under our beloved FOIA. The document drives home the point that Yugoslavia always had some deep structural problems, mainly a deep conflict of interest between centralized federation (as embodied at the time by Slovenian Communist leader Kardelj) and a decentralized confederalism (which was already emerging through Croatian and Kosovar Albanian demands for increased autonomy.) The dilemma of Yugoslavia’s basic form was already huge. However, without the greedy rush for land and power of Milosevic and the other nationalist leaders, and the bumbling of conflicting international influences, this tension would never have resulted in war. Interestingly, at the time, the CIA was most worried that this tension would be exploited by the KGB as an excuse to expand Soviet influence in the area!

Sabrina Ramet’s Balkan Babel starts with a great essay on this structural tension written in 1990, though in later years she went on to develop an outlook that frames everything as Communist-Serbs vs. Democratic everybody-else, a bit too simple-minded for me. However, I spoke with Ms. Ramet after a lecture in Slovenia, and even she seems to have now come over to a “demoblization” analysis (rather than a “Rational Choice Theory” one.) Perhaps the more recent editions of her book reflect this – I could only afford the 1995 edition.

Lasly, as much as I hate anything popular, I finally rented the six-hour-long BBC documentary Yugoslavia: Death of A Nation. The related book is a classic in its way, but the documentary is amazing. All these totally incriminating things that I might not have believed, but that the incriminated are speaking for themselves, right into the camera. Not perfect, not so analytical, but really the best historical overview. Check for it in your local library.

Though I agree with Tariq Ali’s criticisms of the 1999 NATO bombing, the pro-war swing of the Left, and the threat of neo-liberalization, I find that he, like many ‘hard left’ critics, focus too much agency on conspiratorial western designs to dismember Socialist Yugoslavia. Germany, the Vatican, the U.S. and others were clearly interested in the outcome of the crisis, and acted in their various interests to damaging effect, but to conspiratorially assign all agency to them is to deny local agents the indignity of their own faults. Though clearly Milosevic, in Ali’s words “was not the only problem,” equating him with Tudjman is another common mistake. Tudjman’s nationalism may have been even worse ideologically than Milosevic’s, but Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo did not break from Yugoslavia to get away from Tudjman.

Apologies and new links.

Posted in 1 on March 3, 2008 by Shon

Wow, apparently scandal is the best advertising. I just got a record number of hits after dropping a flamelet two days ago, on my last post. For those who read my previous post regarding the Global Balkans interview with Tariq Ali, I irresponsibly alleged that the interviewer was Andrej Grubacic, a casual acquiantance of mine from Belgrade; that he was representing himself as a larger organization (a tactic I’m jumpy about since the Crimethinc’s “Days of War…” fiasco), as well as claiming that he had done so repeatedly in the past. The interview was, in fact, conducted by (female) Montreal members of the authentically international group Global Balkans, who, unlike my idiotic self, but like Grubacic, are actually from the Balkans. Consequently, I received an email from the unfairly accused Grubacic chastizing my “eurocentric, gendered, orientalist and colonial” behavior. As an explation-but-not-excuse, Grubacic has penned many recent Znet postings on the Balkans, and, in addition, the email in which I received the interview had been forwarded by him, making his name appear to my careless eyes as the by-line. Nonetheless, I fucked up, and carelessly undermined the very kind of networking and critical work which I claim to advocate. Whatever my differences in opinion from both Mr. Grubacic and some of the opinions expressed in the Tariq Ali interview, I sincerely apologize to both Mr. Grubacic and the Global Balkans collective, and commend their work.

As the responsible blogger’s work lies in critiquing ideas, rather than people (particularly falsely), I will try to polish up and post a critique to the Tariq Ali interview within the next few days. As I said before, though I disagree with what I see as a somewhat conspiratorial analysis, Ali has important insights on the terrible threat of neo-liberalism in the Balkans, the catastrophic 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and the effect this action had on bringing many left/liberals to a very pro-war stance – a central factor in the selling of the Iraq invasion. Also, I am tempted to respond to the Grubacic/Plavsic debate on Kosovo linked above, but as I already feel like a jerk, my previous postings on the situation in Kosovo are probably enough to make my objections obvious. It is definately worth reading for an idea of the spectrum of eloquent radical left opinions on Kosovo!

By the way, I haven’t seen a single response posted by anybody reading these! Don’t let me off so easy!!!

Alter-Sufflization, weird books, and Tariq Ali on the Balkans.

Posted in 1 on March 2, 2008 by Shon

As the previous posts have all been heavy-handed analysis, I figured I’d break things up a bit before I get into it.

First, I just found another blog called “Suffled how it gush,” by this American peace-corp-er named Julie, volunteering in some unnamed village in Albania. She hasn’t posted in nearly a year, when she posted an endearing little story about getting stuck in what she calls a ‘Turkish toilet.” I always remember Turkish toilets having these nice little hoses affixed inside the seat, with a handy faucet handle to control flow. Her toilet sounds more like a totalitarian novelty-gag. Then, just after escaping her Kafka-Stalin stall, she manages to dash off one line about some earthquake. Never to be heard from again. Sad, to think of the well-intentioned American peace-corps volunteer meeting such an untimely fate. Turkish toilets and earthquakes, one shudders at the meeting…

I will not be relinquishing my own franchise of the aforesaid Albanian water-bottle label, nor suing Julie through the WTO for infringement of Intellectual Property Rights. Now is as good a time as ever to get used to duplication, so we’re ready once the inter/global population tops 20 billion, and there’s 5 blogs for every conceivable name.

*****

I also had to share with you some of the titles off the bookshelf of the clinical pharmacology unit in which I’m currently residing. They only affirm my notions of Tacoma’s intriguing glory:

Klan-Destine Relationship: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. By “Grammy Award winning pianist” Daryl Davis. Click on the name to check out the cover. I mean, seriously, click on it.

UNDERSTANDING RUNAWAY INFLATION And What To Do About It: An Investor’s Guide to Inflation Hedges. Revised-Updated 1979 Edition. By Jerome F. Smith.

SANCTUARY: Challenge to the Churches (A Symposium.) The Institute on Religion and Democracy, Washington D.C. From the days when u.s. churches saw it as their Christian duty to shelter those accused of terrorism by the state, rather than torture them. Perhaps it helps if the victims are Christian, however syncretic.

*****

(Tariq Ali response temporarily deleted – See above post)