Review: One Cold Morning In Kosovo

In spring 1999 a paramilitary group called the Scorpions descended on Podujevo, Kosovo, a mid-sized city the size of Medicine Hat. Albanians were rounded up. It was a cold morning, and one small boy named Shpetim, age 9, jammed his hands in his pockets to keep warm. The gesture seemed to irritate the gunmen.

They ordered Shpetim to empty his pockets, and out tumbled the boy’s collection of marbles – plunk, plunk, plunk. The boy’s mother, unsure of what to do, bent down and tried to gather them up as they scattered, writes Eliott Behar. Later they shot Shpetim in the head.

Behar is a former Ontario Crown prosecutor who recounts his two years’ work as a war crimes attorney at The Hague. Behar was raised in Toronto, the son of an architect; his family numbered Holocaust survivors. He is a skillful writer with a police reporter’s eye for detail.

“Spend time listening to the men who directed these atrocities, and listen to the collective narratives and beliefs of the citizens who either carried out these acts or endorsed them from the sidelines, and you begin to see that they were themselves, even before the bloodshed began, driven to act by their own sense of injustice and victimhood,” Behar writes. He spent so much time listening to chain-smoking witnesses, Behar notes his Court robes always faintly smelled of Kosovar tobacco.

All participants in genocide are “in thrall to narratives of injustice and victimhood that made them feel entitled to act as they did, and that seemingly silenced the demands of their individual consciences,” writes Behar; “It is a mentality with the power to infect not just the leadership but also the facilitators and willing executioners amongst the general population.”

Canada was oblivious to the viciousness of civil war when it committed forces to the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbian cities. Few Canadians could spot Belgrade on a map; fewer still had any nuanced understanding of the ancient and justifiable hatreds in the region. “I have no politics,” a Serbian friend once told me. In the Balkans, politics are fatal.

The facts: the Serbian cabinet in 1999 devised a secret plan to roust 800,000 civilians, mainly Muslim, from their Kosovar villages, and later attempted to cover it up. The expulsions were “forced, well-coordinated and part of a systemic campaign,” notes Tell It To The World. The chief architect, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, died of a heart attack at trial seven years later: “It was, to be sure, a striking and disappointing anti-climax,” Behar writes. “No factual findings were ever made and no verdict was ever delivered.”

Milosevic’s interior minister shot himself before he could be brought to trial. A deputy prime minister was sentenced to 22 years. Yes, there were atrocities on both sides, and Serbians as a people were not collectively complicit in atrocities. It was a Serbian newspaperman who first uncovered the conspiracy, and Serbian parliamentarians who provided much of the evidence against Serbian murderers.

“Crimes had taken place on all sides of the conflict and many Serbs had also been victims themselves – victims of violence by Croats, by Bosniaks and by Kosovo Albanians,” Behar writes; “But it was also true that the mass murders and deportations I had described had happened, and that they had been directed and overseen by Serbian authorities. The evidence was clear.”

In a town called Suva Reka, a police constable Velibor Veljkovic remembered the day orders came to round up Albanians. Police went down the street, shooting terrified townspeople. Veljkovic had been on traffic detail and IT records storage, but this day his assignment was to collect the corpses of the police department’s victims – more than a hundred, he recalled. The mayor supervised the work.

Back at the station, Veljkovic returned to his desk when the phone rang: a distraught Albanian woman was on the line: “I told her they had to leave. She asked me where to, and I told her to Albania. She asked me, ‘What are we going to do in Albania?’ I didn’t want to continue this conversation. I simply said, ‘Go to Albania; you have to leave otherwise you will suffer the fate of the other ones’”; “I hung up and within half an hour there was an en masse departure of members of the Albanian community by vehicles.”

“There was no more killing. People simply left. We resumed our work,” Veljkovic explained. For a town constable in Suva Reka, public duties now included: traffic tickets; IT management; murder.

Tell It To The World is a haunting and poignant and remarkable book. To read it is to gain some greater understanding of humanity.

By Holly Doan

Tell It To The World, by Eliott Behar; Dundurn Press; 264 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-23801; $24.99

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