Remembering Kosova, in 1999

A grave marker at Korenica, 1999. Photo by Stephen Schwartz.

By Stephen Schwartz

September 26, 2018 – In mid-1999, I retired after 10 years’ work as a staff writer and general assignment reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, and moved to Sarajevo. The newspaper had changed ownership and was taken over by the Hearst Corporation. From its foundation in 1865 until then, the Chronicle was an alternative to the Hearst empire. Now under the authority of a longtime competitor, its pool of talent was doomed. I was the first to retire; dozens more were to be forced out.

I had first visited the former Yugoslavia in 1989, when revolutionary calls for freedom had broken out in Slovenia and Croatia. I returned as frequently as I could, because it was a major news story of the time. During the war in Croatia and much of the Bosnian war, American media acted with execrable falsity. Serbia was portrayed as a reforming power combatting resurgent fascism in Croatia and an imaginary radical Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina; Slovene and Kosovar Albanian victims of Belgrade’s aggression were ignored.

I saw the truth firsthand: ugly ethnic polarization, neofascism as an alternative to failed liberalism, organization of militias.

The Albanian-majority territory of Kosova fascinated me. I had served at the Albanian Catholic Institute in San Francisco, named for the martyred Daniel Dajani, SJ. When I went to work for Gjon Sinishta, director of the Institute, he said “I know you are friendly to Catholics. But being Jewish, how do you feel about Muslims? If you work with me, you have to love them, as well.”

I knew Catholics, only 10 percent of the Albanian population, were outstanding national redeemers, alongside Muslim Sufis (25 percent of the general population) and Orthodox Christians (15 percent, although absent from Kosova). St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata, whom I defended, was not alone.

My first extended Kosova journey came soon after the fighting there ended. The capital, Prishtina, was wrecked. There were only one shabby hotel in the city, one internet cafe’, and few other amenities. I contributed to The Wall Street Journal editorial page then, and was amused when I was asked if I had gone into Kosova like other scribblers, on a NATO helicopter, with a billet in the “Grand” Hotel. No, I had arrived in a van with refugees carrying their belongings, and stayed in a ruined house: not so grand, and not a hotel. And I listened to ordinary people, not to NATO and other dignitaries.

Traveling around Kosova, I was interested especially in the presence of Muslim Sufi mystics, whose considerable indigenous presence is unique in the West. Driving one morning in the vicinity of the large town of Gjakova, I came upon a Sufi shrine.

There I found the coffins of 24 Albanian infants, done to death by Serb terrorists.

The children, it transpired, were not Muslim. They were Catholic, killed in the worst massacre of the Kosova war, in the villages of Korenica and Meja. These majority-Christian settlements had been raided by Serb terrorists on April 27, 1999. More than 300 people had been murdered, mainly men, but also women and children. Many were so mutilated they could not be identified; they were interred without names on their grave markers. The overflow was housed in non-Christian religious structures while awaiting burial. Muslim victims included members of the local Sufi community. Hundreds more were kidnapped.

The total slain in the incident has yet to be known. Nor was the attack isolated. The assault on the Catholic Albanians, and some of their Muslim neighbors, had been effected by Serb police, army, and irregulars. Serb forces had struck all around Gjakova. The pretext in the village where I found the dead kids was a battle between Serbs and members of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA).

I had met a Franciscan priest in Gjakova, Father Ambroz Ukaj, and interviewed him about the matter. When I arrived at his church children were singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the American civil rights movement, and I joined in. Fr. Ukaj had been in his church when terrified mothers, who had run there, told him of the events in Korenica and Meja. He went to the local Serb commander and asked for an explanation. The Serb replied, “do you want the same fate?” I was told he answered, “I am a Catholic priest. I am prepared for whatever befalls me while wearing this collar. Kill me but do not insult me.”

Catholics have always been Albanian patriots. They were the first to print books in Albanian (the Muslims wrote in Turkish and Persian, the Orthodox in Greek). They promoted literacy, opened schools that educated the children of the Muslim elite as well as those of Albanian villagers, and fought alongside others of their kind, against fascism, communism and Slav imperialism.

The international justice system that, from The Hague, called Serbian criminals to account for their conduct during the war, meandered about before the case was taken up in 2013. Kosova has yet to see real punishment for the perpetrators.