The Balkans is often referred to as a barrel of gunpowder because of its constant tensions and turbulence, which is something you inherit from your parents, like high cholesterol, and something you leave behind when you kick the bucket. Unless you learn to swim in its tempestuous waters, you stand a higher chance of drowning. If you are from down there, rest assured you’ll live in times of disorder, commotion and unrest, no matter what generation you belong to.
We were sitting in a jet, cruising at some 30,000 ft (9,145 m) somewhere above the coastal mountains of a better tomorrow when we began to shake, rattle and roll again. For a brief moment, it smelled of hope. It seemed as if someone had turned off the engine and let us glide down gently onto the runway. However, a short period of peace and quiet after the 1996-1997 protests was the calm before the storm since the whole place would soon turn into a mad house again.
Simmering tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo kept getting worse, occasionally erupting into major violence. By Feb 1998, the attacks of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) against Serbian police stations triggered massive Serbian retaliation against the local population. 1998 cease-fire enabled the deployment of 2,000 European monitors. Nonetheless, the ‘breakdown of U.S.-Milošević negotiations led to renewed fighting which increased with the threat of NATO bombing and the withdrawal of the monitors’ (source: Yugoslavia – Peace, War, and Dissolution, Noam Chomsky). Voices of reason ‘warned that bombing would endanger the lives of tens of thousands of refugees believed to be hiding in the woods,’ predicting tragic consequences if NATO made it impossible for monitors to be present (source: Crisis in the Balkans, Chomsky). The crisis culminated in the Kosovo War of 1998 and 1999, during and after which Yugoslavia was once again sanctioned by the UN, EU and United States.
During the 14-month war, we were watching an old black-and-white film in which atrocities on a massive scale were perpetuated solely by THEM. The reality is impartial though, with massacres of civilians by both the separatist KLA and Serbian military, paramilitary and police forces: 34 individuals of Serb, Roma and Albanian ethnicity discovered by a Serbian forensic team near a lake, 45 Albanian farmers massacred, 80 Serbs found in mass graves, 48 Albanian civilians found dead, over 100 Serbian and Roma civilians kidnapped and placed in concentration camps, 47 of whom were killed, 19 Albanian civilians killed (including women, children and the elderly), 14 Serbian farmers murdered, 93 Albanians murdered, 22 Serb civilians murdered, their bodies cremated, 29 identified corpses of Albanian civilians discovered in a mass grave, 15 Serbs murdered, 18 corpses of Albanian civilians found, 20 Serbs murdered, their corpses thrown down wells, 25 male Serb civilians killed, 300 Albanian people killed, over 300 Serb civilians taken across the border into Albania and killed in a so-called ‘Yellow House,’ their organs removed and sold on the black market. Missing, presumed to have been killed, missing… Estimates ranging from 50 to more than 200 ethnic Albanians killed, more than 70 Albanian prisoners killed by prison guards, 100 Kosovo refugees murdered. Missing, murdered…missing… 5 Albanian leaders killed for collaboration by their own people, 23 Serbs and moderate Albanians tortured and killed in a concentration camp, 62 known fatalities , 47 people forced into a room and gunned down. Missing. Missing.…What did we miss?! Endless violations of international humanitarian and human rights law: use of excessive force, resulting in terror, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments, looting of and forced expulsions from homes, destruction of villages, schools, healthcare facilities, monuments and religious sites (both churches and mosques), detention, persecution, kidnappings, deportations, well-poisoning, executions, killings by gunmen and grenade attacks on cafés and shops, concentration camps, mass graves, and cover-ups.
Then came the Račak massacre, the mass killing of 45 Kosovo Albanians, taking place in the Albanian-inhabited village of Račak in central Kosovo in Jan 1999, which made a world of difference, or so it seemed. William Walker, the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, condemned what he labeled ‘an unspeakable atrocity’ and ‘a crime very much against humanity.’
Our flight had been shaking vigorously for quite some time. Repeated bomb threats to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) led to the so-called elevator effect, with the stomach drop feeling during turbulence. All passengers were having heart-in-mouth experience, and although quite a few were complaining of an upset tummy, rarely taking their head out of a sick bag, Médecins Sans Frontières never showed up. Once again, we were left to our own devices. The world thought we hadn’t learned from our past mistakes and needed to study harder if we wanted to pass our human rights exam that semester, blabbing: Repetitio est mater studiorum. Repetitio est mater studiorum. Repetitio.
Our Pilot in command racked his brain all afternoon but couldn’t remember where he had put the book. He could have asked, of course, or borrowed it from the library. ‘How will I ever get a passing grade without the book and time to revise?’ he thought to himself. I could always resort to cheating. I’m bloody brilliant at it. However, the rules made by the Air Traffic Controller were clear: knuckle down and bow to the King of the world. Not like that. Lower your head. He knew he’d feel dizzy while bending over, so he decided to pass…People often turn to one another at times of crisis and we were no exception. We were not prone to despair when going through a hard patch. Despair comes later, when there’s peace and apparently nothing and nobody to fight. So, even though we were slammed against the cabin ceiling during turbulence, you’d rarely hear people screaming. Our Pilot and the cabin crew knew there would be casualties, they knew lots of passengers would suffer horrific injuries if they suddenly hurtled out of their seats, as they knew we’d be tossed across the plane no matter what we did or failed to do. Still, they were reassuring us everything would be alright provided we listened to the instructions in case of emergency and went on to play a movie, a new release. The Cinema of Europe isn’t particularly good at making bloody blockbusters or films with happy endings. Frankly, who needs Natural Born Killers, Martyrs and Rambos with so many violent thrillers, actions and horrors in real life, so gory, they’ll make your eyes water.
Some passengers acknowledged and praised our Boss’s will, if not means, to fight back, especially upon seeing he was held in scorn by his rival pilots who wanted him out of the game, which helped him win additional points with his fellow travelers. To be honest, he did check everyone for seat belts before turbulence (unexpectedly) hit but then went about his business shooting at NATO with his toy guns, thinking we were capable of standing up to the big shots. Despite the panic of flight attendants being thrown around, our Pilot decided to remain composed and not tell a soul he was regularly shitting his pants. Alas, ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ It turned out the Pilot was indisposed. I don’t have it all together today, he said to the Tower. I have no intention of landing the plane yet. Try me again later when I have it all together. Little did he know that Big Daddy didn’t get a kick out of being called a fool before the whole world besides being ‘hypomanic’ who desperately needed another fuck so that everyone could forget about his petite interne once and for all. One thing you don’t do to Buddy, the Real Estate King, is ignore him. ‘He’s the sun; he’s the center of the universe. He needs to shine’ (source: Putting Bill Clinton On the Couch). What the King didn’t know (that is, pretended not to) was that this Pilot wouldn’t give up easily and would take immediate revenge by redoubling his attacks in Kosovo, which NATO, busy setting fire to yet another detached house, had no intention of stopping. Our Pilot didn’t however have the magnetic compass for navigation, nor was he planning to touch base with the world. He simply switched on the no smoking sign and the autopilot while we waited for the inevitable.
You can read more of Bojana’s work at Blogging with Bojana.