Reality and Reconciliation: Urgently Needed in Kosovo

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to witness real, indisputable evil.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to witness real, indisputable evil.  On a visit to Rwanda, my hosts brought me to a site unlike anything found outside that tragic country.  I had been to Auschwitz, where the deeds of half a century ago are commemorated by museum displays and a somber atmosphere, but I was unprepared for what I now saw.  The new Rwandan government decided that the most effective way to remember the million people who perished in the 1994 genocide was to leave a number of massacre sites throughout the country in the state in which they were discovered. 

The site I visited had been a college, where tens of thousands of Tutsis were lured with the false promise of protection, in order to efficiently concentrate them for mass murder.  Now, three years later, several thousand bodies remained in the rooms in which they had died, coated with a preservative that turned them into desiccated mummies.  Room after room was filled with men, women, and children, often in the poses in which they had died, flinching from a bullet or raising their arms against a machete.  The stench of chemicals and decay was almost unbearable.  Tens of thousands more lay buried in nearby mass graves, identifiable only by gently sloping mounds and tiny signs marking the number of victims.            

I've written frequently about Kosovo, and until recently saw no reason to include a discussion of Rwanda.  What changed my mind was a comment I read, in the aftermath of the pogrom that occurred in March.  Following this well-orchestrated campaign of ethnic cleansing, designed to rid central Kosovo of all Serbs, a UN representative (who, I believe, was not quoted by name) observed that he had seen more forgiveness in Rwanda, one year after the genocide, than he now saw in Kosovo.  It's easy to dismiss his remark as hyperbole, but unfortunately it contains a great deal of truth.

What, exactly, are the differences between these two places?  The most obvious is that in Rwanda, actual, unquestionable genocide occurred, an attempt to exterminate an entire ethnic group.  The Kosovo crisis was far more ambiguous.  What began as a guerilla campaign by the Kosovo Liberation Army targeting Serbian security forces (and civilians) escalated into widespread ethnic violence.  Hundreds of thousands of Albanians fled, or were forcibly driven, to neighboring countries.  There is no doubt that in some places Serbian troops and paramilitaries killed unarmed Albanian civilians, just as the KLA killed unarmed Serbs. 

In order to mobilize support for military intervention, Western political leaders deployed the word "genocide," in a way that we now know to have been cavalier and misleading.  The number of Albanians allegedly murdered in the course of Milosevic's campaign has steadily dropped, from the hundred thousand spoken of during the war, to ten thousand in its immediate aftermath, to a final estimate of perhaps a few thousand, including many killed by ground combat and NATO bombing.  Mass gravesites, claimed at the time to contain thousands of victims, were investigated and found to have been either exaggerated by orders of magnitude or entirely fictional.        

The second difference is that the international community intervened militarily in Kosovo, while doing nothing in Rwanda, where experts believe that a minimal use of force could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.  Frustrated friends of Africa know that a double standard applies to humanitarian intervention.  It is not hard to conclude that Kosovo, like Bosnia before it, merited international intervention because the threatened population was white.  Now, in 2004, Africa watchers fear that the crisis in western Sudan will lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, with many words of outrage by the international community, but no forceful action against a regime whose crimes have far surpassed those of Milosevic.  Ironically, the "humanitarian intervention" in Kosovo was justified by many supporters at the time as somehow making up for international inaction on Rwanda.     

What is most striking today is the different degree of reconciliation and forgiveness between these two places.  Colin Prentice, the director of a nongovernmental relief organization in New Zealand, put it this way: "The level of acceptance of the past in Rwanda, both among Hutus and Tutsis, is remarkable.  I don't think I saw anything like it in Kosovo, yet the killing in Rwanda was worse."  Prentice quotes a Rwandan Tutsi, whose family was murdered in the genocide: "People can live together here if Hutus accept that the bad Government did this and if there is some attempt at restitution.  Then we can live in peace. If we are patient, we can tolerate this pain."  Now imagine, if you will, a Kosovo Albanian, either a politician or a man on the street, saying:  "We recognize that only a small number of Serbs were responsible for crimes against us.  We appreciate that the Serbian people ousted Milosevic in a democratic election.  Today's Serbia is different, and we welcome the opportunity to live in peace with our neighbors of all ethnic groups."  Need I say more?   

Despite the unrealistic optimism projected by UNMIK and many other observers (at least publicly; I suspect that in private they are more candid), there is an overwhelming inability on the part of the Kosovo Albanian community to forgive what was done to them, atrocities that while indefensible came nowhere close to those in Rwanda.  Five years after the war, characterizing the murder of Serb teenagers and 80-year old pensioners and the burning of medieval churches as "revenge" is wearing rather thin.  Clearly, the attitude that collective guilt should be levied against the entire Serbian people is not appropriate for those who aspire to be modern Europeans.