Magazine article The Spectator

Their Country Needs Them

Magazine article The Spectator

Their Country Needs Them

Article excerpt

FIRST, some disclaimers: I am a journalist, and have reported from the Balkans, but I do not pretend to be neutral. Objective, yes, meaning as fair and accurate as I can possibly be. But neutral, no. I believe Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian expansionism represent overwhelmingly evil forces; I believe the Kosovar Albanians are victims. And I wholeheartedly believe it was right and proper for Nato to intervene in Kosovo. All that said, and having just come from a trip to Kosovo, I do not sympathise with Kosovar Albanians who claim asylum in foreign countries.

To explain myself fully, I must tell a personal story. In May 1999, with the Kosovo war underway, I met an Albanian refugee family, headed by a middle-aged man I shall call Midhat. He had worked as a mechanic in Kosovo and spoke good English. He had a nice family, consisting of him, his mother, his quite attractive wife, and their three teenaged children, two girls and a boy.

I met them in a refugee camp in the Balkans as I walked along a set of tents asking, in Albanian, for an English speaker. I was accompanied by an American colleague and was looking for someone who could be interviewed by her without my having to be there as an interpreter.

We came into the tent with Midhat and his family and were offered coffee, cigarettes and food. Our conversation was warm, especially when I showed I could speak Albanian and knew Albanian history. I did not feel particularly offended or cautious when, after several hours, Midhat's wife said, in what I now realise was a somewhat spiffy manner, that if I was so willing to be friendly to them I should help them go to America. I agreed at least to investigate the possibility since at that moment bombs were still falling and America was, indeed, taking in Kosovar refugees. But I specified that I would make no promises. I interviewed and photographed the family, reported on their situation for an American magazine and looked into their resettlement. Then the war ended.

In August I went back to the Balkans fully expecting Midhat and his family to have gone home to Kosovo. I was surprised to find that, while the refugee camp was almost completely empty, they had remained in their tent. I went to see them, and found Midhat quite insistent that I should help him to get his family to the United States. I had, he said, made a promise; I had given him besa, the traditional personal pledge of the Albanians.

I must say that this appeal affected me strongly and, although remaining in the Balkans myself, I made renewed efforts to find the family a place in the United States. Several initiatives with friends of mine there, including some Kosovar Albanians who had arrived years before, failed to work out. Finally, a US diplomat told me plainly that I was wasting my time; that the Kosovars no longer had anything to fear and should go home and reconstruct their lives. I told this to Midhat but his answer was simple. He had, he said, 'nothing to go home to in Kosovo'. His house had been destroyed and he claimed he had no opportunities for work. He insisted that he wanted to go to the United States and, if not there, to Germany. To some third country, in any event. I gave the only honourable answer I could imagine, which was to offer him work for me as a driver, translator and general assistant.

Last October, I arranged for us to go to Kosovo together so that I could interview various religious and political leaders, both Serb and Albanian, for my book. Once we got to Kosovo, I had a few surprises. The house I had heard was destroyed had been ransacked, but its foundations and frame were intact. It needed nothing more than a basic clean-up and some new windows and plumbing. But Midhat had a new obsession. He would take his family to Germany, where his sister-in-law lived. To do that, he had co get new passports and that involved serious problems. Kosovo being still under Yugoslav sovereignty, the only travel document then available to Kosovars was a Yugoslav passport. …

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