Last week, Hashim Thaçi made an initial appearance at the Specialist Chambers in the Hague over accusations of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. It’s been a prospect hanging over him for 10-years, since Council of Europe special rapporteur Dick Marty’s 2011 report paved the way for the establishment of the judicial mechanism.
Now, together with three other top former KLA officials, he is facing 10 counts of serious crimes allegedly committed during 1998-99. The four defendants have each pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Thaçi’s indictment marks the latest drama along a turbulent road for a man who over a two-decade political career has gone from heading the political wing of the KLA, holding high-ranking government and state posts, to being synonymous in many people’s eyes with “the captured state” due to his autocratic leadership style.
That he has been one of the most contentious, divisive and polarizing political leaders in Kosovo is a narrative already ingrained to his political profile.
But when he stepped down from the public post of president his “demise” that many might have even hoped for, all of a sudden seemed less cathartic. A now former president, who for more than 20 years has largely controlled and orchestrated the country’s political life, and continuously sought to establish himself as a “key historical figure,” was being accused of war crimes. A huge political event that transpired as if it was the most natural occurrence.
As promised, when the indictment against him was confirmed, he resigned, stating that he would not “under any circumstance go in front of the court as President of the Republic of Kosovo.” Claiming to want to defend the integrity of the state and advising against public protests of manifestations, it finally seemed like a selfless act.
But as with almost everything that Thaçi has driven or done politically, it also seemed that once again he might be dragging the entire Kosovar society with him. This time, through a court he pushed for establishing, potentially expecting to avoid ending up as its highest profile defendant; meanwhile, regardless of his resignation, he has left the burden to citizens to make sense of it all.
For many Kosovar Albanians, the running sentiment for some time now has been that the Specialist Chambers — established as part of the Kosovar judicial system but run from the Netherlands by foreign officials — is an unjust transitional justice mechanism due to its perceived “ethnic” character; that’s because its mandate to pursue serious crimes committed between 1998 and 2000 is explicitly founded upon an investigation into specific allegations of crimes reportedly committed by members of the KLA.
At first glance, the two results might come across as incompatible — a contradiction.
This past week, as Thaçi et al. were indicted, this sentiment of “unfairness” resurfaced. Once again, fears were expressed about the likelihood that accusations of war crimes against members of the KLA would not only stain a record of war that was conducted in defense of civilians, but that it might also end up “equating” crimes.
It’s a problematic sentiment, to say the least, when placed within a framework of justice — addressing alleged past crimes by “keeping score” of which side committed more not only goes against the very basic principle of transitional justice, but defies its purpose.
But, neither is it a groundless sentiment to be simply dismissed as one of a society refusing to acknowledge that serious crimes were conducted by some on the Kosovar Albanian side.
If looking at public perception of the Specialist Chambers, a 2017 survey found that 76.4% of Albanians “view the Court’s mandate to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity mainly associated with the KLA as unfair.” However, the survey also found that 64.8% of Albanians and 53.2% of Serbs in Kosovo believe that “it is important to deal with all crimes committed, or crimes suffered by all civilians, during and in the aftermath of the 1998-99 war.”
At first glance, the two results might come across as incompatible — a contradiction. But understanding the reaction to the Specialist Chambers is more complex than merely viewing it as a polarity of fair vs. unfair. The Specialist Chambers produces sentiments along a spectrum.
And it is precisely the combination of these two seemingly paradoxical sentiments — where more than half of the respondents believe both that the Specialist Chambers is unfair and that all crimes need to be prosecuted — that has helped to ensure another sentiment. It is one that is largely reserved to private conversations, and that has resurfaced now in light of recent developments.
A word with arabic root, inat was borrowed into Turkish, before making its way to languages of the Balkans — Albanian and Serbian included. In the Albanian dictionary, inat is defined as “Feelings of concern, disturbance and bitterness that comes over us for someone or something.” The closest translation to the particular cultural meanings it takes in the Albanian language is to understand inat as “spite” or “malice.”
In order to understand how and why inat surfaces, it has to be understood through the facts that shape many Kosovar Albanian citizens’ experiences and injustices in relation to Serbia. They include:
– More than 10,000 people killed or disappeared in the war in Kosovo, including more than 1,640 still missing; thousands raped, with women particularly violated in an attempt to dehumanize and sew social discord; and a Serbian state that has yet to formally acknowledge, accept or apologize for its systematic oppression and persecution of Abanians and others, or to discuss war reparations.
– Mass graves with hundreds of bodily remains have been unearthed across Serbia, including in military barracks on the edge of Belgrade, but the Serbian state still ignores such undeniable truths. There is no memorialization of the atrocities committed, no remembrance, no vow of “never again.” Instead the state blocks access to official records that may help explain the disappearance of many of those still missing — exacerbating the individual and collective pain felt by those who still have no answers for their loss.
– Twenty years later, Serbia is still led by some of Slobodan Milošević’s most loyal spokesmen, who run a political apparatus rooted in his rhetoric and agenda. Today, the state apparatuses’ repression and ethnic cleansing has merely been replaced by “contemporary” forms of political repression — be it through a fervent campaign against Kosovo’s existence and its citizens’ rights or unabashed celebration any time it achieves to do so.
– A chauvinistic and racist rhetoric by top Serbian state and government leaders that is overtly expressed even within political frameworks established for “normalizing” relations. A president who says “Milošеvić was a great Serbian leader,” a defense minister who repeatedly uses (and defends his use of) the racist and derogatory term “Šiptars” to refer to Albanians, and a prime minister who unrepentantly rolls out bigoted tropes rooted in a racist smeer — one that was first institutionalized by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which in the early 1900s stated that “Albanians had tails as late as the 19th century.”
– According to the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), the Serbian Office of the War Crime Prosecutor (OWCP) — responsible for issuing war-crime related indictments in Serbia since 2003 — has filed 10 charges against 50 people for crimes in Kosovo committed in 1998 and 1999. But for the past five years, their reports have pointed to consistent failures to file any new war-crime related indictment. Additionally, throughout this entire time, the OWCP has continuously failed to indict middle or high-ranking officials from military or police structures. Even when indictments are filed, the cases regularly end up becoming prolonged, extended or remain unresolved — thereby avoiding and prolonging justice.
– A continued official glorification, promotion and celebration of convicted and accused war criminals, who are presented as “defenders” of Serbia for the wars launched and orchestrated by their own security and political structures.
– A generationally experienced trauma in relation to Serbia by Kosovar citizens, as a result of enduring persecution by different historical Serbian regimes and a decade-long enforced apartheid; while not all Albanians today might have experienced it firsthand, the systematic, ethnically-targeted nature of the oppression — coupled with a contemporary failure to acknowledge or recant it — makes it an embodied experience.
Citizens most directly affected by war tend to better understand the need for transitional justice.
There are many unresolved, unattended and unregarded grievances in Kosovo that result from such a preposterous political context. That is why, now that the Specialist Chambers has ultimately ended up materializing, a myriad of feelings across a spectrum of injustices have emerged — including inat.
And if continued to remain untreated, not only might they contribute toward continuous objection to the Specialist Chambers’ work, but they might also contribute toward undermining the intended aim of transitional justice — increasing disenfranchisement and division, or even fostering a renewed outburst of nationalism.
This would be a backward step for a citizenry that has come a long way in a short period of post-war time in understanding not just the inevitability, but also the necessity of facing its own past. And some of those who mostly subscribe to this are survivors.
One of the most common testimonies that we have heard at K2.0 when interviewing survivors of war or family members of missing persons is how they understand and relate to “the other’s” yearning for justice and some sense of closure. Additionally, work through other civil society organizations has also found that young people from highly war-affected regions, show “a higher propensity of sympathy toward all victims than regions more spared by the war, regardless of their ethnicity.”
Citizens most directly affected by war tend to better understand the need for transitional justice.
But as it is becoming clearer now more than ever, the road to justice is a fundamental element of justice itself if the ultimate aim is to genuinely face the past, as well as the present.
While much of the public deliberation in Kosovo may well continue to question the fairness or otherwise of the Specialist Chambers, there is another kind of inat that is at risk of being overlooked or neglected altogether. That is, an inat that is inward looking, self-critical and self-reflective particularly toward concerns that the Specialist Chambers might “rewrite” the war, tarnish the KLA or “equate” crimes.
If these narrative shifts are of concern, then let’s turn inat inward and consider how:
– Throughout the 21 post-war years, no Kosovar government has made a serious effort to ensure that Serbia’s admission and apology become the basis of any “normalization” dialogue or relationship to be developed in regard to transitional justice, dealing with the past and reconciliation. Any attempt to dismiss this as part of a larger, complex framework of geopolitical relations, should be met with the following question: Why has no government engaged in the state documentation of war atrocities and war damages, starting with the basic step of registering the killed and missing.
– The main work of documenting wartime atrocities, violations, victims and survivors — an incredible contribution to truth-finding and documentation — has been done by civil society organizations; this includes the HLC’s “Kosovo Memory Book” that includes the names and stories of people killed and missing, and ADMOVERE’s documentation of the massacres that took place in Kosovo between 1998 and 2000. Meanwhile, precisely such organizations or independent critical voices are attacked when presenting different truths that challenge a linear understanding of war and conflict.
– Family members and associations of those still missing have never been included nor placed at the center of a political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Even this past summer, when missing people were finally included in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, it was done so by completely bypassing their individual or collective work and by neglecting to take into account their perspectives and contributions.
– KLA veterans lists have been inflated to include tens of thousands of names, not for the sake of commemorating or appreciating the thousands of ordinary citizens who joined the KLA ranks along the way, but for the sake of political power and favor. Not only did this inflation damage the state budget (citizens’ taxpayer money) by tens of millions yearly, but it also ended up with a special prosecutor who was investigating the issue having to resign and leave the country after citing significant political interference in the justice system and personal attacks.
– International missions, which for years carried exclusive responsibility for prosecuting war crimes in Kosovo, may have failed to do so sufficiently, but one of the obstacles was local political interference. Showing political willingness would have not only demonstrated maturity of the state but also served as a process of truth-facing and acceptance as a society. Such unpreparedness and indifference paved the way for the Specialist Chambers, which many now see as placing Kosovo in an unfavorable and damaging international light.
– As part of the Specialist Chambers’ work, it has been investigating and now prosecuting crimes against Albanian political rivals and opponents of the KLA. However, there has been little reaction over the extent to which, or whether, this might also lead to Albanians facing this part of their past — to problematizing the fact that citizens will (rightfully) raise their voices against proposed environmental destruction to a lake, but the murder of a potential Specialist Chambers witness in that same lake a month earlier can pass barely noticed, with no investigation nor public outcry.
War and its aftermath are complex, just as is justice and various mechanisms set to deliver it.
But as the Specialist Chambers continues to unfold and will likely dominate much of the public debate, besides acknowledging inat it is important to also consider how to move beyond it.
Doing so will mean asking the difficult questions and facing difficult realizations.
One is that war narratives do not belong only to those who bore arms, no matter the significance of their contribution. It is an individual as much as a collective experience. And no collectivity, whether ethnic or otherwise, is singular or linear — the abuse, torture, inhumane treatment or killing of any civilian deserves its due course of justice.
The recent campaign of “Freedom has one name — KLA” is just the latest attempt in the past 20 years to monopolize and privatize war as an experience belonging only to a certain, specific type of engagement, participation or narrative. It is a dangerously polarizing one — you’re either with us or against us.
As charges come forward, they should not be understood or experienced as charges against Kosovo.
If the purpose of the war was freedom, then part of that freedom must be to hold dissenting opinions.
The concern over the possibility of the Specialist Chambers “equating” crimes or becoming the dominant narrative for the war should not be dealt with by disparaging and rejecting it, but through a state involvement and guarantee that justice is served for everyone.
In the midst of all of this, it is important to remember that whatever happens in the upcoming trial — and the defendants are innocent until proven guilty — the indictment against the four former KLA leaders is against individuals, not against Kosovo (regardless of how much they and their supporters might seek to portray it otherwise).
Throughout the coming months — whether in this trial or others before the Specialist Chambers — Kosovars will be forced to finally face the fact that everyone knows but rarely explicitly acknowledges: Some crimes were committed by Albanians.
But as charges come forward, they should also not be understood or experienced as charges against Kosovo; they are not charges against Kosovo’s right to statehood; they are not charges against Kosovar citizens rights to freedom, liberty and self-determination. Moreover, these charges do not stand in the way of Kosovo continuing to seek and insist upon due justice by Serbia either.
This is the narrative trap that Kosovar Albanians risk placing themselves in, and it would be entirely self-defeating. In fact, it is exactly the narrative that the Serbian state and government have constantly promoted — because a state of antagonism is maintained by keeping people in a never-ending, prolonged search for justice.
So while inat should not be dismissed, it should also be channeled into a rightful quest for justice, for all.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.