Norman, Oklahoma - Gazmend Syla hasn't slept well in recent days and there's a good reason why.
Ever since U.N. mediated talks in Vienna between Serbia and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority broke down on Nov. 28, the 35-year-old reporter and editor at Kosovo's leading newspaper has had nightmarish flashbacks of early 1999, when he and his older brother had to hide in the mountains to escape being killed or imprisoned by Serbian troops engaged in ethnic cleansing.
Syla, who is studying at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications under a State Department grant, cut short his scheduled year-long stay to return to Kosovo this week because he fears for the safety of his wife and baby son if Kosovo Albanians declare independence, as they're expected to do early next year. Serbia, backed by Russia, considers Kosovo an integral part of Serbia, and has threatened to recall its ambassadors from countries that recognize Kosovo, including the U.S.
Syla knows what terrible things can happen when the powder keg of ethnic hatred and nationalistic rivalry is ignited in the Balkans. More than 90 percent of Kosovo's two million citizens are ethnic Albanians and Muslims like him. Kosovo has been under U.N. rule since 1999, when NATO expelled Serb troops who were accused of killing civilians while fighting separatist rebels.
In March, 1999, Serbian troops came to his village and forced his family and other ethnic Albanians to abandon their homes and go to Albania. He and his brother fled to the mountains to join Kosovo resistance fighters and avoid the fate of two cousins, whose bodies were found in a mass grave in 2003. The cousins were among more than 15,000 Albanians killed by the Serbs. Only after UN intervention ended the war in June did Syla learn that his family was safe in Albania.
"I'm very concerned about the security situation in Kosovo," Syla said last week as he prepared to leave for the 25-hour flight to Kosovo. "It's a big problem for me. I can't sleep, I lay awake all night thinking about what might happen there."
Syla acknowledged that the Orthodox Christian Serbian minority in Kosovo has also suffered. Some one thousand Serbs were killed and many others persecuted after the 1999 war ended. "But I have to say that these were reprisals by individuals who lost loved ones in the war, and not organized actions. The Serbs don't like Albanians and the Albanians don't like Serbs. It's like the Israelis and Palestinians."
I asked Syla, who is a student in a graduate seminar I'm teaching this fall, to share his concerns with his classmates. His dramatic account of what could happen when Kosovo declares independence, ranging from Serbia's refusal to recognize Kosovo passports, blocking borders and cutting off power supplies to military action, brought several of my students to tears.
"When I saw Mary crying, I almost started crying myself," he said, referring to a 40-year-old lawyer and mother of two. "Americans might not know very much about Kosovo but when they do, they show their compassion and they try to do something to help you. She later asked what she can do for me and my family, and said if there's something she can do, just let me know."
Another male student approached Syla after local Republican Congressman Tom Cole spoke to my students later in the day, and hugged him three times. "All he could say was, 'Good luck, man, good luck, man, good luck, man," said Syla, who hopes to return to the University of Oklahoma for the January term if he's satisfied his family is safe.
The warm reaction of his fellow students is reciprocated by the people of Kosovo, according to Syla, who noted that one of the main streets in the capital city of Pristina is named Bill Clinton Boulevard in honor of his visit to Kosovo several years ago. "There's no more pro-American country in the world," he said. In fact, there's a tradition of putting an Albanian flag on top of newly built homes, and since 1999, the American flag flies alongside the Albanian flag on top of new homes.
Syla explained that he lives in northern Kosovo, close to the Serbian border, which is why he plans to move his wife and son, who was born Sept. 9 while he was here, to another part of Kosovo. "There are some voices in Serbia that they will try to stop Kosovo from being independent, and this is an extra reason why I have to be with my family," he said. "I want to be there whatever happens."
Addendum: The tortured history and complex nature of the Serb-Kosovo conflict leaves non-expert observers like me open to criticism. I received the following email message from Zbiginew Frank after this was posted. Here it is in its entirety, with slight editing:
"This is my feeling that your article "Kosovo nightmares" is very biased and a kind of cheap propaganda. I'm sure that you are aware about the situation of Serbs in Kosovo, living in enclaves surrounded by KFOR forces, and to travel they have to have a military escort.
"I hope that you still remember about what had happened in March 2004 in Kosovo. I hope that you are aware about the destruction of over a hundred Orthodox churches in Kosovo and Macedonia by Albanian mobs. Many of the churches were on the list of UNESCO.
"And please remember that bombardment of Serbia in 1999 was provoked by the Clinton administration's illegal action that was not authorized by the UN. Appendix B to the Rambouillet Agreement prepared by Secretary of State Albright was unacceptable to Yugoslavia. It was form of ultimatum and declaration of occupation."