Human Rights Dialogue: How did NATO’s intervention affect the human rights of Kosovar Albanians? How did they react to the intervention?
Leonora Visoko: In general, we feel that the NATO intervention improved our human rights situation. Before the action, the rights of Kosovars had been violated for years. From the early 1990s on, for example, we were not allowed to work in our chosen professions or to be educated in schools and universities. I belong to a generation that literally was not allowed to enter school or university buildings.
During the two years before the intervention, our lives were threatened every day and in everything we did—more than five Albanian citizens were killed each day. Put very simply, we couldn’t be sure that we would make it home each time we went out. An entire regime was responsible for this oppressive situation. Despite claims by Serbian politicians and diplomats that this was an internal Yugoslav affair, the international community decided that, in fact, the situation needed their attention. Everyone in Kosovo certainly feels that the NATO intervention was the right thing to do.
Dialogue: How do you feel about the way in which the intervention was carried out?
Visoko: As time went by and our situation under Serbian rule did not improve, intervention became our only hope, especially for those of us who had already lost our loved ones. It became unimportant how intervention was carried out.
During the bombing, massive groups of people were displaced to regions in Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. The conditions there were miserable. When I went in the refugee camps in Macedonia I felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. It was terrible. I saw a professor of mine, who had always been very elegantly attired. When he called my name, I found myself looking at a man in his bare feet wearing a long beard and dirty clothes like some homeless character in the movies. That was my elegant professor.
I simply couldn’t believe that the conditions in the camps were so bad. I was terrified. I even saw members of my own family and close friends. The Serbian military and paramilitary had forced them to leave the country, and they went to a camp in Macedonia where the Macedonian police treated them like animals. I lived with those pictures in my head for months.
However, even the experience of massive displacement and terrible conditions does not bother people today because the hardest part is over. There is a great feeling in the air because we are alive!
Dialogue: Do you feel the intervention should have come sooner? Did you expect it to come sooner?
Visoko: Kosovars expected the intervention sooner, but it is never too late in cases like this.
Dialogue: Why do you think the intervention came so late?
Visoko: Because there were diplomats trying to solve the matter in a “diplomatic way.”
Dialogue: Do you believe the intervention was motivated by human rights concerns?
Visoko: We definitely thought that the world was concerned with our situation because our human rights were violated. People were killed and raped on a massive scale and exposed to violence that you couldn’t imagine—all happening in the middle of Europe. I worked in Kosovo during the war. Every day I saw houses on fire and villagers running away; every day I knew of at least one funeral for a baby. That is something that still haunts me. Why would a soldier want to kill a baby or a pregnant woman?
When NATO’s KFOR troops entered in the first days following the bombing campaign, we regarded them as heroes. We loved them. The rest was not important.
Dialogue: How did the media portray your situation?
Visoko: Even though it is controlled by the Yugoslav government and could not present everything that happened, the Serbian media did play a part in the story. Our situation involved pure violations of human rights. Part of the media didn’t present it that way, but the reality was that people were being killed and it had to stop.
I remember the reactions after the massacre in Racak was shown on television. It was a total shock for the Serbian nation. When Ambassador Walker, head of the OSCE mission in Yugoslavia at the time, saw all those old people, women, and children cut into pieces, he couldn’t hide his emotion from the TV cameras. After that, the Serbian media announced that his mission was an unwanted presence in Yugoslavia. For the first time, Serbs feared that they would not get away with what they had done.
Dialogue: How do you feel about the international presence in Kosovo since the intervention?
Visoko: People here feel that the international presence is necessary. I believe it is important because it provides security from the growing crime problem for Kosovar Albanians. The Serbs in Kosovo also feel safer with the international police presence, even though many of them would prefer to have the Yugoslav army still there. At the same time, working together with the international police provides the local police with the opportunity to develop and improve. Through their funding and ideas, the international presence here is helping to promote and educate society about human rights. The United Nations produces human rights publications, translates them into local languages, and organizes seminars and training programs.
Dialogue: How has the intervention affected the legitimacy of human rights and the international human rights community in Kosovo?
Visoko: The intervention definitely made people value human rights more, and it has since sparked some educational efforts. Human rights will be taught regularly in primary schools and high schools. The Kosovo Protection Corps, an unarmed emergency unit of locals created by NATO and the UN, went through a number of seminars on human rights. In addition, Kosovar police are trained in human rights by the international police unit, foreign experts, and the university’s law school in Pristina—which established a Center for Human Rights just recently with the help of the World University Service and the Åbo Academy in Finland. This tells me that Kosovars are working hard to protect human rights.