by Pat Holt
Wednesday, November 14, 2001
NO PLACE LIKE HOME: ECHOES FROM KOSOVO' BY MELANIE FRIEND
Is it true that Americans are developing a greater international perspective since the events of September 11?
British photojournalist and BBC radio reporter Melanie Friend, who's been reporting on Kosovo in the Balkans since 1989, thinks so.
"In the past," she says, "whenever I wrote about Kosovo, I knew the audience in the United States and England couldn't identify with people who lived with fear every day. Now [since September 11], we know: A deep insecurity lies underneath our attempts to return to a 'normal' life.
"That's the indefinable thing that compelled me to keep returning to Kosovo for the past 12 years. A certain level of oppression makes despair invisible; but once you feel it, you're never the same."
Somehow, Melanie Friend defines "that indefinable thing" throughout her gripping eye-opener of a book, "No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo" (Cleis Press/Midnight Editions; 148 pages; $39.95).
Here in an almost-square exhibit format (9.5" x 11") and through unforgettable photos and text, Albanians who have survived Serbian rule and NATO bombing find a way to express their experience with heart-stopping eloquence.
We see them describing the arrests, searches and beatings in police stations; the roadblocks and check points, the tortures and massacres, and the means by which, when war broke out, they escaped into the mountains and found temporary respite in refugee camps.
"No Place Like Home" reminds us of the resilience and dignity of people who learn to live with the terror of their time. Here we are the witnesses of civilians returning to rubble or graffiti-strewn homes after the war; showing Melanie Friend the nearby "massacre sites" where siblings, parents, spouses and children were murdered; and living again in fear, as reprisals and counter-reprisals dominate the landscape.
Serbs speak to Melanie Friend, too, as do the Roma (gypsies), paramilitarists and soldiers, Bosniaks (Muslim Slavs who speak the Bosnian Language), Goranis (Muslim Slavs from the mountains near Macedonia) and Ashkalians (gypsies who speak Albanian).
The Only Journalist Around
How Melanie Friend earned their trust is a memorable story in itself. "In the early '90s when I first started coming to Kosovo, there weren't a lot of journalists around," Melanie says on a visit to the United States. "Without a 'real' war breaking out and not a lot of bodies lying in the streets, the media had little interest in the Kosovo story."
As told by Kosovo residents, however, this is a heartbreaking yet inspiring saga that goes back more than four decades. Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia that borders Albania and whose citizens are historically mostly of Albanian descent, began to erupt in Serb-inspired fights and arrests in the late 1960s. By the 1980s, the province was turning into a police state.
"Beginning in 1981, the Serbs closed Albanian shops," recalls Raza Elezi, an Albanian shopkeeper. "The state ordered the land to be divided, giving Albanian land to the Serbs. My husband was jailed several times because he was trying to stop the Serbs from building on his land - eventually he had to give the land up." And that was just the start.
By the time Melanie Friend began visiting Kosovo, "you could feel a steady level of repression building up," she says - "illegal detentions, torture, a dozen Albanians killed every year, more roadblocks, more police, fear turning into terror, more deaths."
By then Albanians in Kosovo rarely took a step outside. "The roads were eery and empty, except for police checkpoints," Melanie recalls. "I had permits issued by the Serbian Ministry of Information, but my drivers and interpreters were in danger simply because they accompanied me."
By 1992, Serbian police had learned how to conduct "frequent and brutal raids on villages without leaving a trace of violence when journalists or outsiders arrived," Melanie relates. "They knew how to beat suspected residents on the hands or the bottoms of their feet so that bruises would be too faint to photograph." Arrests and murders were common.
At that point, Melanie made a pragmatic and artistic decision: Instead of further endangering Albanian subjects by photographing them in or around their homes - and because she had an aversion to gory photographs of victims that would "shock rather than inform" - she decided to photograph the bedrooms and living rooms, gardens and kitchens of Kosovo - but without any people in them.
"I felt that in some ways a room spoke more to the observer when it was empty because the person who lived there had been beaten and fled, or was in danger or in hiding, or had gone abroad. The emptiness seems to draw the audience in, to make us think this could be my living room, or I could be sitting on that sofa. For many, the gardens of Kosovo are reminiscent of English gardens, and that makes the whole experience very close indeed."
The theme of invisibility spreads through the early sections of the book, where Albanian residents are not seen but very much felt by the reader. Their wounds would not be visible even if we could see them. The landscape is magnificent but soon to be dotted with "massacre sites" that will be visible only to a tragic few.
Once Serbian tanks roll into Kosovo and shelling begins, most of the surviving Albanians flee, and Melanie catches up with them in the refugee camps of Macedonia.
Haunting and Powerful
There she is allowed to take the stunning portrait shots that make this book so haunting and powerful. Inside their tents or along the dusty, makeshift streets, they gaze sternly, directly into the camera, impassive and without fear for the first time in years.
"What impressed me was the normalcy of life they have been able to create, even in displacement. The details they speak of are ordinary and poignant. One young woman in the camp saved a half-cigarette that her grandmother had smoked before she died a year before. Each night, the girl took it out of a little keepsakes box and looked at it because she felt her grandmother protecting her. This was her way of surviving, but it could be anybody's way."
Most people believe that without NATO interference, Kosovo would be overpowered anew. "If KFOR [the NATO peacekeeping force] leaves, war will break out again," says Ali Hyseni. "Albanians do not want to be in a confederation with Serbia, because it was so bad when the Serbs were in control here."
How bad was that? Aside from the torture and massacres, Serbs tried to cripple Kosovo even when NATO turned the tied against them. Melanie follows the journey of one woman, Miradije Aliu, from her comfy and fastidious bedroom in Kosovo to the tent-sized bed she has created in the refugee camp and finally back to her home, which by now has been burned almost to the ground.
The Serbs, she tells us, stole all her family's belongings, "used knives on the furniture, shat and peed on our family photos and on our clothes" and "scrawled crude sexual drawings and graffiti on the walls: 'Serbia to Tokyo,' 'We will rape you,' 'If you come back here we will eat you,' 'We will massacre you.' I felt like dying."
What strikes us, though, is the same expression in Miradije Aliu's face in all three photographs - not of suffering or even of loss but of unwavering endurance and sense of permanence that will outlive any dangers that adversaries may throw her way.
"I found it inspiring to see how people adapt to inhuman conditions," concludes Melanie. "One Serbian couple I interviewed talked about how, every day for two years, the husband worked in his garden workshop while his wife read novels - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Stendahl. That was how they survived living in the prison of their own house - and living all the while with soldiers who were protecting them 24 hours a day from reprisals by Albanians."
Today it's possible that an uneasy truce is beginning to form in some parts of Kosovo, Melanie believes. An Albanian women's group now has a mixture of minorities, including Serbs, as members. Language is softening - "of course we can live with the Serbs again," says a 74-year-old Albanian; "maybe some Serbs deserve this [reprisals], but not all," says an 18-year-old Albanian activist.
Still, allows Miradije Aliu's husband Mehmet, whose tiny garden bunker sheltered 300 people packed inside during the worst of Serbian attacks, "I wish the people of Kosovo could govern themselves."
Melanie hopes the one lesson that readers will take from the book is that "these conflicts don't happen 'somewhere else,' " as she puts it. "A conflict 'somewhere else' has an effect on everybody else. That's what Kosovo tells us so dramatically, as do the events of September 11. In the end, we're all interdependent in some ways."
'CRAGS AND FISSURES' IN THE NEW YORK TIMES
No, it's not a vaudeville act. I got so mad the other day reading a New York Times' reference to people in Afghanistan as "the locals" who were "making a killing" by charging Western reporters "$20 a head" to cross a river.
Considering the context of this war and the violence that led up to it, what an invaluable contribution it would be to stop using the kind of slang that refers to "killing" in a fun way.
Perhaps, too, we could try not to dismiss people in Afghanistan as the "locals" or impose judgment on those who are charging the poor exploited and impecunious American media "$20 a head." (I know what he means! It's a fortune in Afghanistan! But this guy pays more than that for a cross-town cab. In New York "making a killing" is the American thing to do!)
The same dang reporter (Dexter Filkins) went on to say that the faces of Afghanistan's people "seem merely the human reflection of the country's geography: all crags and fissures, desiccated and rough."
Oh-oh. Here's a classic case of the writer falling in love with himself and getting in the way of the story. There's certainly more to Afghanistan than what this self-described and slightly fatuous Westerner allows himself to see. If he can't recognize the wide range of faces all around him, maybe he could look at the photographs from Afghanistan in his own newspaper.
WHERE TO FIND ARUNDHATI ROY
Stories about Arundhati Roy's writings that weren't published by American magazines because she is critical of American policy keep failing to mention that readers can find these essays on the Internet. Agree with her or not, you'll find her passionate stance beautifully expressed and important. Here are a few addresses you can access right now:
"The Algebra of Infinite Justice": http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4266289,00.html
"War Is Peace" http://www.inthesetimes.com/issue/25/26/feature1.shtml
"Insult and Injury in Afghanistan" http://www.msnbc.com/news/645002.asp
"Smeared in Peanut Butter: Why America Must Stop the War Now" http://globalresearch.ca/articles/ROY110A.html
As to Roy's latest book from South End Press, "Power Politics," see this column next week.
NOTE TO READERS: The staff went on retreat during Veterans Day, so we've combined elements of two columns into one this week. See you Tuesday.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This article is not related to books, but given your story [in #280] about people getting stopped in airports, it's still disturbing...
[From a Green Party USA press release]:
GREEN PARTY USA COORDINATOR DETAINED AT AIRPORT PREVENTED BY ARMED MILITARY FROM FLYING TO GREENS MEETING IN CHICAGO
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your mention of writer Tariq Ali - It's Tariq, not Tarik; and he's Pakistani, not Saudi.
Holt responds: I'll correct the spelling, and thank you, but here's what I found in a biography about him:
"Tariq was born in 1966 in Alrass, Saudi Arabia, a small village in the middle of the desert .... "
Do you think he was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Pakistan?
Michael Rosenthal replies:
You've got the wrong Tariq. The Tariq Ali who was stopped in the German airport was a leader in the May '68 actions in London, about which he wrote a memoir called "Streetfighting Days." Mary McCarthy covered the street actions and made him the lead figure in her essay. Of greater relevance to the present, he has recently completed a trilogy of novels covering the history of the Ottoman Empire, including the culturally cosmopolitan period when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived among each other on tolerant terms. These books are published by Verso in the U.S.
Holt responds: You mean Tariq Ali WASN'T two years old when he wrote "Streetfighting Days"? Thanks to the many readers who wrote in with this information and correct spelling of the Pakistani writer.
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