Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis 1999
Balkan Peace Team Spring 1999
Newsletter # 15
The BPT Newsletter is published by Balkan Peace Team (BPT) and is distributed free to allconcerned groups and individuals. Everyone is welcome (indeed encouraged) to reproduce this material as long as you credit BPT, including given the address of the office at Minden.The source for all articles without a byline are reports from BPT's field teams.Newsletter production: (V.i.S.d.P.): Christine Schweitzer
Kosov@: Sometimes all you can do is listen
With the escalation of violence in Kosovo the work pattern of BPT in Yugoslavia has changed. There is now not much opportunity for new dialogue or outreach. The following articles tries to explain why we still think our presence is important.
Sometimes when I am calling to make an appointment in Prishtina and say I'm from the Balkan Peace Team, there will be a kind of choke on the other end of the line and the person will say, "Well you haven't been doing your work very well have you?" "But we haven't stopped trying." I say, and hope for a chance to explore that topic further. What BPT does now, in Kosovo and in all of FRY will have consequences in the future. The first priority is not to give way to discouragement. We know from experience that the dramatic power of non-violence often emerges against a backdrop of war or fear and suspicion. Our work right now keeps the doors open and lets people know that what they're doing matters. BPT must take responsibility to decide what we can and can't do, as circumstances change very quickly and as the needs of our contacts also change.
About rumour, suspicion and accurate reorting, I made quick leap of understanding once I could read the Serbian newspaper. The "truth" here in Yugoslavia very much depends on who is telling it. In the course of a day in Prishtina last November, we heard that three men had been killed in a shooting incident the night before. There were at least three different versions of how the killings happened. The first version, reported to us by some students, who had heard the morning news, was that a woman had been raped by three men, supposedly Albanian, and that her brothers killed the three in revenge. The second version, in the newspaper Koha Ditore, was that a journalist from an Albanian newspaper, a officer in the UCK and a student were deliberately ambushed by the Serbian police. The third version found in Blic, was that the Serbian police ordered the car to stop and when it didn't, they opened fire, killing all three inhabitants of the car. We will never know "the truth" of this story and it serves as an example of how "truth" is used by every side in times of war.
Sometimes BPT can change the dynamics of a situation by intervening or by challenging or gently questioning statements of a defamatory nature made by one side against the other. For example, right after hearing about the beating and robbery of a young Albanian youth at the hands of two Serbian police, we were visiting some Serbian young people, who explained that the police had to use violence against the Albanians, because they were involved in drug trafficking and smuggling. There was a general nodding of heads around the table. This was an opportunity to tell the story we had recently heard. The reaction was strained and then we felt a kind of hearty rebuff, but my colleague gave a second example of Serbian police violence to an Albanian youth. We didn't ask for agreement or affirmation, but just that we were heard. There was a silence following our story and eyes passed quietly from one face to another. Something had changed among the group, if only for a moment. It has helped the level of our credibility that BPT has stayed in country during both NATO bomb threats. It was particularly true that our absence would have been noted in Belgrade last October. For a few weeks immediately following the end of the bomb threats, we were often quite pointedly asked whether we had stayed in Belgrade or been evacuated. We heard some activists give angry reports of internationals who had evacuated, leaving the local groups feeling abandoned. In Prishtina where the bombings would supposedly have been welcomed by much of the Albanian population, our presence was also remarked on. Whenever we were asked, we took the opportunity to say the we were opposed to the use of NATO bombs and hoped that better, more long term solutions could be found. I remember a quite poignant incident that highlighted for me the vulnerability and painfulness of being in the public eye and pursued by the press. We went to talk with the student leaders at UPSUP, the union of the Parallel System of the University of Prishtina. These young men and women had organised a powerful and successful voice for non- violence, had led demonstrations demanding the right to attend faculties at the University of Prishtina and had successfully pressured the government into sitting down at the table to negotiate. Their efforts had gained the respect and attention of the world in 1997 and early 1998. But war had intervened inthe non violent efforts and when we arrived to talk, the students had a set response to what they thought would be our question, "Why did the non violent student movement fail?" This was the question that press now hounded them with. We assured the students that their strategy had proved effective,(witness the continuing effect in the recent transfer of three additional facilities to the Parallel University as a result of the agreement reached last Spring.) We assured them that we wanted to know more about the strategies they had learned and how they might be useful in the future. This question was a surprise to the students leaders. At the end of last summer, when the war had driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in the Kosovo countryside, local women's groups in Prishtina were trying to provide emergency assistance to the refugees. The women were driven by their compassion and a need to do something for their suffering neighbours. Some felt excluded when the international aid workers descended on Kosovo in such overwhelming numbers. Many rumours about pay and salaries and who was getting hired circulated among the women's groups. Some of this talk died off as groups were absorbed in the network of humanitarian assistance. BPT tried to present both groups with information that would be useful, such as which local groups had contacts in which regions and how to help the women's groups approach the UNHCR as the central dispatcher of information about the humanitarian relief operation. We find that our ability to relate to both the grass roots organisations and the large international organisations is a great benefit to opening communication.
A more recent experience, reaffirms what I already believe, that young people can sway the course of history here. The last time I was in Prishtina, at the beginning of February, I met met with one of the women who had been in the hunger strike of 51 Albanian students to pressure their politicians to cooperate. We found the young woman, serious and withdrawn, and she told us in a flat and inexpressive voice how she had participated in the group. She had been harassed by thugs and both she and her younger brother had been threatened. But, she said she was sure that she would continue the strike again if needed. And she knew that thousands of students would support and join with her. I was sad for this young woman, who didn't seem aware of the high price she had paid in order to bring cooperation to the internal struggles among the Kosovar Albanians. The hunger strike is another example of successful non violent strategy in Kosovo.
The hunger strikers were able to achieve their goal; a promise from all major factions to talk together and present a common platform. Many observers had thought this goal impossible. BPT will report about this action to other students and to the outside world. We will try to make common connections that can be useful. What do others think? Is there something to be learned from this experience that Belgrade students would want to know? We are often surprised at how little one group knows about the actions of the other. There is always more to do. But my mind's eye still sees the dark and almost vacant face of the young women student. Peace comes also at a price and that price shouldn't be forgotten. I keep this young woman, with her martyred look, very much in mind. There are times when BPT can pass on requests from groups to the outside world and even help to arrange for transportation of materials. Mostly requests are for equipment and books and teachers. The Albanian Youth Action has had to close down its evening classes temporarily because of the violence on the streets in Prishtina. But Father Nosh, the catholic priest whose church sponsors the group, said that what they needed most were English teachers. The church can not pay for the teachers nor can they afford to house them right now, but that is what they need and want most. We assured him that we would pass on this information and if anyone is interested, or would like to learn more about being a volunteer English teacher, please contact BPT, either in Minden, or through our e-mail address. A second appeal is for books and materials on democracy, citizenship, government, the legal system, The Belgrade University students have started a library and resource center in their determination to overcome the repressive laws that are destroying the university system. The good news is that the independent student alliance, which changed its name to the Student Union and which aims to create a student union that spreads all over Serbia, has been accepted in the Student Union of Europe, ASEP. As one of the students pointed out, "I am not like my father. I don't want to be cut off from Europe and think Serbia is only right. We students have travelled and we know how things are." When one of the woman students asked me why I was so interested in the students strike, I said, " Because I think that the hope of Serbia lies with young people, like you." Her eyes filled with tears and she shook my hand.
The third request comes from the Nansen Group, which is still works on a multicultural basis and wants to establish a library on non-violence training and conflict resolution skills. They offer workshops to young people as well as ten week courses in multiculturalism and non violent communication skills in Lillehammer Norway. Their newest project is to provide training workshops on conflict resolution to the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM). BPT has worked closely with Nansen and will be facilitating possible future candidates for a workshop later this spring on the legal system. These are examples of the kind of work that BPT continues to carry out. We divide our time between Prishtina and Belgrade, Often activists will use our flat or stay with us in one city or another. I have tried to give a personal sketch of how our goals translate into daily work and interactions. For me the work of Balkan Peace Teams is just as important as humanitarian assistance and community building, it is the work of honouring the human spirit. L. B., BPT volunteer in Beograd
How to become a volunteer with Balkan Peace Team:
BPT is always looking for new volunteers. They should be available for at least one year, and have some experience on human rights, non-violence and civil society development. The BPT office can send you application material (questionnaire etc.).
Volunteer and Personnel News
The team in Croatia now includes Angelica Anastacio (Philippines/USA), Paul Aiken (Australia) and as its newest member Michael Butler (US).Lyn Back (US) in Belgrade was joined in January by Alan Jones (Wales). In March Erik Torch (before OtOc) will be bringing the team back up to three members. Also in the International Office in Minden a change took place. Since January 1999 Eric Bachman and Dorie Wilsnack are sharing the work as Coordinators on a part-time/volunteer basis. They committed themselves to up to twelve months and want to revolutionize the BPT office structures and finances in a way that BPT in future can function without state-financed ABMs.To finance their work, BPT is looking for special donations!
Croatia: Media freedom
Media freedom in Croatia has been receiving much attention, both domestically and from the international community, in the past months. Reform of the largely state- controlled media has been one of the recurring issues on which international representatives and bodies have been calling for government action. The state has effective control of most electronic media and indirect power over newspapers through the country's main distributor Tisak (a company which controls the distribution of almost every newspaper in Croatia and whose owner is linked to HDZ through his acquisition of newspaper, radio and television interests). While most media sources are either directed by state authorities or practise self-censorship on issues potentially damaging to the government, those independent media which do exist are constantly under threat.
Repression of independent media in Croatia is not as dramatic as else where in the former Yugoslavia. Independent newspapers, radio and television are allowed to operate, but must do so in an environment in which financial pressures or legal technicalities are used to ensure their closure. As independent media are operating outside the state funding system, they are usually operating on small and vulnerable budgets. One pattern of government efforts tocontrol independent voices involves bringing numerous libel suits against them when they criticise the government. Both the costs involved in establishing a legal defence, and possible fines if convicted, place an enormous drain upon already limited resources, as well as making the daily work of the journalists and editors concerned even more difficult.
Another tactic which has been linked to the government is Tisak's repeated delays of payment of distribution royalties to independent newspapers. This cutting off newspapers' main source of revenue both means that they are sometimes unable to pay their staff or to guarantee the regularity of their publication. Many newspapers need the royalties to repay debts to the state-owned Hrvatska Tiskara printing company, which has often combined the pressure of non-payment of royalties with a threat to refuse to print upcoming editions of newspapers unless their debts are paid. For some newspapers, this finacial squeeze has become a monthly event.
Electronic media also experience difficulties, but there are growing signs of public disapproval of the lack of media freedom. The transmission of independent Split- Dalmatia TV station, ATV, was terminated recently without warning by authorities. It occured before Drazen Budisa, chairman of the Croatian Social Liberal Party (HSLS), was to have appeared on ATV's evening programme "Cenzura" ('Censored'). In an HSLS news conference in Split, Budisa called the break in transmission a "terrorist act" and stated that no news conferences by opposition leaders were covered by Croatian TV. Officials of the Ministry of Transport and Communications maintained that the permit for the station's transmitter on (Mt) Marjan expired on 31st December. Public interest in the event was high and it seems that whichever body was reponsible for the switching off of the ATV transmitter has done the opposition movement a favour by providing a opportunity for publicity.
In the week following, a public meeting was called in Split, in which the interview, which was to have taken place in ATV's studio, was recorded before an audience of around 500 people. The interview has been repeated on ATV (which is again transmitting) on several occasions and was broadcast live on local radio stations. While the evening was marred by one incident involving a former soldier who attempted to disrupt proceedings, local activists reported that, in comparison to previous cases of authorities breaking up public gatherings or allowing them to be disrupted, it was an encouraging event. It was one of many public gatherings which have occurred since the summer of last year and have been organised by human rights organisations, youth groups, political parties and women's associations.
They have ranged in theme from the role of youth in politics to sexual harrassment in the workplace and post- traumatic stress disorder and are providing the Split public with opportunities to participate in the type of public debate which is often not available through the media. P..A.
While the North Croatia Office closed, much remains to be done in South Croatia
Following a lengthy evaluation process, the North Croatia office of BPT (Otvorene Oci) has ceased working in November 1998. This is a positive response to the changing situation in North Croatia: local groups have set up their own support networks and the political situation is less unstable/ dangerious for activists. As an organisati on that works towards the goal of putting itself out of work, BPTmust respond to these changes in an appropriate way. This decision was made with full consultati on with BPT's partner organisations in Croatia. The South Croatia office took over some of the tasks of their colleagues in Zagreb. The main issue of the work in Dalmatia continue to be the return of ethnic Serbs to Croatia and house eviction trials. Together with Pax Christi, Otvorene Oci is going to support a refugee roundtable in Banja Luka (Srpska Republika of Bosnia). Otvoreni Oci also monitors regularly public events organized by local NGOs in Split which deal with a wide range of topics, media freedom being one of them.
Balkan Peace Team, Account no 89 008 155, Sparkasse Minden Lübbecke, BLZ 490 501 01
Austria: Int'l Versöhnungsbund, PSK bank (60000) Account no 92.022.553
In the USA: Fellowship of Reconciliation, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10970 - please mark „BPT"
In the Netherlands: Stichting Nederland steunt Balkan Peace Team,Postgiro 72 31 040 - please mark „BPT"
Dates - dates - dates - dates - dates - dates
General Assembly: 19.-21. November 1999
Upcoming assessment: 6.9.-10.9.99 in Amersfoort
Next Assessments in 2000: 7.2.-11.2.2000 4.9.-8.9.2000
New reports to be ordered:
6-month report of Otv orene Oci, november 1998 month report of BPT Serbia/Kosovo, "Das sind meine Freunde aus Belgrad" brochure (in German) on the dialogue work of BPT-FRY with the students from Belgrade and Prishtina in 1997
The Balkan Peace Team is a cooperation by the following NGOs: Austrian Peace Services, Brethren Service, Bund für Soziale Verteidigung, Collectif du jumellage des Sociétés civiles de Genève et Prishtine, Dutch Mennonite's Working group ex-Yugoslavia, Eirene International, Helsinki Citizens' Assembly Geneva, International Fellowship of Reconciliation, Mouvement pour une alternative nonviolente, Peace Brigades International, War Resisters International.
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