A traveller's letter to the President of the Republic

by Régis Debray
                             Le Monde, May 13, 1999
                            Translated by Srzo Bajica, AfP

Since my return from Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo, I have to share an impression with you: I am
afraid, Mr. President, that we have chosen the wrong path. You are a man of the field. You keep
low regard for the intellectuals who are filling our somewhat grandiloquent and peremptory columns.
That is good: I do not appreciate them any better. So I shall stick to the facts. "Everybody to his
own facts" -- you may say. To the facts I could observe on the spot during my short, one-week stay
in Serbia (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, Vranje), between May 2 and May 9, out of which four days
were spent on Kosovo, from Pristina to Pec and from Prizren to Podujevo. It seems to me they do
not correspond to the words that you use, from afar and in good faith.

Do not consider me biased, partial. I have spent the previous week in Macedonia. I witnessed the
arrival of refugees, listened to their stories. They disturb me, as many others do. I wanted to go at
any cost and see - from the "other side" - how this kind of crime was possible. Distrusting the Soviet
"Intourist" way of travelling, or journalists' "bus-cruises", I asked the Serbian authorities that I travel
with my interpreter and by my own car, and to have the opportunity to go and talk where I wanted
to. This agreement was honoured.

Is the interpreter important? Yes! Because I realized, to my great disadvantage - but what else could
one do - that an observer in Macedonia and Albania may inadvertently be taken over by local
translators, who are mostly either sympathizers or fighters of the UCK (KLA), and are "lending"
their standpoints and their networks to newly arrived foreigner. Extortion stories are too numerous to
be a ground for suspicion against indisputable reality.

Certain testimonies that I collected were proven later, after verification on the spot of their origin, to
be exaggerated, even incorrect. All of this, of course, does not diminish the repugnant scandal of this

What do You keep saying to us? "We are not at war with the Serbian people, but with Milosevic,
The Dictator, who, refusing all negotiations, planned in cold blood this genocide of the Kosovars.
We are restricting o urselves to destruction of his repressive apparatus, and this destruction is
already in its advanced stages. And the reason is that, regardless of hitting the wrong targets and
producing unwanted collateral damage, we continue with the air-strikes because Serbian forces in
Kosovo continue with their operation of ethnic cleansing."

I have the reason to fear, Mr President, that every word in these sentences is a fraud.

1."We are not at war with the people..." Do you know that in the very heart of Belgrade, close to the
RTS TV building, there is a children's theatre "Dusan Radovic", and that the missile that blasted the
TV building also destroyed the theatre? Three hundred schools all over Serbia have been hit by
missiles. Pupils, left on their own, do not go to school any more. In the villages some children are
collecting yellow explosive pipes in shape of toys (model CBU 87). Those are cluster bombs.
Soviets used to throw similar ones on Afghanistan.

The destruction of the factories left about 100.000 workers jobless - with income of around 230
dinars a month, or 91 francs. Almost half the population is unemployed now. If you believe that this
is the way to turn the population against the regime, you are mistaken. In spite of wretch edness and
hardship I could not observe a single crack in consecrated unity. One girl in Pristina told me: "When
they kill four Chinese, citizens of a great power, the world is outraged - but four hundred Serbs don't
count. Strange, isn't it?"

I did not witness the NATO bombers' mayhem done to buses, refugee convoys, trains, hospital in
Nis and elsewhere. I did not witness the attacks on the Serbian refugee camps (Majino Naselje,
April 21 - 4 dead, 20 wounded). I speak about some four hundred thousand refugee Serbs that the
Croats deported from Krajina without the benefit of microphones and cameras.

I shall limit myself to the places and time of my sojourn on Kosovo -- General Jertz, the NATO
spokesman, declared: "We never attacked any refugee convoy, and we never attacked civilians".
This is a lie. In the village of Lipljan, on Thursday, on May 6, I saw a private house reduced to dust
by a missile - three little girls and their grandparents massacred. There were no military targets for
three kilometres around. The next day I saw in Prizren, in the Gypsy suburb, two more shacks
turned to ashes only a few hours prior to my arrival, while several victims were still buried under

2. "Milosevic, The Dictator..." Activists from opposition parties, the only ones I talked to, reminded
me of the harsh reality. Autocrat, cheat, manipulator and a populist, Mr. Milosevic was still the
elected president, three times in a row. Dictators are elected once, never twice. He respects the
Yugoslav constitution. The system is not a one-party system. His party is in minority in the
Parliament. There are no political prisoners, or unstable coalitions. As if he were absent from the
everyday landscape. He can be freely criticized on local restaurant terraces - withou t any restraints -
people don't care. No "totalitarian" charisma is present. It seems that the West is much more
obsessed by Milosevic than his compatriots.

To mention Munich in connection with him means to turn upside down the relationship of the strong
and the weak, and suppose that an isolated and poor country with ten million inhabitants that seeks
nothing outside the borders of old Yugoslavia can be compared with conquering, over-equipped
Hitler's Germany. By veiling the eyes, one becomes blind.

3. "The genocide of the Kosovars..." A terrible chapter. I had met only two Western eye-witnesses.
One of them is Alexander Mitic, though of Serbian origin, AFP correspondent from Pristina. The
other is Paul Watson, an Anglophone Canadian, L.A. Times Cent ral European correspondent. He
had covered Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, the Gulf War and Rwanda: not a rookie. Pretty much
anti-Serb, he followed the Kosovo civil war for two years, he knows every village and every road
here. A hero, therefore modest. When all the foreign journalists were expelled from Kosovo on the
first day of air-raids he went underground, to anonymity. And never stopped moving around and

His evidence is balanced and, when combined with those of the others, convincing. Under the flood
of bombs, the worst atrocities were committed during first three days (March 24, 25 and 26). The
arson, the looting, the murders. A several thousand Albanians were then ordered to leave. He kept
convincing me that since that time he never c ame across any trace of crimes against humanity.
Doubtlessly these two scrupulous observers could not see everything. I could see even less. I can
only testify about Albanian farmers returning to Podujevo, about Serbian soldiers guarding Albanian
bakeries - ten of those have re-opened in Pristina - and about the wounded in bombing campaigns,
Albanians and Serbs, lying side by side, in Pristina City Hospital (two thousand beds).

So what happened? In their opinion: the sudden burdening of an international air war on top of an
extremely cruel civil war. I remind you that in 1998 1700 Albanian fighters were killed, as well as
180 Serbian policemen and 120 soldiers. The UCK (KLA) kidnapped 380 persons, later releasing
103, while the others are dead or missin g , sometimes after torture - among them: 2 journalists and
14 workers. The UCK claimed having 6000 guerilla fighters in Pristina, and I was told that their
snipers started their actions with the first bombs. Concluding that they are unable to fight on two
fronts, the Serbs allegedly decided to evacuate manu militari "NATO's fifth column", it's "ground
force", i.e. the UCK, especially in the villages where it blended into civilian population.

Localized, but certain, those evacuations, in the "Israeli manner", as they call them down there, and
you, as a veteran from Algeria, must remember those -- we deported million of Algerian civilians and
locked them up in concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire in order to "purge the water of
the fish" -- left here and there some traces under the open sky: burned homes, deserted villages.
Those military clashes caused, prior to the bombing, the civilian escapes - mostly, as they told me, of
the fighters' families. According to the AFP correspondent, they were rat h er limited. "People found
safety in neighbouring houses" he wrote, "no one was starving, no one was killed on the roads or
escaped to Albania and Macedonia. The NATO attack directly triggered the avalanche, the
humanitarian catastrophe. Until that time, a ctually, there was no need for refugee camps on the
borders." In the first days, everyone agrees, the reprisals were widely expanded, mostly by the
so-called "uncontrollable elements", probably with local police cooperation.

Mr. Vuk Draskovic, Deputy Prime Minister, who distances himself now, had told me, as well as did
the others, that since that time about 300 people were arrested and prosecuted in Kosovo.
Cosmetics? An alibi? Guilty consciousness? Quite possible. However, the exodus continues, but in
smaller proportions. Sometimes under direct UCK orders, the UCK wanting to save their people,
afraid they will be labelled "collaborationists"; in fear of bombing, as bombs from the 6000 metres
altitude do not discriminate between Serbs, Albanians and oth e rs; sometimes to join their relatives
who have already left; or because the cattle is dead; because the Americans will win; because this
might be an opportunity to emigrate to Switzerland, Germany or elsewhere... Those are the stories
one can hear on the spot. I am just retelling them, not vouching for them.

Have I listened too much to the "people from the other side"? The opposite would mean racism.
Defining a priori one people - Jewish, German or Serbian - as collectively criminal is unworthy of a
democrat. After all, during the German occupation there were Albanian, Muslim and Croat SS
division -- never Serbian. So how come that this philosemitic and strong nation - in Serbia proper
about ten nationalities coexists - became Nazi with a 50-year delay? A number of Kosovar refugees
told me that they escaped the repression with help of their neighbours, Serbian friends.

4. "The destruction of Serbian forces is in its advanced stages..." Well, I am sorry, but these forces
are, it seems, alive and kicking. A young sergeant I gave a ride to on the Nis-Belgrade highway,
servicing in Kosovo, asked me what is the strategic reason for the NATO determined pursuit of
civilians - "When we go out in a city that has no more electricity, we have to drink lukewarm Coke.
Unpleasant, but one can stand it." I suppose military units have their own power generators.

You destroyed bridges on Kosovo that can be easily by-passed over shallow creeks. An
insignificant airfield was damaged, empty barracks blasted, defective military trucks burned, along
with wooden helicopter dummies and wooden artillery pieces left in the middle of meadows. Perfect
for video-shots and press room briefings, but what then? Do you remember that the Yugoslav
defense system, established by Tito a nd his partisans, was not a regular army: dispersed and
omnipresent, with its underground command posts, for a long time prepared for the conventional
threat -- which used to be the Soviet threat. Over there they even haul cannons by oxen, to avoid

It is not a secret - there are some 150.000 armed people in Kosovo - between the ages of twenty to
seventy - there is no age limit for reservists - out of which only 40-50 thousand in General
Pavkovic's III Army. Walkie-talkies seem to be in good order, and Yugoslavs are the ones who are
disrupting the communication networks -- the UCK using the mobile phones to inform the American

Concerning the demoralization you are hoping for, do not trust anything. In Kosovo, I am afraid, we
will expected by very brave troops, not lacking certain impatience. As one reservist from Pristina
told me, with an AK over his shoulder, on his way to buy bread: "We welcome the ground troops!
In a real war, there will be, at least, dead on both sides..." NATO planners' war-games take place
5000 meters above reality. I beseech you: Do not send our sensitive and intelligent Saint-Cyriens to
terrain they know nothing about. Their cause might be just, but it will never be a defensive war for
them, even less a ho ly war, as it will be, rightly or wrongly, for Serbian volunteers on Kosovo and

5. "They continue with the ethnic cleansing…" At a Yugoslav-Albanian border post I was enraged
by the piles of registration plates and personal documents of th e people who had left. They told me
this happened out of fear that "terrorists" would infiltrate again, stealing them in order to disguise their
cars and ID-s. Many things could escape my modest observing powers, but the German Minister of
Defense was lying on May 6 when he stated that there are "between 600.000 and 900.000
displaced persons within Kosovo". On a territory of 10.000 square kilometres, this could not pass
unnoticed for an observer who travelled on the same day to the western part, and from north to
south. In Pristina, where tens of thousands of the Kosovars still live, one can have lunch in an
Albanian pizzeria, in company of Albanians.

Why cannot our ministers ask self-composed witnesses -- Greek doctors from "Doctors Without
Frontiers", priests, churchmen? I have in mind the extremely reasonable Father Stefan, the prior from
Prizren. Because this civil war is not a religious one: numerous mosques are untouched - except two,
as I was informed.

It is possible to buy the foreign policy of a country - that is what the USA is doing to the countries of
this region - but not its dreams or its memory. If you could see the gazes full of hate that Macedonian
customs officers and policemen are focusing on armoured vehicles and tanks convoys arri v ing
every night from Thesalonikki to Skopje, looks aimed at their arrogant escorts, unaware of their
surrounding, you would understand painlessly that it is easier to enter this "theatre of operations" then
to extricate oneself from it. Would you, like th e Italian president, have courage or intelligence
renounce unrealistic presumptions, and seek with Ibrahim Rugova, according to his words, "a
political solution on a realistic basis"?

In that case, a number of realities would be imposed to your attention. First: There cannot be a
salvation outside of a modus vivendi between Albanians and Serbs, as Mr. Rugova demanded,
because on Kosovo lives not one, but two, or even more ethnic communities. Without entering into
the war of numbers, due to the absence of reliable statistics, I believe I figured out that there are over
a million Albanians, 250.000 Serbs and 250.000 people belonging to other ethnic groups - Moslem
Serbs, Turks, Goranies or peasants in the mountains, Romanies, "Egyptians", Albanian speaking
Gypsies - who are afraid of the Greater Albanian domination and who are on the side of the Serbs.
Second: Prevent the resurrection of the savage internal war, the return of the secular Act I, without
which the present Act II is incomprehensible, but which came after a long previous oppression.

Politics is oriented nowadays by the use of analogies with the past. But one must find an example
that is the one least questionable. You have chosen the analogy with Hitler, casting Kosovars as the
persecuted Jews. Allow me to propose another analogy: Algeria. Mr. Milosevic certainly is not De
Gaulle. But the civilian authorities are dealing with an army that is fed up with defeats and dreams of
a good fight. That regular army is similar to the autochthonous paramilitaries which could easily
resemble a kind of OAS one day.

And what if the problem is not in Belgrade, but on the streets, coffee-shops and groceries of
Kosovo? These people, it is a fact, are not reassuring, not to depend upon. Once or twice they
attacked me severely. For the sake of the truth, I have to say that Serbian officers were the ones
who rescued me every time.

Do you remember De Gaulle's definition of NATO: "An organization imposed on the Atlantic
Alliance that does not represent anythi ng else but the military and political subordination of Western
Europe to the USA?" One day you will explain the reasons which led you to modify this judgement.
Expecting that, I have to admit having felt shame when asking a Serbian democrat dissident in
Belgrade why his current president eagerly received a certain American personage and not the
French one, he replied: "In any case, it is better to talk to the master than to his servants."