William Langewisch: "Ramush had to be acquitted because of the nature of the prosecution, which was inadequate... Whether he was as criminal or not is largely a definitional issue. The question is: according to whose laws?" Langewiesche is currently working on a book about the slow erosion of the nation-state as an organizing principle in the world.(sic)
After Ramush Haradinaj led Kosovo’s bloody fight for independence from Serbia, becoming provisional prime minister, he was tried for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. In a clash of 21st-century justice and 15th-century laws, Haradinaj came out the winner. by William Langewiesche December 2008
The head of the household has the right to occupy the chief place in the house, to possess his own weapons, to control the earnings of those who live in the house, to buy, sell, and alter the land, to give and take loans and enter into guarantees, to construct houses, to assign those in the house to work for free, to possess wine or raki, to punish those who live in the house when they do not behave in the interest of the household. —From the laws of the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjin (Kosovo, 15th century).
In the category of life’s little curiosities, consider the experience of the Austrian engineer who took the aisle seat directly in front of mine in the economy section of Austrian Airlines Flight 372—a small airliner that was loading before takeoff last spring for the morning’s run from Amsterdam to Vienna. The engineer had a thin, moralistic face, and short, gelled hair. He sat very straight with his head bent slightly forward, reading some industry paper and exuding rigidity even from behind. He wore an immaculate white shirt, cuffed around the wrists. The window seat beside him was empty, and surely he hoped to keep it that way. But after a while, among all the inbound passengers of the ordinary sort who fly in the mornings between European capitals, an exception advanced up the aisle and stopped with an apologetic smile to indicate the empty seat. He had the body of a wrestler, and a long thick face, with a mouth slightly open and a protruding lower lip. He wore a blue suit with an open-necked shirt. It was Ramush Haradinaj, an ethnic Albanian and guerrilla commander in the Kosovo war, who the previous day, after three years of process, had been acquitted of war crimes at the United Nations tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in The Hague.
I knew something of him already—and indeed had booked this flight on the chance that he would be on it. He grew up a country boy in the traditionally rebellious West of Kosovo, as the oldest son of an important Albanian family. Like most Albanian families, his was nominally Muslim, but secular in fact. Haradinaj did well in school, but was viewed as a potential troublemaker by the dominant Serbs, and was barred from attending university. After a one-year stint in the Yugoslav Army, he joined the diaspora in Switzerland and France, where he worked as a manual laborer and nightclub bouncer. During that time he trained for war, competing in marathons, developing contacts, and learning martial arts. He claims to have swum once for 27 hours in the open sea just to prove that he could. Upon his return to the Balkans, around 1995, he began systematically to run guns across the mountains from Albania into Kosovo. After the war started in earnest, he earned the name Rambo for his stubbornness in battle against the Serbs. Picture a blood-drenched fighter holding his ground with a machine gun in each hand. He was wounded many times. He killed a lot of people. Perhaps more than anyone else, he was responsible for provoking Serbia into the campaign of ethnic cleansing which led to the nato intervention of 1999 and the separation of Kosovo from Serbia’s grasp. Later he started a political party and briefly served as the protectorate’s provisional prime minister before being forced to resign because of the war-crimes indictment. To my surprise now, he was unaccompanied in the airplane. He had no handlers, no family, no guards. He slid a small suitcase into the overhead bin.
In the name Haradinaj, the j functions as an i. In Ramush the u functions as a double o. When crowds in Kosovo get excited, they chant “Ra-moosh! Ra-moosh! Ra-moosh!” with equal emphasis on the two syllables. They fire shots into the sky. Single shots. Multiple shots. Ripples from Czech machine pistols. Bursts from Albanian Kalashnikovs. Gunfire is a Balkan language used to express all manner of moods. When love is the emotion conveyed, it can deafen you if you get too close. When vengeance is the message, it can tear you apart. I do not mean to be judgmental, and easily acknowledge that civilized Austria by contrast is a record-holder in genocide. But Austrian airliners at least are quiet. From my seat I said, “Congratulations, Mr. Haradinaj.” We shook hands. He did not know me. The engineer did not know him. He stood to allow Haradinaj to slip into the window seat, then buckled himself in again and resumed his stiff-necked reading. Haradinaj removed his jacket with surprising grace for a man of his build, and began to poke text messages into a mobile phone. He kept at it after the flight attendant ordered the passengers to switch off their electronic devices. Why this restriction? Not for safety, as is claimed, but for lack of official approval. No dogs off leash, no campfires on the beach. I watched the engineer grow upset with Haradinaj’s appalling noncompliance. He refrained from comment, but kept glancing over, as if he could no longer concentrate on his reading.
The takeoff eased the pressure on his soul. Haradinaj stowed his phone for the flight, and gazed out the window as the airplane climbed eastward over Holland. Soon clouds obscured the view. The engineer had gone back to his reading when Haradinaj turned to him and struck up a conversation in fluent English. He was disarmingly open. He said, “I’ve been in United Nations detention in The Hague for a war-crimes trial, but I was acquitted, and now I’m going home to Kosovo. It’s a good day. Yesterday was a good day. I have to change airplanes in Vienna. What about you?” The engineer eyed him doubtfully. Kosovo? He had heard of it. The conversation might have ended there, but Haradinaj opened the in-flight magazine to the route map of Europe and pointed to Kosovo—a country so small that its name could not be contained within the boundaries shown. We have more than two million people, Haradinaj said. Ninety percent are Albanian like me. Ten percent are Serbs. Some are Roma. The groups don’t mix—a problem from the war—and this must change. We have a parliament. Our capital is Priština. It has good cafés. I was the prime minister once. Our government offices have been supervised by the United Nations, but just recently we declared sovereignty. Some countries have recognized us, and the European Union is stepping in now to help. We do not have an army. We are protected by nato troops. There is a lot of building to be done. Unemployment is 50 percent. We need to improve education. The market is so-so. We have agriculture. We need investments.
“Are there tourists?” the engineer figured to ask.
“Not yet,” Haradinaj said. He seemed to think the engineer might pioneer the trade. He said, “We have good wine.” He seemed to be speaking the truth as he perceived it. He did not mention the fact that despite a huge influx of foreign funds and advisers Kosovo is a place mostly untouched by the mechanisms of formal government, and controlled beneath the surface by a system of patronage and understandings outside of the law. In that sense it is like many other countries in the world—societies where, for all the vaunted globalization of our age, traditional ways continue to function and are woven into the fabric of progress. What does “modernity” even mean? Kosovo’s economy is largely underground. Fifty percent unemployment? More like 50 percent black marketeering, smuggling, and tax evasion. But there was perhaps no contradiction in Haradinaj’s mind. Kosovo has hardly any street crime. It has affordable restaurants and bucolic valleys. It has a ski resort in the mountains where a visitor would never have to wait in line. There are plenty of beautiful women there, but the country is so calm that the engineer might even bring his wife.
It’s complicated. Kosovo is calm but tense. In dispatches from the international officials in Priština, that is the language most often used. However self-justifying the description may be, it is not entirely wrong. Haradinaj is the embodiment. United Nations prosecutors in The Hague accused him of having organized the slaughter of civilians during the war. Innocent Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators. Mothers, children, simple farmers. Christ, like pigs in a ditch. He has always denied it. After the war his power was sectarian and based on the fighting he had done, but he shifted with the times to oppose further Albanian-on-Serb violence. In March 2005, when the legacy of war returned to claim him, he became the only sitting prime minister in history to surrender to international justice. Paradoxically, on the eve of his departure, high-ranking international officials attended his farewell dinner. By all accounts it was a fond and teary-eyed affair. The head of the U.N. mission expressed faith in Haradinaj’s future, and called him “a close partner and friend.” If the official went too far, as critics said, it was because Kosovo was tense. Haradinaj was going to be missed not merely because he spoke the language of good government (everyone does), or even because he was an extraordinarily effective executive (though this is the reason given), but because outside of the ordinary channels he was able to handle his own people, however that is done.