Exclusive: From the Experience of Communicating with Militants

Kosovo War

While working on one of my projects, I reread the reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine and took note of how often (perhaps more often than with other missions) the Russian occupiers in Donbas and their puppets block the OSCE patrols with impunity. Meanwhile, the OSCE only records incidents. In this connection, I recalled the stories of my old and good friend, now an honourable ambassador and once a member of the UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He mentioned “diplomatic disputes” at checkpoints when, in response to a request to pass, some half-drunk Serbian militiamen poked him in the stomach with machine guns. And he selected arguments and tried to understand what those militiamen had on their minds since my friend had to defend his rights even in such wild situations!

I also recollected my own experience. I arrived in Kosovo in the second echelon of the UN mission. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1244, which deployed a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo on 10 June 1999. And the next morning, on Friday, I got a call from the transport service asking me to pick up a ticket to Skopje for tomorrow. Being confused, I went to head of the working group on Kosovo, Assistant Secretary-General Álvaro de Soto, who was my immediate superior then:

“What’s going on? I’ve got a call about some tickets for tomorrow. What does it mean?”

“Oh, I didn’t have time to tell you. I ‘sold’ you to de Mello [Sérgio Vieira de Mello was appointed as the head of the UN mission in Kosovo].”

“What does it mean???”

“Sérgio is recruiting a team for Kosovo. They need a leader of a political group. I offered your candidacy. You are on the subject and Sérgio trusts you.”

“For long?”

“Let’s see how it goes. From three weeks to three months.”

“Wow! I need to pack up and at least tell my wife. Give me at least this weekend to pack my things.”

“Well, now hand over your work, then you have one day for packing up, and on Sunday you will fly.”

… I arrived in Skopje with a 12-hour delay because of a thunderstorm. A day later, a convoy of several cars was formed and we drove to the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, leaving behind an endless flow of refugees returning home and columns of heavy equipment from the NATO KFOR contingent.

In Pristina, I asked de Mello’s deputy, Martin Griffith, about the tasks of “my” political group. He waved aside.

“What kind of ‘political group’ can be there? We don’t have it.”

“Then why was I summoned?” I wondered.

“We have other things to worry about now. We need someone to deal with civilian affairs. You know the local situation and are familiar with local Serbs and Albanians. Join the group on civilian administration.”

“Nema problema! And who works there?”

“You’d better not flaunt Serbian phrases here,” Martin warned, “Jay Carter is in the group. And now you join.”

“I thought that the group has at least three members…”

“Stop joking,” Griffith snapped, “You see that there is a lack of people. You have one car and one walkie-talkie for two.”

“One walkie-talkie for two? And what about safety?” I was surprised.

“We don’t have more. Safety… We all have bulletproof vests without plates because they did not arrive yet!”

So, I became the 28th member of the UN Mission in Kosovo. I threw a blue helmet and a token bulletproof vest under the bed and went to deal with civilian matters. We had work up to our eyeballs: Serbs left Kosovo en masse, there was no local administration or police, utility services did not work. We needed to start everything almost from scratch and sometimes act, ignoring all the rules and instructions. For example, when there was a need to establish a UN presence in Prizren, southern Kosovo, our colleague Mark Baskin went there alone, contrary to all the rules. He had only a backpack, a radio transmitter, and a telephone with him. It was a good thing that he went there by car, not hitchhiking. There was no other way out because the situation required quick solutions and non-standard actions.

The residence of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in those early days was both his home and our office. It was convenient for me as I lived on the next street and my house could be quickly reached directly by stairs past the Dea hotel. However, a few days later, Kosovo Liberation Army units led by its commander, Hashim Thaçi (now under investigation in The Hague) entered the city. British KFOR quickly expelled the militants from the city, while Thaçi with bodyguards settled in the same Dea hotel.

A few days later, I stayed up late in the office. And when I went home in the usual way, two chubby bodyguards of Thaçi blocked my way on the stairs. I showed them my UN ID, pointed in the direction of my house, saying that I wasn’t an odd man and I was going home. The bodyguards gestured that I should go about 500 meters to the corner, go up there and then return to my house on a parallel street. I didn’t want to do a kilometer hook in the middle of the night instead of walking 50 meters straight on. And I got into a heated argument with the guards using gestures. I thrusted my ID under their noses, patted on my thighs, pointed with my fingers where I should go… They shook their heads in denial, signaled with their hands that the passage was closed, and tried to push me away from the stairs. After five minutes of active gesturing, the guards got tired and decided to bring dialogue to another level. One of them went to the hotel and returned a few minutes later with an “interpreter,” a sleepy man who asked with a pleasant smile:

“Sprechen sie Deutsch?”

“Nein!” I shouted, recollecting the German words I heard in the Soviet films about war, “Nicht sprache Deutsch! English!”

The “interpreter” shook his head a said:

“No English.”

Probably, he was considered an interpreter because he once had worked in Germany and, unlike the security guards, knew more than just Albanian. He was convinced that all foreigners should know German as it had been so at his previous job. Obviously, I disappointed him and our conversation went in a new circle. But it was no longer a silent movie but a sound one. We, as before, waved our hands: I pointed in the direction of the stairs, the translator with the guards in the other. But now our gestures were accompanied by a loud mixture of English and German phrases along with Serbian swearwords and so on, and so forth. The guards only wanted me get out of their face and pass by these damned stairs. They pointed to the hotel and rolled their eyes as if saying they had an order. I shook my head and shouted that I lived there, that I went up these stairs and I would continue going up, that I didn’t care who had settled here and now we were the authorities here, not the militants…

Our quarrel must have waken up all the neighbours, but they did not dare to look out of the windows as the time was very uncertain. Finally, the guards gave up, probably, wanting to stop that fuss.

I should have calmed down, but I did not. In the morning, I found out that de Mello would meet with Thaçi. I came into his office, told him about the night incident, and offered to use this, albeit minor, incident to put the militants in their proper place, otherwise they would twist us round their finger and restrict our freedom of movement wherever and whenever they wanted to. Sérgio agreed. During the conversation with Thaçi, he found rather “insightful” words for militants’ leader, making him break a sweat. And closer to noon, I remembered that I forgot a charger for a laptop, ran home to pick it and again encountered the night interlocutors on the stairs. They stepped aside in silence, their malignant glances telling me: “Hasn’t it been enough for you, bastard, that our boss told us off because of you? Have you come here to make fun of us?” I did not check if the passage was available afterwards. A day later, my colleague and I moved to the city center to an apartment let to us by a Serbian doctor, fugitive from Kosovo.

Anyway, I do not remember any other case when militants, or later local authorities, somehow restricted the movement of UN personnel in Kosovo.

When I read the reports of the OSCE SMM to Donbas that the militants are blocking the movement of observers in the territory under their control, de Mello came to my mind. In the situation when there was no governance in Kosovo and UN mission personnel were essentially defenseless against armed militants, Sérgio was not afraid to take Thaçi and his fighters down a peg. If the OSCE SMM leadership in Ukraine had decided to put the occupiers in their proper place from the very beginning, the monitors might have been less likely to be stopped at checkpoints. But the OSCE mission leaders did not do that and are unlikely to in the future. Apparently, they lack temper.

Oleksandr Matsuka, diplomat, former UN Secretariat officer, Chief of the UN Security Council Secretariat Branch (2012-2016)

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