By Taylor Jennings
Crossing ethnic lines to find a notorious guerrilla leader.
It was early March 1999 when Ilir, my young interpreter, and I set out from Pristina in a battered Lada cast off by some other East bloc nation to find a man known only by his nom de guerre: Gjarperi, the Snake. I needed some local help crossing Kosovo’s ever changing ethnic frontlines and Ilir came highly recommended as an interpreter and fixer.
With a sparse goatee and long, blond ponytail, he looked older than his eighteen years when we met at the bar of the Grand Hotel. War has a way of doing that to people. He introduced himself with a wry smile as a ‘Molotov cocktail: half Serb, half-Albanian’. Ignoring my habitual skepticism, I engaged him immediately.
The ragtag militia that called itself the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, made a point of saying it was a grassroots army with no single leader but references to a commander called the Snake were appearing more frequently in the press. My plan was to get as close as we could to the frontlines and persuade the KLA that an interview with their commander would be a way to get their message out about why they were fighting the vastly superior armed forces of the Yugoslav National Army.
Using my mobile phone, Ilir called a friend to drive us, assuring me that money would overcome his fear. I guess that was true of us as well though my pay was the usual journalist pittance. Once outside the city, we bounced along a badly paved road that wound through velvety green hills not unlike Switzerland except they were empty of any sign of life. It was a landscape eerily reminiscent of the one I had recently left in Bosnia. Ours was the only vehicle on the road: no horse drawn carts, no grazing animals, no smoke rising from chimney pots. Even the ubiquitous crows sitting on telephone cables had fled.
At the first blockade, a Serb checkpoint, a soldier in standard army camouflage waved us over with his Kalashnikov. “Leave this to me”, Ilir said, rolling the window down and calling out in friendly Serbian.
The soldier gave us his best bad-man glare, scrutinized Ilir’s papers, then the driver’s and finally my multi-stamped US passport and press pass which in theory gave me free access to all the territory of Yugoslavia. Handing our documents back, he and Ilir shared a hearty laugh about something.
“What was that all about?” I asked as we drove off.
“I told him you were like all Western journalists over here, looking for examples of multi-ethnicity in Kosovo,” he replied giving me a sideways look. We both burst out laughing.
“He also told me to take you to Prizren because it’s now under Serb control but under no circumstances should we go to Malishevo because it’s in KLA hands and they would shoot me as a Serb!” He paused. “So what shall we do?”
“On to Malishevo!” I almost shouted in my excitement at the revelation of the whereabouts of the guerrilla force. I was instantly ashamed and quickly added, “They wouldn’t really shoot you, as a Serb, would they?”
“No chance. The KLA knows who my father is.” I made a mental note to ask him about that later.
After driving for less than half an hour, we came to another checkpoint. This time the soldiers were decked out in black fatigues and red berets and I noticed the KLA insignia: the black eagle on a scarlet background that was also the flag of Albania. Ilir lowered the window and using both hands awkwardly presented a pack of Lucky Strikes. A strange gesture, hardened soldiers were unlikely to be bought off with a pack of cigarettes but one never knew in the Balkans.
The soldier only lowered his gun when he was close enough to hear Ilir addressing him in fluid Albanian. After a cursory glance, first at our documents, then our faces, he gave a smart salute, handed our papers back and motioned us onward. He didn’t take the Lucky Strikes.
With his by now endearing smile, Ilir turned to me. “If you cover the letters ‘L’ and ‘Y’ with your thumbs, the remaining letters form UCK, the Albanian acronym for the KLA.”
“A sort of password?”
“Well, I heard it about it in a bar. And it worked!”
I felt I was in good hands. The car slowed to a crawl behind a herd of sheep as we entered Malishevo, an old market town for the entire region, now a strategic crossroad for dominating the valley. I watched peasants lugging huge loads of vegetables, donkeys pulling over-burdened carts, herds of goats and sheep all moving in the same direction toward an open space in the center of town. An ancient, peaceful scene disturbed by the distant thud of mortar fire, a reminder of the nearness of the frontline.
“Historically Malisheva was an Albanian town” said Ilir giving it the Albanian pronunciation. “It’s great that it’s now in KLA hands!”
I was about to ask about his allegiances, when the driver slammed on the brakes. A large truck had broken down, blocking the way. Ilir told him to pull over and wait for us. After questioning a few curious onlookers, we were directed to a building that looked as if it had been a medrassa, or Muslim school, with delicate, faded paintings on a shell-shattered outside wall. After climbing a stairway flanked by men in crisp black uniforms, automatic rifles at the ready, everyone bent to remove shoes and boots in the Muslim way and we were ushered into a large, stifling room with wall to wall oriental carpets and low sofas along three sides.
We were shown to seats near two men speaking softly with their heads together. They paid us no attention whatsoever. The younger one was in KLA black, the older wore a tweed sports coat that had seen better times.
A woman entered and placed individual copper trays before us, each with a tiny brass pot, porcelain cup and pieces of sugared lokum. I smiled and thanked her with my limited vocabulary, ‘falemnderit’. She smiled back and left the room as silently as she had entered. Without rising the young commander began to speak. Clearly he was in charge. Turning to Ilir he asked why the foreign journalist wanted to meet with the KLA.
The interview had begun. I put my tape recorder on the table and asked their names. They responded with their noms de guerre, neither being the Snake.
I tried to pay respectful attention as Ilir translated the long history of the Kosovar Albanians going back to Roman times when it was part of ancient Ilyria. Separating the wheat from the chaff, I understood that although Tito had managed to keep the lid on ethnic hostilities in Yugoslavia for nearly forty years, that was nothing in terms of Balkan history. After Tito’s death Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy in 1986, ethnic Albanians were removed from positions of power and their autonomous university closed. By 1995, when the Dayton peace accord ended the war in neighboring Bosnia, the Albanians, who by then made up ninety percent of the population of Kosovo, were more determined than ever to get their own independent state.
I managed to interrupt the dissertation to ask whether the KLA would be prepared to accept an international agreement then under negotiation that would return full autonomy to the Albanians. The young commander started to reply but was interrupted by the older man and the two engaged in a heated, whispered discussion. Throughout the interview the two men frequently conferred before giving a response and I decided the older one must be the leader of the political wing of the KLA, much as Sinn Fein was for the IRA
Finally Ilir turned to me. “They say that the question of autonomy is under consideration”.
At that point a soldier at the back of the room began shouting, pointing in our direction. Ilir froze beside me.
“What’s happening?” I demanded.
“I’ll tell you later.” He addressed the man in the back of the room and a loud three way conversation broke out with the young commander trying to calm things down. Finally the soldier sat down and the commander turned back to Ilir. Again I waited for a translation.
“He says we can continue with the interview if you have more questions.”
Inwardly I seethed at not knowing what had transpired. If there hadn’t been so many guns in the room I would have admonished Ilir then and there.
The interview ended with handshakes and pleasantries all around and we found our way back to our waiting car.
“What on earth was going on back there when that soldier started shouting? You are working for me and I need to know what’s going on. In fact I’m beginning to wonder how good an interpreter you are, so quickly do you translate their interminably long sentences.”
Ilir looked at me with affected chagrin. “You wouldn’t really want me to give you literal translation. Albanian is a very flowery and obtuse language. Half the time you wouldn’t have understood what I was saying. As for the outburst at the back of the room, it seems the soldier was demanding that I enlist in the KLA.”
“Was he serious?
Ilir shrugged. “I told them I would if I could first call my mom.”
“You mean they wanted to take you then and there?”
“I think so. But the commander told them who my father is and said that my job interpreting for foreign journalists was more important.”
He paused and took a deep breath. “You can’t imagine how relieved I was. I would have gone with them. They are my heroes. But I was scared.”
“Hold on a minute. Call your mother? You told me she lives in Belgrade.” Ilir had mentioned that his Serbian mother had divorced his Albanian father and returned to Belgrade.
He burst out laughing. “Well, I was just praying that they didn’t know that. It was a way to remind them I am still young. Because I was scared. I don’t want to be a soldier – in anyone’s army!”
“I suppose it would be difficult taking up arms against your mother’s people”.
His blue eyes grew dark and he looked out the window. “They are my people too.”
After a brief silence I said, “Wow, Ilir, how can you do this?”
“Because Serbian brutality is going too far in Kosovo just as it did in Bosnia!” His voice was cold and flat.
“Tell me who your father is.”
“I’ll tell you later. I think we just met the Snake”. He turned to me with glowing eyes.
That night before leaving Pristina for Belgrade to get ‘the other side of the story’, I wrote in my dispatch that a young KLA commander, believed to be the notorious leader known as the Snake, said the international proposal for Kosovo autonomy was ‘under consideration’.
Several days later in a Belgrade hotel, I watched the televised coverage of the Paris Rambouillet conference which failed to reach an agreement on the autonomy issue. There before me on the screen, standing alongside US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, I recognized the man we had interviewed. He was identified as Hashim Thaci, the head of the Kosovar delegation. In 2007 he would be elected Prime Minister of an independent Kosova.
As for Ilir, he received a scholarship to an American university and years later passed through Washington DC to see me and finally answer my question about his father.
In Kosovo Ilir had looked older than his age but the person who came toward me that day looked every bit as young as the twenty-two year old he was. I thought how wonderful that peace could reverse age, at least in the young.
We kissed cheeks three times in the Serbian way and ordered weak American coffee.
Finally Ilir explained that his father had been a leader in Kosovo’s underground parallel government which was the reason his Serbian mother divorced him.
“So the Snake saved you from service in the KLA because he knew your father?”
“Well, I think he meant what he said, that I was more useful helping journalists. I’m going back because my father is ill but I also want to see what kind of a place Kosovo is and if I am still a ‘Molotov cocktail’.”
“And will you see your mother?”
“Of course. I first fly to Belgrade.”
Taylor Jennings moves between Geneva and Paris where she is working on transforming her experiences traveling the world for major US and European media into essays and short fiction. This is a true story.
“On the Trail of a Man Called Snake” won a Bronze Award in the Adventure Travel category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.