Being Walter Duranty

Lies about Kosovo are nothing new. For almost two decades now, there’s hardly been any truth in reports that have reached the Western public concerning this southern province of Serbia now posing as an independent state. The 1988 constitutional reforms designed to rein in Albanian separatism were presented as "stripping Kosovo of autonomy." The 1989 speech by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic at a commemoration of a historic battle against Ottoman invaders was routinely claimed to have been a call for hatred, nationalism, or violence – but never actually quoted. And with good reason – because it was nothing of the sort.

Lies ramped up in 1998, as the terrorist gang calling itself the "Kosovo Liberation Army" (KLA) emerged, targeting police officers, postal workers and fellow Albanians who would not "contribute" to the cause. Media in the West claimed the KLA were "freedom fighters" from Serbian "repression." In reality, they were fighting for an independent Kosovo ruled by Albanians, and eventually an "ethnic Albania" encompassing Albania proper, and parts of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece.

Events from 1998-99 ought to be familiar to the readers of this column: the Rambouillet "peace plan," the Racak "massacre," and finally the "humanitarian bombing" of Serbia that went on for 78 days. Lies piled up sky-high: hundreds of thousands of Albanians supposedly shot, or raped, or burned in ovens, or thrown down mine shafts… Each and every one was later revealed as complete and utter fabrication, only to be shrugged off by their authors, who would go on to make new claims shortly thereafter.

The "peace" that came in June 1999 was nothing of the sort; hundreds of thousands of Kosovo’s Serbs, Roma, Turks, and other communities fled for their lives as the triumphant KLA took over under NATO’s aegis. Thousands of homes put to the torch, ancient churches and monasteries dynamited, entire families massacred, everyone else’s property looted – these grisly facts of "liberation" were dismissed in the West as "revenge attacks." Revenge for what?

Paradise Imagined

The Wall Street Journal‘s opinion pages can be considered the norm when it came to the Western media coverage of Kosovo. Serbs were always and ever evil, wrong and deserving of everything that happened to them. Albanians were virtuous victims who deserved "freedom" and statehood, laws and logic be damned. Never mind that it was WSJ‘s Trepca Mine myth. The cognitive dissonance between the news and opinion in the "War Street Journal" has been a fact for quite some time.

It is not surprising, therefore, that WSJ‘s travel writer Stan Sesser chose to follow the editorial page’s tack, rather than the Pearl’s. Sesser’s June 27 article, titled "Valentin Krumov. This Bulgarian UN employee was shot in broad daylight on a Pristina street for giving the time to an Albanian bystander in "what sounded like Serbian."

Failing Both Language and History

According to Sesser, the war "took 12,000 lives" and "destroyed Kosovo’s economy." He doesn’t say where he got the number from; most of his colleagues have been using the equally imaginary 10,000. Yet even counting the KLA casualties, the documented numbers so far are below 5,000.

Then there’s an issue of language. Sesser was assigned an Albanian guide for his visit to the monasteries (which he mislabels "Greek Orthodox"). But he calls the Patriarchy "Peja" – which is a corrupted form of Albanian "Peje," itself a corruption of the Serbian name for the ancient city, Pec (Peć, meaning “stove” or “oven”). But the confusion becomes complete when he tries to make a bad wordplay on the name of the province’s capital.

In Serbian, the administrative capital of Kosovo is Pristina (Priština). The Albanian name for the city is Prishtine. Both have a very emphatic "sh" sound. Yet Sesser makes a terrible pun about how the city is anything but "pristine."

Nor is Sesser’s history any better than his linguistics. Apparently, Pristina was named after an "ancient king of the Ilyrians [sic], the ancestors of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians." However in Adrian Room’s Placenames of the World (McFarland, 2003), Pristina is derived from "prisht," the Serbian word for boil (see page. 292). There was no Illyrian "king Pustule."

Albanians may believe that they are descended from the Illyrians, who inhabited the Balkans in pre-Roman times, but that doesn’t mean this is actually true, or supported by evidence. The "Illyrian theory" was first postulated by Austrian court historians in the late 1800s, and it has been challenged since.

So That is What ‘Coexistence’ Means…

At one point, Sesser admires the medieval city of Prizren. He quotes one Naim Shahini, who "spent a day volunteering his labor to help renovate an old Prizren mosque" as saying that for 500 years, "Greek [sic] Orthodox and Catholics lived with Muslims without any problem."

Those five centuries, mind you, were the era of the Ottoman Empire, in which Christians (and Jews) were allowed to live, but as dhimmi – the disenfranchised infidels, who had to defer to Muslims in every respect, pay taxes and give up their children to become Janissaries. In Muslims’ eyes (be they Albanian or Bosnian), it was those pesky infidels demanding freedom from the sultan that created "problems."

Sesser does not mention the fact that Albanian mobs sacked and torched the Bishop’s residence and the Church of St. George in Prizren during the March 2004 pogrom. Some "coexistence," that.

This isn’t just an omission, either. Sesser chooses to illustrate Kosovo reality by lamenting the fact that Albanians living in the northern, Serb part of Mitrovica need NATO escort to go to school or work. How ironic, given that needing an armed escort to go anywhere is precisely one salient characteristic of Serb life in occupied Kosovo. And note how there are Albanians living in north Mitrovica. The number of Serbs in the south part is precisely zero.

But tourists should not worry, says Sesser, because NATO is there:

"To forestall ethnic conflicts, 17,000 NATO troops, supplemented by thousands of police under U.N. auspices, are everywhere, paying special attention to the historic mosques, churches and monasteries that are among the country’s treasures."

What else to call this but extremely facetious? Those troops (back when there were 40,000 of them, even) and police have done nothing to prevent a mass ethnic cleansing of Serbs in 1999, or any of the thousands of attacks on Serb lives and property since, including the 2004 pogrom. Over 150 churches and monasteries have been destroyed in the presence of these troops. Never happened, at least according to Sesser. Not in his affordable paradise of coexistence…

No Excuse

Perhaps it is being unfair to Stan Sesser to single him out for scrutiny, when hundreds of his colleagues have misrepresented Kosovo for years. He could be simply an ignorant travel writer, not knowing much about history, politics or language, focusing on hotels and their amenities and simply repeating the information he was fed by Albanian handlers and editors in New York. But when is a lie tolerable? When are omissions of truth "OK"? When is ignorance an excuse, for a reporter?

The right answer should always be "never," else all journalists end up resembling Walter Duranty. Unfortunately, that’s now how things work when it comes to Kosovo.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.