Belgradeat the end of the 1930s was full of different nationalities. The Jews had shops and factories, the Czechs repaired watches and tuned pianos, the Hungarians looked after the plumbing. I know there were also tidy Germans who fiddled with the electricity, and that Russians worked in printing shops and geodetic offices. There were also Romanians, Greeks, Slovenes – these last often rode bikes and climbed Avala on Sundays. One lived with them all without problems. But this was not so in the case of the Albanians, who were called by pejorative names; and the wall between the Serb majority and these people – who were treated as a necessary evil when it came to building sites and the moving of pianos – was rising. Someone had to carry bricks to the top floor of the ‘Belgrade’ cinema building under construction, someone had to unload two tons of coal for my mother, but what was one to do with them afterwards? To a six-year-old they were an exotic presence among the Belgraders. I knew that they came from the south, that they were poor and emaciated, and that after sawing logs in our courtyards, they slept in basements and lived off sardines and grapes. They were modest, rather shy and mostly cordial. I don’t know why, but my mother displayed a reserve towards them and I don’t recall ever having an Albanian boy as a friend. I don’t think they attended our schools. It was as if the Albanians living in Belgrade had never been children, but had come into the world as grown-up men with saws in their hands, after which they promptly went round in search of work. But we liked visiting ‘The Acrobat’s pastry shop, full of quick dark-haired men who filled cones with wonderful ice cream. I asked my mother whether they were the same people who sawed logs in our houses, and she said: ‘Well, almost!’

Following the victory of Tito’s army in the Second World War, there came about a general brotherhood and unity of Yugoslav citizens, which then slowly melted away, leaving some more equal than others. It was only two decades after 1945, following the fall of the Yugoslav police chief Ranković, that we were told about the repressive measures that those cosmopolitan Communists had implemented in Kosovo, where the Albanian minority was subjected to terror of the worst Bolshevik kind. It was a form of revenge directed against an entire population because some of its members had collaborated with the German invader. But what was one supposed to do, then, with the Serbian peasant majority, who during the same time had been united in their support for [Chetnik leader] Draža Mihailović?

As recent events have proved, the hardline Communists often included veiled nationalists: during Milošević’s dictatorship, many officers, politicians and intellectuals found it easy to ditch their party cards, take off their red stars, and place on their heads the very caps with Chetnik cockades that had been worn by those who had collaborated with the Nazis in the previous war. Already under the terror of Tito’s police chief, a similar theme had been developed: the ‘Albanian scum’ in the south wished to acquire mastery of the ancient Serb land of Kosovo , where medieval Orthodox monasteries and churches lie, and where the famous battlefield is located upon which the medieval Serbian state fell to a Turkish attack! Hardly anyone cared to know that the Albanian people living there derived from the far more ancient, native people – the Illyrians. Their number was rapidly growing, product of a veritable demographic revolution.

At the start of the 1960s, I had a six-month interlude in Kosovo as a conscript, in the beautiful oriental town of Prizren beside which flow the clear waters of the river Bistrica. My time there was filled with the brightness of the surroundings and encounters with its extremely attractive people. I made friends with some of them, went to their homes, or at least to the part reserved for men, while the girls on the upper floor peaked through the heavy nets of their custom. What continued to blight my contacts with them was this: I did not speak their language. The only Albanian word I took away with me was ljulj: a rose [perhaps lule = bloom ?].

What happened next was that my exotic sawing-and-pastry childhood memory and my peacetime military service in Prizren’s oh-so-green greenery turned into a terrible tragedy, as Kosovo became a seething cauldron. Tito, trying to pacify it with his pragmatism, in 1974 gave a robust autonomy to the Kosovo Albanians, so winning their respect: indeed he placed Kosovo on the same level as the Yugoslav republics. So during their first demonstrations after his death they used to carry his portrait, while fighting for rights that were increasingly being reduced to a dead letter.

The war started by Milošević’s clique revealed all the characteristics of this unstable surface, Serb nationalism fanned a corresponding Albanian nationalism, and this in turn caused utter confusion in the heads of European politicians. Some of these gentlemen supported uncritically every Albanian demand, others blindly believed in the Serbian regime’s good intentions; and one famous European author [Peter Handke] even became the advocate of undisguised cutthroats and war criminals from Belgrade.

During a PEN congress held in Bremen in 1999, I was sitting next to an Albanian friend, a poet, who held in his hand a key, the only thing that was left of his home torched in the Serbian onslaught. I tried to tell our German colleagues about this key – one of them, originally from the DDR, insisted that the story was a lie. I recall walking out of the hall after that, banging the door behind me. This was received well in Germany , and very badly in Serbia. They have ever since claimed that I and my few Belgrade co-thinkers guided NATO planes from Aviano to drop bombs on Belgrade. Although we know very well who the real culprit was for those attacks.

We are now able to glean the end of the story that began with those impoverished men eating grapes and sardines in cellars, and who are now trying with the greatest difficulty to live in their own country as they wish, with a right to their own independence, albeit not always wise about their own freedom. These industrious, proud, hard men have on several occasions shown how difficult it is to deal with this freedom. They have sometimes managed to disappoint even those who are attached to them: is there ever any reason for burning down churches of other faiths? This makes it more difficult, when I try to persuade my Serbian countrymen to leave these southerners in peace and start dealing with their own future.

This memoir has been translated from the Belgrade independent daily Danas’s cultural supplement Beton [Concrete], no. 36, 8 January 2008, and translated by Bosnian Institute.

Pešč, 16.07.2008.