Journalism, Writing, Courage, Hope

I noted Paul Salopek’s amazing work for the Chicago Tribune below as an example of good journalists doing good work. I have no idea if Salopek’s a liberal, conservative, Green, apolitical, purple with green spots, whatever. When you write like this:

Salipur is dead. Everybody says so.

The lame ethnic Albanian boy whose teeth he smashed out with a baseball bat, after first making him dance to Serbian folk tunes, says so.

The man he pummeled to a bloody pulp and forced to eat a wadded-up newspaper–an Albanian-language paper, naturally–says so.

So does the best source of all, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla with the thousand-yard stare who helped ambush Salipur with a rocket-propelled grenade, thus avenging the deaths of dozens of murdered Albanians.

Vidomir Salipur–baby-faced death squad leader, family man, police officer, genial sadist–is no more.

Still, many of his traumatized victims in this raped city, now a ghost town inhabited mainly by crows and feral dogs, prefer not to be named when it comes to talking about one of the most infamous Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo.

“He was worse than a beast,” said Hole, an Albanian woman who warily agreed to point out Salipur’s empty house, which like most Serb homes in Pec is among the few intact buildings in the city. “Even animals don’t do the sorts of things to each other that he did to us.”

She stared balefully at the house’s darkened windows. Then, urgently, she asked to leave.

I really don’t think it matters what your political persuasion is. This story ran in 1999; among writer friends of mine it was passed around like a good novel. People kept e-mailing it to me, saying, “You have to read this.”

The rest of the story inside:

Few tales welling up from the heart of darkness that is Kosovo inspire more raw fear than the terrible deeds done here by the state-sanctioned Serb goons dubbed paramilitaries. As The Hague International War Crimes Tribunal experts begin fanning out this week to gather evidence across the ruined Yugoslav province, they will hear countless stories about wild-eyed men with a flair for headbands and bushy beards who spearheaded the war’s worst atrocities.

They will be told that they belonged to shadowy militias like Arkan’s Tigers, Black Hand, Seselj’s Brigade or Frenki’s Boys. That, hopped up on drugs, they sported cowboy hats or wore huge Serb Orthodox crosses slung around their necks while they killed. That they sometimes drove crazy, machine-gun-mounted vehicles of the sort favored by Somali warlords. That they had no mercy.

What they won’t hear are names; anonymity was the paramilitaries’ shield against justice.

A small-time bully But a monthlong Tribune examination of the events in one Kosovo city–Pec, the province’s second-largest town and easily the most devastated metropolis in Kosovo–has managed to piece together a detailed account of the life and death of one of these professional killers. Salipur’s story, by extension, underscores the key role that paramilitaries played in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s overall scheme to depopulate the province of its ethnic Albanian majority.

What emerges from scores of interviews is a portrait of a small-time Serb bully with banal tastes–designer sunglasses, denim jackets, convertible cars stolen from Albanians–elevated to the status of warlord by Milosevic’s nationalist agenda in Kosovo.

Moreover, human-rights monitors say an analysis of dozens of massacres, beatings, rapes and other war crimes shows that hundreds of thugs like Salipur cooperated to an unprecedented degree with regular Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, particularly the Interior Ministry police, but also besmirched a once-professional army that long prided itself on holding the worst of Milosevic’s human-rights abuses at arm’s length.

“The pattern of repression in Kosovo was extraordinarily well organized,” said Andreas Lommen, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has debriefed scores of ethnic Albanian refugees. “In Bosnia and Croatia you saw the rogues go in before the army to do the dirty work. Here they worked hand in hand with soldiers and police. In a sense, they became interchangeable.”

Fred Abrahams, another Human Rights Watch expert with long experience in the Balkans, believes that blurring of forces was premeditated.

“Uniforms were mixed and matched, which is a perfect way to deflect blame and muddle the chain of command back to Belgrade,” Abrahams said. “Some of these guys weren’t even in organized groups. They were just hangers-on–the sort of unsavory types that hang around police departments. Wannabes.”

At first, that certainly seemed the case with Salipur, a gangly, 30-ish, ne’er-do-well who showed up in Pec nearly a decade ago. Hailing from the Serb nationalist stronghold of Prijepolje, Salipur was a former Yugoslav army conscript, one of the thousands of unemployed Serbs who streamed into Kosovo to find work after Milosevic’s regime ordered the mass firing of ethnic Albanians from all civil service posts in July 1990.

That racist “differentiation” campaign in Kosovo, and the revocation of the province’s limited autonomy, marked the beginning of years of brutal ethnic war in the Balkans. Laughable at first, then . . .

“Salipur came to replace the Albanian guys who lost their jobs as police,” recalled Fehmi Kondirolli, 39, an office worker who was reduced to peddling cigarettes on a street corner. “The first time I saw him, he was almost a joke. He was this uneducated, tractor-driver type in a traffic cop’s uniform. He bragged about being this big criminal back home. His only talent was beating up Albanians.”

Yet Salipur’s career didn’t remain laughable for long as the Yugoslav government tightened the screws on Kosovo’s 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, most of whom are nominally Muslim.

Indeed, after marrying a local Serb woman and fathering a daughter–some people say he had up to three children–the budding tormentor of Pec got down to bleeding the richest city in Kosovo in earnest.

Set at the foot of the dramatic Rugovo Gorge, Pec’s 120,000 citizens were renowned in the province for their business savvy. Hundreds of whitewashed mansions topped with red-tiled roofs and satellite dishes attested to the money that flowed through Pec’s stores and factories. The old bazaar district downtown had been renovated into a chic shopping district complete with boutiques that peddled French perfumes and Italian leather jackets. Eight beautiful, well-preserved mosques sent their white minarets poking gracefully into the Balkan skies.

Ironically, the cosmopolitan ways of the Kosovars, many of whom had worked years in Germany or Italy to finance their enterprises, even rubbed off on the hayseed policeman. Salipur started wearing designer sunglasses. He took to confiscating flashy convertibles and expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles from their hapless Albanian owners.

And, as the years passed, he began beating and killing with impunity.

The transition from corrupt cop to Serb paramilitary extremist came in 1997, witnesses say, as frustrated Kosovars began abandoning passive resistance and picking up guns against oppressive Yugoslav policies. Serb nationalist rhetoric in Belgrade had reached hysterical pitch, accusing the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, of abducting and killing members of the small Serb minority in the province–charges that weren’t altogether false.

Salipur, ever the opportunist, saw the simmering insurgency as a way to cash in on war booty and a way to vent his prodigious sadistic streak. He quietly formed a local chapter of Black Hand paramilitaries, many of whom were active or former police buddies.

“If you saw this man walking down the street, God help you,” said Sinbad Sadiku, 35, a perfume dealer in Pec. “He seemed to eat other people’s pain like food.”

Salipur anecdotes in Pec are like burned houses. Everybody has one.

Fhemi, a young ethnic Albanian waiter, was kidnapped off a sidewalk in late 1998 and taken to the local barracks of the Yugoslav 125th Motorized Infantry Brigade. There, Salipur and his gang were waiting. Salipur was tickled to discover the youth was lame in one leg. He forced him to dance to taped Serb folk tunes, gleefully cheering him on, before beating him bloody with a baseball bat.

Valon Muhaxher, a 22-year-old university student, was sitting in the Princ Pizzeria when Salipur and his buddies walked in. They accused all the men present of belonging to the KLA and proceeded to pound them so savagely with brass knuckles that they had to be hospitalized. The next night, Salipur drove by and threw a hand grenade at the pizza shop. It bounced off the window and blew up in the street. Local police blamed the attack on the Albanian rebels.

Still worse stories, no doubt, would come from Albanians who can’t tell them. Salipur is implicated in the execution of dozens of ordinary citizens–bakers, teachers, doctors– whom he snatched off the streets of Pec, shot behind the left ear with a 9 mm pistol and dumped on lonely country roads outside the city.

“We were seeing about one dead body show up every morning with exactly the same modus operandi,” said a foreign cease-fire monitor sent to Pec as part of a Kosovo peace plan negotiated last autumn by U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. “It was clearly a methodical campaign of terror, something to keep the Albanians in their place or scare them into leaving,” he said, confirming that the prime suspect in most of the killings was Salipur’s Black Hand unit.

About this time, Serb paramilitaries from outside Kosovo also began swaggering down the tense streets of Pec. Human-rights sources say, for example, that the headquarters of the Special Police in Janja, a town in the Serb Republic of Bosnia, was at only 40 percent strength through the end of 1998, with the remainder of its men having “all gone down to Kosovo” to fight as irregulars. International peace monitors recall seeing the paramilitaries’ Mad-Max vehicles parked at Pec’s Yugoslav army barracks. Orders from the top

“To say the authorities didn’t get involved in these extracurricular activities is crap,” said Henry Bolton, a monitor with Holbrooke’s Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission in the nearby city of Prizren. “Some local commanders may not have liked it, but the orders to cooperate (with paramilitaries) were clearly coming down from the top.”

In fact, solid evidence of official complicity in the brutalization of Pec’s civilians surfaced last week in the city’s Ministry of Interior Police headquarters, a plain brick building that looks innocuously like a 1970s-era American high school.

Italian NATO soldiers chiseled through the locked doors of the building and discovered a torture chamber.

A wooden chair with a sharp ridge glued down the middle of the seat–a crude method of inflicting extreme pain on the tailbone–was wired up to a nearby electric generator. Amid the ankle-deep detritus of girlie posters, poker chips and old police uniforms lay a sheath of bicycle brake cables–simple but effective garrotes. The Italian soldiers poked through the cement-walled room in silence, shaking their heads in disbelief.

Where the countless, faceless Salipurs of Kosovo fit into this toxic apparatus of repression is a question The Hague war crimes investigators will be sorting out for months, if not years. Already, though, the simple laws of chain of command have enabled them to indict Milosevic and four high-ranking members of his government as war criminals.

“Connecting the dots in between will be tough,” said Michael Sells, an expert on crimes against humanity who teaches at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa. “Aside from phone intercepts you won’t find much. Milosevic wasn’t stupid. He used paramilitaries at a remove. Just install a local police or army commander who tolerates them. The job is done.”

Investigators will no doubt also be hoping to uncover a blueprint for the ravaging of Kosovo, the sort of damning documents the Nazis left in the wake of their gruesome plans to exterminate European Jews.

And here again, the ferocious paramilitaries who range from relatively well-organized militias like Arkan’s Tigers to the shadowy, KKK-like Black Hand cells operated by Salipur, offer a clue. In August 1995, the extremist Radical Party of Serbia led by Vojislav Seselj, chieftain of a notorious paramilitary brigade, published a manifesto titled “How to Solve the Problem of Kosovo.”

Among its more bizarre recommendations were plans for “diluting” Albanian culture in the southern province with a barrage of Western pop culture, and expelling “amorous” Albanians with AIDS. But there was the dim outline, too, of a plan that was followed almost exactly by Milosevic’s regime: the firing of all Albanian workers, subsidies to encourage colonization by Serbs, a military occupation that coincided with the forced deportation of thousands of Albanian residents, and the creation of depopulated buffer zones along the borders with Albania and Macedonia.

“Let’s just say the machinery to terror was very fine-tuned to push 300,000 people out of that small province in the first three weeks of the air war,” said human-rights worker Lommen.

As for Salipur, a brutal cog in that machinery, he still remains mostly a cipher, an implacable, almost abstract force of violence much like the war itself.

By the time NATO’s deadline for compliance with the Rambouillet peace accord was ticking down in late March, Pec was paralyzed with fear. No Albanian shop stayed opened past 1 p.m. No Albanian in his right mind wandered out after dark. Salipur and his thugs– the most brutal were named Milan and Max–roamed the empty streets in stolen cars, walking into businesses and simply pocketing whatever they wished. One man remembers Salipur–a smiling, crewcut man in his trademark sunglasses and jeans– sitting at a downtown cafe, swigging plum brandy, a trench knife stuck in the table, surveying his desolated domain with a look of great peace.

Another, a waiter named Mithat Sadiku, recalls the only coherent snatch of conversation by Salipur on record. “He was sitting with some scared Albanian guys, just telling them he was trying to defend his people, the Serbs,” Sadiku said. “He sounded quite rational.”

Salipur is dead. And still they fear him.

The last image of Salipur most people remember dates to three days after NATO began its bombing campaign on March 24.

Salipur was speeding through Pec, through the Albanian neighborhoods he helped torch, past the bodies of civilians sprawled in the streets, with a sign in Albanian taped to the window of a white Mitsubishi: “House for Sale.” Salipur waved merrily at the dazed columns of departing refugees.

On April 10, a squad of four KLA guerrillas ambushed him outside of town, near a village called Radac.

“It was a 15-year-old guy who put a rocket-propelled grenade through his windshield,” said Vetrim Kosova, a rebel whose nom de guerre translates roughly as Lightning Bolt of Kosovo.

“We finished him off with Kalashnikovs,” said Kosova, a grizzled man who rarely blinked and who popped white pills, to keep his hands from shaking, he said.

Last week, convoys of new refugees from Pec were rolling over the exact spot on the road where Salipur was killed. They were hundreds of embittered Serb civilians headed north for Montenegro.

Look at the level of detail there, the clothing, the colors, the models of cars. Think about all the questions you’d have to ask to get that information, how long it must have taken, how hard it must have been. It’s masterful.

I’ve said it before; the campaign hacks get the celebrity reps that people like this guy and many other skilled writers deserve.