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An army made from scratch

It was not the most efficient way to build an army — hand delivering walkie-talkies, flying halfway around the world with a few thousand dollars in cash to buy some AK-47s, while at the same time running a roofing business and battling Bajram Curri’s thugs — but somehow it worked. With Florin’s efforts, and those of the Homeland Calling Fund’s European fund-raisers, the Kosovo Liberation Army continued to function. In spite of the increased Serb border patrols, a communication network bought at Radio Shack, and a limited arms supply interrupted by fellow Albanians in both official and unofficial capacities, the weapons smuggling convoys continued to penetrate into Kosovo. Night after night, the KLA grew bigger as Albanians across Kosovo took up arms and declared themselves loyal to the rebel force.

Before long, uniformed KLA soldiers were visible in the outskirts of most towns and across the province, building bunkers and setting up roadblocks. They didn’t look very elegant. The men were dressed in a mishmash of camouflage that reflected the countries that had significant Albanian communities. Their guns were mostly AK-47s and hunting rifles. Their bunkers were made out of tree branches, rocks, tablecloths and whatever else they could find rummaging through their houses. They made roadblocks out of old tractors, trucks, farm tools, tires, bales of hay and bulldozers. But they were the most welcome presence on the ground that Kosovo Albanians had ever seen.

Suddenly what had always seemed impossible now seemed possible. The Albanians outnumbered the Serbs nine to one and virtually every one them was supporting the KLA. Their fear of the police seemed to diminish by the day. The guerrillas seemed to grow bolder and bolder in challenging the police. Soon, they were moving to within a few hundred yards of sandbagged police checkpoints and firing regularly on police convoys. They dug trenches on ridge tops and manned them with machine guns overlooking Serb positions. In one village, they even sent a note to the police station daring the officers to come and get them. By the end of April, the attacks and counterattacks had grown so frequent that the rap-rap-rap of automatic weapons was constant in the countryside. Kosovo was at war.


As the KLA and the Serb police and military faced off against one another, the international press corps descended on Kosovo to cover the conflict. At first view, the vagabond KLA, with its motley uniforms, silly roadblocks, pathetic hunting rifles and sheer determination, seemed to be engaged in a heroic struggle. Against all odds, it had risen up from nowhere to battle a far better-armed force.
The KLA did its dirty work at night, in small groups, out of view of the media. For many weeks, the guerrillas picked off a policeman here and there. Soon however, the emboldened guerrillas started intimidating and threatening local Serbs. Rumors also spread that they were kidnapping Serbs and holding them prisoner. But the press didn’t see any of this.

The Serb troops, by contrast, did their dirty work in plain view. With their faces painted black, police and military convoys began driving through Albanian villages with their assault weapons pointed out of their windows, spreading terror among the population. When they went in to attack a village, they set up checkpoints to keep the press out, but inevitably, when they were finished with their operation they left behind traces of their crimes. Once it was the mutilated corpses of two Albanian cattle herders in the Bistrica River. Another time it was the headless corpse of an old man who was probably too weak to flee with the rest of his family. Such horrors ensured that the KLA stayed well ahead on the public relations front.

As the rebels staged their nighttime guerrilla raids and Serb forces retaliated by attacking the villages that harbored them, the death toll slowly crept up, and each death was commemorated with much ceremony. Thousands upon thousands of Albanians attended the funeral of each slain civilian and fighter, and inevitably the funerals turned into KLA rallies. After each one, the Albanians left with more resolve to fight. The populace seemed undeterred by death. Each Albanian who died became a martyr for Kosovo, and scores of willing new fighters were born. Families talked about the need to sacrifice their sons to the cause. They knew that the Serbs had overwhelming military power, but over and over they repeated that they were on the side of right and had more motivated fighters. They might have to fight a war of attrition, but they had tens of thousands of willing fighters at home and in the diaspora, and eventually they would triumph.

For the Serbs, it was different. Thousands of them turned out to commemorate the death of their slain policemen as well, but while those gatherings no doubt cemented the Serbs’ bitterness and hatred of the Albanians, they did not breed a resolve to fight. Most of the army and police fighting in Kosovo were not from there; they had been sent there to fight from elsewhere in Serbia and they resented it. They felt for the two hundred thousand Serbs who lived in Kosovo, but that didn’t mean they were willing to risk their lives for them. When Serb troops moved in and attacked a village, they did not dare try to hold it, because that made them too vulnerable to Albanian attacks. Spooked by how quickly the KLA grew, they were increasingly confining themselves to the cities or hiding behind sandbagged bunkers on the province’s main roads.

Soon, counterinsurgency experts were saying that Milosevic had vastly miscalculated in Kosovo. In order for the Serbs to squash the guerrilla movement, they would need to outnumber the KLA by a ratio of ten to one. The Serbs had nowhere near those numbers and they probably never would. Even if Milosevic increased the number of troops in the province, the rebels could still call on tens of thousands of potential fighters living in the diaspora. Indeed, many were already coming. On any given day the rusted hulk of a ferry from Koman was packed full of Kosovo Albanians returning to their homeland from abroad, many of whom spoke better German or French than they did Albanian.
Although the Albanian government continued to insist that it was doing everything it could to crack down on the gunrunning, many government and army officials began aiding the KLA. They began providing them army vehicles and armed escorts to move their weapons north. They also opened up several military facilities to the KLA and allowed several Albanian army officers to provide training and assistance.

At long last, all of the ingredients for a successful guerrilla insurgency were now in place. The KLA had overwhelming popular support; a steady supply of money, arms and fighters; and a safe haven across the border in Albania, where the guerrillas could receive training.

The two-headed eagle of the Albanian flag (top), also the symbol for the KLA; the Koman ferry that the KLA used to transport weapons to the Kosovo border
Ron Haviv, VII Photo Agency
Stacy Sullivan

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