The insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), although heavily out-gunned, continues to battle Yugoslav and Serb forces in Kosovo in order both to maintain supply lines into the province from Albania and to protect tens of thousands of displaced Kosovars hiding in remote hilly areas around the province. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele recently visited the Albanian port city of Durres to evaluate the UCK's efforts to strengthen its forces.
Durres, 13 May 1999 (RFE/RL) - The Drenica cafe is one of more than a dozen watering holes along the beach just south of the Albanian port of Durres. What makes this cafe different from the others, besides its large Albanian flag flying out front, is its unusually high security.
The Drenica cafe is the UCK's main recruitment center for Kosovars from the Diaspora.
Black-uniformed, military police of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army with Kalashnikov rifles at the ready are on guard to permit entry to the cafe to UCK soldiers and volunteers -- and to journalists with a UCK "visa for Kosovo" issued in Tirana and signed by the insurgent's "Defense Minister."
No Albanian police or soldiers are in sight, contributing to the impression that the UCK is operating independently of Albanian government interference in a legal vacuum resulting from Albania's ongoing state of quasi-anarchy.
The UCK is actively recruiting ethnic Kosovar Albanians from the Diaspora, with the majority of new recruits arriving in Durres by ferry from Italy. UCK soldiers on the docks and at the Drenica cafe say that on average some 200 recruits arrive at the port daily. They are first checked by Albanian police and subsequently by UCK military police in an attempt to weed out possible agents of the Yugoslav secret police, the UDB. So far, Durres port police are reported to have detained two new arrivals last month whom they suspected, allegedly because of the way they spoke Albanian, of not being genuine ethnic Albanians.
UCK military police take the volunteers to the Drenica cafe for processing and from there they are bused to training camps mainly in the northeast of Albania. UCK officers claim 100,000 ethnic Albanians in Germany have volunteered to join the insurgents and that half of them have already arrived in Albania. These figures are impossible to verify, although the real figures are likely to be considerably lower.
The UCK appears to be making a conscious effort not to recruit newly arrived expellees from Kosovo. Young Kosovar men expelled by the Serbs during the last six weeks from their homes and now residing in refugee camps in Durres, Tirana, Shkoder, Korca and Erseka have told RFE/RL that they want to join the UCK to fight to regain their homeland. But they say that either UCK recruiters have not visited their camps or else have told them to be patient because the UCK continues to suffer from an acute shortage of weapons.
Leutrim Rashiti is 16 years old, the son of academics from Pristina, who left with his family on March 31 and now is a refugee in Tirana. He says he wishes he were 18 so he could join the UCK to help liberate his homeland.
"I've asked a hundred members of the Kosovo Liberation Army to let me enter the UCK to prepare food and clean guns. They said 'no, you are too little'. I am homesick and I want to go just one more time -- that is my last hope, to go one more time to my home, to see my home and to be dead - better to be dead there than here."
Most of the UCK's weapons are either old Chinese-made Kalashnikov rifles stolen from Albanian military bases during unrest two years ago or Yugoslav weapons occasionally left behind in Kosovo by retreating or deserting Serb forces.
One of the military police guards at the Drenica cafe is Xhixhi, a native of Pristina who served in the Yugoslav Army's anti-terrorist unit in the late 1980's before moving first to Germany and later to England as a professional football player.
Xhixhi, who is 31, came to Albania earlier this year to fight, heeding appeals that have appeared in the Albanian Diaspora news media. So far his tasks appear to be guard duty combined with daily training exercises. Xhixhi says he has promised himself to beat the Serbs using the tactics they taught him in the Yugoslav Army.
UCK officials says the Kosovar expellees are in what they term "a traumatic situation" when they arrive in Albania from Kosovo and need rest before joining the insurgents. In their words, "first we need to prepare those arriving from abroad, many of whom have never held a weapon in their hands." Moreover, they say, the recruits must learn to work together. Once the better fed, gung-ho [that is, looking-to-fight] Albanians of the Diaspora have been trained and more arms are available, the UCK hopes to be able to recruit volunteers who are now waiting in the refugee camps.
Xhixhi insists that although the Serb forces are far better armed than the UCK, in his words, "they do not have their heart in it -- they can only shoot at women, children and other defenseless people". He says that although he has not yet been sent to Kosovo it is his "wish". In his words, "I want to die in Pristina, where I was born, and it is all the same whether I die in battle or of old age."
Sali is another Kosovar from Germany, who returned after eight years to fight with the UCK. But after less than three weeks of training followed by three days in the supply-line corridor linking Albania with UCK units inside Kosovo, he left in search of his missing relatives from a village near Glogovac. Sali says that when he finds them he will go back to his UCK unit. He complains that being underarmed in the face of Serb forces is very dangerous.
"It was tragic because the Serbian troops were heavily armed and they began firing on us with artillery and Katusha rockets. I lost two friends."
Sali says his unit had no anti-tank weapons and that by firing their Kalashnikovs they would have exposed their positions and attracted massive return fire without having anywhere to run to.
Both Xhixhi and Sali insist their supreme leader is UCK commander Hashim Thaci, who last month formed a provisional government of Kosovo, the province's second government in exile, which appears to be receiving favored treatment from the Albanian government.
The first Kosovo government in exile, that of Bujar Bukoshi --who is faithful to moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova-- has its own UCK units both in Albania and in Kosovo. However, members of the Bukoshi branch of the UCK, both commanders and volunteers, declined to be interviewed, saying they were much too busy.
Their well-guarded operations center in Tirana is a hive of activity, preparing shipment of supplies and recruits to training camps and to the front. But judging by the clothes and physical appearance of these recruits, they are recent expellees from Kosovo.