0 Julia Gorin

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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 1999 /20 Kislev, 5760

Julia Gorin

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He wants his brother back!

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
BRANKO PILISER describes his older brother Slobodan as a simple man of few ambitions. His life’s goals were a job, a house and a family. For 20 years he had all three, living quietly with his wife and two sons in a comfortable apartment in the Ulpijana section of Pristina, Kosovo, and working for an import-export company.

But on July 6th, days after NATO peacekeepers moved into his village, armed men came to Slobodan’s door and told him to get himself and his family out of the apartment and out of Kosovo.

Slobodan’s family is Jewish. But the militant Albanian nationalists of the Kosovo Liberation Army have never distinguished among the province’s non-Albanian, non-Muslim minority. The Pilisers were the last Jewish family to be expelled from Pristina, a city which had only about three such families to begin with.

Today, Slobodan’s family is homeless and without income. They are staying with friends in central Serbia. Branko, who lives in San Diego, found out only when he telephoned his brother’s apartment and a stranger answered, speaking Albanian.

Slobodan’s simplicity was his downfall, says Branko.

"He was a good example of provincial mentality," Branko explains. "My brother was never interested in seeing the world. He didn’t care about any place but Kosovo. He was happy with his city, his street, his country and his friends. And that is the tragedy. They’re kicking out people who got along with others and never thought about leaving."

Yugoslavia’s Jewish community, which was a hundred thousand-strong in 1941, was reduced to about ten thousand by 1945, ninety percent of them killed off by Nazis and their Croat and Albanian collaborators. Of the ten thousand, most moved to Israel while the rest stayed on. Very few opted to live in Kosovo, which until recent months, had a total of 40 Jews living in it, most of them in mixed marriages.

When Branko’s father moved his family to Pristina in 1960, just over half of the city’s inhabitants were Albanian; about 40 percent were Serb; and the rest a spattering of gypsies, Croats, Macedonians, Turks and Jews. That year Marshall Tito’s government assigned several agricultural experts, among them Branko’s father, to help cultivate underdeveloped areas like Kosovo. When the family moved to Pristina, recalls Branko, cattle freely roamed its central streets.

"It was like the Gaza of Europe--very undeveloped," says Branko. "But my father loved it. His family died in Auschwitz, and more than anything he needed to be around nature and to have people to teach, people to listen to him. He was a born teacher."

Branko describes his childhood as "interesting." But unlike his brother, he knew early on that he’d be making a life for himself outside of Kosovo.

"I was the one into Judaism and Zionism," says Branko, who was active in Jewish community centers and traveled to Israel frequently. Then one day in 1983, at the age of 28, Branko quit his translating job near Belgrade and set off for Israel again, this time leaving Kosovo permanently. Branko, now 44, eventually moved to America and settled in San Diego, where he met his wife Mary. She is a professor at the state university, and he is an accountant.

The 1960s were still the days of Communism in Eastern Europe, and strict law and order ruled its regions. In Kosovo, this changed in the late ‘60s, when Tito began granting increased autonomy to the province.

Almost immediately, a flood of illegal immigrants from Albania began pouring into Kosovo. Gradually, Albanian became the official language at Kosovo schools and at Pristina University; pharmacists stopped using the universal Latin language for drug-labeling and started using Albanian; many shunned Yugoslavia’s language and laws, often not paying their utility bills. An unwritten second-class-citizen status was bestowed upon the non-Albanian minority, particularly Serbs, but also Roma, Turks, Catholics and Slavic Muslims.

For these people, medical care at Albanian-run hospitals was frequently either denied or unsafe. Minority women often traveled to Serbia to give birth, as Slobodan’s wife Snezana did when bearing their first son, Nemanja, now 17. For Turks, burned cars and garages served as encouragement to either flee to Turkey or to lie and call themselves Albanian, which was also the way to get decent jobs.

"I had Turkish friends and neighbors where brother did not speak to brother," continues Branko, "because one switched to calling himself Albanian.

"Like any normal person would, I felt sympathy for the Serb and Turk populations," says Branko who, neither a Serb nor an Albanian, considered himself an impartial witness.

Alexander Dragnich, a retired professor of political science who served in the American Embassy in Belgrade, has written several books on the Balkans and is an expert.

"There was really an ethnic cleansing going on of Serbs being kicked out," says Dragnich. "Their haystacks were burned, their fruit trees chopped down, their property stolen, all of which forced them to leave." He adds, "The hope in giving [Albanian-ruled] Kosovo autonomy was that they would become loyal citizens of Yugoslavia. But instead they used the increased privileges to clean Kosovo of Serbs."

By the 1980s, second-class citizenship--abetted by the stream of immigration--had evolved into organized terror, including rape most often of Serb women, plundering of non-Albanian property, and killings of Serbs.

The situation took a turn for the worse in 1988, according to Dragnich, when the Yugoslav government, a diverse body composed of Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Slovinians and others, attempted to stem such goings-on by reducing Kosovo’s autonomy to what it had been in 1963.

"The Albanians wouldn’t stand for it," Dragnich asserts. "They began boycotting all government institutions and clinics, and holding strikes. They built up their own institutions, clinics, schools, homes and office buildings."

With the 1990s came the birth of the KLA, which "engaged in the systematic killing of state officials," according to Dragnich, "including Albanians who made accommodations with the Serbs. The situation came to a head in 1997 and ’98, when it became essentially a low-key civil war."

Branko could have predicted the rise of Slobodan Milosevic. It was an inevitability that growing up in Kosovo had prepared him for. Nor did the past 10 years of extreme turmoil in the region come as a surprise.

But what Branko never expected was that his adopted country, the world’s foremost democracy, situation far from Europe and its skirmishes, would take sides in a Balkan civil war that would leave his brother homeless and himself, an American citizen, powerless to help him.

For, despite his current circumstances and NATO’s role in bringing them about, Slobodan Piliser is not a "refugee." That is a status the State Department reserves for Albanian Muslims. Serbs, Jews, Turks, Roma and Catholics ousted from their homes or still dodging shells fall under the term "internally displaced persons," and such persons are not eligible for sanctuary abroad.

"We’re not saying you have to be Albanian to be a refugee," a State Department official insists. "Admittedly, the vast majority are Albanian. In this particular case, the most relevant fact is that Slobodan Piliser is still in his country of citizenship, under the protection of that country’s government."

According to the official, unlike the tens of thousands of Albanians who fled into Albania and Macedonia, Slobodan has not crossed any international border and therefore is not a refugee.

But one need only think back a few months to recall that it was on behalf of internally displaced Albanians taking refuge in the mountains of Kosovo that NATO undertook an entire bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. In furtherance of this initial policy, entry has been made available to 20,000 Albanian Kosovars, who will also be eligible to sue the Yugoslavian government in American courts.

"Twenty thousand Kosovo Albanians are being reunited with family in the U.S.," Branko despairs. "Why not one Jew?

"I offered to sponsor my family," Branko says. "They wouldn’t even need the $800 a month that the government gives to Albanian refugees here. Especially in a democracy, there should be a way to help your family. Instead, my tax dollars helped get my brother kicked out of his home."

Actually, a sponsoring relative can do little more than get a family member onto an immigration waiting list. Slobodan has long been on one, as he was approved for entry to the U.S. back in 1993, when Branko filed a petition on his behalf. But according to Julie Wong, a spokesperson for California Senator Barbara Boxer’s office — which took up the case with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and State Department — the earliest date on which Branko is likely to be admitted is 2003.

"We asked if any exceptions were being made for displaced Serbs or Jews," Wong reports, "and they said ‘No.’"

Branko calls it a "shameful, Aryan kind of approach," and asks, "Where were the U.S. and NATO for the past 40 years, when more than half a million Serbs were being killed or kicked out of Kosovo and out of Croatia?"

At least this "Aryan" approach is consistent with U.S. involvement on the side of Albanians in the first place, who according to Dragnich have never made any secret of wanting a purely Muslim-Albanian Kosovo. He says he is not surprised by Slobodan Piliser’s story.

"The KLA has always wanted a clean, ethnic-Albanian Kosovo," he says. "Nothing odd happened here. The militant Albanians are very intolerant of anyone who is not Albanian."

In fact, the parallel runs deeper.When Germany overran Yugoslavia in 1941, Kosovar Albanian nationalists considered the Wehrmacht’s soldiers liberators. In 1944 the Waffen SS Skanderbeg division, named for an Albanian military hero and composed of militant Albanians, was responsible for killing half of Kosovo’s 550 Jews, along with thousands of Serbs and an uncounted number of Gypsies.

That is why, given this record, Branko accuses organized American Jewry of hypocrisy. "Elie Wiesel and other prominent Jews called for the bombing and burning of Yugoslavia," he says. "But today we don’t hear their calls to help the innocent victims of this tragic scenario."

Challenged on this point, Wiesel replied, "I will try to help Slobodan Piliser as much as I can, as well as I can," and offered to use his contacts "at the highest levels" in Yugoslavia.

Wiesel’s whole-hearted support for military intervention was seconded by the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, as well as by other world Jewish organizations, all of which are today actively involved in relief efforts for Albanian refugees.

In their eager scramble to help Muslims, these Jews have tied their hands to help their own. Nor do they voice an objection or lobby against the State Department’s anti-Yugoslavia, anti-Serb policy which is unwavering despite ongoing anti-Serb rampages and the Albanians’ turning on KFOR peacekeepers and UN workers.

The apathy is especially out of place, given the parallels that abound between the Jewish and Serbian experiences. During the second world war, while the enemies of the Jews were doing their best to eliminate them, the enemies of the Serbs took advantage of the Nazi occupation to expel and slaughter the Serbs and snatch up some land in the process. Jews and Serbs fought and died side by side in Serb resistance units. Others died together at the Jasenovac death camp. Serbs hid, fed, housed and some even married Jews they didn’t know in order to save these strangers from death camps. This was rare among Nazi-occupied Eastern European countries.

Now that the world has targeted the Serbs, Branko says, Jews owe it to them to look deeper.

"How does a Christian area become 90% Muslim?" he asks. "Villagers don’t sell their lands. They don’t move. They leave out of fear and terror." He adds that when Jewry’s most vocal members, many of whom built their careers and foundations on commemoration of the Six Million, "join politicians in making cheap Holocaust analogies at the expense of Serbs, they also expend their Six Million. But I suppose it’s easier to see wrong already done than wrong in the making.

"I’m not saying that people didn’t get hurt [by Serbs]," Branko continues. "No nation is a nation of saints or criminals. Were there killings? Of course, but the crimes were greatly exaggerated."

Indeed, the "hundreds of thousands" reported dead by the State Department and White House before the NATO invasion now number just 2,000—including both Albanians and Serbs. Likewise, as mass graves--and a mining shaft thought to contain 700 Albanian bodies--turn up empty, the "thousands upon thousands" of Albanians "purged" by Serbs during the NATO siege appear to be closer to a few hundred.

Looking to war for the answer, Branko says, missed the mark. In Yugoslavia it also destroyed most means of production, leaving the country 90% unemployed. Winter is on its way, and much of Belgrade’s ecology, infrastructure and economy is devastated from 11 weeks of bombing. The ongoing embargoes—such as the recent U.S. rejection of Yugoslavia’s plea to reinforce itself for the winter months—continues to miss the mark.

"If the U.S. had put just five percent into Kosovo life of what it put into the war and destruction, there would not have been civil war," Branko asserts. "Countries that have strong middle classes don’t have civil wars. They may disagree, but everyone has too much to lose."

Today Slobodan has lost everything.

"It’s a shock for someone to lose what he’s worked for for 20 years," Branko says. And yet, he considers his brother among the lucky.

Slobodan’s best friend, Bardy, was a Catholic Albanian married to a Serbian woman. "He had just called me a few months ago," Branko reminisces, "because he was so excited about his new dog--a Rottweiler, like so many in America have. When the KLA came in with NATO, he was killed, just for not being a ‘good’ Albanian."

Another friend, a Serb named Ilija, died while an "internally displaced person" in Serbia, from what Branko calls "sorrow and anger."

The Serb Ilija, the Albanian Bardy, and the Jew Slobodan were three best friends who got married on the same day, alternately serving as one another’ s best man.

That his brother is still alive today is Branko’s only consolation. And for that, this Jewish man is once again grateful to the people of Serbia.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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03/19/99: The Thin Yellow Line
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01/08/98: In defense of the appetizing shiksa

©1999, Julia Gorin