Irish Catholic Humanitarian Iseult Henry: Witness to the Truth about Kosovo
“[Iseult Henry]: I am a witness to the truth about Kosovo”
Interview by Natasa Jovanovic
1. Ms. [Henry], you have spent several years in Kosovo working for the international community. What ideas of that region did you arrive with — how were you prepared for, and what instructions were you given prior to your arrival in Kosovo — and what ideas did you leave with?
I first came to Kosovo in August 1999 with an Irish NGO, I worked as a volunteer with them in Pec for a total of 14 months. I received a general briefing before I departed but in actual fact received very little concrete information because the people briefing us did not know much. However, on the 24 August as I travelled from Skopje to Pristina, I was given a detailed account of recent happenings in the villages we passed on the way to Pristina. It was only later I realised that the houses I saw burning in all the villages we passed could not have been torched by the Serbian defence forces as the ethnic Albanian driver told me, not least because the Serbian forces had withdrawn almost ten weeks before — but these houses were burning as we passed them. It was only after I got to know Kosovo better that I realised the villages we passed had been without exception Serbian villages with some Roma communities as well which had been torched by the UCK [or KLA]. This experience was repeated several times with drivers, all ethnic Albanians, detailing the crimes that had happened against them perpetrated by the Serbs but every time they pointed out a destroyed village I subsequently learned they were Serbian, for example the village of Dolac near Klina which had an old medieval monastery and church overlooking it.
Without exception, every driver passing Dolac would point out the poor Albanian village and the mosque on the hill which had been destroyed by the Serbian forces. However, it is a matter of record that Dolac was a Serbian village and there had never been a mosque there. These types of experiences made me seriously question what had actually taken place in Kosovo. I have never left Kosovo in the sense that I travel there regularly nor do I plan to leave anytime in the near future. I am a witness for the truth.
2. As you know, the terror against the Serbian Orthodox holy places did not begin yesterday. It has been going on for decades. Why, do you think, that fact is no longer of interest to the creators of the New Order in the Balkans?
I am only too well aware of the destruction of holy places in Kosovo. I recorded evidence of this systematic and well co-ordinated destruction myself and on many occasions my life was threatened. On one occasion on 8 December 2003 an Irish friend of mine and a Russian nun accompanied me to Bogorodica Leviska, in Prizren where we photographed all the frescoes. I did not know then that we would be amongst the last to see those wonderful frescoes and certainly the last to take a pictorial record of them before they were destroyed in the March 2004 pogrom. All three of us were lucky to get away unharmed as a crowd surrounded our car and we beat a hasty retreat reversing at speed down a narrow street chased by the mob. To date, more than 150 holy places around Kosovo and Metohija have been destroyed — all since UNMIK and NATO arrived in June 1999, and yet who in the West is aware of it let alone prepared to say anything about it.
3. Why is the official Washington unable to establish a link between September 11 in New York and March 17 in Kosovo? Why is the destruction of the two towers of the World Trade Center a greater crime than the destruction and torching of hundreds of Christian churches in the middle of present day Europe?
There is a force in human behaviour that should never be underestimated. It is the need to save face. There is very little that people (and in particular men in positions of power) will not do in order to avoid the admission that they have made a mistake. Governments will persist with the lie rather than lose face. For NATO to admit that there was any connection between the two crimes they would need to examine their own actions and in my opinion that is never going to happen.
4. According to all available information, the Albanian separatist government of Kosovo needs a couple of [the] most famous monasteries, which it would present in the future as “cultural monuments of Kosovo”; [it’s] most certainly not present[ed] as holy places of the Serbian Orthodox Church. How do you interpret this “beauty salon cosmetic intervention” approach and what do you think is hidden behind it?
In all official correspondence that I have [read] in recent years, it would appear that these remaining few monasteries are simply a token presence that will at some stage in the future come to be regarded as tourist attractions generating income for the people of the new Kosovo. That is part of the strategic development plan of international donors which will culminate in a regional cultural centre in Prizren operating in close co-operation with the Turkish government. As someone who was in charge of the Returns Programme to Kosovo since 2001 – for the largest donor organisation in Kosovo – I advocated in every possible way for the return of the displaced to their ancestral homes. I argued that return had to be linked to the restoration of destroyed holy places including churches, graveyards and monasteries many of which had formed the ecclesiastical centre of the settlement. This pattern of settlement was not unknown to me, being from Ireland where many towns and villages grew up around monastic sites in the medieval era and before. It goes without saying that my ideas for return met with little support or success. Indeed a previous plan to return some 10,000 Serbs between late 2001/2 put forward by Andrew Whitley, a UN official, led to his being replaced and the end of that particular plan. Perhaps the best way to think of it would be to consider the words of one former UNMIK official in charge of returns in Kosovo who told me in my office in Belgrade in February 2005 that Return to Kosovo was “just a smokescreen to trick the Serbs.”
5. In your opinion, how right are geostrategists, historians and even many theosophists who maintain that the conflict of religions and civilizations in Kosovo is equally important for the destiny of humanity as the one in Jerusalem?
In my opinion what you refer to as the conflict of religions and civilizations is equally important wherever it is happening.
6. You are probably aware of official and unofficial discussions of the possibility of His Holiness the Pope’s visit to Niš, the birthplace of Constantine the Great, for the bimillenary celebrations of his Edict of Milan (313), which officially ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
When I tried to discuss the on-going persecution in Kosovo with the Papal Nuncio in Belgrade in June 2005 I got the distinct impression that my information was not welcome. I went to see him with an outline of what was happening to communities in Kosovo initially focusing on the Croats in Letnica village in Vitina municipality. As they were Catholic, he was Catholic and I was Catholic I thought we would have a common language. After twenty minutes listening to my catalogue of human rights violations he began fidgeting with his mobile phone and making obvious signs that my time was up. I did not even get to discuss in detail the abuses committed against the Serbs and their places of worship. I told him that as fellow Christians we had a duty to protect our brothers and sisters in Christ. He responded that the Vatican was following UN Resolution 1244, at which point I stated that if they were then they were the only ones who were. At this point he politely showed me the door but not before I gave him a little lecture on ‘Whited Sepulchres’ and ‘Pharisees’, people with nice facades but rotten on the inside. Strange that I should have to remind a Papal Nuncio about basic Christian principles.
My main concern is human rights. At the moment I am studying International Human Rights Law; I believe that all people should live in dignity free from discrimination. I believe that human rights are universal rights and all persons should be able to exercise their rights. However, this is not the case in Kosovo. Not all people are able to exercise their rights — neither civil and political nor economic, social and cultural rights. The on-going denial of basic human rights to those displaced from Kosovo in not being able to return or access their properties, and to those who remain in Kosovo — particularly those who live in the enclaves, in container camps, military barracks and collective centres south of the Ibar [River] and the displaced Roma in the camps north of the Ibar — should be highlighted by NGOs and Human Rights Defenders but this is not the case. These people have no voice.
I am not a theologian and therefore feel unqualified to write about ecumenism or issues surrounding the pope’s proposed visit. However, I think we need a new Constantine if we are to save Christianity in the 21 century and beyond.
7. Based on your personal experience, can you tell us how you saw the Albanian authorities in Kosovo, the Albanian people and their everyday life?
The Albanian authorities have very little actual authority except at municipal level where they have carte blanche to do what they want including falsifying cadastral records and discriminating against what they see as minority ethnic groups or indeed anyone opposed to their vested interests. After working in Kosovo for more than eight years I would say that the Kanun e Lek, the traditional and customary practices of Albanian clans, has more to do with everyday life in Albanian society in Kosovo than any form of statutory legal practice or the modern rule of law.
8. At what point did you begin to realize what the presence of the Serbs means to Kosovo and what is their situation in Kosovo, and what was the key reason for your taking a different perspective and basing your conclusions on your personal knowledge of the situation?
I follow a Human Rights perspective and quite soon after beginning work with the largest international donor in Kosovo I realised that human rights and development aid was targeted at the majority community in Kosovo. I started working on projects with Serbs and Roma communities in early 2000 which did not make me very popular either with the local population or with their international mentors. Perhaps being Irish I have a keen appreciation of the need to question authority especially when that authority is blind to gross and systematic human rights violations.
9. As a Roman Catholic and an Irish woman you have continued to monitor analytically and to write about the situation in Kosovo. What motivates you to do this?
One can leave Kosovo but Kosovo never leaves one. No matter where I am whether it is in Kosovo or outside it I continue to work towards redressing the many wrongs that were committed there in the name of peace since 1999. I firmly believe that the truth must be told and that there is a pressing need for a more accurate, more balanced and more truthful account of the tragedy that has unfolded in Kosovo since 1999.
10. Do you understand Serbia and Kosovo as well as you understand your native Ireland?
Between June 1999 and 2004 a war of terror was unleashed against an innocent civilian population who were unarmed and unprotected. Every town was ethnically cleansed of its Serb and Roma populations as well as many villages. Properties were seized, houses burnt, lands were illegally occupied, people returned to find roads, car parks, factories and petrol stations built on their properties. This all happened in a UN Protectorate which was under the effective command of NATO. People displaced from Kosovo came from more than 30 ethnic groups. Detention camps were opened up by the KLA/UCK in many parts of Kosovo and most of those who ended up in the camps were never seen again.
The UCK operated with impunity armed not only with sophisticated weaponry and explosives but with lists of those whom they had earmarked for death [and] also conveniently with lists of the households that had handed in whatever weapons they had.
Regarding Ireland, on many occasions during my time in Kosovo the resemblance to what happened in Ireland’s province of Ulster stuck me forcibly, things like the ethnic cleansing of the native population, the re-granting of their lands to newcomers, the destruction of the oldest monasteries and churches, destruction of entire settlements, the renaming of places in a new language although often preserving remnants of the old name spelt differently as if to say the new inhabitants were there all along. All this occurred supposedly as part of the New Order created during the reign of the Tudors in particular under Elizabethan England’s ‘civilisation’ of Ireland.