By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"The Macedonians and Serbs want us for work, work, work without giving anything in return," he says, thick-fingered hands splayed on the Formica table of his restaurant. "Just like the black man in the U.S."
In his youth, Kosovo native Vraniqi left to work in Serbia building roads, putting together the infrastructure for Serbs while his home remained a backwater. The first-hand experience with sneering Serbs and the low compensation for his work left a bad taste that lingers to this day. He can recall fistfights he had with Serbs he disliked, and distaste for Serbs he got along with who, he says, were actually informants.
"Slovanians curse God and they curse their own mothers," Vraniqi sums up. "Albanians, we don't curse no God."
Vraniqi was driven out of Kosovo by what he calls economic discrimination, a claim that most reports of working conditions in Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro bear out. After a three-year stint working for the U.S. military, guarding an air base in Germany as part of the civilian labor service, he moved to Brooklyn. It was 1968, and he felt far away from his hometown of Prizrem. By 1982 he became part of the migration to Dallas, and by 1984 his pizza shop opened.
But his heart never left Kosovo. When the Serbian crackdown gained worldwide attention, he helped raise $185,000 for Kosovar Albanians, money he says went exclusively to clothes, food and medical supplies. Two weeks after NATO stopped bombing, Vraniqi went back to Kosovo for the first time in more than 15 years.
"I feel embarrassed to cry," he says, and even now the burly man's voice chokes. "I see my people and I see my place. I smell the woods. I smelled the oak. The wood, it smells better there. I went into the forest and chopped some myself and I smelled it."
In the face of such emotion it's hard to argue geopolitical facts. He was shown stills from BBC footage showing a Macedonian Albanian with a grenade in his hand, ready to lob it at the backs of two fleeing police officers at a checkpoint. The man was gunned down before he was able to throw the grenade.
Vraniqi scans the images briefly. Rationalization comes quick. "They need something to protect themselves," he says of the grenade-wielding Albanians. "Because if you don't and people are killing you..." He spreads his hands like it's obvious.
A conversation with Vraniqi demonstrates that one man's nationalism is another man's fanaticism.
From Ben Franklin agitating in France for American revolution to Jerry Adams soliciting for the IRA in Boston, it's standard practice for rebel groups to set up support networks in other countries. Their status as criminals or heroes depends on perspective, and in the melting pot of America, that perspective is often ambiguous.
During the Kosovo campaign, U.S. foreign policy and Albanian ambitions intersected in a brief, star-crossed geopolitical love affair. Things are different now. The pro-Albanian movement is unwelcome in Europe, and now that they have stopped being slaughtered by Serbs the pendulum is swinging away from their interests. "Everybody in the Balkans can prove their case," says Joseph Lake, director of Dallas' office of international affairs and a former ambassador to Albania, "depending on what time in history they're in."
The Clinton administration saved and reinvigorated this abused street cat and let it loose in the Balkan neighborhood with no real way of controlling it. "We inadvertently breathed new life into this movement," says Brian Bender, former Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Jane's Defense group and now the senior military analyst for the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. "The last few months and days have been a real wake-up call. A lot of people pooh-poohed how serious they were about a greater Albania. They are a lot more serious than I think people wanted to admit."
Macedonia makes for fertile ground for insurrection because of the shoddy way the Macedonian government can treat Albanians there. On the surface, there is plurality with minorities, including a coalition government that includes Albanian representatives. But just beneath this veneer of equality lies problems, mostly revolving around educational opportunities and a lack of universities that teach using the Albanian tongue. The Macedonian constitution, drafted after the fall of Communism, makes a clear legal distinction between Macedonians and other minorities who live there. Efforts to open up economic and educational opportunities in Macedonia over the past 10 years have advanced at a glacial pace.
In this wake, the post-KLA era spawned two violent Albanian groups: the National Liberation Army (NLA) and the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (named after the areas it aims to seize from Serbia). The NLA made recent news when it began laying bombs at police stations and shooting up police convoys near the Kosovo border. It is currently being hunted by Macedonian armor and artillery, with some attacks coordinated by U.S. intelligence given to the Macedonian military. The conflict is roiling over into the tinderbox of Kosovo as refugees and NLA fighters cross into the buffer zone, where there are many holes to hide in and where U.S. forces have been slow to act against them.