By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The U.S. Balkans policy was pegged on the hope that the Kosovo Liberation Army would disband, disarm and become a peaceful political party. The KLA appeared to disband and even handed over weapons. But that the KLA really disbanded is a diplomatic myth. Many of the KLA soldiers and commanders fighting Serbs in Kosovo were Macedonians, meaning the same people the United States supported in Kosovo have changed the name of their organization and turned their attention to destabilizing their homeland. The National Liberation Army even has the same acronym in Albanian as the KLA.
"We are the same, just in different areas," says Albanian activist Florin Krasniqi, interviewed from his home in Brooklyn. "The Army of National Liberation is the same people [as us], but the world sees us as different."
Krasniqi was one of the founders of the enormously successful Homeland Calling Fund, which raised millions in war supplies for Kosovar Albanians. The money went toward purchasing weapons and other supplies to keep the KLA fighting Serbs. The fund-raising apparatus he set up channeled the million dollars reportedly given by Dallas strip club and sports bar owner Mehmeti to the KLA war chest. After the war and the dissolution of the KLA, the fund was closed, but Krasniqi says others have picked up the mantle. He should know; he still contributes money to Albanian insurgents, but he declined to identify who is now coordinating the national fund-raising effort.
Krasniqi says the Albanian community here makes good donors because many successful businessmen have direct ties to the Balkans and have money from the food industry. "It's hard to find an Albanian in Dallas who was born in America," he says. "They are not as Americanized."
For Krasniqi and other nationalistic Albanians, the term "Albanian" supersedes any borders, which he feels were forced on the Balkans. "We were split in six pieces. One half of a village was on one side, and the other half on another side. They just drew a line," he says. "It's going to get worse before it gets better. But this time we're better prepared. A lot of people will die, but there's nothing we can do about that."
"There has been a shift, and now they [ethnic Albanians] are being seen as the aggressor," says Dallas restaurateur Feti Staraveci. "But I think the U.S. will switch their view towards us when they see what these people really want...They want equal human rights as Macedonians. It's not much to ask."
Bruno Ceka seems caught in the gears of a subtly changing U.S. foreign policy.
Ceka left Communist Macedonia in 1985 because he had to. "First they jailed me, then they kicked me out," he says, speaking behind the counter of his restaurant, Bruno's, in Irving. It's conveniently close to the Dallas Cowboys' training camp, and players have been known to come in for a slice or 10.
Ceka was an athlete, too. During his youth he played soccer in Macedonia, but he says his anti-communist political views and status as an ethnic Albanian put him on the wrong side of the government. He landed on U.S. soil and put his feet to work, playing for the Baltimore Blast before hearing about business opportunities in DFW. He started waiting tables, eventually opening his own restaurants. Over time, he became a pivotal figure in the Albanian community in Dallas.
"I've been here 15 years, and I'm the oldest one around," he jokes, indicating the youth and freshness of Dallas' Albanian community. "We're from Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, but we're the same people."
Ceka is very sensitive to the change in perception of Albanians from a persecuted people to the source of Balkans instability. As a member of the National Albanian American Council, he watched as U.S. policy subtly turned against Albanians, with the media following suit. "We see it. We need to do better PR," he says.
In late March, Ceka joined other council members on a trip to meet U.S. politicians in Washington, D.C., and air their grievances. On the agenda was combating the "Russian-Serbian-Macedonian lies" that have soured the relationship between the United States and Albanians in the Balkans.
Also on the agenda was Ceka's primary concern: help for the estimated 8,000 displaced Albanians in the Balkans. During the Kosovo campaign he paid for several Irving apartments for Kosovar refugees, and he said his fund-raising efforts are solely aimed at non-combatants. Much of that aid is coordinated through Catholic charities, he added.
"We don't aid the people who fight," he says. "We will never, ever do anything to jeopardize the relationship with the United States. If this government says they do not support them [the NLA] then we will not support them...I stand behind the U.S. government 100 percent. I'll be with them, but I want to educate these people on what's going on."
Ceka, the moderate Albanian-American, doesn't doubt that a fund-raising operation to support militants in Macedonia such as the Homeland Calling Fund would be running. "This is still in the early stages. Will the community rise up and help out? I don't doubt it."