Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,

15 thoughts on “Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Kosova | Reflections on Kosovo

  2. I definitely agree with Kearney’s conclusion that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever”. I could not agree more with him when that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” and that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” however they must prosecute those that atrocities committed “against the civilian population” rather then being concerned over the ethnic balance of the prosecuted criminals, as they often are. Furthermore, I also find it hard to understand and agree with Kearney’s prejudiced and vague statement that “nobody here has clean hands” that shows all the Kosovars regardless of their age, gender, and ethnic background as war criminals.

    • Another excellent comment. Thank you, Merita. Yes, that comment about no one having “clean hands” lacks precision. I think he means that everyone has some degree of guilt–everyone, that it, who has condoned genocide against the Other or turned a blind-eye to it.

  3. I agree with Philip’s statement that ” jsutice had to be blind” but I disagree with the fact that this had to be applied immediatley in a post-war country like Kosova. I think it should have been much better if they had put more energy and honest work in building a good justice system with people who are not corrupt but committed to fully support the building process of Kosova then deal with war crimes and corruption. Once this system was established on a solid foundation than everything would have gone accordingly. But insetaed of doing this, many international organizations inculidng UNMIK failed to promote the promised peace and the rule of law. Their members were deeply involved in corrupton and illicit activities which often resulted in a complete fiasco. Furthermore, there were attempts to balance the carefully organized ethinc cleansing with the crimes that some individuals committed as a vengeannce for the loss of their familiy members.
    One cannot condone crime and violence under any circumstances but also cannot accept the blame for somethig which he did not do either. Takig sides was anothother unjust and unlawful action of these organisations, beacuse law is the same for everyone no matter of one’s ethnicity, gender, race or religion. Therefore having created effective justice institutions prior to performing aforementioned activities we would not have this confusing situation and Mr.Philp would have left more pleased than ever.

  4. I totally agree with Kearney that there have been crimes committed by both sides but we don’t hear of too many cases that have been convicted. With all my due respect for international community, Americans in particular who really helped us, for the situation that we are right now I think that UNMIK is to blame also. They stayed in Kosova for more than 12 years and didn’t do much improvement. Instead of fighting corruption some of their employees were corrupted themselves. I also agree with mister Kearney who says, “good governance takes time” but I have a question for him, Don’t you think 13 years isn’t enough and when is this “good governance” going to start? Some people might think that we don’t stand too bad, but ask any kosovar whether they are happy with their lives in Kosova and you’ll see what kind of answers you’ll get. We are the poorest and the most isolated country in Europe. As a kosovar myself you have no idea how high is corruption here. If I had known earlier that the situation was going to be this bad and with so much corruption I personally would have left Kosovo when I had the chance, but now it is too late. I don’t worry for myself anymore, I just worry for my daughter who will be raised here. I know I sound too pessimistic but I will do my best to prepare her psychologically and professionally to live abroad.

  5. Well, I could agree with the saying that ‘justice is blind’ but I cannot possibly agree with the saying that ‘nobody here has clean hands’. Yes, there were courageous people, who took up arms and fought for freedom because they could not bear humiliation and oppression anymore, but there were also people who were not involved in the war or guerrilla activities, if you wish and they cannot be ‘put in the same basket’ with those who were involved in such activities. I think that the people who were not directly involved in war could be called cowards but they can certainly not be considered as criminals.
    It is true that times have changed and that the old values have been replaced by new values but I also think that our parents had worked hard for decades in order to pave a solid path, if not a road for us and it was our duty and obligation to improve and uphold that foundation. When it comes to the current situation, I think that it is high time for all the Kosovars to do something about themselves before it is too late. Corruption and criminal activities have been eating up our society for years and if we don’t do something about it, we may lose the solid foundation of our society for good.

  6. Under the blue flag: My mission in Kosovo – Philip Kearney

    I find the review somehow surprising with the regard to few details. I do not agree when at the beginning of this review Kosovo is considered as former Serbian province, while this fact hasn’t been proven internationally.
    Kearney contribution is to be appreciated. A man, inspired by generous and human motives, wants to establish law and order in a country that was painfully needed.
    However, the crimes made by both parts, Albanians and Serbs, somehow, tend to be equalized. By leaving to be implied that both parties, more or less, did the crime and the criminals should be put before a right legal court. This might be viewed that no matter who he is more/less to be blamed/punished, everyone might have had the right to start the war, but, finally, more important is the law and order to be established.

  7. The last war in Kosovo has not merely caused death of the people, Albanian people, but has also infected all the areas of life in our country during the years, such as: educational system, law, economy, medicine, etc. So, we all knew that it was going to be difficult for us to start almost from the beginning to rebuild our new own institutions. When it comes to corruption I would say that people could hardly hear the word corruption before the war. We have to be more pragmatic in this issue. We know that the internationals came here to help Kosovo to recover and rebuild the institutions here including the rule of law. Those corrupted policemen and judges could not be corrupted without cooperation with some internationals who expressed ‘selfness wish to help the Balkans rooted in personal needs’. In fact many things happened ‘under that blue flag’ There are many cases when the internationals were accused for corruption in cooperation with the natives. But the difference is that they have ‘immunity’ and could not be judged here and, I am afraid, not in their countries where they come from, either. We are grateful to all those who helped us before, during, and after the war, and I am not saying that the author of the book was corrupted, absolutely not. I strongly admire his wish to actively help a postwar country recover and heal but I think he could be a bit more careful in describing people here as “nobody here has clean hands” and thought twice before saying that. What serbs did here before and during the war was not something that could be forgotten, so Albanian retribution I do not say that is excusable but that should have been expected after all what happened here. And yes, of course ‘the international tribunals can be fair to both sides of the conflict’. The dead, the rapped, the suppressed, the slaughtered, the persecuted in one chair, face to face with those who killed, rapped, suppressed, slaughtered, and persecuted us. Everything equalized. You call this justice Mr. Kearney?! We have to wait for years for a criminal serb to be judged in Hague while some Albanian war leaders were and are being easily judged for not ‘respecting the war rules’. THIS IS RIDUCULOUS. Maybe some people mix blood and water and feel comfortable to write from their comfy chairs about what happened here and dare to call all with dirty hands. I do not say that we are angels or that we have to clap the corrupted natives or so on, but we are a POSTWAR COUNTRY FOR GOD’S SAKE. And of course the author did not discover America, ‘good governance takes time’ we all know that. However, things are coming on their own place. Now days we have e stronger law system and I think that both the internationals and the natives are being more committed to have a country where the law rules.

    • Fidan, no doubt you’re right that corruption has occurred ‘under the blue flag,’ as corruption seems to be a universal disease, spreading across every culture. But I must say I consider your remarks about Kearney unfair. If you read his book, you’ll discover that he wrote none of it sitting in a “comfy chair”; to the contrary, given his objective, he often lived in perpetual danger. I do understand your anger about his “dirty hands” remark, but, as I have explained in responses to other students, he did not mean to suggest that all Albanians and all Serbs are war criminals, just that attrocities occurred on both sides.

  8. And yes. I am impressed by the way that the professor Raymond writes these essays. He really knows how to attract the readers’ attention. This is an excellent example and a good practice for us, too. Thank you, professor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s