The Last Kosovo Serb Won’t Leave

March 4, 2012

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Susan Southworth’s 2007 novel uncovers, as the title promises, the horrors that always transpire whenever one people, usually in the name of liberty, redefines another people as objects, a reclassification that characterizes ethnic cleansing as patriotism.  But this beautifully written novel does so much more.  Peeling back the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate, Southworth shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others, a revelation that should inspire us all even as we weep for their pain.

Map of Kosovo

Map of Kosovo (Source: pbs.org/newshour)

By end of the novel, we follow Donald, a retired American linguist, into southwest Kosovaran town Prizren, where the Kosova Liberation Army celebrates its 1999 triumph over the Serbs, a victory made possible by NATO bombing.  Absent from Prizren for a month, Donald expects to find what he left five weeks before: his Turkish friend and fellow linguist Bayram, with whom Donald can share his experiences living with Serbian peasants and resume their discussion of the Albanian language and culture.

Instead, he finds Bayram’s house trashed and valuable manuscripts scattered all over the grounds, acts of the new owner, an army thug.  Bayram himself Donald finds in a make-shift jail, cuffed and beaten, lying on a floor littered with feces and surrounded by walls splattered with other victims’ blood (100-108).  Though beaten himself, Donald escapes the Kosovaran violence via Macedonia, but not before witnessing Serbs shot in the street (120).  In the final chapter, the narrator shows us the fate of the Serbian peasants that had welcomed Donald: Petar has been beheaded, and his wife Leposava wonders off in a daze, looking for the “home”—their cabin and their country—now a “bloody mosaic,” the work of soldiers, not much more than boys, intoxicated by liberty and by a culture of retribution and guns (122).

Before this bloody ending, however, primarily through Donald’s eyes, we learn to see Albanians, Turks, and Serbs not as oppressors or victims but as human beings worthy of our understanding and respect.  Through Donald, for instance, we learn to revere the ancient Albanian language and culture (33), and that respect helps us understand how Donald can look at an angry Albanian soldier and see a scared boy, a “sweet-faced teenager” (104) with baggy fatigues on his “skinny frame” (100).  Through Donald we also learn to relish coffee, dates, water pipes, baths—all things Turkish, especially his courteous friend Bayram (32-40).

Serbian Gusle & Bow

Serbian Gusle & Bow (Source: Wikipedia)

Through Donald we learn as well to respect Serbs who “won’t leave.”  Bogdan the Serbian policeman, for example, earns that respect by risking his life daily helping peasants to steer clear of the Liberation Army (5-15, 88-96), as does the young Serbian mountain man by hiding Donald, suspected of being an enemy courier (56-59).  Through Donald’s month-long sojourn with the Serbian farmer and his wife, we also come to admire Petar and Leposava, their spiritual intimacy with the land, their domestic harmony and peace, their generosity.  Revering their American guest, they feed him hearty bean soup, fresh eggs, and oatmeal cakes; they teach him to hoe the garden and to trap rabbits for supper; they show him how to bathe in the rain-water, how to dance with abandon, how to smell the seasons and fish in the stream (64-86).  They also share with Donald their Serbian epic poems, accompanied by Petar’s gusle, a one-string instrument that can come to life “like a snake” (83) under Petar’s bow and moan “like a sad wind” (77).  All Serbs, Petar sighs, “have too much history,” and he relates to Donald their own stories of grief over a grandfather lost in the war with Bulgaria, over an infant son who should not have died (80-83).

Possessed of these histories, we can no longer vilify oppressors and count victims; we can only acknowledge human beings and cry for the Balkans.

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13 thoughts on “The Last Kosovo Serb Won’t Leave

  1. I definitely agree with you that we should acknowledge human beings and cry for Balkans but, I also think that the oppressors whoever they are must be judged, just as victims must be recognized and counted . Of course we have to move forward into our common future we have to find and build.
    If the intention of Southworth was to “shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others” and to present as all as the human beings and equal, coming back to the book title, I have to admit that I find it difficult to understand why did the author opt for it; it sounds like a statement or even a threat to majority that the last Serb will not leave therefore I think is not adequate title for such a novel.

    • I understand your scepticism, Merita, but I wouldn’t take the ‘not-leaving’ as a threat, simply because the two who ‘won’t leave’ lived in isolation from the conflict. Like so many victims on both sides of the conflict, the old couple loose their “place,” one of the most wrenching of human fates–and one suffered by millions of Albanians.

  2. I did not take it as a threat; I just think that the title can be interpreted in two ways: statement or threat. But neither way I find the title adequate, considering the fact that there are other characters such as Bajram to whom the title does not correspond.

  3. No wonder that Balkans has always been a place of wars and horrible things that happened to humanity. I think that people were too much obsessed with owing and controlling as much territory as possible and for the sake of that , they were ready to do even the most cruel things like raping, burning house, massacres etc. This is why Former Yougoslavia couldn’t stand any longer and had to be destroyed because neighbors started killing each other and hatred was growing more and more every day. I am all against Kosovo serbs to leave Kosovo, they should stay here and live here, but they must know one thing also. We are a country now and need to contribute for this country and make it a peaceful and good place for our future generations. Eventhough for some serbs it is hard to believe that Kosovo has become a country, it is a reality and they should learn to accept this fact. Only if we work together we can built a stronger country, and if not, we will always remain like we are right now.

  4. I absolutely agree with the first speaker that title is ambiguous and inadequate.
    It is ambiguous for one reason.Firstly,the title speaks so imperatively that no matter what kind of Serb he or she was ” won’t leave”. Does the title include Serbs who were criminals or perpetrators or accomplices or those Serbs who willingly stood by and watched their soldiers kill and massacre the innocent people of Kosova? Frankly speaking, when I first saw the title I thought that this author either is some nationalistic Serb or someone who has never heard of the latest wars in Balkan. As a response to that, I would like to ask a simple question. Who started all these unnecessary wars and caused all this massive bloodshed in Balkan? To be brutally honest, the blame should be put on Serbia and on the majority of Serb population partially for being decidedly reluctant to this. Serbian country is the main and only protagonist which purposefully and intentionally initiated and made all the wars in Balkan. Prior to their killing spree in Kosova, they began an unseen ethnic cleansing in Bosnia which no one ever witnessed before since World War Two. As a result, there were millions of innocent people massacred and brutally murdered and to the World’s surprise, none of the Serb population bothered to lift a finger to oppose this mass genocide. In stead, majority of them willingly and gladly took part in the most brutal and vicious massacres that our eyes and ears ever saw or heard before. Same it happened with Kosova. These local Serbs in Kosova did not take any measures to prevent any of these brutal activities from happening during this unjust war. They didn’t even say ” we’re sorry for what our country has done to you”. Moreover, they played the victims of war which indeed they were the ones who inflicted pain and horror to the victims. As you go through the history of Balkans you encounter Serbs as oppressors everywhere. They seem to be so intoxicated with the ideology of taking other’s land and territory.The idea of nationalism is disgusting. Many Serbs were born and brought up with the belief that all Serbs are good but others are threat.This sick ideology of hating the others because they are non-Serbs creates a strong feeling of repugnance and antipathy. I personally would never justify those who committed crimes no matter who they were Serbs or Kosovars but the efforts to balance individual crimes with an appalling atrocity meticulously planned and carried out by an unparalleled force and a military government is simply unjust and unacceptable. I hope that one day Serbs will acknowledge the new reality.This is a country where everybody is free to live as they wish..Here are their homes. Here is their future.They no longer should stay ambivalent about Kosova.They should accept the reality. In Kosova every community has equal rights. Serbs should stop receiving instructions from Belgrade because it is skilfully manipulating them. Otherwise, if we don’t accept this reality,it is most likely that we will not progress as a society and the generations to come will be heavily contaminated about our history and their future as well.

    • Gezim, thank you for your passionate response. To answer your question, no, the title does refer to Serbian soldiers; it refers unambiguously to one man, the old peasant, and his wife, Serbs who had no part in the killing and who lost their home and their lives, just like so many Albanians did.

  5. There is no doubt that this is an interesting book, despite the fact that it brings back bitter memories and the ‘dark’ side of our beautiful country. I agree with Arlind that K-Serbs, who have not been involved in crimes, should accept the new reality and definitely integrate into the Kosovo society because Kosovo belongs to all the people who live in it. Perhaps, it is easier for me to accept differences, diversities between different ethnicities, because I was raised in a multicultural environment, where we switched from Albanian to Bosniac and from Bosniac to Turkish and then again to Albanian without even being aware of it. I think that for people like me, it’s easier to accept the fact that every language and every ethnicity in Kosovo has to be equally respected but it is quite difficult to accept the fact that one ethnicity should feel superior or should prevail over the others.

  6. This is an impeccably essay written by the honored professor, Dr. Raymond. This essay gives us the opportunity to understand many things about this novel, and at the same time encourages us to read such novels dealing with the peoples of Balkan no matter if we agree or not what these authors write. When it comes to agreement or disagreement I have something to share…
    I do not see the difference whether they leave or not. That does not make them more respectful but not criminals necessarily, either. I think that this novel lacks reliability showing to the reader an unfair picture of the Kosovar Albanians straight after the war through the character of Donald, Bayram, and some serbians ‘who won’t leave’. How can someone judge a people for ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the name of ‘patriotism’, and describe them who ‘won’t leave’ as ‘noble’ and people with ‘dignity’ when we know that…? What were Kosovar Albanians supposed to do after those massacres committed by serbs; after that ethnic cleansing that was just happening and that was being caused by the only one suppressor in the Balkan region: serbs? More than 10 thousand Kosovar Albanians were killed in the most brutal way within at least two years; thousands taken out by force to Albania, Macedonia, and all over Europe, and other parts of the world too; thousands that we still don’t know where their bodies are; thousands of houses destroyed and burned completely by the serbian army. The author maybe expected that just after the war when Kosovar Albanians got home to wish those ‘who won’t leave’ a pleasant stay in KOSOVO. They (serbs) belong to a same tree with different branches. There are many with dirty hands (those who committed crimes), ALL with ‘dirty’ eyes (they saw what was happening but remained silenced), and those with ‘dirty’ ears (they heard all what was happening but remained silenced). THAT, that because all what they wanted was the Land, the land where they are building their future without being touched by anyone no matter what they did. Now we see them with dirty hands not fairly judged or maybe not judged at all, and those with ‘dirty eyes and ears’ living (hope with guilty conscience) among Kosovar Albanians.

    • Thanks for the passionate response, Fidan. Actually, though, the novel does not defend Serbian terrorists. The two who ‘won’t leave’ are and old man and his wife, country folk who have nothing to do with the army or the war. They treat Donald the Albanian with great love and respect; then they get victimized, just as the Albanians had been victimized in the war.

  7. I acknowledge that the writer of this novel found George Orwell’s quote ”For a creative writer possession of the “truth” is less important than emotional sincerity.” very inspiring and supportive but still I believe that authors when referring to warfare they must demonstrate a strong sense of balance when writing about “victims” and “oppressors” because writers among others are “teachers of humankind”. This novel is for sure a generous tuition for all Balkan readers for the fact that it “peels backs the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate”. But the title of this novel is very impellent rather than illuminative. I am deeply troubled about the reflection of the novel’s title to non-Balkan readers worldwide. If a reader from Chile or Senegal or even from the US would find this book on his hands and reads the title of the book, the reader ultimately would think of a country called Kosovo with a majority population that imposed a total ethnic cleansing against Serb minority. This would reflect terribly false allegations against peace-loving Kosovo Albanian population. Nevertheless, the novel contains some very vivid depictions of life of common people living in ever-troubled Balkan.

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