Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War inside Kosovo

Beyond the Mountains of the Damned: The War inside Kosovo

by Matthew McAllester

See All Formats & Editions

Winner, Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2002, Non-Fiction

For every survivor of a crime, there is a criminal who forces his way into the victim's thoughts long after the act has been committed.

Reporters weren’t allowed into Kosovo during the war without the permission of the Yugoslavian government but Matthew McAllester went anyway. In Beyond


Winner, Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2002, Non-Fiction

For every survivor of a crime, there is a criminal who forces his way into the victim's thoughts long after the act has been committed.

Reporters weren’t allowed into Kosovo during the war without the permission of the Yugoslavian government but Matthew McAllester went anyway. In Beyond the Mountains of the Damned he tells the story of Pec, Kosovo’s most destroyed city and the site of the earliest and worst atrocities of the war, through the lives of two men—one Serb and one Kosovar. They had known each other, and been neighbors for years before one visited tragedy on the other. With a journalist’s eye for detail McAllester asks the great question of war: What kind of men could devastate an entire city, killing whole families, and feel no sense of guilt? The answer lies in the culture of gangsterism and ethnic hatred that began with the collapse of Yugoslavia.

In March of 1999, the world watched thousands of Albanian refugees pour out of Kosovo, carrying stories of the terror that drove them from their homes. To Isa Bala and his family, Albanian Muslims who stayed in Pec during the NATO bombardment, the war in Kosovo was not about cruise missiles and geopolitics. It was about tiptoeing between survival and death in the town that saw the fiercest destruction, the most thorough eviction of the Albanian population and killings whose brutality demands explanation. To Nebojsa Minic and other Serb militiamen who ruled with murder, the conflict was about the exercise of power. Today they are alive and well in the new Yugoslavia. So unconcerned are they over the prospect of ever being held accountable for their crimes that they were willing to sit down over coffee after the war and discuss in detail their brief, brutal reign.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Beyond the Mountains of the Damned is about how war destroys society at its most basic level. I read this and understood what happened to ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances during those dark and desperate days in Kosovo. It is a book I will not forget.”
-Janine di Giovanni,special correspondent, Vanity Fair and the Times of London

One of the most thoughtful accounts of the conflict in Kosovo to date, conveyed with journalistic clarity that should ensure the book a broad range of readers.
Robert D. Kaplan
[McAllester]displays the natural gifts of the storyteller, who, in the most uncanny ways is able to develop character, build tension, and keep a plot churning.
Washington Post
Library Journal
This account is not of the 'virtual war' that Westerners saw on their television screens but of the real effects on people who consider the ravaged area home. Informed readers will appreciate the perspective.
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
Carefully charts the larger historical and political framework.....McAllester is a careful observer and as the story moves from the ordinary....to the horrifying....McAllester's spare, understated prose....is potent, as is his exploration of the human side of geopolitics and war......McAllester's excellent, heartbreaking work here is more relevant than ever.
Washington Post
In badly constructed books, the reader doesn't care what happens on the next page. In well-constructed books, the reader can't wait to see what happens on the next page. This book is a rare, third kind: The reader dreads what will happen on the next page. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to read on.

In Beyond the Mountains of the Damned, Newsday correspondent Matthew McAllester proves to be more than a journalist: He displays the natural gifts of the storyteller, who, in the most uncanny ways is able to develop characters, build tension, and keep a plot churning. Rather than being placed alongside other journalistic accounts of war-torn Yugoslavia that have been published since the mid-1990s, Beyond the Mountains of the Damned belongs in the category of books that includes Eleni, Nicholas Gage's page-turning classic of the Greek Civil War.

McAllester tells the story of Isa Bala and his family, Kosovar Albanians from the town of Pec, and how they are destroyed by a local Serbian mobster, Nebojsa Minic, during the NATO air war against Serbia in the spring of 1999. Isa Bala is a butcher, an uncomplicated man whose entire self-image is built on his family and the home and protection he provides for it. The man who will ruin his life, Nebojsa Minic, is a particular species of war criminal, the kind that only communist regimes produce. A petty thief nurtured by the criminal rackets, underemployment and alcoholism characteristic of socialist dictatorships -- even relatively benign ones like Tito's -- Minic later ripens into a sadist. 'Narrow eyes sat on either side of a large, straight nose that made Minic look like he was leaning towards you even when he wasn't. Years of working out in prison had made his forearms and shoulders solid and powerful.' Minic wears a headband, and on his lower lip and chest sports tattoos of the Serbian words for 'dead' and 'dead man.'

In trouble with the police since he was 11, Minic graduated in the early 1990s from smuggling oil and cigarettes to trafficking in drugs. Nineteen ninety-five found him in Srebrenica, escorting truckloads of civilians to mass execution sites. Back in the Kosovo town of Pec after the war in Bosnia, he boasted about the Moslem girls he had raped. Relations between Serbs and Albanians in Pec, as I know from my own reporting trips there in the 1980s, had a particularly nasty edge to them. But what aggravated Minic's hatred of his Albanian neighbors was less a historical grudge than a heroin deal gone sour, for which he blamed his Albanian business partners. While NATO, in 1999, was bombing from 10,000 feet, Minic, now wearing two orthodox crosses around his neck and calling himself and his men 'warriors,'ethnically cleansed the Albanian part of Pec. What does a woman do while her husband is being beaten by someone like Minic? In the author's words, you behave as if you met a bear in the woods. 'Stare at the ground in front of you. Don't look the bear in the eye.'

McAllester takes the reader not only along the streets where atrocities have been committed but inside homes while they are happening. As is the case with many good reads, the power of such scenes comes from the order in which events are presented. First the author develops a character, then later in the book informs you about his fate. Or the author will describe how a family is brutalized, then describes, almost as an aside -- in the course of a succeeding chapter about his own adventures in war-torn Kosovo -- how he meets a traumatized eyewitness to the previous account. In this way, the reader becomes an observer not only of what was happening inside Kosovo during the NATO bombardment but of what was happening to McAllester himself and how he managed to assemble his book.

What foreign policy lessons can be derived from this riveting work? I am not sure that there are many, though, to be fair to the author, the mechanics of policy lie somewhat outside the scope of his narrative. The NATO air campaign was carried out clumsily. While there was little or no intention to insert ground troops in Kosovo, public pronouncements to that effect from the Clinton administration provided Serbs like Minic with the assurance that they could murder with impunity. Nevertheless, there simply may not have been another way to remove Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from power. In particular, critics of then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright might consider that had the Rambouillet peace conference been better orchestrated, so that the bombardment of Kosovo were unnecessary, the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo might still have occurred -- albeit more gradually -- and rather than facing a war-crimes trial in the Hague as he is now, Milosevic would still be in power in Belgrade, continuing to destabilize the region.

Near the end of the book, the author provides this chilling commentary: 'Pec is Albanian now. Its people are euphoric. But part of that euphoria is born of hatred. Part of the reason they are so happy is that they never have to see another Serb again on their streets. The people of Pec like their sameness.'"
New Leader
In his new book, Matthew McAllester brings the Kosovo ground war into searing focus. Like The Scream, Edvard Munch's famous painting, Beyond the Mountains of the Damned cuts through all other issues and insists on renewed attention to the excruciating pain suffered by the victims, and in a few cases the perpetrators, of Milosevic's vicious assault on the province's Albanians. . . . Indeed, the power of McAllester's extraordinary book lies not in its comprehensiveness or its literary polish-though there are many brilliantly moving and perceptive passages-but in its shocking authenticity and deep moral concern. One gets the sense that he risked his life not simply to pursue a story, timely and important as it was, but because of the enormity of the evil being done and his conviction that, in a world of bland policy abstractions, what happened in those days inside Kosovo had to be told.
Publishers Weekly
"The only defense is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves." This quote, occurring toward the end of this horrifying and deeply moving account of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, comes not from Slobodon Milosevic but from Stanley Baldwin, later a British prime minister, in a 1932 speech and serves as a historical frame for the action covered here. While most Americans saw the air strikes on television, McAllester claims that "the unseen war, the war inside Kosovo, has remained largely untold." Defying the Yugoslavian government's ban on unescorted foreign reporters, McAllester, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the TWA flight 800, went in 2001 to Pec, Kosovo's most ravaged city during the 78 days of NATO bombing. McAllester carefully charts the larger historical and political framework: the history of Pec, the longstanding animosity between the ethnic Albanians and the Serbs, the complicated position of regular Serb soldiers caught between the KLA attacks and NATO bombing. But the main focus is on Isa Bala, an ethnic Albanian sausage maker and his family, and in particular their persecution by their Serb gangster neighbor, Nebojsa Minic, and on a persistent family feud. McAllester is a careful observer and as the story moves from the ordinary (everyday life; Isa selling Minic sausages; Isa wishing he had married earlier so that he could have more children) to the horrifying rape of his wife and brutal murder of most of his children, the story becomes nearly unbearable in its inevitability. McAllester's spare, understated prose ("The skull seemed to be the size of a child's," henotes, coming upon a local killing ground) is potent, as is his exploration of the human side of geopolitics and war. (Feb.) Forecast: As the "small" wars of the '90s involving Muslims come to seem more and more related (see review of A Dirty War, p. 58), journalistic books such as this will be sought out by readers trying to make sense of recent history. McAllester's excellent, heartbreaking work here is more relevant than ever. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran journalist's firsthand exploration of the atrocities committed in Kosovo before and during the NATO campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia.

Product Details

New York University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Beyond the Mountains of the Damned

The War Inside Kosovo
By Matthew McAllester

New York University Press

Copyright © 2003 Matthew McAllester
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0814756611

Chapter One

One Town, Two Lives

It is just past seven in the morning when Isa Bala arrives at the cattle market outside Pristina. The fog that lay a few feet above the plains of central Kosovo has gone, burned off by a marigold sun. Isa gets out of the car, takes a pee by the side of the road, and goes to work, the right-hand pocket of his jeans stuffed full of twelve thousand deutsche marks.

Isa is a butcher. He's here to buy cows that he will sell later in his shop in Pec, sliced into steaks, ground and rolled into chippolata-sized morsels called cebob, or mixed up and stuffed into sausage skins in a spicy recipe he swears he'll never reveal to anyone but his son.

Kosovo's cow population, like its human population, has decreased dramatically in recent months. Isa estimates that there are now 20 percent fewer cows than there were before the eleven-week war in Kosovo. Some were shot by Serbs, some were stolen and taken to Serbia, some just died from neglect. But at this time, eight weeks after the war has ended, everyone needs money. So there are plenty of cows for sale at the market and plenty of eager sellers.

"Isa, Isa, look at my cows," calls out a dealer as soon as the heavy-boned butcher ploughs between the first row of horned brown and white cows. The animals are tethered by ropes and chains to the rusty metal barriers that form parallel lines down the center of the field where the market takes place early every Tuesday morning.

"Ees, Ees," shouts another seller like a whining child desperate to attract his father's attention. The man tilts his head to one side, his eyebrows so pleading that they're almost touching above his nose. No one allows himself to be robbed in the Pristina cow market. Everyone's looking for a deal. Everyone's an actor and no one's a fool.

"Isa, Isa, stop, stop. How much will you give me for this one?"

Isa's in no hurry. In the car on the way to Pristina he was unexcited about the prospects at the market. "I'll buy four, five, maybe six cows," he mumbled from under his thick, teak-colored mustache with its few strands of gray. "We'll see. It depends on the price."

Hands of old friends grab Isa's as he walks over the pebbles, dirt, and cow dung of the field. "How are you, Isa?" sellers ask. "How's business?" They avoid the customary Albanian politeness of asking how his family is.

The hands that grab Isa's are more than hands of friendship. More than ever, the market is about making money in lean times. Once the first seller succeeds in keeping Isa's T-bone-sized hand in his own the seller pulls the butcher, quite roughly, toward his cows. Isa leans his body back as if in a gentle tug of war and his poker face takes on a look of reluctance. "Jo, jo, jo," he says, pronouncing the j as a y. "No, no, no." But he lets himself be led between the dung-smeared rears of dozens of cows to a medium-sized brown and white. Isa's first rule of buying: Never look in the mildest bit enthusiastic about a cow, even a bargain on four legs. It's like knowing how to react when you're dealt a royal flush.

Between his thumb and fingers, Isa squeezes a flap of flesh next to the cow's anus. He steps round and pinches the side of the cow, testing for fat content, something he's been doing since he bought and slaughtered his first cow at the age of eleven. There's a step-on weighing scale in the market that has a long line of cows and bulls waiting beside it but Isa never uses the scale. He knows how much a cow weighs and how old it is just by looking at it. And he knows how much fat it's carrying by giving it a good feel.

"Nine," says the man, referring to the asking price, nine hundred marks.


"Come on, eight point five," barks the man, still holding Isa's hand, refusing to let go.


Isa walks away. The man won't let go of Isa's limp hand and Isa has to yank it away and still the man comes after him and grabs his hand again, calling out his name, "Isa, Isa" But the butcher breaks away and the seller gives up. Isa had no intention of buying the cow. He's just showing his mettle to the crowd that swarms around him at all times.

Two bigger cows idle next to each other in the next row. One of the half dozen small boys selling cigarettes--counterfeit Marlboros and Winstons from neighboring Montenegro and Macedonia, cigarette-smuggling centers of the Balkans--pops up beside the cows. Isa doesn't smoke and wags his index finger at the boy, the silent Albanian way of saying no.

"Both of these, twenty-two," the seller, a wiry, middle-aged man in a black beret tells Isa. Twenty-two hundred marks. One of the cows starts to low forlornly as the men haggle over its fate. Slobber drips from its mouth onto the earth, rolling into dust-covered balls. Someone kicks it hard in the side to get it to shut up. Again, Isa walks when he doesn't get his price and has to wrench his hand away from the owner of the two cows. Perhaps his pessimism in the car was justified and the prices today are too high.

"You're shaving us, Isa," another seller calls out to Isa, using an Albanian expression to complain of Isa's firm grip on those twelve thousand marks in his pocket. "You're putting your razor right up against our skin."

A single black and white is the next to have its rear end squeezed. Its owner slaps Isa's hand with a smack.



The seller yanks Isa's arm up and down in a wild handshake and the two men raise their voices, facing off against each other, bellowing out numbers, persuasions, and refusals, and other men surround them, encouraging the deal, suggesting compromises, and still the exaggerated and aggressive handshake continues until suddenly Isa's arm tenses and after a final downward movement of the now gripped hands the men cast their arms wildly apart and it's a deal. Eight. For the first time since he entered the market, Isa pulls out his wad of marks and flips over eight blue one hundred mark bills to the now impassive seller. The butcher unwinds the dirty rope and leads the cow away.

It turns out he's just getting started. As a flock of pigeons arcs around the nearby field of golden sunflowers and the smell of dung floats on a slow wind, Isa stomps around the market and an hour and a half after arriving he's bought nineteen cows and four calves. He's arranged for a friend to take them back to Pec in a truck.

On the way home, Isa's voice fills the car. He nearly always talks fast and loudly and slightly slurs his S's as if his tongue is slightly too big for his mouth. He's delighted. He hadn't expected the cattle to be so cheap and that's why he spent every mark he had and took some cows on credit. Isa's the type who won't allow any hard-up soul he knows to go hungry when he has meat left in his shop at the end of the day. But first and foremost, he's a businessman. "When you do business, do it for profit or don't do it at all," Isa says. "We have a proverb: It's bad to be a cat for a thousand years and not catch a mouse."

He explains that he makes more money than other, less experienced butchers do, because he thinks about the seasons, the weather, and how people eat. He explains that he picked out the leaner, skinnier cows, leaving the heavier ones for another day. "In the summer people don't like eating fatty meat. In winter people want a bit more fat," he says.

Part of being an old hand at butchering is not caring in the slightest that you've just bought nearly two dozen animals for the purpose of slitting their throats and cutting them up for people to buy, cook, and eat. Some people work with pipes, drains, and taps, others with computers, Palm IIIs, and fax machines. Isa happens to work with knives, blood, and flesh. At the end of a day in the shop his short-sleeved cotton-nylon mix shirt and jeans are nearly always splashed and smeared with blood. Sometimes, little flecks of fat or muscle get caught in his short, spiky dark hair. Often, he wears the same shirt and pants for two or three days, the scarlet stains turning russet over time. It doesn't enter his mind that chopping up dead animals might be somehow unsavory. For him, it's not about death. It's about life, feeding people--especially his family.

Isa has recently gone into partnership with another butcher's shop in Pec and they look after the animals until they're needed in the shops. The other butchers do the slaughtering. Isa's forte is chatting up the customers, passing on the news, and being the trusty face on the business. He's also the master of the sausage and can find more meat in a brown and white than most. Isa makes one cow go a long way.

It's close to noon when he returns to Pec. He says he doesn't have time to stop at his house on Dushan Mugosha Street to say hello to his wife Halise or to grab a bite to eat and he accepts a ride right to the front door of his shop where he chops and sells until nine at night. The lettering on the glass door says the shop closes at eight. After he's wiped down the surfaces, mopped the floor, put the remaining meat away in the refrigerator, and locked the door, he sits outside with friends, playing cards on the steps of the apartments above his shop, chatting well into the night. Only when his friends clear off and go home to their families, when he's run out of excuses to stay at the shop, does he go home.

As he walks toward the house he glances up at the second-floor windows of his living room. It's dark but there they are, the bullet holes in the double glazing. His heavy shoulders sloping forward, Isa opens the metal gate in front of his house and walks up the concrete path to his front door in reluctant silence.

Like all Albanian business owners operating in the Serb-controlled Pec of the 1990s, Isa learned to be wary of Serbs who came into his shop, especially young men. Against these young men there was no recourse in the law. They were the law. So Isa made it a point to remember their faces.

Nebojsa Minic's face was long and wide, just like his body. He had dense black hair, naturally wavy but usually cut short, and furry black caterpillars for eyebrows. Narrow eyes sat on either side of a large, straight nose that made Minic look like he was leaning toward you even when he wasn't. Years of working out in prison had made his forearms and shoulders solid and powerful. While most Serbs tend to have pale, classically Slavic skin, Minic's face was light brown and leathery, his black stubble often noticeable.

Seven or eight years ago Minic came into Isa's shop a couple of times to buy Isa's famous sausages. He was polite, didn't say much, just asked for his sausages, paid, and left. Isa was flawlessly polite in return because Minic's large build had caught his eye. He took a mental snapshot and filed it away.

"I thought he looked like a criminal, a thief," Isa said.

On his identity card, Minic listed his profession as "laborer." But Isa was right. Minic was a criminal and a thief.

Born on March 1, 1964 in the village of Rosulje just to the east of Pec, Nebojsa Minic was a pretty normal kid for his first decade. His parents, Vojin and Gordana, moved the family to a small, single-story house at 22 Urosa Djurovica Street in the Brzenik neighborhood of Pec when he was an infant. The young Minic became good friends with the Albanian boys next door, Nuredin and Isuf Ramaj. Nuredin was three years older than Minic, Isuf three years younger than their Serb buddy.

"We never had problems with each other because we were Albanian and he was Serbian," Isuf remembers. "We didn't hate each other at all."

Minic was a tough kid, though. An old black-and-white photograph shows him at the age of about thirteen with his left arm slung over the shoulders of a friend as he stares sullenly into the camera. The Ramajs remember that as they grew older Minic used to rough up his big brother, Ljubisce. He would argue a lot with his older sister, Ljiljana. He got lousy grades in class.

He was eleven when he first got into trouble with the police. He had started to steal. It wasn't just Albanians who began to keep an eye out for young Minic. Serbs suffered his muggings, his theft, too.

The Ramaj family became wary of him but not wary enough. In 1985, they agreed to buy the Minic house. They paid Minic and his family the asking price but Minic, now twenty-one and the dominant force in the household, declined to move out. To this day they have the receipts. There was little the Ramajs could do except look forward to the many times that the police caught Minic and took him off to prison.

It was behind bars that Nebojsa Minic learned his flawless Albanian. With his dark complexion, you could easily mistake him for an Albanian when he spoke the language. What's more, his fellow inmates taught him how to play the two-stringed Albanian plucking instrument called the ciftelia. And he would impress his Albanian neighbors with his knowledge of their folk songs, including one that goes on for thirty minutes. Even most Albanians cannot sing the full song. He also came out of prison with a drinking problem.

"He is the kind, the type who cannot live without Albanians," Nuredin Ramaj remembers. "When he has no drink, no clothes, no cigarettes, he can even get down on his knees and cry. In a way he loved Albanians because only the Albanians would be with him. The Serbs rejected him."

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Minic began smuggling cigarettes and oil--such standard enterprises in Yugoslavia for many years that the current President of Montenegro, Mito Djukanovic, was one of his republic's best known cigarette smugglers. Minic's line of work took him to other European countries, including Germany and Austria, but he was never more than a bit player in the Yugoslav criminal world. But in the early 1990s, Minic took a step up the smuggler's hierarchy, according to a relative of his.

Minic graduated from oil and cigarettes; he started handling drug shipments. At that time, the drug trade in Kosovo was firmly in the control of Albanians, who only collaborated with Serbs because the Serbs could provide access to the large markets in Serbia, Montenegro, and beyond to other parts of central and Eastern Europe. The main contact among the Serbian underworld was a man called Darko Asanin, who is now dead. Asanin was a lieutenant of Zeljko Raznatovic, more commonly known as Arkan, the most famous--and most famously assassinated--paramilitary leader in Yugoslavia. It was not the last time that Minic would find himself under Arkan's ultimate control. But at that point, Minic was just another circuit in the complex machinery of the Albanians' and Asanin's drug business. Arkan himself had at this time almost certainly never heard of Minic.

Like many criminals in Serbia and Montenegro, especially those with links to Arkan's well-oiled organized crime concerns, Minic took a sabbatical in Bosnia, say his family, neighbors, and former paramilitary comrades. It was just his kind of war--profitable and easy. Bosnia was most rewarding to those who laughed at the laws of warfare. And no one worked as efficiently there as those who had always laughed at the laws of peacetime.

"He was fierce and out of his mind," recalled his relative, who heralds from the Minic family seat Podbisce, a village in the rocky north of Montenegro, where Serbian nationalism has become as instinctive as drinking a shot glass of throat-burning raki with breakfast. "He came a few times to Podbisce to see his cousins. He was showing us these photos of slaughtered Muslims and he was doing it with glee. He didn't spare anyone. My father started to hate him, as did many other relatives. After that he started making trouble everywhere in Montenegro--in Budva, Podgorica, Herceg Novi. He started so many fights in the cafes."

It was in Bosnia that Minic's violent side blossomed. He operated in a unit under the Bosnian Serb army, according to his comrades, who spoke after the war in Kosovo. One Kosovo paramilitary, "Tony" said that Minic was in the Drina Wolves unit and that there he met five or six guys who would later become key friends in Kosovo. The friends used to use the code word of Munje, Lightning, over their Motorola radios in the field. It was a name they liked and would resuscitate in Kosovo.

Led by Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb military leader who has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Minic was one of the killers at the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst single atrocity committed in Europe since World War II. After seizing the town, designated a UN safe haven, Serb soldiers killed thousands of Muslim men.

"There were killing trucks" in Srebrenica, said the paramilitary Tony, who served under Arkan in the Pec region during the Kosovo war. Tony is a calm man with utter contempt for Minic, whom he still regularly encounters. "Minic was one of the men escorting the trucks to a site and executing the men. They would massacre them in the truck or as they were getting off the truck, one by one. They did seven to eight thousand in five days. Imagine--everyone must have individually done a lot of killing. Later he was boasting about how he was fucking girls there, too, exulting in how the girls scream as he was raping them. Killing was a kind of routine for him. The day after he forgets all he's done. He was quite well known, famous, for raping in Bosnia. Not only rape. He liked to physically abuse them, too, and he liked to boast about it. He isn't a normal guy."

When the war in Bosnia was over, Minic, with his pocket full of loot and horrific vacation photos, came to Montenegro arrogant and aggressive. It was hard to give up the power that came with being a paramilitary. But in Montenegro, he encountered an established criminal culture that had no patience with cocksure newcomers. One day, in the mid-1990s, under one of the awnings of the seafront cafes of Budva and Herceg Novi, Minic started one fight too many, this time crossing someone in the Montenegrin organized crime world. It was explained to him that he was no longer welcome in Montenegro. Driving quickly through the tunnels and gorges on the road north to Pec, he fled to his Albanian drug connections in Kosovo.

Back home, he suffered from the same problem. Neither he nor his fellow Kosovo Serbs were in charge of the criminal world, his world. The Albanian criminals weren't impressed by his new Bosnian resume. For sure, Belgrade ruled the town halls, industry, and the police stations of Kosovo by this time, but the Albanians were still the bosses of the drug trade. For a while, the Ramajs recall, their old playmate opened a small kiosk near the house and tried to go straight, selling newspapers and cigarettes. He was calm, polite. He had a new girlfriend and perhaps she and Minic were trying to settle down. It did not last long. Minic gained the confidence of the local Albanian drug kingpins. He set out to become a crucial distributor for them, opening up new routes in Europe and becoming the player he had sought to be for years. He had finally gained some respect.

Exactly what happened to split Minic from his Albanian partners is unclear. But several people, including his relative, say the bust-up came over a substantial heroin shipment to another country, probably Italy. Possibly the Albanians tried to cut their Serb friend out of the routes he had opened up and controlled. One large deal went wrong somehow and the man who came out feeling cheated was Minic. Already shunned by many local Serbs as a criminal, a lout, and a blockhead, Minic felt alienated by losing his Albanian friends.

"From then on, he hated, absolutely hated Albanians," said a Montenegrin man who worked as a paramilitary under Minic during the war in Kosovo.

Soon after Minic's split with the Albanian drug lords of Kosovo, he joined the Pec police force. That was in 1997 or 1998. He had had enough of working with anyone other than his own kind and at last he was happy in a job whose responsibilities perfectly matched his talents and experience.

Minic's career unfolded without the Albanians of Pec really noticing the changing stature of a man who was, to most of them, just another bigoted Serb to avoid on the street.

Minic lived just a short walk away from the Bala family, down Dushan Mugosha Street and right through some narrow dirt tracks of streets to what was renamed Dardania II Street after the war. The street is in a less well known part of Pec. Minic family's house was a cinderblock bungalow surrounded by an overgrown yard and a low brick wall. His girlfriend, a Bosnian Serb refugee named Rada, lived a few hundred yards from Isa's shop. A couple of Minic's friends who had similar views to him lived about a hundred yards away, back toward Dushan Mugosha Street. On the other side of town were another two of his good friends, Vitomir Shalipuri and Miljan Kaljevic. They were all becoming very close and were soon to be partners in the war.

Isa heard things about Nebojsa Minic. Isa's shop is one of Pec's gossip salons. When people come into Isa's shop, they tell him the latest and he passes it on to others. The meat costs but the gossip is free. There were quite a few rumors about Minic and none suggested that he was the kind of guy who would be a good neighbor to an Albanian. So, like most Albanians who knew about Minic, Isa tried to keep his distance from the big Serb.

Around 1997 or 1998, he noticed Minic walking and driving around the streets of Brzenik in a blue camouflage police uniform. The drug smuggler and veteran killer from Bosnia had joined the police. He was now doing his duty for Belgrade. And it wasn't to serve and protect.

Fifty-two-year-old Myrteza Vokshi owned a kiosk on Dushan Mugosha Street, about half-way between the Bala and Minic households. One day he sat inside on a rickety chair, the back door of his shop open for ventilation during the summer. A quiet man with a young family, he sold newspapers, candy, stickers of Yugoslav soccer stars, and cigarettes. It was early afternoon. Minic walked past and stuck his big nose and narrow eyes in through the low rectangle from which Vokshi handed out his change and goods. Minic bought something, Vokshi can't remember what. But he remembers what Minic said, apropos of nothing. "I'd kill you for ten marks," he told the Albanian kiosk owner.

This time, Minic walked away.

"My father was a butcher, my grandfather was a butcher, my great-grandfather was a butcher, my great-great-grandfather was a butcher. The Balas have been butchers for a thousand years."

Isa's paternal grandfather Musa Bala was indeed a butcher but he was not a great businessman. He drank too much and partly as a result of that he lived in Pec but had a shop in the nearby village of Vitomirica, where the rent was cheaper.

His son, Isa's father, Shaip Bala, didn't fare much better. He too lived in Pec but ran a shop in Klina. He took the train to work.

"My father became mentally ill. I was only fourteen when my father died. We were living in Pec but when my father got ill when I was six we had to close the shop in Klina."

The Bala family had very little money. Like his father before him, Shaip Bala had a weakness: He played and lost at poker. When he was at home with his madness, he would sometimes curse at his family, then fall into dark, silent depressions. His big butcher's hands never went to work with a cleaver and a carcass again after the shop closed. He knew only one trade and so the Balas' income dried up almost completely.


Excerpted from Beyond the Mountains of the Damned by Matthew McAllester Copyright © 2003 by Matthew McAllester. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher


“To write this book, Matt McAllester walked through mountains covered with snow and hatred with rifle shots aimed at him from above. He wrote it with extraordinary talent that is equal to his bravery.”
-Jimmy Breslin


“Matthew McAllester's Beyond the Mountains of the Damned tells the searing and disturbing story of the war in Kosovo. He explains clearly, as few have, what happened and why, and why it matters. His powerful narrative takes us down roads, past checkpoints, and into battle zones, and it plunges us into strange, sad, scarred places where no other reporter has gone. The book has a drive and a momentum that keep you reading even when the sheer horror and stupidity of events is painful. A human as well as a historic tale, told with an eye and an ear for the personal, the individual, the intimate.”
-Amy Wilentz,author of Martyrs’ Crossing and The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier

“Beyond the Mountains of the Damned is about how war destroys society at its most basic level. I read this and understood what happened to ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances during those dark and desperate days in Kosovo. It is a book I will not forget.”
-Janine di Giovanni,special correspondent, Vanity Fair and the Times of London

“A heart-rending tale of the execution of innocents, told with eloquence and compassion by a brilliant and courageous young journalist. What is astonishing about this story of death in Pec is that it actually took place in the last year of the twentieth century and in supposedly civilized Europe. Through the life of Isa the butcher, Matt McAllester graphically depicts the precariousness of life in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic, and the compromises and indignities imposed upon anyone who through the accident of birth had an Albanian ethnic identity. What makes this a path-breaking account is the author's drive to find the sadistic killers who shot children in cold blood, and his insistence that they explain their crime. The story is unforgettable.”
-Roy Gutman,Pulitzer Prize winner and author of A Witness toGenocide, Newsweek diplomatic correspondent

Meet the Author

Matthew McAllester is the United Nations Bureau Chief for Newsday. He has covered the turmoil between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the war in Afghanistan, and the American-led war in Iraq. He shared a Pulitzer in 1997 for his coverage of the crash of TWA flight 800.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews