By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, JANUARY 27, 2006
PRISTINA, Kosovo: Kosovo's Albanian majority gathered by the tens of thousands Thursday to bid a last farewell to their late president, Ibrahim Rugova, in a ceremony that had all the trappings of a state funeral.
For 16 years Rugova, a pacifist who struggled to gain the province's independence from Serbia, had been Kosovo's paramount leader. He died at age 61 of lung cancer Saturday, just days before talks were to open, under United Nations auspices, that are widely expected to result in a limited form of independence for Kosovo.
In death, his people gave him every honor that a state would lavish upon a president.
The city, Kosovo's regional capital, was brought to a halt for six hours for a ceremony that was attended by four presidents and representatives from more than 40 countries. Shops and schools were closed as the Albanian-dominated regional government had declared a national holiday.
Kosovo is officially a part of Serbia but has been administered by the United Nations since June 1999, when Serb security forces accused of committing atrocities against Albanians were forced to leave the province. Their departure was preceded by a NATO bombing campaign against the Serbs.
On Thursday, armed guards - recruited from the ranks of a now dispersed guerrilla army that fought Serbian security forces from 1997 to 1999 - escorted the funeral cortege. Rugova's flag-draped coffin was transported through the streets, with hundreds of Kosovo Albanian police lining the procession route.
There was little sign of the approximately 17,000 United Nations peacekeepers who are stationed in Kosovo and who usually patrol the capital.
Instead Kosovo's Protection Corps, which the UN defines as a civil disaster emergency response unit but Albanians widely view as the province's fledgling defense force, led the cortege.
"He was the president of our state," said 80-year-old Zymer Kastrati, who had traveled by bus with 10 members of his extended family from Peja in eastern Kosovo.
Rugova twice won the presidency of Kosovo's regional government, following parliamentary elections in 2001 and 2004.
Like Kastrati, many Albanians traveled from throughout Kosovo in freezing temperatures to attend the ceremony, which followed four-and-a-half days of official mourning. Many were members of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the movement that Rugova had helped to found in the late 1980s as a counterweight to the rise of Serbian nationalism.
Members of the Kosovo's extensive diaspora also had flown in for the ceremony, some coming from as far away as Australia and the United States.
"He was a very patient and peaceful man, ideal qualities since we Kosovars are a hot-blooded people," said Gresa Rexhepi, a 16-year-old high school student from Pristina. "I'm sure his goal will be achieved very soon."
Notably absent were members of Kosovo's Serb community, as well as members of the Serbian government from Belgrade.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia had asked to attend the funeral, but his request was rejected by Rugova's office as a reassertion of Serbia's claim to the province.
The president's office had requested that Tadic be allowed to go to "Kosovo, which is a part of Serbia's territorial integrity, and pay his respects to the political representative of the Albanian people." After the request was rejected, all but two of Kosovo's Serb representatives declined to attend the funeral.
Dignitaries paid tribute to Rugova before he was laid to rest at a memorial site for former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The head of the UN mission in the province, Soren Jessen-Petersen, said Rugova had "remained dedicated exclusively to peaceful means, meeting violence with vision at a time and in a region where so many set their eyes upon the past."
Jessen-Petersen also suggested that Rugova's desire for Kosovo's independence may not be far from becoming a reality.
"President Rugova has left a void behind him but he has also left a vision to guide Kosovo forward," Jessen-Petersen said.
"It is a vision whose fulfillment he did not live to see, but whose realization will be achieved through the unity and commitment of those who follow him."