IHT - Building trust in Kosovo village

By Lucian Perkins

Paris, Tuesday, December 28, 1999

VITINA, Kosovo - It was standing room only in the smoke-filled classroom, where more than 100 Serbian villagers were meeting with a handful of American soldiers. The Serbs live near the predominantly Albanian village of Vitina in the American-controlled sector of Kosovo, and they had come to discuss their fears and frustrations.

In the center of the room sat Lieutenant Colonel Michael Ellerbe of the 82d Airborne. He listened as the meeting disintegrated into a whining session, with the Serbs, a minority in Kosovo, bitterly describing how unique, how overwhelming, how unsolvable their problems were.

Colonel Ellerbe is a tall African-American whose imposing presence is usually tempered by a warm, almost paternal manner. But during the litany of complaints he began to look exasperated. Then he spoke.

''Do you know anything about American history?'' he boomed. ''Do you have any idea what people like me had to go through to become part of American society?''

The colonel launched into a powerful sermon about what it is like to be black in America. Though he spoke througha translator, the rhythm and emotionof his words came through as he talk-ed of oppression and survival, and ofhis own life.

''Should I hate all white people for what happened?'' he asked. ''Are you going to hate all Albanians and not move forward? When are you going to reach out to them?''

When he finished, the room was silent. The Serbs were impressed - but they had not forgotten their own prob-

lems. Slowly, the complaints resumed. Some Serbs said they felt threatenedby Albanians when they went to fetch water. Colonel Ellerbe promised to post a guard at the village well, then whispered an order to get a soldier out there right away. He wanted the Serbs leaving the schoolhouse to see a guard already in place.

As the meeting broke up, my translator heard the elderly Serb sitting next to me whisper to a friend, ''See, because he's black, he understands us.''

Colonel Ellerbe's successful connection with the Kosovo population fit a pattern I saw often during my recent assignment in the province.

As a photographer, I accompanied various American soldiers serving with the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force as they attended local council meetings, helped locate firewood for schools and arbitrated disputes ranging from traffic accidents to who owned which cow. These troops had developed extraordinary relationships with both Serbs and Albanians, and in many cases had won their trust.

It was a dramatic change from my first trip to Kosovo in June, when Yugoslav forces were pulling out after surrendering to NATO. Then, U.S. Marines faced a defiant Serbian population, which shouted insults and attacked them with stones and sniper fire. Today, as U.S. soldiers walk through these same villages, children follow them, farmers give them food and drink, and families invite them to weddings.

This is not to say the job is easy, or that the troops are always successful. Even when Serbs and Albanians are willing to talk to the peacekeepers, they often refuse to talk to each other.

And all communication is poisoned by the disinformation that permeates the sharply divided province. Sometimes it seems that nobody's word in Kosovo can be trusted - not that of the Serbian or Albanian leaders, or the media or the villagers themselves.

Captain Kevin Lambert told me of an Albanian woman who accused a Serb of kidnapping her during the war.

Captain Lambert's troops arrested the man, but upon investigating, they discovered that the woman's family had been trying to coerce him to sell them his apartment. Was this a case of falsely accusing the Serb to get his home? With no proof available, the U.S. Army decided it was.

Captain Larry Kaminsky, a public affairs officer with the peacekeeping force, said journalists often called him to check out alarming reports in the Serbian press - such as the ''news'' that Serbs were being held hostage in a certain Albanian village, and that peacekeepers were doing nothing to rescue them.

In fact, when he investigated, he found that peacekeepers had brought Albanian and Serbian leaders together in the village and they had ended up exchanging cigarettes and coffee and chatting about the time before the war.

An Albanian farmer told me about returning to his village after the war to find his cow grazing in a Serb's field. He turned to the U.S. Army for help, but was told that the cow could not be returned without proof.

Luckily, a family photo turned up with the cow recognizable in the background, and the peacekeepers got it back for him. But there are a lot of expropriated cows around Kosovo - and tractors and other goods - with no proof to back up the villagers' claims.

People who cannot trust their neighbors may find it hard to believe that anyone might be acting in good faith. That seemed to be the case with Darinka Zivkovic, a Serb whose husband,a teacher, had been missing for months. He had vanished when he returned to his former school in a village that had been controlled by Albanians since the end of the war.

I accompanied Captain Scott Walker when he climbed to Mrs. Zivkovic'shillside home to tell her that the peacekeeping force still had no leads on where her husband might be.

''You must know something,'' she cried. She knew the Americans had come to the aid of Kosovo Albanians;

she could not believe these same Americans were honestly unable to help her now.

''Why won't you do anything to help find him?'' she asked, sobbing.

Captain Walker could only try to reassure her.

Colonel Ellerbe told me of a funeral he had attended for several Kosovo Albanians. During the service, one Albanian leader after another eulogizedthe men as heroes who had died while trying unsuccessfully to deactivatea Serbian mine.

The colonel said nothing, but he knew differently: His men had investigated the deaths, and they concluded the Albanians had blown themselves up trying to place a mine in a Serbian church.

''Kosovo is a province of victims - both Serbian and Albanian,'' Colonel Ellerbe said.

''Unfortunately, both sides are still being victimized by the people who are supposed to be leading them.'' In the meantime, he tries a different kind of leadership.

He gave a Thanksgiving dinner and invited some Albanians and Serbs who dared to be seen together.

''It was a tremendous success,'' the Colonel Ellerbe said. ''It's not much, but it is a start.''

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