KFOR at its western frontShaban MURATI
THU, 11 MAY 2000
Tirana, 2 may, 2000 - When KFOR international forces were deployed in Kosovo, quite a large number of members of these forces were called the lucky ones because it fell to their share to control the western part of Kosovo which borders Albania, while others got the extremely “hot” zones in the north and east which borders Serbia or the less heated southern zone which borders Macedonia. Although in the course of almost a year since their entrance of Kosovo KFOR patrolling units were a few times forced to cross the border between Serbia and Kosovo and enter the five-kilometre grey zone where Yugoslav forces are not permitted to enter, this was an incident that caught attention.
However, this did not happen at all when on 29 March international forces entered the territory of Albania and took over control of the road that links the northern city of Kukes with the Morina border crossing in Kosovo. This was not characterised as an incident at all nor did it make an impression on political circles or the public opinion of Tirana which took it benevolently, although taking over control of the part of the road by KFOR, that is, a part of the territory of Albania, would normally be considered as an incident.
In fact, the operation of KFOR in establishment control of a segment of the national road between Kukes and Morina inside Albania was considered as a normal procedure and it was expected since February, when commander of KFOR units located in Kosovo city of Prizren, general Roland Kater visited the defence ministry of Albania in order to speak of modalities of deployment of troops under his command in order to establish control of the road that connects Kukes with the border of Kosovo. One of the central issues that were discussed was deployment of an additional contingent of KFOR troops inside Albania to the depth of 24 kilometres which is the distance between Kukes and Morina border crossing. Spokesman of KFOR staff in Prizren Klaus Geier and commander of the second infantry division in Kukes Selim Spahiu confirmed that an agreement was reached that KFOR would take over control of the mentioned road.
Inclusion of the road between Kukes and Morina in the KFOR security zone is linked primarily not to movements of the citizens of Albania down this road, but movement of Kosovars who are coming from European states or returning to Kosovo through Albania via this road.
During the months of January and February, minister of internal affairs of Albania Spartak Koci visited Germany and Switzerland and signed all inter-governmental agreements which sanction readiness of Albanian government to put the roads and airport facilities at the disposal of the tide of Albanian refugees on their return from European states.
The number of Kosovar returnees that will pass along this road coming from abroad where they were forced to go to work back to their homes in Kosovo exceeds 100 thousand persons, and the month of April was determined as the beginning of this operation which is a big undertaking for Albania. Governments of Germany and Switzerland will cover the expenses of return of refugees, including the expenses of their crossing Albania, while all the Albanian state needs to do is put the roads at their disposal and make their transit easy.
The interest for the success of this operation is not shown only by Germany and Switzerland, two states which have had the greatest number of emigrants from Kosovo during these ten years of the wars in former Yugoslavia, but also many other European states where there are also many Kosovar refugees. Since it is considered to be a part of the operation of return of refugees to their homes after the end of the war in Kosovo, providing the necessary conditions for this return was included in the mandate of KFOR forces. Especially because it concerns a very big group of people and because the zone they have to cross, northern Albania to be specific, is still highly problematic when order and control by Albanian police is concerned. Kosovo refugees who are on their way back from the countries of the West where they lived and worked and provided for themselves a higher standard of living than the one of the Albanians in Albania are the favourite target of armed attacks of gangs in the north, especially on the road between Kukes and Morina. Such cases were frequent and this created fear that it could affect the course of the big operation of return of Kosovo refugees.
The fact that the police of Albania still has not established full control in the northern zone along the border with Kosovo and especially on northern sections of the roads has brought to entrusting KFOR with the hardest task of securing the road between Kukes and Morina. That is why on the eve of mass return of Kosovar refugees from the states of the West via Albania, KFOR troops have entered Albania and established control of this part of the road which leads to Kosovo.
In fact, ever since NATO campaign against Serbia, in the seaside city of Durres, there is a military command which is now called COMZUEST, whose mission is to secure communications and transportation through Albania on their way to Kosovo and Macedonia. The command of COMZUEST has at its disposal 1,200 Italian soldiers headed by an Italian general who also has Greek and Turkish military troops under his command. And since both COMZUEST and KFOR are under NATO command, it was believed that the hardest part of this road, the part which connects the northern city of Kukes with the border crossing with Kosovo should be controlled by KFOR which has greater potentials and a higher degree of preparedness for facing dangerous situations.
However, taking over control and patrolling of KFOR was not easy for these forces because during their mission of offering protection to the tide of refugees they were forced to face criminal groups which were trying to make their way back insecure by robberies. The region of northern Albania was ever since the conflict in Kosovo used by smugglers and traders of all colours for organising numerous profitable illegal business deals, from selling arms to smuggling Kurdish members of the underground across the border.
Establishment of powerful control of KFOR troops on the roads and the border made this trade difficult and reduced their chances for making a profit and not rarely KFOR troops were directly faced by criminals. On several occasions KFOR troops closed the border with Albania just in order to prevent strained situations and dangerous clashes. That is the reason why on 10 March about 300 inhabitants of the city of Kukes blocked the national road leading towards the border with Kosovo for six hours demanding abolishment of customs duties for food and departure of special police forces which had arrived from Tirana in order to fight against smuggling and illegal trade. Sources close to Albanian ministry of internal affairs declared on the occasion that this had not been a protest of the population but a specific simulation of a protest organised by smugglers, dealers of stollen cars and former policemen who used their uniforms for illegal acquiring of profit.
According to the chief of police in Kukes, Gani Malushi, only in the course of one month, 12 policemen were accused in this zone of having committed the criminal act of plunder. This should not be surprising in the zone where policemen from other districts refuse to go to service and where the state is forced to take into the police persons who do not satisfy the required criteria.
In performing its duty of securing the road between Albania and Kosovo KFOR was forced to confront even ordinary citizens of this zone which is the poorest in the country and which was, due to lack of infrastructure and communications with interior of Albania, forced to turn its eyes and hopes towards the closest possible links with the cities in Kosovo in order to open and develop trade and exchange on both sides of the border where there had been close and traditionally good commercial connections before the Second World War. Inhabitants of three northern cities in Albania which border Kosovo demanded opening of new border crossings, along with that in Morina. Minister of public order of Albania Spartak Kochi, forwarded this demand to UNMIK police command and during the visit to Tirana in February to UNMIK commissioner of police.
Forces of KFOR and UNMIK seem to have been reluctant to do it and only on 10 April they opened the border crossing at Qafe Prushit which connects the city of Has with Djakovica. According to the customs officials, Albanian citizens are crossing the border without passports but with an identification document which is valid for only 24 hours and which is issued by KFOR.
The situation is different at Morina border crossing where German members of KFOR demand that the citizens of Albania have their passports stamped by Albanian border police.
Such different regulations in the same zone speak of great difficulties KFOR troops encounter in securing freedom of movement and prevention of criminal trade or crossing of criminals from one side of the border to the other.
Insecurity of the zone and impossibility of full control caused arising of difficult problems between KFOR and citizens of Albania who are crossing the border in order to trade or visit relatives on the other side of the border.
One such incident occurred between Turkish soldiers of KFOR and a few inhabitants of the village of Shishtavec in Albania when in the end of last month, according to a statement of Shishtavec municipality, KFOR soldiers tied women and children and beat them up cruelly. On the other hand, KFOR command claims that many persons from Albanian villages enter Kosovo and terrorise inhabitants on the other side of the border.
This is what the western front is like - full of uncertainties, so members of KFOR in this region begin to realise that it is not easy to be deployed here either, where problems, difficulties, prejudice, illegal trade and conflicts often have the nature which is neither ethnic, nor religious, nor cultural and which are linked more to the mentality and all-Balkan psychology.