Serbs stone ethnic Albanians in Kosovo

Surprised Canadian escorts find themselves at centre of 'a whole lot of hatred' in divided Mitrovica


Friday, March 3, 2000

Kosovska Mitrovica -- Scott Thiel has been in a few hot spots before. A nine-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, he served in Croatia and Bosnia during the peak of the turmoil in the Balkans.

But hard-bitten as he is, he wasn't prepared for the ethnic hatred that confronted him in Mitrovica yesterday. He simply was trying to help a group of ethnic Albanians return to their homes in the Serb part of this town in Kosovo. But a large group of Serbs -- mostly women armed with umbrellas and rocks -- had other ideas.

Master Corporal Thiel and his platoon were helping the men cross the Ibar River on a pontoon bridge. If the operation succeeded, other Albanians would follow -- the first step in a United Nations plan to heal the split in the city.

The first part of the operation went well. MCpl. Thiel helped 'process' the seven middle-aged and elderly Albanian men, checking their papers and searching them for concealed weapons. Then two of his men and a group of United Nations police officers led three of the Albanians across the muddy Ibar.

The whole idea of using the pontoon bridge was to avoid the Serb crowds that have taken to gathering at the northern end of the main bridge, a heavily fortified structure that has become a symbol of the town's division. The temporary structure was built by French troops to let ethnic Albanians cross directly to three high-rise apartment buildings on the north bank.

But when the three men reached the far side and clambered up the bank yesterday, a crowd of 100 to 150 Serbs rushed forward, shouting and throwing stones. Most were women carrying umbrellas to protect them from the steady rain.

'It happened so fast,' said MCpl. Thiel, 28. 'This crowd just came charging down the road. They kicked, they punched, they threw rocks. All you could see was a sea of umbrellas.'

Two of the Albanian men, in their 60s, were struck in the head. One fell head over heels down the riverbank. After soldiers rushed to the scene and picked him up, he had a nasty gash on his forehead and his clothes were covered with mud. The second man had a bump on the head; the third escaped back across the bridge uninjured as the crowed jeered from the other side.

'If I didn't know better, I'd say they wanted to kill these guys,' said MCpl. Thiel, who has a wife and four young children at home in London, Ont. 'There has to be a whole lot of hatred in your body to do something like that.'

As the Canadians administered first aid to the two injured men, the third condemned the soldiers for failing to protect them.

The bridge incident highlighted the continuing tension in Mitrovica, a gritty city of 100,000 that has become the flashpoint of Serb-Albanian ethnic tension in Kosovo. Eleven people have been killed and dozens wounded since violence broke out last month over the partition of the city into a mainly Serb north and an almost exclusively Albanian south.

The stoning also underlined the danger for the international troops who arrived in Kosovo last June after the Yugoslav army pulled out at the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 78-day bombing campaign. Just yesterday, a Russian soldier died after being shot by an unknown gunman not far from Mitrovica.

The Canadians were called into Mitrovica last month to beef up the international presence and to take some pressure off a French contingent, which was accused by the town's ethnic-Albanian majority of favouring the Serbs.

After many largely uneventful months in central Kosovo -- home base for the 1,400 Canadian troops -- they suddenly found themselves on the front lines.

When thousands of ethnic Albanians demonstrated on the main bridge last week, a Canadian outfit, the Pioneers, had to push them back.

Things have calmed down slightly since then. The Pioneers have pulled out. The remaining Canadians, 150 men and women from the Royal Canadian Regiment based at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, Ont., spend most days guarding the main bridge and patrolling the south side of the city.

While off duty, the Canadians kill time by watching videos or playing board games in the abandoned gymnasium that serves as their headquarters.

Until yesterday, it all seemed pretty routine. When he was told that Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently called Mitrovica the most dangerous city in Europe, MCpl. Thiel replied: 'I believe it.'

Original article