Int. Herald Tribune
In a Kosovo city park, a small ray of hope

Rand Engel

Paris, Thursday, September 14, 2000


PRISTINA, Kosovo - At the groundbreaking ceremony for the restoration of the Gjilane city park, Bernard Kouchner, the head of the United Nations mission here, said, "This is the happiest day of my life in Kosovo." Dr. Kouchner was moved by a gleam of hope from Gjilane. In a highly visible project, Albanians and Serbs were to work together.

The ceremony included Hugo Ortega, 23, an Australian volunteer aid worker, who doggedly put

this project together. Mr. Ortega had been introduced to the United Nations Development Program, the lead donor, by Major Dan LePage of the U.S. Army. Major LePage proposed a work crew of mixed ethnicity.

"No way," we said. "You're insane." Of course, Mr. Ortega and our volunteer organization Balkan Sunflowers were fully committed to the concept - sometime in the future. We believed it impossible now; we knew too many widows, as well as fathers and sons, who had lost loved ones in last year's "ethnic cleansing." Many of our work crew had suffered awful losses. All have painful memories from the 10 years of Belgrade-imposed apartheid and the three-month terror. Wounds are still raw, hatreds close to the surface. But we agreed to explore the possibility.

Mr. Ortega had begun to work with Kosovar refugees in Australia. There he met Luljeta, a Kosovar Albanian refugee, and they became engaged. In November they came to Kosovo and joined Balkan Sunflowers. They moved into the Konvikt Center, refugee housing in Gjilane, not far from Luljeta's village; here they engaged in children's activities: English classes, play, art, sports and nursery school. Totally immersed, Mr. Ortega learned Albanian as few relief workers do.

We expected the mixed work crew idea to fall apart rapidly when it bumped into reality. We met the Serbian spokesman in Gjilane to discuss participation of Serbian workers. Yes, he said, he wanted that. We said that the work force would include a crew from the Kosovo Protection Corps, veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army that had fought against Serbia. Good, he said, that will be better protection than the peacekeeping force KFOR can provide.

We met with Shaban Musliu, the Gjilane area spokesman and chief of staff for the KPC. We said that we hoped to have Serbian participation in the park project. Good, he said, we want to work with minorities, as long as they were not individuals involved in the ethnic cleansing. This was not going as we expected. Would he meet with the Serbian spokesperson? Of course, Mr. Musliu said.

We interviewed prospective workers at a U.S. KFOR station near the Serbian neighborhood. Few came. No Serb showed up for the first few days of work. That part of the project seemed over. Mr. Ortega could concentrate on the park itself, a major project with 100 workers.

Then Major Michael Foley found three Serbs who wanted to work. We admired their bravery and feared for their safety. Mr. Ortega held two meetings with the Albanian workers. He said that in Gjilane, in this park, these workers would help decide the future. Mr. Musliu said that the KPC supported a mixed-ethnicity work crew.

The workers had the opportunity to express their feelings and ask questions. One former KLA member had lost family during the ethnic cleansing terror campaign. He nevertheless wanted a future without hatred. Another veteran, whose father and brother were killed, said that he was willing to plant a tree with a Serb.

People said there would be trouble if they recognized a criminal. When Mr. Ortega said the first three Serbian workers were women the tension dissolved; in that moment, the workers realized they could make this first step. During the women's first days on the crew, Albanian workers often asked them, sometimes in Serbian, if they were all right, or if they needed water or food.

It is possible there will be setbacks. We are nevertheless moved by the courage of these people. Small steps are being taken in Kosovo, despite the fear and hatred that continue to haunt so many.

The writer, the Kosovo coordinator for Balkan Sunflowers, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.



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