The unfinished war

A year ago, the world's eyes were focused on the slaughter in Kosovo. Now the TV crews have gone, but the agony remains. Tim Judah tours the torn cities and uneasy borders where all sides are braced for a return to guerrilla fighting.

Sunday February 20, 2000

Two years after the war in Kosovo began, and almost one year since Nato began its devastating 78-day bombing campaign across Yugoslavia, a new pessimism is taking root.

In the packed cafés of the capital, Pristina, it has become fashionable to talk of the 'unfinished war'. As winter gives way to spring, as war crimes investigators resume their exhumations of mass graves of Albanians killed by Serbs last year, an inevitable new round of revenge killings will begin. But the coming conflicts will not just pit Serb against Albanian.

In Pristina, guerrilla fatigues have given way to cool black polo-necks and Armani. But, as fighters of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) settle in as the province's new ruling class, bitter internecine struggles for power, money and patronage are being waged.

Likewise the leadership of the Kosovo Serbs is rent between those who would save the last vestiges of Serbian life here and those for whom a continuing pay cheque from Belgrade assures that Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader and indicted war criminal, still has a good many strings to pull.

In the thick fog that often envelops Kosovo at this time of year, soldiers belonging to K-For, the 50,000-strong Nato force in the province, loom as dim shapes and barbed wire coils into the mist on Mitrovica's bridge. On the north side of the Ibar river, shadowy Serbian 'bridge-keepers' watch for hostile Albanians intent on infiltrating what has become the Serb-held north of the town.

Before the war the vast majority of Mitrovica's inhabitants were Albanians. Like the Serbs they lived with, they inhabited both sides of the river. When French troops deployed here in June a de facto partition of the city began to take place. Serbs fled northwards and most Albanians who had been expelled or fled during the bombing were unable to return to the north.

Who started the recent round of violence in Mitrovica hardly matters. Two Serbs in a bus protected by Nato troops were killed, a Serbian bar was attacked and rampaging Serbs then killed six Albanians and two ethnic Turks. After that, hundreds of the couple of thousand terrified Albanians who remained in the north fled south.

The French were now attacked, verbally to start with, accused of being pro-Serb and having failed to protect Albanians in the north. British, Germans, Danes and Italians were rushed to the city. A week ago, the situation began to slip even further out of control as Albanian snipers began shooting French soldiers.

To cross the bridge is already to cross from one country to another. In the south, Kosovo (the Serbian name for the province) is dead, but Kosova, as the Albanians call it, is alive and well. In the south, apart from several small, beleaguered Serbian enclaves, Serbia has simply vanished. Anyone so much as heard speaking Serbian on the streets risks being lynched by an angry mob or simply shot.

In this climate of visceral hatred it is hardly surprising that organised Serbs are resisting attempts by Albanians to return to their homes in north Mitrovica. Across that bridge, 200 metres from Kosova, Kosovo is still alive and kicking. In the north, the Yugoslav dinar is still in circulation, daily papers arrive from Belgrade, the Yugoslav government still pays salaries and, almost certainly, controls much of the political life. Rumours persist that Serbian paramilitaries continue to exist in north Mitrovica despite the presence of K-For troops.

North Mitrovica is a dark, gloomy and, for now, an icy place. French soldiers stand guard outside blocks of flats and search inhabitants as they go inside, just in case they happen to be smuggling in grenades with which to kill their odd remaining Albanian neighbour. Many of them, in turn, are Serbs 'cleansed' by Albanians from the south. In the Bel Ami café, where 15 Serbs were injured in a recent grenade attack, glasses still sit on the bar, the grenade's scorch mark clearly visible.

With every day that passes a Cyprus-style green line is hardening, not only across town but across a large part of northern Kosovo. North Mitrovica backs on to northern Kosovo, which has always been almost entirely ethnically Serb and which, in turn, borders Serbia proper. Few Serbs here believe that Serbian Kosovo is a cause well and truly lost - but it does not mean to say that they do not know what they will do if and when Kosova is finally recognised as an independent state.

Drive north from Mitrovica and suddenly it is as if you are in a land where there had been no war. In fact, since only Serbs live here (apart from a tiny number of now 'cleansed' Albanians) there was no war here. There are no tell-tale burnt houses, shattered mosques or ruined churches.

In Leposavic, Dragan Jablanovic, the Serbian mayor, says that his people have already prepared an 'initiative for organising a referendum'. Of course, he says, it would be a 'last step', since UN Security Council resolution 1244, which ended the conflict, recognises Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia but, he says, if independence becomes a reality 'we will not be part of that independent Kosovo, even if we have to secede'.

Rack your brains as to why you think you have read this before? Because you have.

As Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader used to say, both before and after he organised his Bosnian Serb referendum in 1992, if Bosnia became independent what is now the legally recognised autonomous Republika Srpska would not go with it.

Most Albanians could not care less whether the Serbs of Leposavic and the north secede. It is just that they could not let Mitrovica or the region's mines go with them. The main shaft of the Trepca complex, which when it still worked produced gold and zinc, lies in Albanian hands, the major processing plants lie in Serb hands. Most Western experts think the mines are clapped out and could never compete in today's global markets. But hope springs eternal here.

Gazing fondly at the rolling hills of slag, most Serbs and Albanians agree on one thing. Trepca is Europe's, perhaps even the planet's, most valuable mining complex and the other side cannot have it.

It is tempting to think that if only some tough no-nonsense negotiator like Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton peace accords for Bosnia, could sort out a compromise on Trepca and Mitrovica, then the Serbs could have northern Kosovo and Nato's troops could go home.

Perhaps, as part of the deal, the Albanians could be compensated by giving them Bujanovac and Presevo, areas with ethnic Albanian majorities inside Serbia proper but adjoining eastern Kosovo.

Indeed, Albanians already call these territories, with a population of more than 60,000 Albanians, Eastern Kosova. 'Greater Kosova' does not have a politically correct ring to it.

But with everyone's attention fixed on Mitrovica or on a Montenegro constantly teetering on the brink of war, or wondering who is next for the assassin's bullet in Belgrade, few have realised that a low-level armed conflict has already broken out in this part of southern Serbia. And on the border between Kosovo and Serbia proper ,US soldiers are braced for a major flare-up, hoping against hope that they will not get caught in the crossfire.

On 26 January Serbian police shot dead two Albanian woodcutters in the village of Dobrosin, just inside Serbia. According to Albanian sources, this was in retaliation for Albanians having shot two Serbian policemen. The people of Dobrosin promptly fled. Now between 30 and 50 armed Albanians patrol it and the Serbian police have not, for the moment, tried to drive them out.

As we stand on the hill overlooking Dobrosin, from the Kosovo side of the border, a tractor wheezes around the corner. A man is hauling his belongings and is carrying his niece and nephew with him. Coming from another nearby village in Serbia, he says that the police questioned people the night before and, no longer feeling safe, he and his family are leaving. Nearby, a discreet American surveillance antenna sticks out above the trees.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, 5,000 Albanians from Bujanovac and Presevo have already registered with it inside Kosovo since June. More are registered as refugees in Macedonia.

Beyond the Nato-decreed five-kilometre buffer zone, Yugoslav troops, many of whom are Kosovo Serbs who had to leave their homes when Nato arrived, are now deployed among an Albanian population that hates them as much as they despise them in return. In a report from the other side of the border in Nin, a Belgrade magazine, a soldier is quoted as saying that the Albanian villagers 'look at us as if we were their worst enemies. I would not dare to enter some of the villages'.

According to Captain Eric McFadden, the US officer whose 100 men are deployed here on the border, his 'hunch' is that Albanian arms are flowing along the scores of hilly trails into Serbia proper. What the Americans are frightened of is that, if and when full-scale fighting flares, it will immediately spill back over the border into Kosovo. He says: 'We have already told the Albanians in Dobrosin that if there is a conflict there and that they bring it into Kosovo, we won't allow them to do that.'

What is clear is that the situation here, in these remote hills, is already fraying dangerously. As part of the compromise deal to achieve the post-war demilitarisation of the KLA, up to 5,000 are now being recruited into the Kosovo Protection Corps, or TMK, to use its Albanian ini tials. The UN and K-For say it is a civilian emergency unit which is supposed to react in case of earthquakes and similar such disasters.

Pleurat Sejdiu, formerly the KLA spokesman in London and now a senior official in the new joint administrative structure which the UN has set up to share power with the locals, says that the joke is that TMK stands for 'Tomorrow's Masters of Kosova'. Albanians regard the TMK as the nucleus of their army to be. And Sejdiu, who until June was operating out of an office in a car wash off London's Finchley Road, is not really joking at all.

In the former Yugoslav Army club in the eastern Kosovo town of Gjilan, where the local TMK is based, there is a hall with a stage. If you peep between the curtains you can see the backdrop of a giant KLA symbol and the slogan: 'Glory to the Heroes'. Unsurprisingly the TMK has not yet recruited any Serbs to the 10 per cent minorities quota which it agreed to as part of the KLA's demilitarisation.

In his office, Shaban Shala, the local TMK chief, says that he too is worried about what is happening on the border. He says that three weeks ago a member of a Serbian special unit was shot dead, just inside Kosovo, at a place called Konculj, a gorge that straddles the border.

According to documents found on his body, his mission had been to mine the frontier and 'blow up certain special buildings'.

Asked if the TMK shot the Serb, Shala says: 'I can only say that the TMK helped in this action.' Which is strange, since only a handful of TMK officers are allowed to have sidearms and they are supposed to be doing jobs such as cleaning ice off the streets. They are not supposed to have any security or military functions. While Albanians believe that the Serbs are trying to cleanse the border area to make it safe for them to operate in, General Vladimir Lazarevic, chief of staff of the Yugoslav Third Army, which is stationed there, told Nin that K-For and Nato were allowing 'terrorist' attacks in Serbia and even crossing the borders themselves, possibly in an attempt 'to justify the undertaking of more drastic measures, diplomatic political and quite possibly military, as well'.

The road from Gjilan back to Pristina leads through Gracanica, one of the Serbian enclaves. Holed up in Gracanica's monastery is Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije, who campaigns for a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo issue. He wants to join the UN's joint administrative structures but is opposed both by Serbian leaders in north Mitrovica and Belgrade.

Artemije believes that the only way to save the Serbian enclaves is by being part of the new Kosovo. The Mitrovica leaders oppose him. The difference is that they believe that if Kosovo cannot be recovered for Serbia they can stay with Serbia.

The enclaves, which are home to perhaps half of the estimated 100,000 remaining Serbs in Kosovo, have no such option to gamble with.

Serbs wander the main street disconsolately. They have nowhere to go and, for the moment, no future. They have no hospital and not many facilities.

Over the past few weeks Bernard Kouchner, the dynamic French doctor, activist and founder of Médecins sans Frontières, has been up here frequently, wooing Artemije and his circle and trying to get them to join the administration.

In one meeting the Serbs accused Kouchner of having 'put us in this situation'. Enraged, Kouchner got up, puffed himself out and screamed: 'How dare you! Milosevic put you in this situation and you had better understand that!' Stunned, the Serbs fell completely silent. Days later Artemije agreed to sign up to join the administration, but then Mit-rovica exploded and the moment was lost.

Down the hill from Gracanica you can be in Pristina's hippest restaurant in under 10 minutes. Eight months ago, the Inn of the Two Roberts was burnt out and looted, its owners refugees in the US. Today its clientèle is a who's who of the new Kosovo. A powerful newspaper editor chats with Hashim Thaci, the former political head of the KLA. Gossips wonder who is more frightened of whom. Carl Bildt, the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, is at the next table with one of the so-called 'three monkeys', the powerful trio who advise Kouchner.

The former KLA has broken into several streams. The military command has transferred to the TMK, some have been incorporated into a new political party and some are busily engaged in commandeering property and businesses using the old KLA connection. Another part remains in the so-called 'parallel struc tures', such as the KLA's old military police and its former Interior Ministry - which the UN does not yet have the will or strength to attack.

Today Thaci has been brought in to the UN's joint administration, and some of his men are coming with him. But what this means is that many of his former comrades in arms are bitterly resentful of Thaci 'going legit'. How the power struggle pans out remains to be seen. Can Thaci shed the more dubious elements of the old KLA and become a modern European politician?

Meanwhile, sources in Unmik, the UN people trying to run Kosovo, are not beyond playing dirty as they struggle to impose the new administration. One suggests that the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague has compromising information about Thaci.

Why not act on this information then? 'Because,' says the source, 'it is neither realistic to do so at the moment' - nor, he adds, 'is it in our interests right now.'

Pacing his office, Kouchner says he has to remain calm. 'The Serbs say I am in charge of a genocide against them. It is not just ridiculous but insane! Psychopathologic! We are protecting them, we are giving them schools, hospi tals, buses.' As for dealing with the Albanians, Kouchner finds them equally frustrating.

'They are only concerned by their own suffering. They only remember their own family and community. They have not discovered it in others! It's a psychopathological area, the Balkans!'

Outside, candles flicker in the shops, the power is out again. Yesterday there was no water. And Kosovo is bracing for a long hot spring.

Tim Judah is the author of 'Kosovo: War and Revenge', to be published by Yale University Press on 23 March.

Original article