Washington Post
Kosovo killing goes on

Jeffrey Smith

Monday, June 12, 2000


CERNICA, Yugoslavia, June 11 The killer stood ankle-deep in the mud of a stream bed on Sunday night two weeks ago and poked his AK-47 through a metal fence covered with camouflaging vegetation. He was close enough to get a clear view of 4-year-old Milos Petrovic and four Serbian men milling in front of a tiny grocery in this Kosovo village.

Milos had come for an ice cream cone with his uncle, but his presence was no deterrent to the gunman, who fired 21 shots at the group and then fled along the stream. Milos's head was nearly gone, and two of the men also died quickly. U.S. troops flew the others by helicopter to a base camp for surgery.

The dead were among the more than 500 people who have been slain in Kosovo since NATO peacekeeping troops and U.N. officials arrived here one year ago to begin reconstructing this war-ravaged, ethnically riven Serbian province. In the last five weeks alone, more than 55 other serious, ethnically motivated crimes have been committed against Kosovo's minority Serbian population, and today, a crowd of 15 Serbs attacked and killed two ethnic Albanians in the central Kosovo village of Cubrelj.

But despite the violence, vast social change has been achieved. Nearly 1 million ethnic Albanians who were driven out of Kosovo last spring by Serb-led Yugoslav forces have returned. Homes are being rebuilt, voters are being registered for elections, and the province is again bustling, crowded and vibrant. And while Kosovo's political status remains in question--it is a U.N. protectorate without a constitution or even a blueprint for the future--it now has a $274 million annual budget, more than 70,000 public employees and a rapidly growing private sector.

Still, the continuing slayings, kidnappings, arson incidents and mine, mortar and grenade attacks serve as a daily reminder that peace has not yet come to Kosovo.

"Things are getting better," said Bernard Kouchner, a French diplomat who is the chief U.N. administrator here, referring to improvements in housing, welfare and social services. "But humanly and psychologically, regarding the behavior of the people, we are not getting better."

The persistent ethnic violence has been a deep embarrassment for the United Nations and the 38 countries that dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers and 3,000 police officers to bring order and enforce the rule of law here after NATO bombing forced the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops and Serbian police. Despite being deployed every day at 550 sensitive sites, organizing 200 daily vehicle checkpoints and conducting more than 500 daily patrols in a territory the size of Connecticut, they have been powerless to stop the killings.

Spanish Lt. General Juan Ortuno, a veteran of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in nearby Bosnia, agreed in the main with Kouchner, saying, "the recovery of life" has been much quicker here. Ortuno has commanded NATO forces in Kosovo for the past two months, but "it seems like six," he said, partly because much of his daily agenda is consumed in trying to prevent bloodshed between Serbs and the majority ethnic Albanians.

The toll of the ethnic violence can be seen almost everywhere--on the deserted streets of a dozen cities and towns still subject to U.N. evening curfews; in the construction of a special, apartheid-style railroad platform for Serbs outside Pristina, the Kosovo capital, to isolate them from ethnic Albanians; at a bakery in Pristina's Ulpiana neighborhood, where Serbian customers dress like ethnic Albanians and refuse to speak up until everyone else has left, lest they be identified as Serbs; and in the checkpoints, gates and barbed wire that control access to the dozen or so major enclaves where most of the province's 100,000 Serbs are battened down under special NATO protection.

Initially, U.N. officials talked of maintaining Kosovo as an integrated, multi-ethnic society. But now, they are simply trying to dissuade Serbs from leaving for Serbia proper and ensuring they have adequate safeguards. Despite such efforts, "in some communities, every single Serb-owned property is for sale," said one spokesman for a U.N. refugee office here. "If the pace of departure continues, there'll be no Serbs left there by the end of the year."

The tension has undercut Western plans to organize the return of some of the 150,000 Serbs who have fled Kosovo in the past year. A U.S. proposal to bring Serbs back to the western village of Istok, for example, has been shelved after publicity prompted the mayor to renounce his support; a British plan to return Serbs to the central town of Slivovo has had few takers.

Talk was rife last fall that Kosovo eventually would gain independence from Serbia--Yugoslavia's dominant republic--but that has all but died out in Kosovo and in Europe as well, as ethnically motivated violence has continued and the postwar body count has mounted. "Does anyone want it anymore?" asked one European diplomat here whose country supported ethnic Albanian aspirations in the past. "The game has moved on," he said, adding that Kosovo's nearly 2 million ethnic Albanians "do not realize how much they have lost the sympathy of the West."

Jock Covey, a U.S. diplomat who is Kouchner's principal deputy, told Kosovo's interim governing board last week that the international community is now questioning why it dispatched troops to Kosovo, when the ethnic Albanian leadership has mostly responded with silence to serious crimes against Serbs.

Criminality and Nationalism

Afrimi Zeqiri, 28 and a life-long resident of this village of 2,000 ethnic Albanians and 500 Serbs, now sits in a crowded jail at U.S. military headquarters, where he is a principal suspect in the slaying of 4-year-old Milos Petrovic and the other two Serbs on May 28.

He is something of a novelty. Peacekeeping troops and policemen here have made arrests in fewer than half the 550 or so slayings in the last year, and most of those arrested in connection with ethnically motivated crimes have been released by ethnic Albanian judges pending trial. But Kouchner insisted that Zeqiri's case be heard before one of Kosovo's three foreign jurists.

If Zeqiri goes to trial, his case will be rarer still, because only a few dozen such trials have been completed in the past year. The reason, according to Sylvie Pantz, head of the U.N. office of judicial affairs, is that "the judiciary is not working yet" in Kosovo.

A former tobacco farmer who joined ethnic Albanian separatist rebels after NATO's air offensive against Yugoslavia started last year, Zeqiri has been unemployed since the war destroyed the market for domestic tobacco. Three of his brothers are also out of work. A fourth, Isa, who has a job in nearby Gnjilane, said he knows his brother has a tendency to get into trouble.

Isa says he recently tried to watch over Afrimi "to keep him from going [with people] . . . that I don't want him" to see. U.N. police said those people are members of a local gang that named itself after an ethnic Albanian rebel hero and is now engaged in a variety of criminal activity. Groups such as this, which combine criminality and extreme ethnic nationalism, have begun to emerge throughout Kosovo, police say.

"Who benefits from all this violence?" asked Gary Carrell, a former Montana sheriff who is now the top U.N. police officer in Gnjilane. "There are three groups: [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and the Serbian regime in Belgrade; ethnic Albanian extremists; and the [criminal underground] that likes to generate continual instability here. I am seeing a combination of the last two begin to form here, and I'm very worried."

NATO officers and U.N. police say they do not discount the possibility that Serbian hard-liners from Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, are behind at least some of the recent attacks on Serbs in Kosovo. Ortuno and others confirmed that NATO is exploring this possibility, but they say no one can offer any proof. Many officials also stress that ethnic Albanians have a clearer motive: To stop Serbs from returning to their homes in Kosovo by clearly signaling that the province is unsafe.

Javier Solana, the European Union's security and foreign policy chief, said here this week that no matter who is behind the attacks, he feels that ethnic Albanian leaders have not condemned them forcefully enough. It is, he says, almost as if "deep down, they don't care, because the attacks will prevent the Serbs from returning."

The only risk ethnic Albanians now face, he said, is from the international community, which may have to consider taking unspecified action against those who fail to speak against the violence "every single day."

Counting Corpses

Tensions in Kosovo have been exacerbated recently by the mass trial and sentencing of 145 ethnic Albanians in the Serbian city of Nis to long prison terms for allegedly supporting separatist rebel forces in Kosovo. Kouchner calls the cases, in which little evidence was presented, a clear effort to provoke Kosovo residents. "This is fascism," he said.

Hostility has also been stoked by the continuing discovery of mass graves dating from last spring's offensive by Belgrade government forces to purge Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority. A German forensic team last week began unearthing 10 bodies in a small village northwest of Pristina, where a man preparing his garden found bones buried in front of a stone wall pocked with 32 bullet holes.

Last month, hundreds of Pristina residents watched in silence at one of the city's graveyards as British pathologists began pulling dozens of bodies from unmarked graves. When one distraught woman finally cried out that she recognized articles of clothing belonging to her son and her husband, another woman told her she was lucky; at least she knew where they were.

So far, nearly 3,000 bodies have been unearthed in Kosovo by war crimes investigators, who have visited roughly half the known sites of suspected mass graves. Another 3,368 people have been identified as missing on a list of names published last week by the Red Cross.

Former U.S. Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, who served in Bosnia and is now municipal administrator of the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, said: "There is a degree of hate here that is far greater than anything I found in Bosnia; and also a degree of fear. I am searching for a word that means vitriolic squared."

When Michael Lapsley, a South African Anglican priest, visited Kosovo recently, he too found himself startled by the depth of the ethnic hatred. Lapsley, a vocal campaigner against apartheid, lost both his hands in a 1990 mail bomb blast in Zimbabwe but came here to lecture to a group of intellectuals and students about reconciliation and tolerance.

In his talk, Lapsley said that at a schoolhouse in the village of Lausa, ethnic Albanian teachers "told me about Serbs. I have heard people say, 'These people are biologically inferior.' " Such statements, he said, are little different from those of South African whites who are still unaware "they have been fed all their lives on lies."

Lapsley went on to urge that "young Serbs and Albanians tell each other stories and be humans to each other" and said they must realize that "the fears of their enemies . . . are bigger than the prejudices and fears" of their own ethnic kin. Otherwise, he said, they will be consumed by antipathy that "rots the brain and prejudice that blinds people even to their own self-interest."

The audience was skeptical. Fisnik Hallimi, an ethnic Albanian student at the University of Pristina, asked: "Do we have to love people in other groups?" Fadil Husa, a director at Pristina's National Theater, wondered: "How can healing happen if the perpetrator has not realized his part? How can there be forgiveness for those who have not asked for forgiveness?"



Original article