OSCE aides were left at mercy of angry Serbs

143 of 1,400 who worked for peace monitors in Kosovo are accounted for

War In Yugoslavia

April 14, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- When Serbian police found Ali Ahmeti, a young ethnic Albanian who worked for the international monitoring mission in Kosovo, they broke his fingers and forced him to swallow his plastic employee identification badge.

Other ethnic Albanians who worked for the monitoring mission, known as the Kosovo Verification Mission, may have met a worse fate.

Two ethnic Albanian bodyguards who were assigned to protect William Walker, the U.S. diplomat who headed the mission, are missing and reportedly dead, although this has not been confirmed.

Kastriot Kalmendi, 30, an ethnic Albanian on the mission staff who is the son of Bajram Kalmendi, a prominent Pristina human rights activist, was murdered along with his father and brother, Kushtrim, 17, after the first night of NATO airstrikes.

When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which ran the mission, ordered its 1,400 international monitors out of Kosovo on March 23 to clear the way for the airstrikes, it left behind about 1,400 local employees -- mostly ethnic Albanians who worked as translators, drivers, clerks and typists.

"We were always concerned about their safety, but there wasn't a lot we could do," said Lt. Col. Mike Philips, Walker's senior military adviser. "There were a lot of tears at our final meeting. We told them to lie low, to stay indoors. We left them with some radios and [satellite] phones so they could stay in contact."

Three weeks into the bombing campaign and the mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, the former monitors say they can account for only 143 -- about 10 percent -- of the local employees left behind.

"If you ask around, there's a lot of guilty feelings about the way this thing was handled," said one former Kosovo monitor now working in Macedonia. Of the 33 local people who worked in the mission's office in Djakovica, only one has been accounted for, he said.

"The rationale for not taking care of these people was that there were only so many vehicles; that if you took one person, you would have to take their whole family," he said.

The OSCE's priority was to get its international employees out. The evacuation was arranged and carried out in little more than 12 hours. It was an ignominious departure, with Serbian troops and civilians mockingly waving goodbye.

"Even if we had tried to evacuate the local employees, the Yugoslav government would never have allowed them out. Most of them didn't even have passports," said Philips, the military adviser.

A few individual monitors ignored OSCE orders and managed to get some of their local employees out of the country in the tense days before the evacuation, but the vast majority were left behind to fend for themselves.

"They knew they would be targeted," Philips said. "A lot of them moved from house to house." Others hid in the woods and mountains or sought protection from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group seeking independence for the Serbian province.

The former monitors also feared that the mission's Kosovo Serb employees might be viewed as traitors by fellow Serbs. Philips said some of the mission's Serbian employees have been demonstrating where their loyalties lay by flooding his voice mail with hate messages.

More disturbing, however, were reports that one Serbian member of Walker's security staff was a member of Arkan's Tigers, the notorious paramilitary gang headed by Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic that has been terrorizing the ethnic Albanian population. Another local employee reportedly was a member of the Yugoslav army.

With hard information scarce about what is happening in Kosovo, and with so many local employees unaccounted for, rumors are rife.

Many who were missing and presumed dead have turned up alive in the refugee camps that have sprouted along Kosovo's borders.

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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