Serbian activist pursues rights issues in war-torn Kosovo

Woman is determined to document abuses by both sides in conflict

War In Yugoslavia

June 02, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For the past two months, just about everyone who could get out of Kosovo did. But Natasha Kandic keeps going back.

As director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center, she has returned repeatedly to Kosovo, defying NATO's bombs and Slobodan Milosevic's police, to check on friends and gather firsthand accounts of human rights abuses.

One of the few human rights activists to get inside Kosovo, Kandic is even more unusual in that she is a Serb. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the Yugoslav capital, the 50-year-old shrugs off her unusual background.

"There are many Serbs interested in human rights," she said. "You just don't hear about them."

She acknowledged that Serbian forces have been accused of most of the human rights abuses in Kosovo accompanying the forced expulsion of nearly 1 million ethnic Albanians from the province. But she expressed frustration that Serbian authorities have refused to give her access to areas where NATO has bombed civilians. She wants to document atrocities by NATO, too.

The Serbian government has said the ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo did so to escape NATO's bombing. She is one of the few here publicly willing to call that story ridiculous.

"The majority of Albanians were expelled, by orders," she said. "Some left on their own. The official statements that Albanian refugees are fleeing NATO bombardment are stupid."

Kandic provides a perspective lacking in most accounts of what is happening in Kosovo. For example, she said that some Serbs have risked their lives to protect Albanian friends and neighbors.

She said that witness accounts are consistent in blaming Serbian paramilitary units and police for most acts of terror. She said that soldiers from the Yugoslav army, most of them conscripts from southern Serbia, have by and large behaved better than the paramilitary units.

"Even Albanians have told me that the Yugoslav army were sometimes kind to them, that the soldiers sometimes gave them food, that some of the soldiers were crying, seeing the condition of the children," she said.

A few days after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia and Serbian forces began the wholesale expulsion of ethnic Albanians from their homes, Kandic drove into Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. She saw Serbs and Albanians standing side by side, guarding the entrance to their apartment building next door to her office.

"They had agreed that Serbs would defend Albanians from the police, the Albanians would defend the Serbs from the KLA, and all would defend themselves from paramilitaries," she said. Such solidarity is rare in the countryside, but not in Pristina, she said.

Recently a policeman who stopped her car told her, "Serbia is being ruined by Serbs like me," she recalled.

It is a charge she has heard before, that she is a traitor, a collaborator with the Americans and Western Europeans who want to impose their will on Serbia.

Kandic, however, said the adoption and application of human rights laws will bring about a more stable, prosperous Yugoslavia, one that would be welcomed back into the international community, improving the quality of life for all its 10 million citizens, Serbs and minorities alike.

But in a society where even the most tepid criticism of the status quo is treated as treason by the government, Kandic is regularly belittled. Anatella Riha, who worked as a researcher for her for three years, said she often hears people dismiss Kandic as a self-loathing Serb and crazy.

Riha, who interviewed rape victims in Bosnia as part of her work for Kandic, suggested that "you have to be a little crazy to do this job in this place. I think Natasha is crazy in a good way. I think she is very brave."

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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