Desolation, celebration greet units

NATO troops encounter KLA, remnants of war

June 13, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DJENERAL JANKOVIC, Yugoslavia -- The 15 members of the Kosovo Liberation Army came down out of the hills, walking at an easy gait, barely noticing the ransacked houses and smashed storefronts that the Serbs had left behind in this little town just across the border from Macedonia.

They were met by the Royal Gurkha Rifles, a British army unit made up of volunteers from Nepal, who had crossed into Kosovo at 5: 07 a.m. yesterday, the vanguard of an international army that will in time add up to 48,000 soldiers. The Gurkhas were holding the main road, by now a dusty unbroken stream of tanks and trucks and the armor and materiel that an army on the move requires.

The KLA men, some draped in bandoleers, were carrying rifles, automatics and an ancient machine gun. They had returned to the village they once called home, after nearly a year in the forest.

Its residents were gone yesterday. A lone donkey walked the sweltering lanes. A bloody bandage lay on the ground near a Serbian military post, abandoned a few hours before. At one house, where roses bloomed in the garden and clothes were strewn everywhere on the floors, an empty, open suitcase lay on the front step.

The KLA men wanted to see a British commander, they told one of the Gurkhas. They wanted to cooperate, to work on removing the mines and booby traps undoubtedly left behind by the Serbs, so that their families might return to rebuild their homes.

The Gurkha soldier asked them to lay down their arms. They refused.

That brought, in a few moments' time, Maj. Ian Thomas.

"What I have to tell you is, our orders are to disarm everybody in the area of this route," he said, speaking with an interpreter alongside. "We want to cooperate. But I cannot allow people to walk around here with arms. We can guarantee protection."

"You can guarantee protection on this road," said Mehmet Ballazhi, the 32-year-old leader of the KLA squad. "But you can't guarantee in those hills."

"I speak to you as soldier to soldier," replied Thomas. "Give up your arms, and let's be friends."

"It's not a question of being afraid," said Ballazhi. "It's a question of our orders."

"Your higher headquarters has agreed," said Thomas.

"We haven't heard this," said Ballazhi.

"Trust me as a soldier and an officer of the British army," Thomas said.

The sun beat down ferociously. Two truckloads of Gurkhas quietly wheeled into position up the lane, with heavy machine guns trained on the KLA squad, which was lounging by the side of the road.

Three soldiers took up positions a few feet on either side of Thomas. Ballazhi said he would have to call his commander, but it would take several hours to hike back up into the hills.

Thomas suggested that the KLA men do just that, and that he would let them take their weapons along with them while they conferred on whether to surrender them.

Ballazhi quickly agreed. His men hoisted themselves up and, still swaggering a little, sauntered out of town.

"If I force the issue now," Thomas explained, "we'll have 15 dead people." It was better at this point, he said, to keep the great thrust northward of the NATO peacekeeping force on track.

But disarming the KLA will prove to be one of the bigger headaches faced by NATO in its occupation of Kosovo. (Disarming the Serbs may also turn out to be a formidable task.) Actually bringing peace to a region of such strong hatreds and national beliefs seems next to impossible.

A few hundred yards from where the Gurkhas met the KLA, three disconsolate Yugoslav customs officers sat at the border crossing, watching the NATO equipment go by.

They had been ordered by their superiors to remain at their posts, said the commander, who identified himself only as Pera.

This was the border point that led to the infamous refugee camp at Blace, Macedonia. It was here that Yugoslav customs officers could be seen from the Macedonian side removing the license plates from refugees' cars. It was here, the refugees said, that customs officials stole their cars and extorted money from them.

A sea of cars lay parked in a huge lot down a slope from the highway. Pera argued that it was the fault of the Macedonian police, who wouldn't let cars in. Some refugees, he maintained, simply wanted to walk in, didn't want to have their cars with them.

"Nothing happened to any Albanians here," he said. "We gave them bread. Tell the world that we're not hostile to anyone."

He said he wasn't afraid even though the Serbs are pulling out of Kosovo. "God is with us," he said. "Though I think Satan has won."

Ballazhi, the KLA commander who wouldn't surrender his weapons, had seen things differently.

"They have to get out of here. They must," he said. "All the Serbs must get out of Kosovo. I'd make an exception for those who did not take part in massacres, but the people at the border have to go."

The British convoy pushed onward.

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