Angels of NATO enforce illusory peace in Kosovo

But ethnic hatreds and bitter memories lurk beneath the calm

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 22, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- A faint semblance of normal life has taken hold in parts of Kosovo, if life can be considered normal when thousands of NATO soldiers are patrolling the streets and highways in light and heavy armor.

Couples stroll the main boulevard here, while British soldiers ride by in open-hatched vehicles, pointing their automatic weapons at apartment house balconies as they pass.

Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers have taken off their uniforms and put away their guns -- but not so far out of reach that they couldn't retrieve them in a hurry.

The relative calm that prevails in such cities as Pristina and Prizren is an illusion of sorts -- an illusion imposed by the armies of the Western powers. In those towns where NATO has not been out in force, houses have been pillaged and burned, and people are still dying. Last week, it was the Serbs doing the damage; this week, it is ethnic Albanians.

The KLA has agreed to "demilitarize" over the next 90 days, which NATO hopes will help to transform the illusion of calm into something closer to reality.

The political leader of the KLA, Hashim Thaci, told a news conference here yesterday: "We are not interested in building a criminal society."

But building a civil society is going to be a tall order.

Kosovo is full of guns, hatred, shattered buildings and ruined lives. The alliance commander, Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson of Britain, said yesterday of the first 10 days of the peacekeeping mission: "I wouldn't pretend it's all been plain sailing -- but perhaps a little less volatile than I thought it would be."

In a short time there will be more NATO soldiers in Kosovo than there were Yugoslav soldiers and police combined, and no one imagines that they'll be leaving anytime soon. At the end of next week, an international police force will be deployed, answering to Sergio de Mello, the interim special representative of the United Nations, who will be running the civilian side of things here.

Aid agencies, including Catholic Relief Services of Baltimore, are bringing in millions of dollars' worth of food every week.

Kosovo is almost wholly dependent on the rest of the world. Security, order and basic necessities are in the hands of foreigners.

For many Kosovar Albanians, that is fine for now. Qamil Braha, who says he was a KLA soldier, left the rebels last week and went to Albania to retrieve his family, who had been staying in a refugee camp. They headed for home in the village of Grejkovc, where Braha says he intends to take up the life of a farmer again and forget about war.

He knows he will have to live on food aid until next year's harvest.

The angels of peace

Throughout Kosovo, people who cheer the KLA were at the same time expressing relief yesterday over its promised demilitarization. They are glad that the guns the KLA so swaggeringly toted on the street last week have largely disappeared -- and they know that it's because of the NATO peacekeeping force known as KFOR that this has happened.

"KFOR soldiers will be the angels. They'll keep the peace," said Dr. Fazli Zyferi, a surgeon who returned to work yesterday at the Pristina hospital from which he was fired 10 years ago for being Albanian.

Even Serbian civilians, some of whom fled Kosovo in the past week and are now beginning to return, have realized that NATO troops are their best defense against vengeful Albanians.

Just now, said Dr. Salih Ahmeti, an infectious disease specialist, seeing the soldiers every day is the best thing imaginable for the Kosovar Albanians who are experiencing simultaneous feelings of euphoria and terrible pain.

"Our nation is in deep trauma," he said. "And my patients' traumas are more psychological than organic. We need some sort of psychological rehabilitation. I'd say the best therapy for people right now is to have KFOR troops in the streets of Kosovo."

His friends tell him that because of those troops they can sleep well again, and they aren't haunted by fears of death or torture. After 10 years in which they were deprived of rights, and a year of vicious warfare, Kosovar Albanians act genuinely grateful to the Western soldiers who have restored them to their land and now stand guard over it.

"But this won't last long," Ahmeti said. "People like to work for themselves and to not expect something from someone else."

Gratitude almost inevitably will turn to resentment. And the people of Kosovo will begin to think they want to run their own lives.

Before that happens, Western agencies are intent on embedding what might be called European standards as deeply as possible.

The international police force will train a new local police organization in modern methods and discipline. KLA members will receive preferential consideration for the new force, but only after thorough screening.

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