Kosovars hope for freedoms, survival

Clinton to visit troops as province braces for winter

November 22, 1999|By JAY HANCOCK | JAY HANCOCK,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will step into Kosovo for the first time to-morrow, arriving as a peace-maker in a small, cold part of the world where not even food and shelter are assured -- let alone peace.

Capping a 10-day tour abroad, Clinton will spend a day visiting U.S. troops, meeting a few ordinary Kosovars and conferring with officials from NATO and the United Nations, which are running the Yugoslav province in the aftermath of war.

It's a victory lap for Clinton, whose administration paints NATO's expulsion of marauding Yugoslav Serbs from Kosovo last spring as a win for stability and humanity. But as hatred simmers and winter arrives, Kosovo faces stern trials in the near and distant future.

Not least among them is the topic few authorities want to talk about: Kosovo's political future. The official line of the United Nations and the United States -- that Kosovo should stay a province of Yugoslavia -- belies the over-whelming preference of Kosovars, who crave independence.

It has been five months since NATO bombs drove Serbian forces from Yugoslavia's southern province, making way for the return of 770,000 ethnic Albanian refugees and the first steps toward mending the civil tatters.

But NATO's success in driving out troops backed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has bred new, explosive troubles.

Foremost is persecution of Serbs and Gypsies by ethnic Albanians of the same venom Serb gangs had shown. More than 300 Serbs have been murdered. Serb Orthodox churches have been destroyed.

"There is a climate of violence and impunity, as well as wide spread discrimination, harassment and intimidation directed against non-Albanians," a U.N. report said two weeks ago.

Moderate Albanians who protest the violence are threatened, and persecution extends to Kosovars who share Albanians' Muslim faith but who speak Serbo-Croatian instead of Albanian. The anti-Serb Kosovo Liberation Army was supposed to have disbanded arid disarmed, but authorities agree its former members retain large weapons caches.

"The situation is still extremely difficult," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in Geneva. "There are still ethnically motivated attacks on a daily basis. And the Serb population continues to shrink in Kosovo."

According to humanitarian groups, more than 100,000 Serbs have left the province -- between half and three-fourths of that population. Almost all who remain are confined to small, fortified enclaves or to a slice of land in northern Kosovo, on the Serbian border.

"Serbs live in ghettos deprived of freedom of movement, work and normal life," said Sava Janjic, a Serbian Orthodox priest in Pristina who has become a well-known Serb-rights activist. While the United States "rightfully opposed'' Milosevic and his militias, Janjic said, "We would like the U.S. to be consistent and protect the human rights of Serbs and other suffering ethnic groups."

Janjic blames militias and thugs backed by Hashim Thaci leader of the former KLA and head of the self-proclaimed Kosovo provisional government.

Dino Asanaj, Thaci's representative in New York, denied Thaci's involvement with violence.

"Yes, you do have cases like that, and that's the truth. But it's not in Thaci's power to order that. What would you do if you lose a child, a 2-year old kid, and you lose a wife and you lose a father," he added, saying revenge killings are understandable though wrong.

Most homes damaged

In some ways, the Kosovo that Clinton will see is better off than people had assumed it would be six months ago.

While many policy-makers worried that Yugoslavia's "ethnic cleansing" of 850,000 Albanian Kosovars would be permanent, most ethnic Albanians have returned. While some feared a guerrilla war by Serb troops hiding in forests, NATO ground forces have gone mainly unchallenged.

Some expected the war to last into winter, with dire humanitarian effects. But NATO's occupation in June gave plenty of time -- in theory-- to gird for the cold.

But even without vigilante murders of Serbs by Albanians, Kosovo would be enduring pain and trouble.

"There are a lot of problems there, and there's no point in sugar-coating it." said Christopher Hill, special aasistant to Clinton at the National Security Council.

More than 60 percent of the dwellings in the mountainous, Connecticut-sized province have been destroyed or damaged. Electricity is an uncertain luxury. What heat is available often comes from burning scraps of damaged houses. Despite a large U.N. relief budget and the presence of hundreds of humanitarian agencies, food and blanket shipments often get hung up on bad roads and at border bottlenecks.

Many Kosovars will spend the season in "winterized tents" near their houses, U.N. officials said.

Critics accuse the United Nations of mishandling food and shelter deliveries and with moving slowly to take control from roving Albanian gangs and to install civil administrators, judges and police.

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