Victory in air, violence on land

Kosovo: NATO won the war, but peacekeepers haven't quelled the hate between Albanians and Serbs.

March 19, 2000|By Bill Glauber, | Bill Glauber,,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELA CRVKA, Yugoslavia -- The father cannot forget the photographs rescued from a shallow grave.

In his leathery hands, he carefully holds a precious album of pictures retrieved from an undeveloped roll of film discovered in his youngest son's clothing. He sees his two teen-age boys, alive and well, in the days before war came to this isolated Kosovo village and Serbian gunners killed 64 people.

"I think, every day, it gets harder for me," says the father who buried two sons twice, on a moonlit spring night and a sweltering summer day -- first, right after a massacre, and the second time after the bodies were exhumed for war crimes investigators.

Suffused in suffering and burdened by work, Sabri Popaj is among Kosovo's traumatized people coping with a year of death, destruction and elusive renewal.

His home and farm are nearly rebuilt, but Popaj's old life is gone, as it is for tens of thousands of others, swept away after NATO opened its air war against Yugoslavia last March 24.

Much of the rest of the world has forgotten the 78-day war that was fought with hi-technology gadgetry in the skies and near-medieval brutality on the ground, but the conflict remains vivid in this slice of southeastern Europe.

To travel through Kosovo as the first anniversary of the air war's beginning approaches is to see a battered, beautiful land where mistrust and hatred are the strongest survivors.

Scorched homes and war graves scar the rolling plains and jagged mountains. Tanks and ox carts vie for space on rutted roads. Soldiers representing 36 nations hunker down in far-flung outposts.

The province, which is still part of Serbia -- and Yugoslavia -- is a work in progress, with a population topping 1.5 million. It is secured by some 38,000 western-led troops with the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), and it is administered by the United Nations.

Thousands of allied air sorties and tons of bombs may have defeated the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but they failed to erase the root causes of the conflict -- centuries-old hatred and mistrust between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. The dream of a multiethnic society is a mirage. In Kosovo, victim and victimizer have exchanged roles.

The Kosovar Albanians have plenty of reason to hate the Serbs, their brutal masters for 10 years until the war routed them. Serbian police and soldiers and paramilitaries burned Kosovar villages, looted and murdered. And then, during the war, hundreds of thousands of Albanians were driven out of the province by Milosevic's troops.

But in peacetime, it's the Serbs who have fled, more than 230,000 heading north to Serbia, sometimes under the intimidating threat posed by former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.

After winning the war, the West struggles to win the peace, putting the society back together a piece at a time, from hiring local police to creating a judicial system, registering cars and building a tax roll.

"We are here because there are problems," says Tom Koenigs, director of civil administration for the U.N. Mission in Kosovo. "We are here because it is a mess."

On foot patrol

With his flak vest pulled tight and M-16 rifle cradled in his hands, U.S. Army Specialist Rockie Hurley walks one of the world's tough posts.

Striding through the heart of a

hardscrabble city named Gnjilane, Hurley is on foot patrol with three fellow soldiers and one local translator, ready to fulfill tasks such as pulling over speeding cars and searching for booby-trap bombs in empty houses.

"I tell my parents we're cops," says Hurley, 21, a freckle-faced, redhead from Bolivar, Tenn.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops are in Kosovo, stationed on two large military bases, where they patrol the province's sensitive northeast corridor, ambling down dusty back alleys, clambering over smashed walls and marching along dirty, busy streets.

"The main thing you have to worry about is being hit by a car," says Sgt. Kermet Ross, 27, of Flagstaff, Ariz.

A few weeks ago, Ross and his men were waiting for a Serbian doctor at a clinic. The doctor never arrived. He was gunned down on a muddy streetcorner, another apparent victim of the ethnic Albanian effort to clear the province of Serbs.

"They train their kids to hate each other," Hurley says. "You know how America was in the 1950s between blacks and whites. That's kind of how this town is. People are against each other. We can't change this generation. But maybe we can change the next."

A few miles to the east, people may be preparing for the next war.

The border area with Serbia provides the greatest problem for the Americans. Within a three-mile-wide buffer zone designed to separate western troops and Serbian forces, between 200 and 400 ethnic Albanian rebels operate. This shadowy band of villagers and radical remnants of the KLA claims to protect the ethnic Albanian population that lives in a 500-square-mile region of Serbia outside Kosovo.

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