Refugees Want Kosovo Free of Serbs
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 6, 1999; Page A1
MULLET, Albania, June 5 – Qemal Rahmani's heart has hardened. A miasma of disgust and hatred choked his smile and he stiffened with a cold anger when he cast his mind back today to his village, outside the town of Suva Reka, and to the Serbs with whom he once lived side by side.
"A year ago I was sitting at the same table having coffee" with Serbs, the ethnic Albanian refugee said. "And some of the people I sat with put on uniforms and burned our houses. I can never live with those people again. We want them all gone."
The expulsion of nearly 1 million ethnic Albanians from their homes by Yugoslav and Serbian forces was designed to dramatically change the demography in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia's two republics. Before the conflict began, Serbs made up only 10 percent of Kosovo's 1.8 million people.
But the massive deportation campaign – for which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted on war crimes charges – may, in the end, have one startling and unintended consequence: Kosovo may be cleansed, but of Serbs.
With Yugoslav forces apparently set to withdraw from Kosovo in advance of the entry of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, Rahmani, like hundreds of thousands of other Kosovo Albanian refugees, is already wishing himself home.
And he doesn't expect to find any Serbs when he gets there. If he does, he said bluntly, "there will be vengeance."
A massive international aid program will be needed to prepare for and execute the return of hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees to a war-ravaged homeland. The West is facing numerous hurdles: de-mining, rebuilding of houses and infrastructure, providing medical care, feeding hundreds of thousands, demilitarizing Kosovo's secessionist ethnic Albanian rebels and creating a civil society.
No challenge may prove more difficult to the American and other allied peacekeeping troops, however, than the containment of ethnic hatred that has been stoked to new levels of intensity by the events of the past 74 days. Despite the West's public commitment to the protection of Serbian civilians' rights in the province, their presence will be a continuing flash point, according to angry refugees. And if fearful Serbs abandon Kosovo, as seems likely, an all-ethnic-Albanian Kosovo will eventually represent a serious challenge to the West's commitment to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.
"The lamb and the wolf cannot be in the same place," said Mursel Spahiu, 62, who comes from a village just outside the central Kosovo town of Srbica. "We must be free. The Serbs must go."
They are already leaving. One Western diplomat said that 100,000 Serbian civilians have left Kosovo since the NATO air campaign began March 24 and that many of the remaining 100,000 are expected to follow soon.
"With the arrival of NATO, a stampede of [ethnic] Albanians from Albania will start coming in," said a Serbian resident of Pristina, the Kosovo capital, who declined to be identified when interviewed Friday by the Reuters news agency. "With the withdrawal of the army, columns of Serbian refugees will start going out."
It is likely, however, that some Serbs will stay, particularly in urban areas where they are potentially less vulnerable to ethnic Albanian reprisals. And, according to a recent report by the United Nations, "if there is to be lasting peace in the area, there must be reconciliation between the different ethnic groups, a formidable task given recent history and the devastating effects of the expulsion of the majority of the population."
The prospects for reconciliation "appear to be very poor in the present circumstances," the report noted. And in interviews with refugees in camps in Mullet, Durres and Tirana, the Albanian capital, many said simple coexistence – let alone reconciliation – will be impossible.
"Maybe I don't want to kill Serb civilians," said Qamil Totaj, 28, an economist from Prizren, "but what about the man who lost his family? How can he live with Serbs? He can't."
In the village of Deloc, where Rahmani lived, there were 100 ethnic Albanian and 40 Serbian houses. Relations between the two communities gradually soured in the past year as Kosovo was engulfed by civil conflict. But Rahmani still exchanged pleasantries with some neighbors, such as Radomir Nicolic, a Serbian factory worker who lived down the street.
After NATO began its bombing campaign, Nicolic donned a blue paramilitary uniform and Rahmani watched the man he thought he knew torch the house Rahmani had built 15 years earlier. As many as 20 other Serbian neighbors, he said, participated in the burning and looting of ethnic Albanian property in the village.
"Nothing is left there," said Rahmani, who farmed eight acres and owned two cows, two calves and two horses. "Everything is burned. They burned it. And now they are not going to stay. They will be afraid."
Hajrulla Konjutti's left hand tightly gripped a small notebook as he sat cross-legged on the floor of a tent in Brazda, Macedonia, and recounted what happened in the Kosovo town of Polje on March 30, just before he fled. He said he was beaten by a group of Serbs until he fainted. He said two girls he knew were raped. He said his uncle was shot.
Inside the notebook, which was incongruously covered by a picture of the film star Leonardo DiCaprio, Konjutti had inscribed six Serbian names – Zlatko, Ljubia, Pegja, Cakan, Brana and Maca. "I know the names of the people who beat me because they were my neighbors," Konjutti said. "I hope that these people see justice. . . . I will go back to Kosovo to make sure that they do."
After one year of warfare, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian guerrillas are well-armed with weapons of insurgency and are equally well-placed to hide them and use them against Serbs, on whom they have sworn vengeance.
"It is of utmost importance that demilitarization, disarmament and demobilization occur at an early stage to improve the security situation," the U.N. report said. It did not suggest, however, how the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), fighting for Kosovo's independence, would be disarmed. The Western-inspired peace plan accepted by Yugoslavia this week speaks only of the rebels' "demilitarization," not their complete disarmament.
The KLA, in fact, has never committed itself to disarmament and seems unlikely to turn over its cache of small arms. Its leadership clearly believes that a NATO-backed security presence in Kosovo, whether it lasts five or 10 years, is an interim step on the road to independence. And many refugees view the rebels as the long-term guarantor of Kosovo's continued security and the spear in a future drive for independence.
"The KLA must remain an army because Kosovo will need an army when NATO leaves," said Llesh Bibaj, 49, a refugee from the southern Kosovo city of Djakovica.
Indeed, some refugees, realizing that Serbs are likely to flee in advance of the arrival of Western troops, are already countenancing the day when those troops are gone.
"We can be the U.S.A.," said Totaj, "the United States of Albania. You have 50 states, we have two, Kosovo and Albania. Two states, one flag."
"One day" he added, laughing, "our children will be born in the U.S.A."
Correspondents John Ward Anderson in Kukes, Albania, and R. Jeffrey Smith in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company