Refugee Rage Fuels Reprisals in Kosovo |
By Karl Vick
"I have to, I have to run away," he said. "Look at what they've done to me. I'm innocent. I didn't do anything. Go to my flat, search for weapons. Every apartment, Serb and Albanian, will [vouch for me]."
So it goes across Kosovo since NATO peacekeeping troops replaced Serb-led security forces here two weeks ago, opening the way for thousands of expelled – and angry – ethnic Albanians to return home. Retaliatory beatings, killings and arson continue at a pace that is driving apart even those who want to live together.
The peacekeepers have orders to prevent such attacks and protect Serbs and ethnic Albanians alike. But commanders cite the outrage of many returning Kosovo Albanians after what Serbs did to them during the war and argue they do not yet have enough troops to monitor the entire province.
Here in the Kosovo capital, where British troops patrol aggressively and the peacekeeping operation has its headquarters, 12 houses were torched overnight – most belonging to Gypsies accused of aiding Serbs in their repression of ethnic Albanians. In the western city of Pec, where Italian troops are a good deal less aggressive, dusk is a mixture of fading light and billowing smoke rising from a half-dozen Serbian-owned homes.
"If Italians are in Kosovo for six months, there won't be a building standing," joked an Italian soldier. He would not give his name.
The checkered enforcement of order is aggravated by the sheer numbers of ethnic Albanian refugees returning to burned-out homes, slaughtered livestock and worse carried out by Belgrade government forces during the 2½-month war. An estimated 477,000 refugees – slightly more than half the number who fled – have returned thus far.
"It's getting better," said U.S. Army First Sgt. Woodrow Pemberton of the 82nd Airborne Division, which patrols a section of eastern Kosovo. "But more and more people are coming home and finding their homes destroyed, and they go out and do the same."
The Belgrade government, which is not eager to admit failure in Kosovo, says 50,000 Serbs have left the province since the war. "I'm sure it's more," said U.N. refugee official Ron Redmond, who suggested the total could be up to half the 200,000 Serbs who lived in the province before the war – along with 1.6 million ethnic Albanians.
About 5,000 Serbs in the central Kosovo town of Orohavac appealed to NATO and relief agencies Tuesday to provide them with safe passage out. The Serbs, who had gathered in the town from other areas, reported being shot at and threatened by ethnic Albanians and said a dozen of their number had disappeared between June 15 and 21. Today, the entrances to Orohavac were guarded by a pair of Dutch NATO tanks.
In the village of Poterci Ulet, between Pristina and the western city of Pec, a newly built Serbian Orthodox Church was blown up Tuesday night. This afternoon, an Italian bomb-disposal unit entered the church and removed more than 20 pounds of plastic explosive that had failed to detonate. "Someone tried to make it fall down," declared Italian Army Lt. Amadeo Nelli, who said the building may have to be condemned.
The church, St. Trojica's, was blessed last year by Bishop Artemije, who on Monday warned that the Kosovo Serbs would move toward creation of self-defense units unless NATO peacekeepers protect them and their holy places. St. Trojica's stands beside the burned-out ethnic Albanian village of Drenovac, where a Roman Catholic church was destroyed by Serbs.
The ugly trend brought U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson to Pristina today, where she expressed concern that Kosovo will end up as home to only ethnic Albanians. "If the Serb population drops too dramatically, then it will drop altogether and that, I think, can happen village by village," Robinson told reporters.
Kosovo's population includes several thousand Serbs who settled here after being expelled from Croatia's Krajina region, where they had created a virtual autonomous state before it was crushed by Croatian troops in the mid-1990s. The plight of the Krajina Serbs has been a rallying cry in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, where the complaint is often voiced that foreigners pay no mind when Serbs are victims.
But the U.N. refugee agency says it does pay attention. Redmond said his office is preparing to provide special treatment for the Krajina Serbs, including resettlement in third countries – such as Romania and possibly even back in Croatia.
"This is the second time they face being violently uprooted," Redmond said. "The refugee cycle in the Balkans must be stopped."
Correspondent Peter Finn contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company