How a Brooklyn Roofer Helped Lure the U.S.

into the Kosovo War.

By Stacy Sullivan. St. Martin's. 330 pp. $27.95

Stacy Sullivan, who covered the Balkans for Newsweek, has pulled off an improbable feat. She has written an irresistibly readable book about the grim war in Kosovo, a conflict obscure to many Americans, even during the 78 days in 1999 when the United States was pounding the place with bombs.

Sullivan has found an original way to cut through the Balkan fog -- the murk of Ottoman history, the unfamiliar names and places, the unsympathetic viciousness of all ethnic groups in the many wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart. Her narrative knife is a guy from Brooklyn.

His name is Florin Krasniqi. He's an immigrant from Kosovo and an American success story. Arriving in Brooklyn with nine words of English, he became a roofing contractor and before long was taking home $100,000 a year. In the way of many smart guys from Brooklyn, he was persuasive, creative and, if need be, ruthless. In the way of many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, he believed that forcing Serbs out of his homeland was an end that justified any means.

From Brooklyn, Krasniqi tapped fellow Albanian immigrants for $30 million to fund the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). He shopped American to outfit the insurgents with everything from satellite telephones to .50 caliber sniper rifles. These weapons, with a range of two miles and enough power to punch through armored vehicles, were available to anyone with $7,000, no questions asked. Krasniqi told Sullivan he couldn't believe how lax American gun laws are. He found much of what he needed for guerrilla war right around the corner in Brooklyn. He bought walkie-talkies from a RadioShack in Kings Plaza mall off Flatbush Avenue.

With this guy from Brooklyn grounding her readers in a known American place, Sullivan is able to tell a war story that never seems remote, even though most Americans would be hard pressed to find Kosovo on a map. The narrative is so strong that you hardly notice that Sullivan's book is deeply serious, historically sophisticated and morally complex.

Her protagonist is not a good guy. She suggests -- without saying so outright -- that Krasniqi murdered an Albanian hoodlum who had killed a key leader of the KLA. She shows again and again how Krasniqi sacrificed his business, his family, his village and thousands of innocent civilians across Kosovo for the sake of defeating Serbs.

A hero framed in black is a good choice, and not just because Krasniqi is such an irresistible character. For as Sullivan well knows, there were few good guys in the Kosovo war, the fourth of four Yugoslav wars that Slobodan Milosevic fomented and lost in his decade of bloody misrule.

Milosevic had risen to power in Serbia -- and escaped the fate of other communist hacks in Eastern Europe -- by fanning ethnic hatred. There was no greater such hatred than that between Serbs and Albanians. History had yoked them together in the Yugoslav federation, with Kosovo a province inside the republic of Serbia. Serbs regarded Kosovo as their historical homeland, but on the ground in the province, Albanians outnumbered them nine to one. Albanians had long taken pride in harassing Serbs, forcing them to sell out and flee next door to Serbia.

Milosevic figured out that avenging Serb resentment over this harassment would cement his power. So he assured Serbs that Albanians would never beat them again. To that end, he created a brutal police state inside Kosovo that bullied and murdered Albanians. That, in turn, set off bullying and murderous retaliation by Albanians who slowly coalesced into the KLA.

Sullivan tells this messy story as clearly and succinctly as it can be told. She also explains -- in a fresh and fascinating way -- how Krasniqi and the KLA sucked the United States and NATO into their nasty war. It was the most cynical and savage of public relations tricks. As Sullivan explains it, the KLA attacked and killed Serbian military and police, knowing full well that Milosevic would retaliate in a way that would nauseate the West.

And sure enough, it worked. Serb forces cut throats, gutted pregnant women, mashed the skulls of old men. The United States and Europe, guilty about their sluggish response to Milosevic's war crimes in Bosnia, could not stomach it and quickly threatened to bomb, just as the KLA had hoped. Milosevic refused to back down, bombs fell, and Serbia lost the war. Before being forced out, Serb forces managed to destroy much of Kosovo and kill an estimated 10,000 people. Albanians then committed numerous revenge killings.

Milosevic is gone, but the status of Kosovo is unresolved. Impoverished, ill-governed and restive, it is still part of Serbia. And it has been all but forgotten by a world obsessed with terrorism and Iraq. The Balkans, though, have an enduringly toxic way of causing trouble that cannot be ignored. With the help of the guy from Brooklyn, Sullivan's engaging book explains why. *

Blaine Harden, a Post reporter based in Seattle, covered the Balkans during the collapse of Yugoslavia.