For the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who are dug in along Albania's border with Kosovo, last week's news that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had accepted a peace settlement might have been a cause to rejoice. At long last, the Yugoslav army units who have been expelling Albanians from Kosovo and torching their homes would be forced to retreat. The nightmare of battling a far-better armed enemy that is willing to stop at nothing to keep Kosovo as part of Serbia would soon be over.
But there was no celebration in the trenches when word arrived at the front. The guerrillas were devastated, according to Florin Krasniqi, a KLA supporter from Brooklyn who arrived in Albania last week to deliver supplies. That's because the peace plan calls for Kosovo to remain part of Serbia and for the KLA to lay down its arms--a process to be monitored by a security force that will include NATO and Russian troops. "It's not just the Serbs who are against us anymore," said Krasniqi. "The whole world is against us now."
He sounds to me as if he is preparing to do battle with the world. When I first met Krasniqi a year and a half ago while writing a freelance story for The Washington Post about KLA fund-raising, his greatest hope was that NATO would get involved in the conflict and help the rebel army in its bid for Kosovo's independence. I've spent many months with the KLA in Kosovo since then and learned that many KLA soldiers shared his aspirations. But now, he and many others say they feel betrayed by NATO and the West, and it's easy to understand why. Suddenly, the alliance, in a sense, has become the rebels' enemy, and the peace proposal, they say, is proof of that betrayal.
The KLA, though disorganized and disliked by the West, is still determined to create a state. That has always been the KLA's goal, even when it was a ragtag force a year and a half ago. An independent Kosovo has never been an American goal. Now, as the bombing winds down, and the KLA no longer has NATO fighting its enemy, the difference in their aims is more apparent. The KLA is no match for NATO. It is poorly trained and armed mainly with Kalashnikovs, but if pursuing KLA goals means turning its guns on NATO rather than the Serbs, that is what the KLA may be willing do.
The peace plan now being discussed will likely result in a protracted, low-scale, terrorist-like conflict for several reasons.
First and foremost, the KLA is not happy with the deal.
Second, the rebel army has grown increasingly powerful, and its ranks have swollen over the past few weeks. Emboldened by NATO airstrikes, the rebels were able to push back Yugoslav army units and capture the government forces' weaponry. They had a taste of battlefield success, which has likely only whetted their appetite for more. Since NATO began bombing Yugoslavia in March, the KLA's ranks have swelled by nearly 1,000 fighters a week. There are an estimated 700,000 Kosovars living outside Kosovo, mostly in Germany, Switzerland and the United States, and thousands of them flocked to Albania to join the KLA when their families were expelled from Kosovo. Thousands more were recruited among the hundreds of thousands in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia. They have fought for independence, motivated by what the Serbs have done to them or to their families. As Ismet Nico, a 28-year-old real estate broker from Brooklyn Heights put it: "I didn't come here to fight for autonomy."
And finally, the thousands of fighters and their supporters say they have worked too hard and invested too much to give up on independence now. Over the past 18 months, KLA operatives have devised elaborate schemes to get weapons into the province. They have smuggled guns into Albania on planes from Alaska and on boats from Italy. Young men have crawled miles through enemy lines on their stomachs to deliver arms to the rebels fighting inside. Against all odds, they formed an army, which thousands of Albanians living in the United States and Europe have spent their life savings supporting. They say they won't let a peace plan stand in the way of their dream of an independent Kosovo.
Even before Serbian military and police forces began their rampage across Kosovo in March, the KLA was reluctant to accept autonomy rather than outright independence.
It is clear from my conversations with rebel leaders and from looking at the agreement that in many ways the rebels have been dealt an unfair hand. The guerrillas annoyed Washington when they stubbornly refused, at first, to sign the Rambouillet agreement in France in February. That agreement offered Kosovo's Albanians an interim autonomy, with the promise of a referendum three years later that would likely have led to independence. It also called for the deployment of a 28,000-strong NATO force. The current proposal offers only "substantial autonomy," with no mention of possible independence, and a U.N. force with NATO participation to enforce it. To the KLA, the inclusion of Russians in the peacekeeping force is highly objectionable.
Clearly, now that the Serbs have killed thousands of ethnic Albanians, expelled nearly a million from Kosovo, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, the KLA is even less likely to cooperate in a peace deal that offers them less than what they had before the NATO bombing.
Ironically, there was a time when the Clinton administration may have been able to convince the KLA to accept autonomy. Just a year ago, the KLA had a few thousand fighters. Had Washington isolated the educated moderates among them, it might have been able to hammer out an autonomy agreement before the war escalated. Instead, it chose to brush the KLA off as a shadowy group of rebels. As it grew into a popular revolt, supported by the majority of Kosovar Albanians, the United States still buried its head in the sand and hoped it wouldn't amount to much. But it did.
Disavowing the KLA of its dreams won't be easy. Nobody really knows the size of the KLA. NATO says there are 17,000 KLA troops; the KLA says 40,000. It is also unknown how many of these young men and women have come from abroad to fight, but every second or third soldier I met in Kosovo and Albania had lived in Germany, Switzerland or the United States. Although many of them are American, German or Swiss citizens, they are intensely loyal to their homeland--and if it comes to choosing a side, there is no question where their loyalties lie.
When NATO began bombing the Serbs, the rebel soldiers regrouped in seven mountain bases in Albania and began filtering fighters and weapons into Kosovo. Amid calls within Congress to arm the KLA, many soldiers believed the United States was on their side. The realization that the West is still insisting that Kosovo's Albanians give up their bid for independence is almost unfathomable for them. "After all this, they expect us to accept autonomy? They think we can go back and live with the Serbs?" said Krasniqi upon hearing the news. "No way."
His words should be a warning to anybody who thinks the war is over.
Stacy Sullivan is a consultant at the Human Rights Initiative of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She covered the Balkans for Newsweek magazine from 1995 to 1997.