GRACKO TAKES its grim place in the long line of scenes of Yugoslav tragedy. Men widely presumed to be ethnic Albanian Kosovars killed 14 Serbian farmers taking in hay in this Kosovo village south of Pristina. It was the worst atrocity committed in Kosovo since NATO peacekeepers arrived six weeks ago. The murders underscored the fragility of the international effort to settle down Kosovo and the difficulties of creating conditions to retain the panicked Serbian minority.

The 34,000 NATO peacekeepers (not counting 1,500 Russians) currently on the ground in Kosovo yearn to abandon a mission for which they are neither trained nor culturally prepared. But their intended civilian replacements -- an international police force of 3,100 people and a new Kosovo police service of 3,000 to 4,000 -- will necessarily be months in the forming and training. This gap breeds the friction between international and alliance elements on the neuralgic policing issues.

Armed British peacekeepers were within earshot of the guns of Gracko and could not halt the massacre or nab its perpetrators. From the serenity of several thousand miles' distance, it is easy to say that everyone should do his job quicker and better. The fact is that soldiers are not cops: They do not have the same necessarily close relationship to the local community. That makes Frenchman Bernard Kouchmer a key international figure in Kosovo on a plane with Gen. Wesley Clark, the American military commander. He has a U.N. mandate in effect to reinvent Kosovo from the ground up as a well-ordered democratic society. But as Bosnia's painfully slow and irregular evolution shows, this will take time.

In the interim, the impatient soldiers and the coming police must accept as their duty to keep Kosovar Albanians from taking random revenge against Kosovar Serbians, whose already greatly reduced prewar number of 200,000 is now down to about 50,000, and shrinking. If others do not come through, the remaining Serbians have a fair claim to ask protection from Russians serving with the NATO peacekeepers. For NATO countries to do less than they might to give priority to frightened and vulnerable Serbs is to become an accessory to "ethnic cleansing," source and continuing scourge of the war.