There was standing room only in the smoke-filled classroom, where more than 100 Serbian villagers were meeting with a handful of American soldiers. The Serbs live near the predominantly Albanian village of Vitina in the American-controlled sector of Kosovo, and they had come to discuss their fears and frustrations.
In the center of the room sat Lt. Col. Michael Ellerbe of the 82nd Airborne. He listened as the meeting disintegrated into a whining session, with the Serbs, a minority in Kosovo, bitterly describing how unique, how overwhelming, how unsolvable their problems were.
Ellerbe is a tall African American whose imposing presence is usually tempered by a warm, almost paternal manner. But during the litany of complaints he began to look exasperated. Then he spoke.
"Do you know anything about American history?" he boomed. "Do you have any idea what people like me had to go through to become part of American society?"
Ellerbe launched into a powerful sermon about what it's like to be black in America. Though he spoke through a translator, the rhythm and emotion of his words came through as he talked of oppression and survival, and of his own life. "Should I hate all white people for what happened?" he said. "Are you going to hate all Albanians and not move forward? When are you going to reach out to them?"
When he finished, the room was silent.
The Serbs were impressed--but they had not forgotten their own problems. Slowly, the complaints resumed. Some Serbs said they felt threatened by Albanians when they went to fetch water. Ellerbe promised to post a U.S. Army guard at the village well, then whispered an order to get a soldier out there right away. He wanted the Serbs leaving the schoolroom to see a guard already in place--to take something from this meeting besides words.
As the meeting broke up, my translator heard the elderly Serb sitting next to me whisper to a friend, "See, because he's black, he understands us."
Ellerbe's successful connection with the Kosovo population fit a pattern I saw often during my recent assignment in the province. As a photographer, I accompanied various American soldiers serving with KFOR--NATO's peacekeeping Kosovo Force--as they attended local council meetings, helped locate firewood for schools and arbitrated disputes ranging from traffic accidents to who owned which cow. These troops had developed extraordinary relationships with both Serbs and Albanians, and in many cases had won their trust.
It was a dramatic change from my first trip to Kosovo in June, when Yugoslav forces were pulling out after surrendering to NATO. Then, U.S. Marines faced a defiant Serbian population, which shouted insults and attacked them with stones and sniper fire. Today, as U.S. soldiers walk through these same villages, children follow them, farmers give them food and drink, and families invite them to weddings.
This is not to say the job is easy, or that the Americans are always successful. Even when Serbs and Albanians are willing to talk to the peacekeepers, they often refuse to talk to each other. And all communication is poisoned by the disinformation that permeates the sharply divided province. Sometimes it seems that nobody's word in Kosovo can be trusted--not that of the Serbian or Albanian leaders, or the media, or the villagers themselves.
Capt. Kevin Lambert told me of an Albanian woman who accused a Serb of kidnapping her during the war. Lambert's troops arrested the man, but upon investigating the matter closely, they discovered that her family had been trying to coerce him to sell them his apartment. Was this a case of falsely accusing the Serb to get his home? With no proof available, the U.S. Army decided it was.
Public affairs officer Capt. Larry Kaminsky said journalists often call him to check out alarming reports in the Serbian press--such as the "news" that Serbs were being held hostage in a certain Albanian village, and that KFOR was doing nothing to rescue them. In fact, when Kaminsky investigated, he found that KFOR had brought Albanian and Serbian leaders together in the village--and they had ended up exchanging cigarettes and coffee and chatting about the time before the war.
An old Albanian farmer told me about returning to his village after the war to find his cow grazing in a Serb's field. He turned to the U.S. Army for help, but was told that the cow couldn't be returned without proof. Luckily, a family photo turned up with the cow recognizably in the background--and the Army got it back for him. But there are a lot of expropriated cows around Kosovo--and tractors, and other goods--with no proof to back up the villagers' claims.
People who can't trust their neighbors may find it hard to believe that anyone might be acting in good faith. That seemed to be the case with Darinka Zivkovic, a Serb whose husband, a teacher, had been missing for months. He had vanished when he returned to his former school--in a village that had been controlled by Albanians since the end of the war.
I accompanied Capt. Scott Walker when he climbed to Zivkovic's hillside home to tell her that KFOR still had no leads on where her husband might be. "You must know something," she cried. She knew the Americans had come to the aid of Kosovo Albanians; she could not believe these same Americans were honestly unable to help her now. "Why won't you do anything to help find him?" she sobbed. Walker could only try to reassure her.
Ellerbe told me of a funeral he attended for several Kosovo Albanians. During the service, one Albanian leader after another eulogized the men as heroes who had died trying unsuccessfully to deactivate a Serbian mine.
Ellerbe said nothing, but he knew differently: His men had investigated the deaths, and they concluded the Albanians had blown themselves up trying to place a mine in a Serbian church.
"Kosovo is a province of victims--both Serbian and Albanian," Ellerbe says. "Unfortunately, both sides are still being victimized by the people who are supposed to be leading them."
In the meantime, Ellerbe tries a different kind of leadership. He gave a Thanksgiving dinner and invited some Albanians and Serbs who dared to be seen together: "It was a tremendous success. It's not much, but it is a start."
Lucian Perkins is a photographer for The Washington Post.