President Clinton came to Kosovo today to implore ethnic Albanians to abandon acts of revenge against Serbs, whose atrocities in this rebellious Serbian province triggered NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and led Clinton into the biggest foreign undertaking of his presidency.
The appeal marked an emotional end to Clinton's 10-day southern European trip, which also included stops in Turkey, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria. On its last day, the tour provided him the opportunity to visit Kosovo for the first time and bring in person the message of reconciliation that his administration and the United Nations have promoted to counter the ethnic Albanian vengeance-seeking that has driven out half of the province's 200,000 Serbs since NATO troops arrived to administer the peace in early June.
"No one can force you to forgive what was done to you," Clinton told 2,000 cheering Kosovo Albanians. "But you must try."
He asked parents to envision a bright future for their children rather than dwelling on the old animosities that have pitted Serb against ethnic Albanian and Gypsy, and Christian against Muslim, for so long in this region.
"Children are not born hating those who are different from them, and no religion teaches them to do so," Clinton said in the high point of his eight-hour visit. "They have to be taught. . . . I beg you who are parents to teach your children that life is more than the terrible things that are done. It is how you react to them."
As a sign of the obstacles he faces in reaching his goal, the people crowding a community gymnasium in this southern Kosovo town applauded much more loudly when Clinton spoke of how much they had suffered than when he urged them to renounce revenge.
Local residents said some Serbs still live in Urosevac, which lies 20 miles south of Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and is known as Ferizaj now that the ethnic Albanians are in charge. But they said no Serb attended the rally because it is unsafe for them to move about town without protection from the multinational peacekeeping forces that control Kosovo under U.N. auspices. Urosevac is in the U.S.-controlled sector.
Clinton, who also met with ethnic Albanian, Serbian and religious leaders and greeted U.S. troops at nearby Camp Bondsteel, had made a less emphatic appeal for Kosovo's Albanians to reject revenge when he visited a refugee camp in Macedonia in June. Today, on the spot, he hit the theme hard and often, telling the crowd: "It is children who bear the burden of their parents' blind hatred."
Kosovo is likely to go down as Clinton's most significant international initiative, but until today the president had never set foot in the province, which in theory is still part of Serbia, the dominant of the two republics in the remnant Yugoslav federation.
The United States became involved here after Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority mounted a rebellion for independence from Serbia and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic responded with a military campaign that killed hundreds of ethnic Albanians and drove hundreds of thousands more from their homes. Clinton and his NATO allies conducted a three-month air war against Yugoslavia, forcing Milosevic's troops to withdraw. Since then, Kosovo has been controlled by the 40,000-member multinational peacekeeping force--6,000 of them Americans--known as KFOR.
The president held two public events today, designed to underscore his denunciation of Milosevic's crackdown and his hopes for stability and peace in the Balkans. Besides the gymnasium speech, cameras and reporters were allowed in when Clinton told about 400 soldiers at Camp Bondsteel, "The number one problem in this whole world today is . . . racial and ethnic and religious hatred and dehumanization." He said the cultural diversity of the U.S. military "is a stunning rebuke to that."
Clinton addressed the stickier issues facing Kosovo behind closed doors. Upon arriving at the Pristina airport from Bulgaria, he met privately with the Kosovar Transitional Council, 11 political and community leaders, controlled by ethnic Albanians but including two Serbs. Christopher Hill, a top administration official for southeastern Europe, later told reporters that one of the ethnic Albanian political leaders, Ibrahim Rugova, told Clinton "there is no organized campaign against any ethnic communities."
Rugova told the Americans he hopes that the Serbs who have fled will return, Hill said. National security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said U.N. officials reported that violent crime remains a problem in Kosovo, but that the rate is falling. There were 114 homicides in the first week after U.N. officials arrived, Berger said, compared with seven homicides last week and 32 the week before.
The Kosovo visit was at once more poignant and more difficult than the rest of the president's European trip. Clinton and his entourage of staff, guests and journalists traveled by military planes and helicopters and were greeted by bitingly cold winds and the season's first, light snowfall.
At Camp Bondsteel--the largest U.S. military base built on foreign soil since the Vietnam War--the president and his daughter Chelsea shook hands and posed for photos with hundreds of troops. Nearly all wore camouflage and carried rifles over their shoulders. The mostly American group included a few Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Greek members of KFOR.
The president then had a Thanksgiving dinner with the troops. On his first trip down the chow line he got a big turkey leg, broccoli, stuffing, sweet potatoes and cranberries. For seconds, he had shrimp and a salad.