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Yugoslavia: UN Cares Deeply About Plight Of Kosovo

  • Joe Lauria

United Nations, 11 October 1999 (/RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's first trip this week to Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina is being downplayed by his aides as a routine "mission visit." But his presence in two of the most contentious areas of UN involvement is bound to send a message to local populations still reeling from the horrors of ethnic warfare.

If Annan simply avoids the gaffe that his predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali made in the last visit by a UN secretary general to the region, he will probably be able to call his trip a success. Boutros-Ghali visited Sarajevo at a time when that city was still under siege by Bosnian Serb artillery. Critics say instead of showing solidarity with the Bosnian people, he turned them further against the UN

As he was heckled on his way into UN headquarters in the Bosnian capital, Boutros-Ghali told the people to stop complaining about their situation. He said there were people in 10 different places in the world who were suffering a lot more than they were.

It took a long time for Boutros-Ghali to live that one down. While it is now probably true that there are people in 10 different places worse off than Kosovars and Bosnians, Annan will most likely convey the message that the UN cares deeply about their plight.

For one thing, the West seems to have learned from its mistakes in Bosnia. Boutros-Ghali was reviled by Muslims in Bosnia because the UN was perceived as doing nothing to save them from the Serbian onslaught. When he visits Kosovo he will see a people who were indeed saved by a massive military intervention against the Serbs, the kind Bosnian Muslims had prayed for.

But Kofi Annan, who arrives in Pristina on Monday, will not find a totally pacified Kosovo nor a smoothly running Bosnia. Mass graves are still being found in both places and in Kosovo the killing continues.

On Saturday, hundreds of ethnic Albanians reburied two dozen people, one a six-month old baby, dug up from the pit into which Serb militia had thrown their lifeless bodies.

Former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) commanders Shaban Shala and Halil Kulliqi brandished pistols at the funeral. They are members of the new Kosovo Protection Corps, which Kosovo Serbs fear not as a defense force, but as the architect of revenge attacks.

Thousands of ethnic Albanian bodies have been dug up so far, but the victims now are Serbs. If the goal of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is to restore ethnic harmony to the Yugoslav province, then Annan will not be arriving there to celebrate a success.

Despite UN. pleas for them to stay, only about 70,000 of a pre-war population of 200,000 Serbs have remained in Kosovo. Roughly 400 to 3,000 Serbs alone remain in Pristina, the capital, and the homes of elderly Serbs there each have NATO peacekeepers posted outside.

Said British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson: "Sadly, one does not yet see a determined attempt to break the cycle of violence and a determined effort to go for the future rather than agonize over the past.'' Jackson handed over command of the NATO peacekeeping operation to German General Klaus Reinhardt on Friday.

In Pristina, Annan will meet Bernard Kouchner, the UN's civilian administrator of Kosovo, who recently defended the pace of the UN's progress in the province. He said the UN's objectives are to ensure the safety of all minorities, including Serbs, reestablish a working administration by hiring and training locals and ultimately to lead Kosovo to democratic rule.

If throwing money at the problem is a solution, then the announcement last week that the World Bank will spend $60 million over the next 18 months to help reconstruct Kosovo comes as welcome news and perhaps forms a more hopeful backdrop to Annan's visit.

But huge sums of money have been poured into neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the secretary-general is likely to find there that in the former Yugoslavia, money only goes so far.

Annan will arrive in a Bosnia still confronted by the legacy of its bloody three-year war of independence from Yugoslavia that ended in 1995. On Friday. UN investigators exhumed the bodies of 59 Muslims from a mass grave discovered in Bosanski Novi. There have been several new mass graves discovered in Bosnia in the past three weeks. Last week 94 bodies were found in Kozarac.

Annan will find an uneasy peace in Sarajevo amid charges that part of the international money that has flooded Bosnia has gone into the pockets of local government officials. And the lessons of democracy have not come easy either.

Last week, the UN's Office of the High Representative (OHR), which oversees civilian efforts to rebuild Bosnia, threatened to ban the Bosnian Serb Radical Party from municipal elections next year if it does not remove three of its leaders, who OHR says have been inciting the country to violence. Last March, OHR had to remove the elected Bosnian Serb President Nikola Poplasen from office because of his efforts to undermine the peace process.

Because of security concerns, Annan will not even get the chance to make the kind of mistake Boutros-Ghali did. Fred Eckhard, his spokesman who is accompanying him on the trip, said that Annan has no plans to walk around either Sarajevo or Pristina. His only public appearance will be at a Sarajevo hospital where he is to welcome a new-born baby that the UN has symbolically designated as the sixth billion person in the world, born into a region still torn by ethnic strife.