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Kosovo: UN, KFOR Struggle To Protect Serbs

  • Jolyon Naegele

Kosovo has become a relatively stable and peaceful place for the Albanian majority. But Kosovo's minority Serbs remain frustrated and dissatisfied. In the first part of a series on life in Kosovo, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina on how the UN administration and the KFOR peacekeeping troops are dealing with the problems of Kosovo's Serbs.

Pristina, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo's Albanian majority has never enjoyed as much freedom from oppression as now. More than a decade of Serb-imposed restrictions and repression is now history. The international community has pledged to remain in Kosovo for decades if need be to ensure the stabilization and democratization of Kosovo society.

The limitations the Albanians face are what one might expect one year after an armed conflict -- landmines, power and water shortages, unemployment, and the danger of ethnic confrontation in certain Serb-inhabited areas.

But for non-Albanian indigenous residents, particularly Serbs and Roma, Kosovo remains a very dangerous place to live. And it is an even more dangerous place to move about in, because of the risk of shootings, stonings, and mines.

Most of the province's 200,000 Serbs fled a year ago. Some have returned to the province from their exile, and many more would like to. But the spate of anti-Serbian drive-by shootings and bombings since late May has made Serbs afraid to come home.

UN statistics show that Kosovo's Serbs, who currently constitute less than 5 percent of the province's population, are six times more likely than Albanians to be murdered.

The UN police report for the Pristina region for a single day last week (Wednesday) is a good snapshot of the current level of violence. It includes a grenade attack, an attempted abduction, an assault by a group of Albanian males on an elderly Serb, the discovery of a charred body. Elsewhere in the province, things were hardly any better, with explosions, gunfire and mob attacks -- some Albanian, some Serb -- on UN facilities. From now on, KFOR refuses to provide escorts and is redirecting humanitarian aid to areas where the local population is willing to cooperate.

KFOR's commander, Spanish General Juan Ortuno, is clear about the challenge facing his peacekeepers: "The biggest challenge for Kosovo is the enforcement of law and order because it is not only [necessary] to build it but to change the culture [of law and order], to change the relationship between you [the people of Kosovo] and the judicial system, the police, etc."

The UN's chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, has been trying to revive Serb participation in the joint interim administration. He signed an agreement last week with Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic, who heads the relatively moderate Gracanica-based Serb National Council.

The deal permits the establishment of neighborhood watch groups, which some Kosovo Albanian leaders say is tantamount to establishing a Serbian security force and the first step toward cantonization. The deal sparked a walkout this week by one of the Albanian leaders in the joint administration, Hashim Thaci, who argues that the UN should have consulted his Kosovo Democratic Party before signing the deal.

The deal does not appear to cover the more radical Serbian community to the north in Mitrovica. The town's Serbs maintain their own system of vigilante "bridge watchers," who keep a close eye on outsiders crossing the Ibar River to the mainly Serbian neighborhood. French peacekeepers have largely tolerated the bridgewatchers.

In contrast, in Bishop Artemije's bastion at Gracanica and other nearby Serbian villages in KFOR's central zone, British and Scandinavian peacekeepers have been implementing "Operation Trojan" to secure the security and welfare of the local Serbs. Operation Trojan also ensures that if violence does erupt, KFOR can contain and suppress it. The operation entails the standard roadblocks at each end of Serb-inhabited villages and neighborhoods, plus watchtowers to provide security not only to the villages but to the surrounding fields as well. The program places considerable reliance on intelligence operations.

The latest addition to Operation Trojan, albeit nearly three weeks behind schedule, has been the introduction in late June of daily passenger train service linking Serbian communities in the broad Kosovo Polje valley between Urosevac in the south and Mitrovica and Zvecan in the north. UN police and KFOR peacekeepers guard the train and the route. The service for the first time offers a relatively safe way for Serbs in communities in the broad valley (of Kosovo Polje) to move about, see relatives and shop.

Meanwhile, the international community is fighting an uphill battle to persuade Kosovo's Serbs to register to vote. Local elections are due in October, and the deadline for voter registration is July 15. Some 800,000 Kosovo inhabitants have registered so far. But Serbs have generally chosen not to register, despite the establishment of some 400 registration sites around the province and mobile registration sites being sent to ethnic enclaves.

Kouchner has warned that the Serbs risk eliminating themselves from Kosovo's future by their apparent boycott of voter registration.

"I hope it will change, because we need the Serbs for good elections, and they have to be absolutely involved. If they want to stay in Kosovo and be a part of the future of Kosovo, they must vote," Kouchner said.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is in charge of the elections, has announced new tactics to persuade residents to register, including offering shopping discounts and organizing concerts, a traveling street theater and fun-runs to registration sites. So far, the Serbs are unconvinced.