As Russian troops continue to arrive in Kosovo to take part in an international peacekeeping force, an RFE/RL correspondent reports that many of the province's ethnic Albanians are opposed to their deployment. He recently visited the town of Orahovac, site of demonstrations against the Russian presence.
Orahovac, Yugoslavia; 19 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- They call him Sasha. Until last month, when the Serbian army and paramilitaries ran the town and many ethnic Albanians were too frightened to come out of their houses, many citizens of Orahovac say Sasha and other armed Russians took special pleasure in terrorizing them.
Ethnic Albanian residents say that Russians dressed in camouflage and armed with machine guns and knives would patrol with Serbs. They say the Russians threatened to rape women, humiliated old men into singing Russian folk songs, and demanded vodka. That is what nearly everyone in Orahovac will tell you today.
Fear of armed Russians is clear in the words of 16-year-old Linda. She says that during the NATO bombing, the Russians began to tally the local ethnic Albanian population.
"They came into our houses every day. They came to do a census of the population, to massacre all of Orahovac, or at least 80 percent of it."
In Orahovac, a predominately ethnic Albanian town in Kosovo's southwest, such anecdotes regarding Russian mercenaries are easy to find. Proof is harder to come by. There are no ID badges, no photos, no uniforms left behind. But whether it is true or not, Sasha represents the fear and loathing of all things Russian, woven into the hearts and minds of the people of the town.
And now Russian soldiers, as part of the NATO-led KFOR contingent, are just 10 kilometers up the road in Malisevo, waiting to join their Dutch and German colleagues already patrolling Orahovac.
For the past two weeks, thousands of Orahovac's citizens have been gathering in the town center to protest the impending deployment of Russian soldiers. Of Orahovac's 26,000 people, 22,000 are ethnic Albanians. Five thousand of them were here again this past weekend waving flags of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), cheering their newfound freedom and noisily demanding that the Russians stay away. When UCK political leader and self-styled Prime Minister Hashim Thaci came from the provincial capital Pristina to address them, chants of "Thaci! and "UCK! thundered off the surrounding hills.
On the stage, Thaci stood flanked by UCK commanders in black who told the assembled crowd their freedom was won through fighting.
After the rally in remarks to reporters, Thaci used more sober language -- matching the sober business suit he wears. He said the UCK will respect the decision to send Russian solders on patrol in the area. But he stressed they must operate under the UN and NATO.
"We have honored and will continue to honor decisions from the international community. But the Russians should respect decisions of KFOR and the UNMIC civil administration."
But Thaci's local administrator in Orahovac, Sebahudin Cena, says the Russians are not welcome and their deployment could provoke tensions. He spoke with RFE/RL:
"We certainly will not greet them with flowers. They certainly will have problems, because Russians were participants in the crimes perpetrated here by criminal Serb forces. And if they participated, then they cannot be considered angels of peace."
Local ethnic Albanian lawyer Gazmend Sharku tells RFE/RL the UCK's fight against Serbian forces began in this region more than a year ago and at one point, there were 7,000 Serbian troops in Orahovac alone.
Sharku says local Serbs led the army to the houses of local ethnic Albanian intellectuals, who he says were shot. Rich ethnic Albanians had their property confiscated and were driven into the hills. For the three months of NATO bombing, Sharku did not leave his house. He says he and his family barely survived on food they had stored.
Later, when KFOR troops and the UCK moved in, Orahovac's Serbs fled to the upper part of town, where some 4,000 of them remain. Roles have reversed and most Serbs in that part of town are too scared to venture out. A handful of Dutch soldiers perched on a tank guard the access road that leads to this new ghetto. A few Serbs sit forlornly on the front steps of a former cafe. Every day, they can hear the cheering for the UCK echoing from the lower town.
Dragan Sulejmanovic, a former mining engineer, says the community is surviving on biscuits donated by a Catholic charity. He has sent his wife to Belgrade and he hopes to join her soon. The Russians, he says, will not protect him.
"KFOR -- whether it's Russians, Dutch, German, the English, Americans, the French or the Italians, it's all the same. Houses are burned in their presence and no one reacts. People are kidnapped in their presence and no one reacts. So its normal that we don't want to wait around to become the next victims."
Ten kilometers away in the town of Malisevo, Dutch Major Marcel Van Weerd is in charge of integrating the newly arrived Russian troops with German and Dutch soldiers. For now, there are 750 Dutch soldiers, 120 Germans, and 120 Russians. By next month, the Russian contingent will have grown to 750 men. Van Weerd says Russian troops have already begun patrols with the other KFOR units in Malisevo.
"Things have been going very smoothly up till now. We have made good agreements with the UCK leadership over the acceptance of Russian troops in the area. We told them very clearly that they are KFOR troops, so it doesn't matter if they are Dutch, German, Russian or any other nationality."
Van Weerd admits that the UCK is not pleased with the idea of having Russians patrol the area, but he remains cautiously optimistic.
Two Russian soldiers, Vitaly and Viktor, are only slightly aware of the demonstrations in nearby Orahovac. They tell RFE/RL that so far, they have been patrolling in Malisevo in mixed groups with German and Dutch forces. Both are volunteers, here for the $1,000 a month salary. Vitaly is realistic. He says it is clear that "the UCK controls everything." He adds that Russian troops "are going to do their job as KFOR soldiers." He adds that they "are not here to get involved in local arguments."