Several hundred Kosovar Albanian villagers are camped out at roadblocks leading to the town of Orahovac for the fourth day in a row today in an attempt to prevent Russian KFOR troops from taking over control from their Dutch and German counterparts. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke with villagers at the road block and with Russian troops in nearby Malisevo.
Near Orahovac, Kosovo; 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovar Albanians blocking the road from Pristina and Malisevo to their town of Orahovac are adamant that they will not let the Russian KFOR troops in to patrol.
They hold signs in Albanian, broken German and English with a variety of pro-NATO, anti-Russian slogans. The slogans include: "NATO Yes Russians No," "We don't like Russians," "Russians Killed Us," and "Russians Out of Orahovac."
The nearest Russian soldiers are a reconnaissance team in an armored personnel carrier further up the road, surveying the scene through binoculars. Beyond the first cluster of demonstrators, a variety of trucks, cars, buses, and tractors as well as rocks and shredded tires block the road that winds down the mountain toward Orahovac. Numerous villagers have been spending the night at the roadblock to ensure that the Russian troops do not try to sneak in under the cover of darkness.
One resident, Ismail Bekeri, is seated on a blanket in the middle of the road with a combination ax/saw before him and a sign on his back reading: "We dont trust Russia" and "I hate Russia." As another truck maneuvers to join the road block, Bekeri explains why he and his neighbors do not want the Russians in Orahovac.
"We do not like Russians because Russians left behind them many bad things [such] as massacres, rapes, burnings, and we will never let them in Orahovac."
Bekeri says the Russians were mercenaries with the Serbian paramilitary.
A local school teacher, Imer Hoxha, warns that the residents of Orahovac will take up arms if the Russian troops enter the town.
"The citizens of Orahovac, they do not like Russians here because they have participated in a first and second war. If they came here, for sure a third war will start. The population won't just sit and watch them, they will...revolt against them, and that will be very bad for us here in Orahovac. We were doing well with Dutch and German soldiers, so why do the Russians need to be here? Why do the Russians need to be here when we know they have participated in massacres in Orahovac? We have much evidence to prove that they have massacred people. So they do not need to come here. They can go to other parts of Kosovo, to the parts where there are no witnesses who can testify about their massacres. Here in Orahovac, instead of burying our dead today, we must sit here and wait for the Russians."
The claim that Russian mercenaries worked alongside Serbian paramilitaries in Kosovo is made frequently by ethnic Albanians. Evidence is anecdotal -- no papers or Russian passports have been found. But at least one Russian commander in Kosovo, General Aleksandr Koshelnik, said recently that the possibility that at least some Russian mercenaries were involved in Kosovo cannot be ruled out.
The Orahovac Albanians were joined today by over a dozen local Romany (Gypsy) residents. The Roma's presence in the blockade is unusual because Romany-Albanian relations are very bad at present. During the past ten weeks, tens of thousands of Roma have fled to the relative safety of refugee camps in the province or to Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, or Italy. They fled following accusations by Kosovar Albanians that Roma had joined in the looting of Albanian homes during NATO air strikes, a charge they deny.
The nearest Russian military base belongs to the 11th tactical group, some 15 km to the east toward Pristina in Malisevo. The Russians recently succeeded in deploying their forces in Malisevo, much to the anger of some local residents.
The deputy commander of the Russian KFOR base at Malisevo, Lt. Col. Nikolai Grechishnikov, says the dispute with the residents of Orahovac over Russian entry into the town will be resolved peacefully. In his words, "the Russian contingent's policy is that there will be no seizure, no shooting, no Blitzkrieg, no rash movement, but only negotiations to ensure normalcy."
German, Dutch and Russian KFOR commanders flew in to Orahovac yesterday for talks with local officials and with representatives of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) in a bid to find a solution. No progress was reported and the talks are now set to resume tomorrow.
Malisevo, which like Orahovac is in the Llapush region, a traditional UCK bastion, is also a hotbed of anti-Russian feeling. In Lt. Col. Grechishnikov's words, "some people here don't know how to behave." He says some Malisevo residents are committing what he terms "provocations" against Russian forces day and night. He declines to go into detail but does add that the provocations range from minor to serious. "There have been times", he says "when shooting [by the Russian troops] would have been in order."
But as Lt. Co. Grechishnikov puts it, "the most important thing is to talk even a thousand times, because you only shoot once."