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Yugoslavia: Violence Against Serbs In Kosovo Takes Many Forms

Continuing violence against Serbs and other minorities is putting the prospect of a multiethnic Kosovo increasingly into doubt. But some experts say that the violence in Kosovo today is mostly common crime, not ethnic cleansing. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos talks to relief experts and leaders from the Serbian, Albanian, and Romany communities about the nature of the violence.

Prague, 6 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Three months after NATO's peacekeeping troops arrived to stabilize Kosovo, violence against Serbs and Roma is an almost daily occurrence. Many of the attacks are perpetrated by Albanians. But the violence is not necessarily a new form of ethnic cleansing.

Ron Redmond of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the attacks are aimed as much at looting as at revenge:

"There's all kinds of theories about who these people are. It's a whole mix -- everything from 12-year-old boys to 40-year-old thugs. People who want apartments, people who want to loot the furniture. Then there are signs that it's more organized and systematic in some cases, where people show up with forms these people sign handing over their property. I think it's a whole mix. We don't have any evidence of any specific group."

As many as 180,000 Serbs from a pre-war population of 200,000 have fled Kosovo. Barely 1,000 remain in the capital, Pristina. Redmond says the few Serbs who have stayed are mostly elderly or disabled people who were probably not involved in the persecution of Albanians.

One of the only prominent Serbian politicians left in Kosovo is Momcilo Trajkovic, the leader of the Serbian Resistance Movement. He told RFE/RL that Kosovo is experiencing "the last exodus of Serbs." The current violence, he says, is both a retaliation and an attempt to create an ethnically pure Kosovo. He says Albanian militants continue to perform what he calls "organized and systematic ethnic cleansing."

But the political leader of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has a different view. Hashim Thaci says that the Serbs have been victimized more by Belgrade's propaganda machine than by the UCK. Thaci has openly condemned any attacks against the Serbs and has made repeated pleas to Albanians in Kosovo to stop the violence. But he also says that the violence against Albanians during the war was too massive to be simply forgotten.

"We are trying through our limited possibilities to push Albanians to understand that protecting and affirming the rights and the interests of the Muslims, Serbs, Turks, and others is an existential interest for the perspective of Kosova. It is reasonable that after a long period of discrimination that ends with ethnic cleansing, we will face a lot of difficulties in reaching a new political conscience."

Until that new conscience is in place, however, the Roma are in limbo. As many as 10,000 displaced Roma are living in makeshift camps throughout Kosovo, their houses burned by Albanian mobs.

Nicolae Gheorghe, the adviser on Roma Affairs for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), recently visited those camps. He says the persecution of Roma in Kosovo is part of the larger pattern of mob violence the Roma face all over eastern Europe. While some Roma may have been forced to cooperate with the Serbs, Gheorghe says, the Roma in general have become a scapegoat, an easy target, for the Albanians.

"I cannot ignore what some Albanians are saying about Roma cooperating in different degrees with the Serbian establishment, including the Serbian paramilitary forces in some cases. It is almost sure that some of them did, were forced, to do some kind of the dirty work, by transporting bodies or digging graves for such bodies. ... In any case what I can say it is an exaggeration of this. That it's this kind of collective guilt which is projected on a population which is weak, as the anger of the Albanians is not always directed against the Serbians."

The NATO peacekeeping force, KFOR, is trying to halt the violence. KFOR spokesman Major Roland LaVoie says attacks in Kosovo today fall into two categories: random grenade throwing, usually by drunken Albanians, and organized looting by crime rings that enter Kosovo from Albania. But in general, LaVoie believes the situation has drastically improved in Kosovo.