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Serbs Are Now Victims of Ethnic Cleansing

Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 1999

Serbs Are Now Victims of Ethnic Cleansing

by Jeffrey Fleishman

As Kosovo tumbles into lawlessness, ethnic Albanians have turned the tables on their former tormentors.

GNJILANE, Yugoslavia - Five months after NATO forces swept into Kosovo, the province seethes with ethnic reprisal. The passion that ignited ethnic Albanian revenge against Serbs following NATO bombing in June is maturing into systematic ethnic cleansing. International officials say some former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army appear to be behind a campaign to rid Kosovo of its remaining 70,000 Serbs and 8,000 Gypsies.

Not all crimes against Serbs are calculated. But a sinister pattern of violence and intimidation is emerging. Serb houses are bombed and set ablaze. Elderly Serb men and women are bludgeoned and murdered. And in towns across the province, ethnic Albanian youths ask people for the time, hoping to draw out a Serbian accent that is quickly followed by a stabbing or beating. Serbs spend their days huddled in enclaves, seldom wandering beyond the gaze of NATO soldiers.

One Serb, an elderly man, recently described an attack on him, as blood and tears streamed down his face.

"I was with my friend," said Zivorad Simic, dabbing a gash on his head with a handkerchief. "Two young Albanians heard us speaking Serbian. They asked what time it was and when we answered in Serbian, one of them punched my friend and the other hit me with a rock. They both ran away."

Josif Vasic threaded the last of six stitches and cleaned Simic's wound with iodine. The doctor pulled off his rubber gloves, looking out the window to the barbed wire and American soldiers guarding his Serb neighborhood.

"This violence is happening too much," Vasic said. "We are being beaten and bombed, and I spend my days removing shrapnel."

Several international officials said they were stunned how brutally ethnic cleansing shifted with the balance of power. Once the oppressors, the Serbs are now the victims in a province where 45,000 NATO soldiers and a burgeoning U.N. bureaucracy are unable to keep the peace.

"I saw a young Albanian man knock a Serb woman to the ground, and the vision that stays in my mind is of him kicking her as hard as he could," said Hubert de Laporte, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "The crowd that gathered gave him tacit approval and sided with him when police came. These kinds of things are happening right under the nose of the international community."

Fleeing grenade attacks and arson, Serbs in Kosovo Polje are selling their homes. German troops are protecting nearly 200 Serbs and other minorities at a monastery in Prizren. In Mitrovica and Orahovac, about 8,000 Serbs are cordoned in tight enclaves. The Serb population in the capital of Pristina has fallen from 5,000 in June to 500 today. Since NATO bombing began in March, about 100,000 Serbs have left Kosovo.

"This is a very systematic cleansing of minority populations," said one U.N. official, who asked not to be named. NATO and the United Nations are also increasingly worried about scores of Muslim fighters from Chechnya who recently left the war in Russia and infiltrated Kosovo. The guerrillas have links to former hard-line KLA rebels, and Western officials say both factions may be planning attacks against Russian peacekeeping forces and Serb civilians.

"We still don't have definite evidence to prove a policy of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by the top KLA leadership," said Fred Abrahams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But there is definitely coordinated activity against Serbs at regional levels with KLA involvement. The KLA is not stopping it, and clearly there is not enough pressure from the West to make it stop."

Former KLA leaders - many of whom now make up Kosovo's provisional government - have publicly condemned violence against Serbs. But U.N. officials are troubled by the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), a Western-approved equivalent of a National Guard formed by former KLA rebels. The protection corps has limited powers in the province, which remains under the control of U.N. and NATO forces. A U.N. report obtained by The Inquirer shows KPC members and former KLA guerrillas are intimidating and beating Serbs. In some cases, suspects were wearing KPC uniforms and KLA berets, and in a number of incidents, KPC members attempted to impersonate U.N. police as they threatened and looted. Such incidents, say officials, are dimming prospects of a peaceful, multi-ethnic Kosovo, one of the goals of NATO intervention last spring.

"The KPC is looking the other way regarding these crimes," said the U.N. official. "Former maverick KLA members still seek revenge against Serbs. Remember, the KLA was supposed to disarm after the war. They turned in 10,000 weapons, but they were mostly junk. There are still a lot of weapons out there."

In a recent meeting, KPC commander Agim Ceku was told by the United Nations that international funding for the KPC was in jeopardy if ethnic violence and other crimes persisted.

Jakup Krasniqi, a former KLA leader and now a minister in the provisional government, said: "The KPC and the provisional government are distancing themselves from these attacks and killings. But I'm not denying that some members of the KLA are taking part in these crimes. These are the consequences of what the criminal Serbian regime did to Kosovo."

Revenge against Serbs is the province's most insidious crime. But Kosovo also is tumbling into a lawlessness fueled by Albanian mafia clans, some of whom have connections to former KLA rebels. Stolen cars and kilos of heroin are trafficked through the same mountain passes that once supplied the KLA in its war against Yugoslavia. Thugs beat up customs agents after a recent seizure of 100 AK-47s at the Albanian border. The agents now receive hazardous-duty pay, and Western powers have formed an organized-crime task force.

The United Nations' 1,800 police officers - 4,000 fewer than the organization is requesting from member nations - cannot keep pace with mafia crimes and ethnic bloodshed, such as the shooting earlier this month of a 60-year-old Serb woman in her home.

"Months into its mission, the United Nations has not been able to establish a rule of law," according to a report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The committee found that most crimes against Serbs go unresolved. Yugoslav laws - once the framework for Kosovo's judicial system - have been abandoned by ethnic Albanians. Since NATO's intervention, the United Nations has been uncertain what legal structure to establish, and the atmosphere is so confusing that Kosovo even lacks a traffic code.

The international community has appointed 57 prosecutors and judges. They are each paid about $200 a month - one-third the salary of a U.N.-paid driver - and are overwhelmed by caseloads, a lack of supplies, and a shortage of U.N. legal advisers. With courts in disarray and threats from former KLA members not to prosecute crimes against Serbs, the judicial system is little more than a revolving door for murder, arson and kidnapping. In Pristina, only 29 of 490 people arrested by U.N. police are in jail.

"Most detainees suspected for having committed crimes, including serious ones, such as grenade attacks, are released without being charged in a court of law. . . . There does not seem to be a realistic prospect for putting these suspects on trial," states a U.N. document obtained by The Inquirer.

The result of the troubled legal system, according to the lawyers committee, is "more and more ethnically mixed villages and towns are disappearing, as Serbs move into enclaves, often under KFOR protection."

The 3,000 Serbs in north Gnjilane stay sequestered in a warren of narrow alleys. Most mill in the courtyard of St. Nicholas' Church, where a tent has been pitched to hold classes for 60 of the 1,700 Serb elementary students left in the north end of the city. They are protected from about 40,000 ethnic Albanians by U.S. NATO troops, patrolling in humvees and peering from sandbag bunkers.

"We can feel the circle closing around us," said Vlada Jovanovic, a teacher with a thick, black beard who stood just beyond scarfed women selling carrots, potatoes and red peppers. "Last night, two bombs were thrown at houses. My future depends on how NATO acts. Serbs don't control their destinies anymore."

Jovanovic hurried down a crooked street, turned past the last Serb bakery, and opened the door of a house with scarred walls and broken windows. He stepped into a room with no light. Vasic, the doctor, turned around. A gynecologist, Vasic is the only Serb doctor left in the neighborhood. He spends most of his time these days setting broken bones and sewing up knife wounds in a dirty makeshift hospital with no painkillers or tetanus vaccines.

Cveja Dabic, 87, sat on a cot in front of him.

The elderly man had a bruised knee, a cracked collarbone, and a gash across his forehead. He was attacked in a cemetery by two ethnic Albanian men while visiting his son's grave on All Souls Day.

"I only wanted to light a candle," Dabic said. "The Albanians destroyed all the Serb tombstones. It seems they don't even want our dead among them."

Vasic taped Dabic's new dressing. Dabic's son Slavoljub helped his father out the door.

An hour later, another elderly man with blood running down his face stepped into Vasic's dim office. Zivorad Simic, a retired gas-station attendant holding a fading blue beret, had been hit in the head with a rock for speaking Serbian.

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