You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Paradigm Slip

Kosovo Dispatch

The first sign of ethnic tension confronts me just a few miles from the border as I drive north into Kosovo. In the town of Kacanik, I pass an old Serbian Orthodox chapel. It is surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire. There are three sandbag bunkers around the chapel, a double row of cement and steel tank traps at the entrance, and a guard post inside the fence. The grounds look more like an armed camp than a place of worship. Later, I learn the church has been all but abandoned. Once, there was a small community of Orthodox Serbs living in Kacanik, but they have either fled or been killed by Albanians. So the chapel sits empty. And yet, it remains guarded night and day by international peacekeepers, to protect it from mobs of Muslim Albanians.

Almost six years ago, the international community—the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and an alphabet soup of NGOs—descended upon Kosovo to protect Albanians from the rampaging Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. Since then, the army has been driven out, and almost all of the 800,000 Albanian refugees have returned; Kosovo has been touted as a success story and a model for other peacekeeping operations.

But the abandoned chapel in Kacanik—and dozens of others like it—suggests that Kosovo is far from a success. The tolerant and multiethnic society the peacekeepers came here to nurture and protect is a fiction. Today, their mission is failing: Since the United Nations and the 17,000 foreign troops in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission (KFOR) came to town, a reverse ethnic cleansing has taken place. Tens of thousands of Serbs have left the province after harassment and violence at the hands of Albanians. Worse, the majority Albanian community now practices the same kind of brutal discrimination against Serbs that the Albanians suffered for so many years.

ETHNIC TENSIONS IN Kosovo are nothing new. In the former Yugoslavia, Belgrade alternately tried conciliation or repression to curb the rising discontent of the Albanian community, which constitutes a majority in the province. In 1974, Kosovo was granted considerable autonomy; in 1981, after riots led by Kosovar Albanians demanding full republic status for the province, between 500 and 1,000 Albanians were killed in a brutal crackdown. "Kosovo is the most difficult problem in the Balkans," says Dusan Batakovi, a Serbian diplomat and expert on Kosovo. "In Bosnia, you were dealing with people who spoke the same language and shared the same ethnic identity. In Kosovo, you have an enormous ethnic distance."

By the late '80s, nationalism was growing in Kosovo. After Slobodan Milosevic's rise to power, he stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status and dissolved the provincial parliament. In reaction, Kosovar Albanians declared themselves independent.

Unfortunately, the international community then missed the first of several opportunities to prevent bloodshed. In 1991, Kosovar Albanians petitioned the European Union to recognize their independence. It did not. A year later, Bosnia declared its independence, touching off a brutal interethnic war. Everyone knew Kosovo would be next, and, as the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords were being hammered out, the Kosovar Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, begged members of the international community to include Kosovo in the discussions. They did not.

Within months, a guerrilla war in Kosovo would begin between Serbs and Albanians. When neighboring Albania collapsed, offering Albanian Kosovar guerrillas access to heavy arms, the Kosovar Albanians stepped up their attacks, and, in 1998 and 1999, the Serb forces responded in kind with increasing violence. This violence often targeted civilians, as the Serbs emptied and destroyed whole Albanian villages in a misguided attempt to isolate the guerrillas from their sympathizers. The international community was finally stirred to action, with the United Nations passing resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Kosovo and the Clinton administration, along with NATO, bombing Serb military forces. In response, the Serbs initially increased the pace of their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, driving 800,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes, but the air war ultimately forced Serbia to relent and to pull its troops out. In 1999, KFOR was created.

But, by then, the foundation for today's problems in Kosovo had been laid. By not intervening until so much blood had already been shed, rather than trying to settle the Kosovo dispute earlier, the international community had allowed tension in the province to rise so high that it could never be stuffed back in the bottle. Had the international community better handled the dissolution from the start, "tens of thousands of lives [would] have been saved, " Nenad Sebek, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe, said in a speech last June. More specifically, the nato bombing campaign set a dangerous precedent—that the international community would intervene on the side of guerrillas against a sovereign government. And today, both Serbs and Albanians in the province believe that, because of this history, the world will soon allow Kosovo to become independent. Kosovar Albanians believe time is on their side, and no amount of U.N. confidence-building programs bringing together Serbs and Albanians will change that mentality.

Convinced they can act with impunity and tired of waiting for independence, Albanians in the province are growing restless. Last year, violent race riots erupted in Kosovo, revealing the ethnic tensions that lie just below the surface in Kosovo. For three days, a pogrom against the Serb minority raged out of control while many of the KFOR troops stayed in their camps, doing nothing to intervene. By the time it was over, 19 people were dead, thousands were injured, and almost 600 buildings had been destroyed.

The riots were the inevitable outcome of an escalating anti-Serb campaign. Long before, Serbs warned of discrimination and violence. Serbs frequently have complained of threats against them by Albanian goons and attacks on their homes by Albanian thugs, who force the Serbs out and resettle Albanians in their place. Late last year, in fact, the United Nations reported several cases in the town of Obilic where Albanian families reoccupied former Serb homes, even after those homes had been restored for the Serbs by the United Nations. Meanwhile, Serb children and municipal workers have often had to be escorted to school and to work by armed guards, for fear of attacks; the website of the Serb Orthodox church in Kosovo displays photos of a Serb teenager bludgeoned to death, with blood oozing from his scalp. It's not surprising, then, that many Serbs are fleeing Kosovo. Estimates of the number of Serbs that have left the province in the last six years range from 65,000 to 345,000. In the Kosovar capital of Pristina alone, there were some 40,000 Serbs before 1999. Today, there are fewer than 100.

The town of Mitrovica has been one of the flashpoints. The town is divided by the shallow Ibar River. From this point south, the province is predominantly Albanian, to the north it is predominantly Serb. Indeed, the northern part of Mitrovica remains very much a part of Serbia. On the streets, Serbian is the lingua franca, the Serbian dinar is legal currency, and all the public institutions are still funded by Belgrade.

It was near Mitrovica that three Albanian children—who the Albanian media erroneously reported had been chased by Serbs with dogs—drowned in the Ibar River in March 2004, touching off the riots. Now, the main bridge connecting the two halves of Mitrovica resembles cold war Checkpoint Charlie. Cement barricades force vehicles to drive a zigzag through the barriers, and miles of concertina wire stretch along both banks of the river. The only vehicles going across belong either to the United Nations or to kfor. While the south of Mitrovica is a teeming city of some 90,000 people (nearly all Albanians), the north feels like a refugee encampment: Over the past five years, and during the riots, thousands of Serbs have come here for refuge. On the previously generous sidewalks, small kiosks set up by Serb refugees stand cheek by jowl. Virtually the only Albanians living on this side of the river are in three apartment blocks just left of the bridge, guarded by more kfor troops, concertina wire, and sandbag bunkers.

In a converted high school gymnasium, I go to see Serb refugees displaced by the riots. There are 50 in all, sleeping on simple cots beneath basketball hoops. On one wall, a set of pull-up bars has been turned into a temporary clothes rack. A balance beam is being used as a divider to separate the cots of one family from another. Their houses, in a town south of Mitrovica, were destroyed by mobs but are now being rebuilt. Still, they won't go home. "Ninety- nine-point-nine percent of us will not return because the U.N., KFOR, and the police have not been able to guarantee our safety," Krsto Todorovic, a 58-year-old, tells me. "We are asking for safety. Only if that happens is there a chance we will go back.... It's better that they just kill my wife and me because we have already lived our lives."

IN FACT, IT is not Kosovo but a neighboring region that is the Balkan success story. Of the past decade's three peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans—in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia—only one, in Macedonia, largely avoided the brutal, interethnic wars of the other two. In the case of Macedonia, international intervention came early, through mediation of the Ohrid peace agreement in 2001 that laid out a framework for dealing with minority rights before a full-scale civil war. In Kosovo and in Bosnia, the peace agreements were just holding arrangements that came only after wars had already begun and pogroms against minorities had started. "In Ohrid, the international community finally learned its lesson," agrees the new head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, Sren Jessen-Petersen. But, for Kosovo, it is a lesson that has come too late.