Qualified mercy for war's refugees

Why diplomats say Kosovo victims may not get as much sympathy as Balkanpredecessors did.

The faces are already softening. This neatly pegged tent city is shipshape. Men cluster and talk about the war, what else? A light spring shower passes, but the children play outside anyway. As the evening light dims on this grassy field, there is even a sense of peace. For the occupants of Stankovic, everything seems simple: They want to find their families and go home.

Last week these refugees were the focus of world attention and sympathy. But as the wrenching TV pictures of their misery fade, the question is: Will anyone care about the Albanians from Kosovo now that they are rarer on page 1, deported from Macedonia, or made refugees of indefinite status in this country?

Among a variety of officials here who have worked closely with governments and international organizations, the cynicism runs deep. It is born out of hard experience dealing here and abroad with the problem of Kosovo, the Serbian province with an ethnic Albanian majority seeking independence from Yugoslavia.

"Everyone loves the [Albanian] Kosovars - just so long as they are in Kosovo. The KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] gets money to fight - in Kosovo," says an exasperated high-ranking refugee official who has met with nearly every ambassador and foreign political officer in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, over the past week.

"But it appears that everyone hates the Kosovars the minute they step out of their country. What I want to know is, why? It is a question no one wants to address."

Officials from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe - kicked out of their monitoring mission in Kosovo by Serb forces three weeks ago - ask why so little world attention was paid to the Kosovo Albanians when they were being forced out of their homes at gunpoint, village by village, for months before the NATO airstrikes.

During the siege of Sarajevo in nearby Bosnia in 1992, the Western public saw pictures of a solitary cellist dressed in tails who each day sat on a streetcorner and played an adagio as Serb snipers shot up the town. The message was clear: This is a city with European culture that is under attack. The siege continued for three more years.

But Bosnia became something of a cause clbre - so much so that then-UN head Boutros Boutros-Ghali questioned controversially whether the world was forgetting victims elsewhere.

Yet for reasons of their own somewhat insular culture, and the recent history of Europe, the Kosovo Albanians don't "rate" quite as high on some European scales of importance. Their brutal oppression under the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was accepted as status quo on the Continent, experts say - one reason the KLA finally emerged to fight in Kosovo.

Whether the Kosovo Albanians will achieve the modest sympathy factor the Bosnians or Croatians earned under siege by Serb forces earlier in the 1990s is an open question. Among Europeans, who have already absorbed thousands of refugees from former Yugoslavia, the initial reaction to the Kosovo war is dismay at the prospect of taking in more.

Few demonstrations against the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians have been seen in Europe. Much of the intellectual left has opposed NATO bombing rather than ethnic cleansing.

Also, in contrast with the previous Balkan war, the European public is now for the first time seeing images of the targets of the Serbians in flames. Grumbling is heard in cities ranging from Oslo to Zurich to Vienna - to the effect that the Kosovo Albanians will not easily assimilate and may bring trouble and crime to their cities. Indeed, an Albanian mafia does exist in Europe - alongside mafias from most countries.

The "buzz" in the Balkans among some thoughtful observers suggests that what was unacceptable morally earlier in the 1990s during the Bosnia conflict has become, however reluctantly, acceptable. One Swiss official encapsulates the mood: "We aren't shocked anymore. The Albanians may not evoke so much sympathy in Europe. But we know we can't ignore this."

The first ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia did shock people. But seven years of Balkan conflict brought sympathy fatigue to Europeans, experts say.

Prior to the Bosnian war, Europeans were experiencing a springtime of nations: The Berlin Wall went down. Vclav Havel, the Czech playwright, went from prison to the presidency of his country. The Maastricht accords put Europe on a fast track to unite with a common currency and foreign policy.

But good feelings were dashed by dark visions of an alter ego in the Balkans that reminded people of the fragility of civilizations. Politically, Europe's slow and fumbling reaction to Bosnia showed that Germany, France, and Britain were not as united around a common foreign policy as had been hoped.

"The Croats and Bosnians culturally reflect more of the Hapsburg Empire and its tradition," points out Albert Rohan, a senior official in the Austrian Foreign Ministry who last summer attempted to broker a peace deal between Mr. Milosevic and the Kosovo Albanians. "The Albanians in Kosovo owe more to the Ottoman Empire, which Europeans are less familiar with."

In a modern context, these Kosovo Albanians are less cosmopolitan and have participated less in Europeanizing trends - one reason they are less familiar to Europeans. In rural areas they are more tribal and clannish, and have a reputation for roughness, banditry, and blood feuds. Fewer of them speak English, travel abroad, or intermarry than counterparts even in the Balkans.

TO USE an offbeat example, whereas Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs have several players in the National Basketball Association in the US, the Kosovo Albanians do not yet have an NBA star.

In one sense, experts say, in the ethnic logic of Milosevic, it is the very "otherness" of Kosovo Albanians that will deny them sympathy in Europe - and perhaps stoke more ethnic hatred for minorities in both Europe and Russia.

"Milosevic is counting on Western indifference and subtle racism in the long run," says an American diplomat in Europe. "But that may change with all these pictures."

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