A tall order to protect all Kosovars
A mortar attack shows the difficulties in preserving Kosovo's multiethnic society
At the top of the most-wanted list in the American sector of Kosovo is a suspect US troops have nicknamed the "Mad Mortar Man."Skip to next paragraph
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For weeks, peacekeepers say, an ethnic Albanian has terrorized the few Serbs remaining here by firing mortar shells randomly into Serbian villages, even as American forces have tried to hunt him down. US gunners once had him in their sights, but NATO rules forbade taking a shot, and he slipped away.
On Monday night in Klokot, where a Monitor reporter was on patrol with peacekeepers, the mortar shooter hit a target for the first time. Two Serbian teenagers were killed, five other Serbs were wounded, and Kosovo's cycle of violence - which NATO has vowed to stop - deepened further.
The mandate of the 40,000-strong KFOR troops is to protect every person and preserve a multiethnic society. But the case of the mortar shooter, coupled with continuing anti-Serbian attacks, shows that achieving this lofty aim remains elusive, and may prove impossible.
"It's getting pretty hard to look these people in the eye and tell them we can do anything about it," says Lt. Col. Tim Reese, the US Army battalion commander for the most active area in the American sector. "The Serbs are very nervous. Every day they make a decision to stay or not to stay."
The 78 days of NATO airstrikes were meant to halt a three-month ethnic assault of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian security forces earlier this year. Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed, and more than 800,000 fled. For ordering that assault, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has been indicted by the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
But NATO victory and the ethnic Albanian return caused most of the 200,000 Serbs in the province to flee, fearing revenge. The UN estimates that 46 Serbian and mixed villages remain, and that number is dwindling despite elaborate security efforts.
American forces thought that their sector, in the southeast part of the province, was one of the quieter parts of Kosovo. But it turns out that the patchwork groups of Serbs there make the ethnic map resemble a leopard skin, with each spot another problem.
Serbs here, says an American intelligence officer, are "hanging on by their fingernails."
Serbs have been killed under American military noses by ethnic Albanians, officers say, who are bent on intimidating Serbs to leave. Troops have found ethnic Albanians carrying radios and rebel Kosovo Liberation Army cards, and their cars smell of gas most likely used in arson attacks.
Just last Saturday, an elderly Serbian man was shot dead, sparking the exit of the last 20 Serbs from his village of Pozaranje.
"It is really a labor-intensive operation to protect these people," says Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in the provincial capital, Pristina. "They would have to put a soldier on every stairwell, in every doorway, and on every street corner to stop this from happening, and KFOR can't do it."
That is exactly what is happening in some cases, however, with soldiers living one on one with Serbs who have been threatened. "KFOR is making a valiant effort," says Mr. Redmond, "but can you stay with [these Serbs] forever?" (See story below.)
When the "Mad Mortar Man" struck Monday night, these issues came into sharp focus. At first there was the silence of the Kosovo night. Nearing the time of the 9:30 p.m. curfew imposed by American troops, it had spread over the trees and the fields, and in the nearly dark villages where soldiers stood watch.
Then the mortar fire began, disrupting the peace with nine rounds from a hip-fired 60-mm mortar tube. Soldiers craned their necks to pinpoint the flashes. The radio crackled: US troops based less than 100 yards from the impact point gave news of the dead.