Pushing for tolerance, and jobs, in Kosovo

For 5-and-1/2 months, Lt. Col. Timothy Reese, the commander of a 44-tank armored battalion, stood ready to repulse a new invasion of Kosovo by the Yugoslav Army.

That turned out to be the easy part. More recently, he's been trying to persuade local Serbs and ethnic Albanians to work together again at a limestone quarry.

"It's surprising to me," says Colonel Reese, who at 6-foot-4 looks every inch a tank commander. "We're designed to fight, not to do this." But in missions such as Kosovo, soldiers increasingly are being called upon to foster peace more than to wage war.

The Glama quarry lies just north of Gnjlane, a town inhabited by both Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the heart of Kosovo's American-patrolled sector. The quarry is part of a large state-owned construction company that historically has been the largest employer in town.

Before NATO airstrikes this spring ended the Serb crackdown on rebellious ethnic Albanians, the workforce was mixed. Now the company is run by ethnic Albanians using only ethnic Albanian workers. Reese, with the help of other Western officials, has been trying to change that.

What's at stake at this and other workplaces is the future of Serbs in Kosovo - officially still part of Serbia - and the success of the international peacekeeping mission here. NATO-led forces entered Kosovo on June 12, ending more than two months of killings and forced expulsions.

Since then, Albanian Kosovars, who outnumber Serbs by 10 to 1, have taken over most public institutions and state-owned enterprises. Serb workers have been forced out or have left out of fear for their safety. On Sunday, some 50 Serbs in Gnjlane reportedly sent a petition to the NATO-led force demanding better protection from what they termed "continuing harassment, looting, robbery" and physical attacks. While safety is a priority, Resse says, it is not enough.

"For Serb communities in my area, there is basically 100 percent unemployment," he says. "If there is any hope of them staying in the region over the long run, they're going to need more."

An opportunity arose this fall when the construction company of which Glama quarry is a part needed materials. The company needed to blast to quarry more rock, and to blast it needed permission to import explosives. The Americans said yes - but only if the company hired Serbs.

"In principle they agreed to it," Reese says. "In practice, there were always obstacles."

Employment has been an emotional issue. In 1989, when Belgrade cancelled the province's autonomy, it also took over management of state-owned enterprises, utilities, hospitals, and other public institutions. It installed Serb managers and fired most of the Albanian workers. When NATO occupied Kosovo, Albanians reclaimed their old jobs, and in most cases, Serbs were no longer welcome.

International efforts to reverse this trend have almost universally failed. But people like Reese keep trying. The Glama quarry is not his first attempt. In September, Reese intervened to keep Serbs from leaving a bottling plant and health spa in a village 15 miles down the road, but the results were disappointing. The ethnic Albanian in charge was a former commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, raising fears of harassment. The number of Serb workers has dwindled to just 16.

To prevent attacks against them at the quarry, Serb workers were promised an armed escort and permanent guard at work sites. But other issues sprang up. In some villages, local Serb leaders wanted a better deal: more Serbs hired, and Serb managers back in charge. "They wanted everything or nothing," Reese says. "So they got nothing."

In the end, only 27 former Serb workers came to an interview with quarry company managers, about a third of what the Americans had hoped for. Four declared that they would not work for Albanians. The Albanians rejected all but six of the rest. The Americans insisted that the company hire all 23.

Slobodan Djekic is one of them. He lives in Stanisor, a village of about 50 houses just a mile from the Glama quarry. Mr. Djekic says he is eager to work, but won't return unless all 35 workers from his village are hired too. "If just some Serbs go to work and other Serbs don't, there will be resentment."

Quarry director Muhamet Halili says the company has always been willing to hire Serbs. But an assistant, Vaxhit Qirimi, says, "If they have clean hands they can come back and work here." He adds, "There is not one Serb in 1,000 who has clean hands. There is not one Serb in 100,000 who has clean hands."

This week, blasting is due to resume at the quarry. But it remains uncertain when, and if, Serbs will return to work.

As for Reese, his mission ended two weeks ago and he returned to his base in Germany, leaving his tanks and labor troubles to his replacement and understanding better than when he came the limits to peacekeeping in Kosovo.

"I don't think the international community can force [Serbs and ethnic Albanians] to get along," he says. "We can force them to do a lot of things, but we can't force them to be partners in a multiethnic state."

Still, he hasn't given up hope for Glama. "I think this quarry has a chance," he says. "It's going to take a lot of work, but I think it has a chance."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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