Activists struggle to cool Kosovo's ethnic heat

Hard-line Serbs led a massive boycott of this weekend's election, undercutting efforts to forge a multiethnic society.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For international peace activists here, the Multiethnic Children and Youth Peace Center was an especially promising initiative.

It had an ideal location: just south of the Ibar River, which splits Mitrovica into a hilly, residential Serb north and flat, urban Albanian south. It offered innovative programs, such as publishing a multicultural magazine. And its devoted staff persuaded large numbers of minority Serbs to overcome years of prejudice and join their Albanian peers.

But interethnic riots this March killed 19 across Kosovo and shut the center down. For peacemakers here, this quick turn of events was a sober reminder of just how fragile Kosovo's peace remains, five years after its liberation from Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. It also underscores the challenge activists face trying to teach Kosovo's large youth population - not to mention its adults - lessons in tolerance.

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The activists' climb was made steeper this weekend, as a massive Serb boycott of elections dealt a blow to international efforts to forge a multiethnic society here. Serb leaders in Kosovo had called for the boycott, saying the United Nations and NATO have failed to create a safe environment for Serbs.

The task now, say activists, is to forge ahead with programs to soothe ethnic hatred - and resist feelings of futility.

"Before March, I grabbed for any quiet time I could get; now it's quiet all the time," says Miranda Hochberg, the center's coordinator. "To think that such a small percentage of the population could bring this society all the way back to 1999 - I don't believe it."

The March riots were sparked by the drowning of three Albanian boys, allegedly chased into a river by Serbs.

Albanian protesters surged across the Mitrovica bridge, clashing with French peacekeepers. The ensuing riots across 33 cities injured 1,000 and torched countless homes. Among the victims was one of the Center's students. In all, it was the worst bloodshed since 1999.

"We didn't have hopes Serbs and Albanians would live together - but [we did hope they] would learn to have tolerance for each other," Hochberg says.

War wounds and years of repression, analysts say, aren't the only factors fueling frustration. Half the Kosovars are younger than 25. With unemployment at 60 to 70 percent, many are jobless and angry, and have too much time on their hands. Extremist politicians and media, former guerrillas, and criminal networks also stir unrest to suit their own agendas.

Most important, say some observers, is that Kosovo has yet to be awarded independence by the UN, which has administered the region as a protectorate since 1999. Kosovo is technically still a Serbian province, and some Kosovars worry that Serbia may be allowed to reassert its authority.

When NATO's airstrikes ended in June 1999, revenge killings, kidnappings, and arson swept the province. Much of that violence was blamed on young men and teens. In March, too, riots involved mostly youth.

Skender Boshtrakaj, director of the

the Kosovo Department of Youth, notes that young people here have been raised amid persecution in a society that reveres its fallen freedom fighters, but has yet to win independence. So they seem all too willing to vent their rage. "In March, the kids seemed like they were hypnotized," he adds.

In 1999, dozens of relief agencies flooded Kosovo with ways to help youth cope with postwar trauma and economic hardship. They opened 50 community centers, organized cultural activities and established counseling groups. But five years later, just 18 centers remain open.

The lesson, says Boshtrakaj, is that the international community handles emergencies better than development.

UNICEF is working to take up the slack - and combat loitering. The group's peace education and civics curriculum is beginning to take root.

But the most important lessons students learn, observers say, are the ones they glean from their own families.

Dejan Antic relates how, during the March riots, each of his village's 136 Serb homes was set afire.

"Maybe I should feel great hatred for Albanians, but one thing I realize is that not all Albanians want to kick out all Serbs," says Mr. Antic. "My father grew up and worked with Albanians, and had many as friends."

Hochberg also harnessed the power of family to promote coexistence. "Getting housewives into our classes helps," she recalls, because they bring their kids with them.

Today the youth center remains sealed off by NATO troops. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has an agreement to take over control of the center from its founder, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Without programs like the ones offered by the center, it will be more difficult to heal the divisions of both Mitrovica and Kosovo at large, says Hochberg.

"If you don't cross that bridge for four or five years, then your imagination can run away with you as to what the other side is like," says Hochberg. "Everybody here feels like the victim. And there's too much manipulation of that by hard- liners on both sides."

Material from wire service reports was used in this article.

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