Safe zones not an answer for Kosovars

Although more than 700,000 refugees are now outside Kosovo, at least an equal number are displaced inside the province. These are the most vulnerable. They are hungry and hiding from Serb forces intent on finding and expelling them, or worse. They are out of the reach of international humanitarians and monitors. In the absence of a military rescue, some observers have called for the creation of a safe zone inside Kosovo, where the displaced could seek food and shelter.

At first, the option of a safe area looks attractive: Keep people within their own country, easing the burden on host countries such as Macedonia and Albania; insist on citizens' right to remain, thus opposing "ethnic cleansing"; and guarantee their safety where they are - a more limited military objective than removing all Serb military and police forces from Kosovo. In practice, however, the havens have not lived up to their name. They aren't the answer in Kosovo.

Safe areas have failed during each of the major post-cold war mass refugee exoduses: northern Iraq; eastern Bosnia; and southwestern Rwanda. They have compromised the right of people fleeing persecution to seek asylum outside their countries and ultimately endangered the very lives of the people whose safety they were pledged to protect.

In the most successful haven, US-led forces created Operation Provide Comfort for the Kurds in northern Iraq because they were unwelcome in neighboring Turkey and Iran, and essentially had nowhere to flee. In contrast, although Macedonia periodically closes its border and pushes back refugees, Albania has welcomed them and set no upper limit on the number it is willing to host.

Operation Provide Comfort never challenged Saddam Hussein's underlying sovereign claims to northern Iraq, and, in 1996, did nothing to stop his forces from penetrating the enclave and kidnapping and killing scores of people. The US was forced to evacuate about 7,000 Iraqis, mostly Kurds, directly associated with US humanitarian or political activities. But with the borders to Turkey and Iran blocked, and Saddam threatening them again, Operation Provide Comfort provided no comfort to the rest living there.

Likewise, the Bosnian safe areas offer little worth emulating. Arguably, the international community decided to declare these areas as safe mostly to keep would-be refugees from flooding central and western Europe. As the numbers of people in safe areas grew, Serb forces cut off these enclaves and besieged, shelled, and starved their inhabitants. When Serb forces closed in on Srebrenica and Zepa, UN peacekeepers failed to protect their charges. Serb soldiers separated men from their families, bused the women and children out, and massacred the men.

Perhaps a safe zone in Kosovo would be established by NATO instead of the UN. This too is problematic. France in 1994 created Operation Turquoise in southwest Rwanda. While ostensibly a safe humanitarian zone, it clearly served political purposes: to protect members of the deposed government, the pro-French architects of the genocide. Armed Hutu militia members operated openly, killing Tutsis living there and intimidating Hutus who wanted to go home. In April 1995, after France had turned over the operation to the UN, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) moved to force the displaced out of Kibeho, the largest camp in the zone for displaced persons. Machete-wielding Hutu extremists in the camp provoked a violent confrontation with undisciplined RPA troops who, in full view of UN peacekeepers and humanitarian relief organizations, massacred hundreds if not thousands of people.

It is hard to imagine a safe zone in Kosovo that would meet Geneva Convention standards of neutral zones established by agreement of the conflicting parties. It isn't in Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's interests to create a neutral space within Kosovo. Should he ever agree to a haven, there is no reason to believe he'd honor its neutrality, given the Bosnian experience. Nor is there reason to believe the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) would either. In the three cases above, armed elements identified with the protected civilian population were in the safe zones, waging hit-and-run operations. Such actions would be consistent with the KLA's provocative tactics over the past year, which often goaded Serb police to strike back at civilians.

If safe areas are not the answer - and similar objections could be raised to food air drops or humanitarian corridors - what is? Humanitarian efforts to deliver food and aid inside Kosovo should be applauded and supported. But the answer is not in the hands of the humanitarians. They do not have the power to stop genocide.

Force must be met by force. But clearly, by now, the military disconnect is obvious: The opposing military forces have not actually engaged each other. Serb police and paramilitary units target unarmed civilians. NATO wages a war of attrition to wear down Serbia's military machine, but by the time it could succeed, the civilians trapped inside Kosovo will have succumbed to hunger, exposure, and disease.

NATO needs to revise its objectives. One very distasteful option is to cut a deal with Mr. Milosevic for the partition of Kosovo, acknowledging NATO's unwillingness to reverse ethnic cleansing. The other is to set as NATO's priority the suppression of genocide and the rescue of civilians trapped inside Kosovo.

In either case, NATO needs to draw a clear line that no haven has broached: independence. No autonomous arrangement can survive this conflict, and no safe area has ever explicitly challenged the sovereignty of a central government over the safe zone.

The ultimate contradiction and danger of safe areas is that they lure frightened people into places where the international community continues to recognize the sovereignty of their persecutors. Such places often become death traps. Any idea of a Kosovo safe zone that retains Serbian sovereignty over Kosovars condemns them to sit under a Damoclean sword. The line separating Serb police from Kosovars must be clear, enforceable, and international.

*Bill Frelick is a senior policy analyst for the US Committee for Refugees, a nongovernmental organization in Washington.

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