Stopping cycles of revenge

Serbs in Kosovo fear retaliation. Protection for all called crucial for

For the Serbs who remain in Kosovo, NATO's vow to protect all the province's residents is a crucial endeavor to stem vengeance.

Kosovar Serbs are terrified of retribution for the mass slaughter and expulsions of ethnic Albanians by the Serbian forces who completed their pullout June 20. The Serbs' fears are fueled by daily reports of murders and kidnappings of Serbs by vengeance-seeking ethnic Albanians.

Commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) concede they cannot guarantee the Serbs' safety amid seething rage. "It is very difficult to control the people," says Ismet Tara, a senior rebel officer in the Orahovac region.

For the United States and its allies, defying history and tradition in Kosovo is essential to the success of the peace plan they forced on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. At stake are the allies' efforts to defuse demands for more border changes in the

Balkans and centuries of Serbian habitation on land the Serbs cherish as the birthplace of their culture and faith.

Back-and-forth violence is nothing new in the region. Its history is replete with cycles of attack and revenge by rival ethnic groups. Blood vengeance is also a strong tradition among the Albanians in Kosovo and northern Albania, and among Montenegrins.

The volatile atmosphere has already led some 50,000 Serbs to flee Kosovo, where before the war they were outnumbered 9 to 1 by the 2 million mostly Muslim ethnic Albanians. Many Serbs who have stayed are holed up in Serbian Orthodox monasteries and enclaves.

NATO leaders, determined to be seen as evenhanded despite their support for the ethnic Albanians, are clearly anxious to stem the Serbian exodus. "It's going to take a lot of leadership and a lot of self-discipline for the folks who come home not to retaliate, but they should not," President Clinton said June 20 in Cologne, Germany. "It won't in the end satisfy anyone. It will only compound the horror."

Yet NATO's early record in Kosovo is mixed. Its KFOR units have freed a number of Serbian men seized by KLA rebels; they have also arrested KLA fighters for killing a Serb in the capital, Pristina.

But Serbs say KFOR has failed to halt other killings and ignored their pleas that it free dozens of Serbian men allegedly still held by the KLA. On June 20, French and British troops stood by as ethnic Albanians looted and torched homes in the deserted Serbian village of Grace, near Pristina.

The incident took the gleam off the accord NATO reached late June 20, under which the KLA agreed to disband within 90 days. The KFOR commander, British Lt. Gen. Michael Jackson, pledged there would be no repeats of Grace, saying he hoped "all [Serbs] who left in fear will return."

But the agreement does not seem to have greatly reassured the Serbs. "Ninety days is a long period," says the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Kosovo, Father Amfilohije.

"If we leave this church, it is doomsday for us," says Sveto, one of more than 200 Serbs sheltering since last week under KFOR protection in the 14th-century patriarchate in Pec.

The Serbs in Pec contend the KLA has killed six Serbian men and is holding more than 30 others. Vera Logvinov, a Serbian resident of Pec, says four female KLA fighters threatened to kill her if she did not leave her apartment. One of their male comrades tried to rape her, she says, but was stopped by another.

She and many other Serbs are convinced the retaliation is part of a KLA plan to expel all Serbs as part of a goal of eventually winning independence for Kosovo.

At the same time, few believe their own forces sought to drive out the ethnic Albanians through the massive and systematic atrocities for which Mr. Milosevic has been indicted on international war-crimes charges. "Our Serbian fight is a fight for justice," says Sveto. "I don't like Milosevic, but he is not guilty for this war."

KLA commanders deny retaliating against the Serbs, although they say it's difficult to stop individual acts of revenge. They say Serbs who did not take part in atrocities will be left alone, while those who did will be turned over to KFOR for prosecution by the United Nations war-crimes tribunal.

"For those families who did not work for the Milosevic regime and who did not participate in the massacres, they will have no problems," says Abdyl Mushkollaj, the KLA commander in the town of Decani.

Yet he declined to give a clear guarantee of security for the monks at Decani's 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery, even though they mounted what may have been the largest rescue effort of ethnic Albanians by Serbs during the conflict.

As Yugoslav Army troops and police began withdrawing from Decani on June 12, they went on a rampage of looting and arson. The monks drove into the town in a van, picked up 150 of the 270 ethnic Albanians still there, and took them back to the monastery, where they fed and sheltered them for two days.

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