Half hidden among the rumpled hills of southwest Kosovo, ethnic Albanian villagers are staging an unprecedented protest against the will of NATO and Russian peacekeeping troops that make up the Kosovo Force (KFOR).
The Russian soldiers have been ordered by KFOR commanders to relieve Dutch and German troops. But here in Orahovac, where the "ethnic cleansing" campaign by Serbian forces was particularly brutal, suspicious survivors are countermanding the KFOR order.
The dilemma for NATO - whether to use force or try to negotiate through the standoff - is stark. And it illustrates how ethnic Albanians in Kosovo have turned the tables. NATO's 78-day bombing campaign liberated the 90 percent ethnic Albanian minority here, who had suffered under Serb repression for some 10 years.
It also underscores the ability of the ethnic Albanians to throw wrenches into the best-laid plans of the world's most powerful military alliance. In doing so, it may justify deep reservations NATO commanders and Pentagon officials had about using NATO as a police force.
"We are human beings, and don't have the [military] power to defy NATO," says Djemajli Hajimustafa, a spokesman for the protesters. "But our power is moral and emotional, and we want the international community to respect our feelings."
Those feelings have been shaped by more than a century of close Russian and Yugoslav friendship rooted in the fact that both are Slavic people, both follow the Eastern Orthodox Church, and because political ties have grown especially close in the course of the Kosovo crisis.
And in Orahovac, many believe that the links are deeper still: Ethnic Albanians accuse Russian mercenaries, anywhere between 30 to 300 of them, of taking part with Serbian units and paramilitaries in some of the worst atrocities of ethnic killing. So they have stymied the Russian deployment by choking all access routes with hundreds of tractors, cars, and buses.
"If the will of the nation is not respected, it will come to a test," says Ismet Tara, the commander of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who took part in the talks between, first, KFOR and the Albanians, then KFOR and Serbs, yesterday on the outskirts of town. "We don't know why the world is insistent on putting fuel on the fire. The Russians took part in the massacres, so people have a right to be afraid."
FOR officials say they have no evidence of such Russian involvement, official or otherwise. But Albanian witnesses say that soldiers wearing Serb paramilitary uniforms and speaking Russian raided their homes in the final weeks of the conflict. State-run television in Belgrade, before and during the NATO airstrikes, also broadcast footage and interviews of Russian "volunteers" who dressed up in such uniforms and vowed to fight in Kosovo.
Three days into the stalemate yesterday, the Albanians threatened to go on hunger strike - in addition to holding the blockade - unless KFOR rescinds its order for the Russians to deploy.
But NATO officials vow not to budge. "We are not talking about a compromise. For us, this is an order that we go out, and the Russians come in," says Dutch KFOR spokesman Capt. Mike Bos. "It has already been decided at a political level. What is left for us is to convince the people that the Russians are KFOR."
Talks are to continue in coming days. But "people think the Russians took part against them, and if they believe that, you can't take away this feeling. It's impossible," adds Captain Bos. "What we all agree is that we are not going to use any violence. So if there is no shift, we will stay here for months."
On the frontlines of the blockade, the ethnic Albanian farmers and villagers say they are ready for that, and have already set up tents along the hillside like a refugee convoy. The road is blocked by coils of barbed wire with signs in English, Albanian, and German that read: "Russians are rapists," and "Yes NATO, No Russians."
"We have Russians inside Orahovac already, why do we need more?" asks Bahtiar Spahiu, a retired accountant, referring to the 2,500 Serbs living in an enclave behind the Serbian Orthodox Church in town.
"The Russians always say, 'We care for our Serb brothers,' so if these Serbs are their brothers, why don't they pick up their brother and take them back to Russia," he says, as the other men laugh in approval. Three days of sitting and sleeping on the road have taken their toll in food stains on his trousers, but the hardship hasn't dimmed his anger.
"We will make no compromise with the Russians, and we will never move from here," Mr. Spahiu says. In the picnic-like atmosphere, people play chess and draw water from an old, red firetruck that forms part of the blockade. There seems not the slightest hint of urgency as protesters settle in for the long haul. "They can bring their Russian tanks and drive over us. If we have to, we will die here."
The vast majority of the prewar population of 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo have fled, and in most cases those remaining are not seen as having taken direct roles in the "cleansing" that caused 750,000 ethnic Albanians to flee earlier this year.
But in Orahovac, many war criminals are believed to be in hiding among the Serb population. Just last Friday, three Serb leaders - including the former mayor of the town - were arrested by NATO military police after presentations of information by the International War Crimes Tribunal based in The Hague.
Tribunal investigators have found evidence of dozens of suspected mass graves for an estimated 1,000 people. "As a soldier, we told the Serbs we have nothing against you as Serbs, but the criminals hidden among you," says one KLA soldier who asked not to be named.
Serbs have been making threats over the telephone that they will "blow up" evidence of Albanians here once the Russians come, he says, and have been "provoking the Albanians a lot, because they know the Russians are close."
"We apologize to the Russians, because they have some good soldiers," the KLA soldier adds. "But it is a matter of losing trust and faith, and we don't know which are good or not."
In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the embarrassing standoff was an "open challenge" to the international community.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society