The first whiff of the chaos inside Kosovo strikes as you approach the border. One moment you're enjoying a scenic drive from Skopje, the Macedonian capital, on a road that snakes through stunning mountain valleys. In the next, your taxi is the latest appendage to a two-mile-long traffic jam.
Word spreads that the wait is six to eight hours. So you pay the taxi driver and walk to the other side, where dozens of taxis wait. The vast clearing on the left was once the notorious Blace refugee camp. From here, this past spring, CNN broadcast dramatic images of exiled Albanians struggling in the rain and the mud for bread.
To your right, the vehicles are a who's who of the players in Kosovo today: NATO Humvees and jeeps; humanitarian officials in four-wheel drives; trucks laden with dry goods or relief supplies; and Albanians smuggling in Mercedes and Volkswagen Golfs. "You could really blame anyone in this situation," says one exasperated British officer, surveying the scene from his jeep. "NATO, the Macedonians, stupid drivers, anyone."
The finger-pointing intensifies once inside Kosovo.
Five months after NATO air strikes halted Serbian "ethnic cleansing," the place is a mess. Still legally the southern province of Yugoslavia, it is now a UN protectorate. But it's wracked with violent crime, lawlessness, and revenge killings of Serbs, plagued with daily power and water outages, and saddled with 70 percent unemployment. A tour of the province also reveals a landscape scarred with mass graves and land mines, and littered with burned homes and businesses.
Yet those are only the most visible signs of a war-torn society. On top of that, the UN must transform a political and economic system that was rooted in four decades of Communism.
Kosovo today is more an exercise in colony-building, a task of a magnitude that critics say has overwhelmed the UN Mission in Kosovo. They also point to poor relations among the Kosovo Albanians, UNMIK, and the fleet of international humanitarian organizations pitching in.
"The UN is trying to manage an unmanageable situation," says a relief worker. "But ... there ought to be a vision of how to minimize losses and maximize results. There isn't one. So there's this vicious cycle where no one has identified a point where it can be broken."
The locals, however, aren't complaining as loudly. Among the 1.8 million Kosovar Albanians in the province there is an air of liberation. "It's only since the Serbs left that I realize how bad life was," says journalist Ardian Arifaj. "Just the other day I was driving near where there used to be a Serb checkpoint, and this old panic came back to me. You never knew if they'd let you pass, or arrest you or beat you. Now I have to remind myself: It's over."
And life is slowly returning to normal. In Pristina, an Albanian-language "Hamlet" premiered this month; a few weeks earlier, "Mr. and Miss Kosovo" were crowned. In every village, one finds the Albanian flag - the black-on-red, double-headed eagle - fluttering from a number of bombed-out homes. This signifies that a new roof, a new home, is being built.
But it is the plight of the Serbs who remain that now receives the most attention here. Their community of some 200,000 is down to tens of thousands, generally the elderly. It is said that those who believed they were guilty of something left before the Albanian refugees returned in June. Others, who say they had nothing to do with the forced evacuations, stayed behind.
Many Serbs were killed in the first few weeks, after Albanian refugees returned. The rate has now dropped to one murder per day, UN police say. The continuing violence against Serbs has led to increasingly strident condemnations by Western officials.
The West went to war with Yugoslavia in the name of "human rights," and has invested its reputation in Kosovo. But some analysts here wonder if the drive to maintain a "multiethnic society" is distracting the international community, when what existed here before was more apartheid-like than harmonious.
"At least you can have multiethnic as the ideal," says Bryan Hopkinson, local director for the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group. "But the focus should be on building structures that will work versus institutions that may not work. They didn't live here hand in hand, like in Bosnia, but more side by side ... You can't simply graft America's Constitution of 1776 and expect Albanians to live under it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society