In the small, sagging stucco house on the edge of town, a steady procession of visitors came this week to pay their condolences to Hamdi and Remzie Shabiu, following the funeral of their 12-year-old daughter, Merita, on Sunday.
In a room with yellow and blue walls, men sat cross-legged on the floor, some of the older ones wearing white felt skullcaps that are traditional among ethnic Albanians. In a crowded adjoining room, women helped cook big pots of beans and chicken on a wood stove, their faces drawn with grief.
In Kosovo, a province of Serbia where an estimated 11,000 people died last spring in a Serb crackdown on rebellious ethnic Albanians, this death was unique. An American soldier, a member of the peacekeeping force that arrived June 12 to stop the killing, is the prime suspect, say officials.
And so this afternoon brought some extraordinary visitors. Brig. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of American forces in Kosovo; and Lawrence Rossin, the chief American diplomat in Kosovo, pulled up to the Shabius' gate in a column of Humvees and Chevrolet Suburbans. Together with aides and translators, they entered the house and expressed their sympathies on behalf of the United States.
"He is happy with the support we've given his family," General Sanchez said after speaking to Mr. Shabiu.
Wearing a flack jacket and helmet strapped firmly on, Sanchez looked more like a commander heading into battle than someone who'd come to show sympathy to a grieving family. "He does not blame KFOR [the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo]."
Merita Shabiu's body was found three miles from Vitina on Jan. 13. Authorities say she had been sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi has been detained on charges of murder and "indecent acts with a child." He is being held in a military jail in Mannheim, Germany.
The killing of the fifth-grader shocked Kosovars and international peacekeepers alike. It is the first such violent act that has been blamed on the peacekeeping force, which numbers 50,000.
It has clearly embarrassed the 7,000-strong American force based in southeastern Kosovo. The rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three US servicemen on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1995 triggered demonstrations and demands for an end to the American presence there. But so far in this case, the death seems unlikely to tarnish the peacekeeping mission overall.
As the visit of Sanchez suggests, the American peacekeepers have acted swiftly to preserve the trust of ethnic Albanians. Sanchez met local leaders in Vitina on Sunday night, the day the Americans announced the girl's death. The Americans also brought a gift of food to the Shabiu family.
"They helped my family and everything," Mrs. Shabiu says. "I will never forget that."
The Americans also benefit from a large reserve of goodwill among ethnic Albanians. Kosovars are still grateful for the US role in the air war that, in Albanian eyes, liberated Kosovo from Serb domination and freed them from exile.
As a consequence, even people close to the Shabiu family consider the murder an individual act and blame neither the Americans nor the larger, NATO-led peacekeeping force.
"Everybody likes KFOR," says Sabrie Ferati, who lives in an apartment across from the Sabiu family. "If KFOR wasn't here, we would still be in Macedonia."
The Army has revealed few details about the killing or about what it may be doing to prevent another such incident. Army rules in Kosovo confine soldiers to base except when on patrol or on other official duties. They also prohibit soldiers from traveling alone. Sergeant Ronghi was a weapons squad leader whose unit was housed in the former police station in Vitina, a mixed Serb and ethnic Albanian town of about 6,000 people.
Vitina is one of the tensest places in Kosovo. Some of the harshest reaction to the killing has come from Ronghi's fellow soldiers. Staff Sgt. Ian Fitzgerald, a former parachuter now attached to KFOR headquarters in Pristina, says that while Ronghi must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, "all American soldiers are horrified."
A former paratrooper himself, he said members of the regiment, who consider themselves an elite unit, felt betrayed. "There is extraordinary anger that a member of our community would do this," he says. "Our job is defense and protection of innocents."
As for the Shabius, like many rural families, they lost almost everything during the war against Serb rule. Until three weeks ago, they lived under plastic in the ruins of their home in the village of Deblde, on the Macedonian border. But the winter cold proved too much for them, so they came to Vitina.
They moved into a Serb house that had been taken over by an Albanian man, who said they could stay three months. After that, Remzie Shabiu says, "We don't have anywhere to live."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society