It's market day in this little town in southern Kosovo, and people are pouring in from nearby villages.
Middle-aged women carry heavy shopping bags while young men strut in black leather jackets, and teenage girls in heavy makeup stroll arm-in-arm along the main street. On either side, merchants display their wares, hawking almost everything a Kosovar might want, from wood stoves and wristwatches to live chickens.
The US Army is here, too, as part of the NATO-led protection force that came to Kosovo last June, after three months of NATO airstrikes forced Yugoslav troops to end a mass purge of the rebellious ethnic Albanian majority in the Serbian province.
Soldiers from Charlie Company, paratroopers from the American peacekeeping force in Kosovo, work their way through the jostling crowd on a routine patrol. With their flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, and M-16 assault rifles, they hardly blend in.
Last month, on a market day like this one, an American soldier allegedly sexually assaulted and killed an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl in Vitina. After the killing, more complaints against the US force came to light, including accusations of verbal abuse, beatings, and inappropriate searches of women.
The Army could hold a hearing as early as this week on whether the soldier accused of the killing, Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi, should face a court-martial. It is likely to decide within the next two weeks whether to charge any soldiers in connection with the other claims. In the meantime, the Army has replaced the unit at the center of the investigations with Charlie Company, giving its 140 soldiers the double challenge of keeping the peace in Vitina - never easy - and winning back the confidence of its residents.
"We have to kind of mend the wounds," says Staff Sgt. James Krause, of Livonia, Mich., as he leads five soldiers through the bazaar.
When violence boils over
Maintaining good relations is a vital but extremely tricky task in Kosovo. In the divided city of Mitrovica, a recent explosion of violence led ethnic Albanian snipers to target NATO peacekeepers on Sunday. Weekend unrest left one person dead and 19 injured, including two French soldiers. Local ethnic Albanians have accused the French contingent of favoring Serbs, who control the northern side of the city.
Back in Vitina, Staff Sgt. Hector Rubio steps forward to admire a pair of chickens held up by a grizzled old man in a black beret. "I don't want them to be afraid of us," Sergeant Rubio, from El Paso, Texas, explains as his squad continues down the street. "I don't think they know how to take us. But if you go out of your way to talk to them, then they get to know you better."
First Lt. Reubin Felkey, a platoon leader from Redwood Falls, Minn., hands out peppermint candies to children. Some respond with a shy "Thank you" in English before racing off. He senses a new wariness in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians have regarded Americans as heroes for the role the US played in the war last spring.
"Normally when I hand out candy, I get mobbed," Lieutenant Felkey says. "I get a feeling people here are surprised. They don't make eye contact with us. You look at them, and they look away."
The Army has disclosed little about its investigations. The accusations apparently have focused on seven soldiers, including officers. Both local residents and international officials say American soldiers verbally or physically abused people while making arrests, controlling crowds, or searching for guns and other weapons. In one case, the family of a man who is mute said he was beaten when he slipped on ice and bumped a soldier. Women have complained that soldiers were disrespectful while frisking them for possible weapons.
Human rights monitors in Kosovo say they have received numerous complaints about the Americans and peacekeepers from other countries serving in Kosovo. One problem, they say, is a reluctance to take claims seriously.
"You have a security force here that should set an example of how a security force should act in the framework of human rights," says Elizabeth Griffin of Amnesty International. "Any incidents like these present a major problem."
But they also point to deeper problems for peacekeepers in Kosovo. The failure of the United Nations to assemble an effective police force here has demanded that soldiers assume a role that is foreign to their training. The paratroopers stationed in Vitina are trained to jump out of airplanes and capture airstrips. They are trained to clear trenches and knock out bunkers. They are trained, as one Army officer put it, "to have a little bit of an attitude." But in Kosovo, they often find themselves investigating crimes, manning checkpoints, or patrolling like beat cops.
"You just kind of hit the ground and execute," says Sergeant Krause, whose metaphors, if not his current work, reflect the paratroopers' can-do attitude. "It's like we train for all this other stuff, and then they send us here."
Concern of 'mission creep'
Secretary of Defense William Cohen made much the same point earlier this month when he said that the contradiction was becoming worrisome to both military and civilian leaders.
"I think it has reached the level of concern on the part of not only members of the US Congress, but military commanders," Mr. Cohen told reporters while in Munich for an international security conference. "They are concerned about the possibility of mission creep - that the military is being called upon to engage in police functions for which they are not properly trained and we don't want them to carry out."
Another problem is that it's not working. The presence of 45,000 peacekeepers and 2,000 UN police officers has been unable to stop the violence in Kosovo. And in many places, including Vitina, the violence is not just between ethnic Albanians and Serbs but among ethnic Albanians struggling for power or settling old scores. For weeks, arsons in Vitina have targeted ethnic Albanian businesses bought from local Serbs.
Charlie Company may not be able to solve these problems any better than its predecessor. But many people in the market said they were pleased to see the new unit.
"The soldiers who were here before were more aggressive," says Sylejman Halili, who was selling jars of honey. "These are behaving much better. They are respecting us in a human way."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society