In Kosovo, a hard year all around

A year after NATO launched airstrikes, crops are growing again. So is unrest.

The wheat sown last fall is beginning to turn green, and for the first time in two years, the women of Mala Krusa are preparing to plant the peppers and other vegetables that made this region famous throughout Kosovo.

But for this battered southern village, stripped of most of its men, spring is less a season of hope than of endurance. Today, nearly one year after NATO began its three-month bombing campaign aimed at defending ethnic Albanians from Serbian repression and ethnic cleansing, Mala Krusa, like the rest of Kosovo, faces an uncertain future. So far, attempts to establish law and order, cultivate a moderate civilian leadership, and heal ethnic divisions have largely failed.

When NATO airstrikes began on March 24, the alliance expected Yugoslavia to concede after a few days. Instead, the missiles only increased the fury of attacks, resulting in stepped up killings and mass expulsions.

Mala Krusa was among the first to suffer. On March 26, women and children were driven out of the village and, eventually, to Albania. The men and boys, witnesses say, were taken away and shot, their bodies set on fire. In all, more than 100 people disappeared.

"It's very difficult without husbands and sons," says Medije Shehu, who lost her husband and two sons in the attack. "Before the war, they took care of the family. Now we are only waiting to see who will help us."

Today, among the shells of burned and ruined houses, families that have stuck through the winter are looking forward to the promise of reconstruction, to new homes and new beginnings.

"For my daughters there is a chance to have a job, to do something in the future," Mrs. Shehu says softly, her eyes reddening. But, she adds, "for me there is nothing."

Like all of Kosovo, Mala Krusa has received considerable assistance with rebuilding. A German relief agency helped build roofs on some of the less-damaged houses, so that families like the Shehus had at least one warm room in which to spend the winter.

Shehu also received a new wood stove, which is practically her home's only furnishing. She has received regular supplies of food, a small amount of cash, and six chickens. This spring, the European Union begins what will likely be many years of reconstruction in Kosovo, and Mala Krusa is in the plans.

Few people in Mala Krusa can say their life today is better than it was in years past. But at least in the abstract, they can affirm the fruits of NATO's intervention, however much it cost them. While Kosovo technically remains a province of Serbia, it has been under de facto control of KFOR, the NATO-led protection force, and United Nations civil administrators since last June, when Yugoslav forces withdrew.

"We are free," said Florim Hajdari, who fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian force that oposed the Yugoslav military in Kosovo. "We're free to go anywhere we want. We didn't have that before." Mr. Hajdari lost his father and five brothers in last year's massacre.

But the blend of newfound freedom and past suffering has proven disastrous for the province's remaining Serbs and dismaying for Western officials. Many ethnic Albanians have returned not only to reclaim the jobs and liberties once denied them, but also to exact vengeance against non-Albanians, who continue to flee.

"It's wrong to think the bombing campaign ended the war," says Bernard Kouchner, the top UN official in Kosovo. "The confrontation between men goes on. The hatreds are stronger."

Repeated violence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the divided city of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, has prompted France and Italy to bolster their peacekeeping presence there. Reports of clashes between Serb police and a new ethnic-Albanian force linked to the disbanded KLA in Serbia proper are also worrying to Western officials. American peacekeepers have increased patrols along parts of the border between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia in an effort to prevent cross-border attacks.

In a report released March 21, NATO Sec.-Gen. George Robertson warned that the people of Kosovo "must seize the opportunities presented or risk losing the goodwill and backing of the international community.... Ethnic hatred must be set aside if the future is to be truly different.

He added that the NATO bombing campaign and subsequent deployment of 40,000 peacekeepers had only provided "a platform to build upon."

"There is a risk that hard-won success could drift away," Mr. Robertson said, repeating a call for more money and international police to restore law and order in Kosovo. "There should be no illusions," he said. "The task remaining is formidable."

On March 19, about 150 Serbs jammed into a 14th-century stone church at the Orthodox monastery in Gracanica, a Serb village about 40 miles north of Mala Krusa. With some 7,000 Serbs, it is one of the largest Serb enclaves left in Kosovo. The leader of Kosovo's Orthodox Christian Serbs, Bishop Artemje, delivered the sermon. "For a long time, there have been many people who have fallen away from our religion," he said.

"Because of that, God is punishing us. Because of that, we are going through the fire of suffering."

He made no mention of ethnic Albanian suffering, which Serbs have for the most part ignored or denied. In any case, the bishop, with all the authority of his glittering gold miter, assured his people that better times would come. But some in the congregation doubt his words.

"What can I do?" asked a young man named Dragan after the service. "My friends have gone away. I think the future is to go in Serbia or somewhere else. For young people there is no future here. I feel like a bird in a cage." His sisters have already left, he says, for Serbia, Germany, and the United States. His father, Radivoje, is more defiant. "This is my house, my land, my graves," he says. "I won't go."

The anguish so evident in Mala Krusa may help explain why ethnic Albanians continue to persecute Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo. The village is now entirely ethnic Albanian, while before the war 1 person in 5 was a Serb. The idea of living with Serbs is almost unthinkable.

"Never," says Shehu. "Because of what they did, I never want to see them here again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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