To the six US soldiers suddenly confronted on a narrow road in southern Kosovo, the crowd seemed to form in an instant. Angry Serbs roared up in cars and came running across the fields, a half dozen troublemakers quickly swelling to a mob of 75.
"People just came out of the woodwork," says Staff Sgt. Mark Williams, whose squad had responded to an explosion at a Serb house in Vrbovac. Then the unruly crowd began to hurl softball-sized rocks. "I tried to talk with them," says Sergeant Williams, of Clarksville, Tenn. "I said, 'I'm trying to help you guys.' But they wouldn't listen."
Hostile crowds are an occupational hazard of peacekeeping, but US troops in Kosovo have faced them with increasing regularity in the past two weeks, including the incident in Vrbovac on May 10.
"I think everyone anticipated that tensions would rise in the spring and summer," says Lt. Col. Lloyd Miles, commander of the area that includes Vrbovac, where American soldiers from
the 101st Airborne Division are based. "You've got everyone out, the days are longer, and they've got nothing to do."
The unrest comes as pressure mounts in Washington to place limits on US participation in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a defense spending bill, that would cut off funding for the the 5,900 American troops in Kosovo, unless the president certifies by April 1, 2001 that NATO allies have fully funded police, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction programs in the Serbian province. The Senate was due to vote on a similar measure yesterday.
The Clinton administration fiercely opposes the congressional effort, and the presumed Republican nominee for president, George W. Bush, has also come out against it.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson warned that an American pullout could cause severe harm. "The NATO presence in Kosovo needs to be decided on the merits of our being there - the job that we are doing and that we need to finish," he said in Brussels yesterday.
'A dangerous mission'
The recent violence has underscored not only the fragility of the peace in Kosovo, eleven months after NATO-led peacekeepers moved in to end the Yugoslav Army's terrorization and mass expulsion of majority ethnic Albanians. It also highlights the risks that American soldiers face as they struggle to keep order in an unpredictable and often volatile situation. Avoiding American casualties has been a major concern for US forces here, aware of an apparent zero-tolerance policy at home.
"It is a dangerous mission," observes Lieutenant Colonel Miles, of Fountain, Colo. "As we saw the other night, soldiers could be injured or killed when things get out of hand. There are extremist elements, and they're clearly working against the goals of the international community." Goals that include the difficult task of restoring a democratic and multiethnic Kosovo, reconciling the bitterly divided Serbian and ethnic Albanian communities.
Most of the recent trouble has centered around Vitina, a dusty market town with a mixed population. The violence has mainly targeted Serbs: houses blown up, an elderly man shot while fishing, an 8-year-old-girl and her parents wounded by gunfire in their yard. On Saturday night, five mortar shells fell on Vrbovac, one just a quarter mile from an American outpost.
But Serbs have lashed out at Albanians, too. Two weeks ago, a Serb mob in the village of Klokot, enraged by the killing of the fisherman, yanked ethnic Albanians from passing cars and set fire to the vehicles. More than a dozen Albanians were injured; some might have died, if American soldiers had not come to the rescue.
In both Klokot and, last week, in Vrbovac, Serb rage also turned on the soldiers. The Serbs say they are frustrated because the Americans are failing to protect them. "People in the village have been closed in for months," says Nenad Kojic, the mayor of Vrbovac. "They don't have freedom of movement, and now they don't have the freedom to sleep freely in their homes. People have been very, very angry."
The incident in Vrbovac showed just how angry. Williams says the villagers "seemed to think we wouldn't shoot them.
"To me, I didn't want to have to shoot someone if I could get all my people out safely. But the thought came across our minds," he adds.
"It seems there's a day and night attitude," adds Lt. Lou Bauer, of Windsor, Kentucky, whose platoon camps out at the Serbian Orthodox church in Vrbovac. "We've learned some Serbian words, like Dobar dan ("Hello")....They'll smile and wave. At night, when the bombs go off, they're quite hostile."
In February, Serbs in the ethnically divided northern town of Mitrovica - where French troops have faced hostile crowds for months - pelted US soldiers with rocks and snowballs during a multinational operation to search for weapons.
Afterward, American officials forbade US troops from returning to Mitrovica. But the recent trouble around Vitina, which seemed to start with the bombing of a Serb Orthodox church on April 29, has brought the largest spate of attacks directed against American soldiers.
Orders from Belgrade?
Even though the unrest has surprised no one, its causes are not altogether clear to military commanders and other Western officials. Some of it, they say, springs from longstanding grievances between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. It also comes at a time when Serbs who fled their homes last year, with the arrival of NATO forces, are talking about coming back.
"I'm sure whatever organization is behind it, is to discourage Serbs from returning, and to push the [remaining Serbs] out," Miles says. But officials also wonder about the hidden hand of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Local Serbs have refused to cooperate with the West and are thought to maintain close ties to the Belgrade government. Groping for explanations, officials speculate that some of the violence, including the bombing of empty Serb houses, may be part of an effort to discredit the NATO-led peacekeeping effort, or KFOR.
"I really don't know if all these explosions are made by Albanians," says Kurt Kraus, chief of the United Nations police in Vitina. "Maybe some ... are being made by Serbs, just for political reasons, so they can say, 'See, KFOR can't protect us.' " Local ethnic Albanians favor this explanation, and since no one has been caught, officials can't rule it out.
The recent unrest also has raised questions about American tactics in Kosovo. Vrbovac mayor Mr. Kojic says the Americans could protect his village better if they put more troops on the outskirts and fewer in the center.
In the meantime, Miles has warned his troops "not to get sucked in to the hate." The Army has reinforced its units in and around Vitina. It has increased the number of patrols and checkpoints. It has imposed a curfew over the whole area. But the Americans say they cannot, in the words of one captain, "put a soldier on every street corner." And although the beginning of this week was calm, no one really expects the violence to end soon.
"So many small things can set it off," Miles says. "It can also be quiet for a few weeks. There's no way to tell."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society