Brick by brick, US troops build trust with Kosovars

With reconciliation far off, peacekeepers work to ease tensions in a divided village.

On a recent evening, Lt. Jason Schroeder, a platoon leader from South Bend, Ind., sets out with an interpreter and two sergeants along a dusty lane in this little farming village in southeastern Kosovo.

The day's stifling heat has lifted, and villagers are beginning to emerge from their houses. They stand in doorways and sit on small wooden benches outside. Lieutenant Schroeder, who seems to know almost everyone, greets them cheerfully as he passes.

As the soldiers walk, they cross and re-cross the hidden lines that divide the village. The lieutenant's greetings register the changes. "Dobro vjecer!" he calls to the Serbs, wishing them a good evening.

"Meer'mbrahma!" he calls out in the ethnic Albanian neighborhoods.

For five months, the soldiers have been trying to break down divisions between the two groups, which go beyond mere geography to every aspect of life - from where their children attend school to where they buy bread. While the divisions proved deeper than expected, the soldiers believe they have had some success in reducing violence in the village and may have begun to lay the groundwork for improved relations.

Some of this is evident as Schroeder moves through the village, acting more like a local ward boss than a combat soldier. It is part of his strategy for winning the trust of the villagers, and he is good at it. He listens patiently while the wife of the local Serb leader harangues him. Local ethnic Albanians, she says, are paying "too much attention" to repairs on the town's Serb Orthodox church. The building was bombed in January, presumably by Albanians bent on revenge for earlier Serb mistreatment.

Farther on, an Albanian shopkeeper bitterly recounts how, a year and a half ago, Serb paramilitaries threatened his family. "He still has trauma," the man says, nodding toward a small boy who stands in the doorway, gazing up at the soldiers.

Schroeder and the 37 men of his platoon are part of the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Ky. Trained as infantrymen, they came to Cernica in March for the more delicate work of peacekeeping, a job for which they had little experience or training.

The first priority was to stop the violence that had occasionally erupted in the village. But more than that, they were determined to nudge Cernica, and by extension Kosovo, a step closer to real peace. They didn't expect anything so profound as forgiveness or reconciliation. They simply wanted people to begin to speak to each other. "We had higher aspirations for this place," Schroeder says. "Maybe we were somewhat naive. Maybe we didn't really know what we were getting into."

About 2,500 people live in the village, a fifth of them Serbs. Ever since the Americans arrived in June 1999 - when the United Nations took over administration of the Serbian province after a three-month NATO bombing campaign to end mass expulsions and attacks against majority ethnic Albanians by Yugoslav forces - for a place of its size, it has been one of the more violent places in Kosovo. The worst incident occurred on May 28, when someone emptied an AK-47 into a Serb grocery store, killing three people, including a four-year-old boy.

On other occasions, Serb homes and businesses have been attacked with grenades, antitank rockets, and other explosives.

Nonetheless, the Americans drew hope from their belief that most of the attacks have been the work of a few Albanian extremists. Most people, they say, "just want to get on with their lives."

In ways big and small, the soldiers worked hard not just to make a show of force in Cernica, but to befriend villagers on both sides of the ethnic divide. They kicked soccer balls and shot baskets with local children. They helped Albanian villagers find materials to rebuild houses burned by Serb forces. They saved up extra Army food - loaves of bread, cartons of milk, bags of potato chips - and delivered it to poor families. When they couldn't get an international organization to help a needy family, they sometimes spent their own money.

"If people can see we really care about them as a people, and have their interests at heart, they'll develop more of a bond and trust," says Sgt. 1st Class Jerry Boden, of Odessa, Texas. "My soldiers have made friends with people in the city on both sides."

One sign of their success, the soldiers say, is that villagers seem eager to come to them with complaints, whether about stolen chickens or grenades in the backyard. The violence, too, has subsided, although it has not gone away entirely. Until last Friday night, when an explosion destroyed an empty Serb house, the village had gone two months without an incident.

But their larger goal remains elusive. In the beginning, they tried to persuade village leaders to meet. "We just wanted them to sit down and talk about the weather, soccer, whatever they wanted," says Schroeder.

When that failed, he and his sergeants decided to shift their efforts to ordinary people. They would ask Serbs and Albanians they met about old acquaintances on the other side. Then they went to those people and tried to arrange an informal meeting.

"I worked at it for a month," says Staff Sgt. Richard Schuck, of Madison, Ohio. "It was my sole purpose in life to make that 'love connection,' to have them meet just for coffee. I came close, but I couldn't make it happen."

One of the biggest obstacles, the soldiers say, has been the continuing presence of a handful of Serb men whom they believe helped expel local Albanians during last year's NATO bombing. The impunity the men seem to enjoy has kept tensions high. The soldiers also blame political pressures from the outside. They say some people expressed an interest in renewing old acquaintances, but seemed afraid to try.

The soldiers are even more vexed with their own "higher-ups." They say Western policy in Kosovo coddles the Serbs and fuels Albanian resentment. UN police, they say, have made little effort to prosecute Serb war criminals who remain in Kosovo. Meanwhile, they say, most international aid in Cernica goes to Serbs. The soldiers say they have little to offer ethnic Albanians as a reward for cooperating with Serbs.

"We're kind of on a stationary bike now," Sergeant Schuck says. "We're just spinning our wheels. We're not going forward, we're not going backward."

Lately, the soldiers have been getting ready to turn Cernica over to a new platoon. They are servicing their Humvees, packing their gear, and saying their good-byes. They are leaving disappointed, but far wiser than when they arrived. For all their frustrations, they believe they have made a difference in Cernica. And as they prepared to return to the United States, they couldn't help wondering whether the new platoon would continue their efforts, or squander them.

"Everything we've been trying to do here," says Sgt. Frank Boyd, from Wylliesburg, Va. "Is it going to stop when we leave?"

Probably not. Over the weekend, the US soldiers were familiarizing their replacements with the village and their ongoing efforts.

Last week, they were trying to get a new house built for an ethnic Albanian family living in a shack with a dirt floor and no windows. They had scrounged four-by-fours from the local Army base and were planning to put up a swing set. And they continued the quiet diplomacy along Cernica's crooked lanes.

At one little store, Schroeder runs into a local schoolteacher, an Albanian man who speaks movingly about the difficulties of living with the Serbs. "Only God and the United States of America can fix things here," he says.

"It's going to take the brave souls on either side, too," replies the lieutenant, sitting on a plastic crate with his helmet off and his rifle propped up against one knee. "We can create a safe environment, but it's going to take the people in town to take the lead. It's maybe too soon now, but sooner or later it's going to be up to the people."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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