The streets and highways of southern Serbia's Presevo Valley are dotted with brightly colored posters that, after 16 months of sporadic fighting, hold out a new hope for this war-torn region.
"We don't want our children to die. We don't want to spend the rest of our lives in hatred," they say in Albanian and Serbian.
Following an internationally brokered peace deal that was signed Monday, some 4,000 Serbian troops yesterday began returning to a sensitive "buffer zone" region along the Kosovo border that has served as an Albanian rebel stronghold since 1999.
The peace deal is part of NATO's latest Balkans strategy: to support the Yugoslav and Macedonian governments' efforts to stamp out their respective Albanian insurgencies while promoting protection of minority rights and power sharing.
Many Albanians in southern Serbia say they are disillusioned by the decision of Shefqet Musliu, and other rebel leaders, to demobilize, but they're glad that the fighting is over. At least, they hope it is. Yesterday at press time, there were unconfirmed reports that a rebel commander had been killed in the buffer zone. If Serbian troops were involved, the peace deal could unravel.
Hundreds of rebels have already turned their guns over to NATO troops on the Kosovo border, while many more are waiting until the May 31 deadline. Albanian rebels had hoped that NATO, following precedents in Bosnia and Kosovo, would eventually establish another international protectorate in southern Serbia. But with Slobodan Milosevic in jail and reformers in power in Belgrade, NATO has instead backed Yugoslavia's government.
Albanian rebel leaders had little choice but to accept a peace deal. A fierce battle in the village of Oraovica 10 days ago showed them that the international community was willing to allow the Yugoslav Army to engage the rebels in areas populated by civilians.
In the following days, American and other diplomats made clear that if the rebels didn't put down their weapons, they would have to face the Yugoslav Army in the 3-mile wide buffer zone.
For Albanian leaders in Kosovo, the relatively small guerrilla army in southern Serbia was becoming a political liability.
Kosovar leaders are focused on elections this fall that will allow self-governance for the first time since the United Nations began running the protectorate. Ramush Haradinaj, an Albanian leader in Kosovo who is widely believed to have supported the rebels, declared, "The agreement between the parties in the conflict is a success and should be supported."
At the same time, the international community insists that Serbia will have to make real improvements in its treatment of ethnic Albanians. A key component of that is the formation of a multi-ethnic police force that has already begun training under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In Belgrade, the return of Serb troops to the buffer zone is perceived as an important political victory for Yugoslavia's democratic reformers, led by President Vojislav Kostunica.
"We have re-established cooperation with NATO and the international community, and are changing the image of Serbia created during the Milosevic regime," says Biserka Matic Spasojevic, Yugoslavia's ambassador to Macedonia.
As in Macedonia, the Albanian rebels in Serbia have been supplied from Kosovo and crossed the American-protected border with impunity.
The disbanding rebel army can still pose a regional risk, Serb leaders warn. "Some adventurous Albanian rebels will probably want to continue their fight and will move to Macedonia," says Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic.
Indeed, the formula for peace in southern Serbia will not be as easily implemented in Macedonia, where fighting continued yesterday just 20 miles south of Presevo Valley. Macedonia has a much larger ethnic-Albanian population, and Macedonia's army is small and poorly equipped. "The situation in Macedonia is more complex and will not be as easily solved, but I do think that the Macedonian government can learn some important lessons from our experience," says Ms. Spasojevic, the ambassador.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor