Kosovo village's lessons for Iraq

You walk down Main Street - the only through street - in this village in southeastern Kosovo and you get a worm's eye view of military occupation - what is right and what can be wrong. In short, you see how grandiose macropolitics rests on the microrealities of everyday life. It holds some lessons for Iraq.

Mogila is a latent source of friction in this part of the former Yugoslavia under occupation by Anglo-American forces. It has a small, mixed population of ethnic Serbs and Albanians who, after nearly four years of peace and benevolent foreign control, mistrust and hate each other.

NATO's Kosovo force, KFOR, occupies the province with a UN mandate to preserve security while promoting transition to civil authority. It is a military responsibility that American, German, and French commands share in multinational brigades under a UN political administration. The American command keeps an anxious eye on Mogila and two similar neighboring villages.

Earlier this year, an Albanian boy threw a stone at an automobile. The Serbian driver got out and slapped his face. There followed hue and cry. A hand grenade was thrown at a nondescript Serbian bar. Shots rang out. Those responsible, all Albanians, were identified, but when the witnesses were to testify to the police they couldn't remember a thing.

As we walked along the narrow, potholed street with crumbled asphalt edges, young US Army Capt. William Taylor, of Gambrills, Md., described his work, essentially as head of a city police precinct with his men mainly on foot patrol, getting to know the inhabitants and keeping in touch door to door.

A sergeant opened his reference book, an album of photographs and descriptions of those who count as community leaders or who figure in what the Army calls "spheres of influence": municipal administrators, shopkeepers, schoolteachers. He chats with them all about their views and problems - for early warning of possible trouble.

We passed the small white car of the newKosovo civil police service, on the Serb side of town. A good sign, said the captain, they're beginning to patrol, too. We entered a shabby little storefront Serbian bar, a dimly-lit room with a smoky wood stove and a stove pipe stretched overhead out the window. Inside were an old woman, a couple of Serbs, and several Gypsies, or Roma as they are more politely called. (The Roma are an additional Kosovo tragedy. Having thrown in their lot with the Serbs when the Serbs were on top, they are despised and abused by the Albanians.)

The bar's owner, a demonstrative Serb, complained to us that he was under constant menace from his Albanian neighbors. Sandbags stacked against his window may be meant to reinforce his accusation. He owned an acre or so of land just outside Mogila where, he said, the Albanians had put land mines to keep him from planting - a charge the Americans dismiss. But Serbian concerns are not ignored. Road checks shut down the village when necessary, and speed bumps have been placed on the road to deter drive-by shootings.

What violence there is afflicts the two communities; it has not been directed against KFOR, whose troops have been neither threatened nor attacked. Albanians are grateful to be free of Serbian oppression. Serbs are protected, their children escorted to school. They each want more, but privately appreciate the reality of disinterested peace, as smiles and waves to the soldiers show. The real test will come increasingly as the occupation winds down.

There is no doubt that Kosovo, sooner or later, will be an independent, ethnically Albanian state. Overall, Albanian houses are being repaired, largely with money from the Albanian diaspora, while Serbs are dwindling, clustering in progressively decrepit little enclaves, or selling their property and moving out.

Meanwhile, the guarantor of stability is the presence of KFOR.

The picture is paradoxical. The GI looks fearsome - inseparable from his (or her) weapon, in full uniform topped by a heavy Kevlar helmet with its mount for night-vision goggles. Those on fixed guard duty, as at Serbian Orthodox churches, wear 20 pounds of body armor. But the touch is light and the real job is painstakingly to stitch a torn society together, if possible.

Here, soldiers have been the primary interaction with a population split, vengeful, and largely demoralized by brutal conflict. In Iraq, too, the first and possibly decisive contact is with the troops. In both cases, the people are fortunate.

The US has no better ambassadors than the GIs when their instinctive amiable generosity is given free rein, unconstrained by the ideological agenda that figures so strongly in the Middle East.

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime television correspondent for CBS. He was in Kosovo last week.

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