Gun culture stymies the UN in Kosovo

The victim was a schoolteacher, killed by a grenade as he sat in a grocery store in the village of Cernica in eastern Kosovo.

"He was drawing up lesson plans for the beginning of the school year," says Radusha Brankica a fellow teacher. Crying, she then pleads, "I can't take any more of this violence. With grenades and guns everywhere, how can we stop the killing?"

The blast this month was part of a recent rash of weekly shootings and explosions that are raising international concern over uncontrolled weapons in this UN protectorate.

A recent United Nations study estimates there are about half a million small arms in Kosovo, primarily illegal weapons held by civilians. In a province of 2 million people, almost every family is armed - a legacy of ethnic strife here and a threat to efforts to stabilize the province.

Kosovo was flooded with weapons in 1997 after rioters looted military armories in neighboring Albania. Many of the pilfered arms went to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which was waging a guerrilla war against Serb rule over this primarily ethnic- Albanian province. In return, Serbian security forces issued machine guns to Serb paramilitaries and ordinary farmers alike. The conflict culminated in a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that forced Serb soldiers to leave and put the province under UN administration.

The proliferation of arms has the rest of Europe worried. For the first time, Kosovo is now a net exporter of weapons, primarily those smuggled to Albanian gangs and organized crime in Italy, Greece, Germany, and the Czech Republic.

"Some countries have a mafia, but in Kosovo, the mafia has a country," says one American security official in Kosovo, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Especially with the increased activity of Islamic extremists and Al Qaeda groups in and around Kosovo, this situation could pose a real security threat to Europe."

The UN administration of Kosovo has mounted a massive antiarms campaign, and declared an amnesty this month for civilians to turn in illegal and unregistered weapons without penalty. Billboards and posters depicting a child holding out a rose toward the shadowy figure of a man with a machine gun have multiplied across the countryside, along with UN information stands and weapons-collection teams provided by KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force here. In a place where no wedding is complete without celebratory gunfire, anyone caught with an illegal weapon after Sept. 30 could face eight years in prison.

"The campaign is focusing on the ordinary citizen who has a Kalashnikov stashed under their bed," says Barry Fletcher, spokesman for the multinational police force in Kosovo. "Having AK47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in private homes makes every minor neighborly dispute potentially lethal."

NATO-led forces imposed an uneasy peace in Kosovo four years ago, and KLA leaders have become Kosovo's new political class. There have been several attempts to collect unregistered arms, but they have yielded only several hundred weapons. Despite promises of UN development aid to communities that give up weapons, many officials admit privately that they expect little better from the current amnesty. Halfway through the operation, US soldiers stationed at a collection point in eastern Kosovo say not one civilian had come to turn in a weapon.

Cernica residents say they need to have weapons. "You can't depend on KFOR to protect you," says one. "There were KFOR troops just up the street when the [grocery] store was grenaded, and they didn't stop it from happening. The only protection is to have your own gun and shoot back."

The teacher's murder appears to have been an ethnic attack. The victim was a Serb; the attackers escaped to the Albanian part of the village. Villagers on both sides say it is only a matter of time before armed Serbs take revenge. But the easy availability of weapons in Kosovo means that not just ethnic tensions, but everything from bar fights to business disputes is solved with a gun.

"You think twice before getting in an argument in Kosovo because someone always ends up dead, " says Dukajin Gorani, director of the Human Rights Center at Pristina University. Mr. Gorani and many others blame the violence on a "gun culture" that has resulted from decades of conflict and lawlessness.

"In this part of the world, there is a strong belief in customary law which means an eye for an eye," Gorani says. "It is commendable that KFOR is trying to collect weapons, but it is an impossible task. Kosovars have learned from the KLA that you get international attention if you have a gun. In our lifetime the rule of law has never achieved anything, only guns have provided a measure of justice. So you stick to your gun."

This summer has seen the rise of another shadowy paramilitary force called the Albanian National Army (with the Albanian initials AKSh) in Kosovo and border areas in Macedonia and Serbia proper. That group, along with scattered Serb militias and organized crime on both sides of the ethnic divide, has created an atmosphere of fear and instability in Kosovo that makes disarmament extremely difficult.

"From the perspective of a peasant in Kosovo, the prospect of another war in southeastern Europe is not far fetched at all," says Aaron Presnall, director of the East-West Institute's Southeastern Europe office. "In the past few centuries, anyone who wasn't armed in this region has quickly found themselves at the end of someone else's barrel. In that context, keeping a gun is simply good common sense."

Ethnic-Albanian villagers in Zhegra, just three miles from Cernica, remember all too well what it is like to be outgunned by Serb paramilitaries who forced them to flee their homes in 1999.

"As long as the Serbs are just over the hill, we will keep our guns," says Fatlum, a young man who did not give his last name.

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