In the aftermath of Kosovo's March
riots, a new clampdown on communication has been enforced on members
of that city's UN administration, police, and military forces. The UN mission
is right now facing its greatest crisis of confidence, and the powers-that-be
are determined to avoid any potentially embarrassing disclosures. However, the
anti-international sentiment that had been stewing for some time has finally
exploded into the open. Now there is no concealing the reality: the international
"liberators" have worn out their welcome, and are increasingly likely to be
targeted should they get in the way of Albanian extremists' plans to ethnically
cleanse Kosovo's last
love affair may be waning, but the saccharine symbolism of 1999 remains.
The Clampdown Confirmed: A Spokesman Sacked
Aside from the general
media whitewashing campaign, there have been two main incidents that
indicate the damage-control concerns of top UNMIK officials. The first involves
Derek Chappell, the longtime UNMIK spokesman who was "internally transferred"
soon after stating that there was no evidence to support the Albanian claim
that Serbs had drowned 3 Albanian children in the River Ibar – an "event" which
nevertheless sparked a 3-day pogrom involving 51,000 rioters starting on March
Despite the furious push the Albanian media gave to the drowning story, other
international officials backed Chappell up. A senior OSCE official in Pristina
told me last week that:
"…the surviving Albanian boy had been influenced prior to speaking to the
police, and then heavily pressured to say that the Serbs did it. If you have
a boy whose brother and perhaps best friends have just died and put him in front
of the cameras, under such duress, how could be expected to act?"
Added UNMIK Regional Media Officer in Mitrovica, Tracy Becker, "From the very
first phone call from RTK (Radio Television Kosovo), I have been saying there
is no evidence for this claim. You have a traumatized child in a very emotional
situation who gets thrown in front of the TV cameras. That shouldn't happen."
During the riots, international officials expressed their "shock" that the
story – all questions of veracity notwithstanding – was being used as justification
for massive, province-wide attacks on Serbs. Nevertheless, during the riots,
KFOR and UNMIK spokesmen in the field weren't allowed to make comments on the
rapidly changing developments; everything had to be filtered back to Pristina
and Chappell. In this unenviable high-pressure situation, Chappell seems to
have done the right thing by telling the truth – but has now paid the price for
This precedent has had far-reaching implications. One spokesman in Pristina
who did not want to be named feared speaking out, lest "they shut me up like
they shut up Derek."
The Serbian government is also making hay of the sacking. Minister for Kosovo
Covic concluded that Chappell's removal and the failure to solve earlier
massacres of Serbs "…sends a clear signal to ethnic Albanian extremists and
terrorists to continue with crimes."
Yet the whole affair could get murkier still: the body of the alleged third
Albanian drowning victim has yet to be found, leading some to question whether
he ever existed in the first place.
The Clampdown Suspected: A Suppressed Casualty Count
The second indication that UN chiefs are in damage-control
mode is the possibility of an incomplete "official" death toll during the riots.
Both Serbian and Albanian media alike last week questioned why UNMIK's death
count has gone down from 32 to 29 and now, to 19. According to the Kosovo "street,"
six KFOR soldiers died during the riots (though officially none were
killed), including "…one Greek in Urosevac, one Italian in Pec, and one French
and one Dane in Mitrovica." Of course, none of this would be reassuring for
the authorities in NATO home countries who are now quite interested to know
why reality is not matching up to all those cheerful summaries of the situation
they've gotten used to receiving from their subordinates.
KFOR soldiers in Mitrovica
prepare to check bridge-crossers for weapons.
KFOR troops man Mitrovica's
heavily barricaded second bridge.
Belgian soldiers monitor
traffic to and from the bridge.
Whispers and Roars
Given this climate of containment, few internationals
are willing to say what they really feel for the record. And Serbs, being afraid
for their lives, are also shrinking from public testimony. Honest, law-abiding
Albanians, too, are reluctant to speak out against the murky and all-powerful
groups responsible for the recent carnage. One Albanian woman working for the
OSCE and educated in America told me, "Me and my friends were all saying, 'what
the hell are they [the mob] doing?' That was not what most Albanians
Nevertheless, the Balkans abounds with examples of vicious minority mobs triumphing
through violence, extorting or intimidating their way through all opposition.
In today's neo-fascist Kosovo, it is in no one's interest to buck the trend
and oppose the rule of vigilantes backed up by the local warlords-in-suits.
However, there are a few dissenters willing to speak out. With the additional
inclusion of off-the-record testimony from a variety of sources, we can see
clearly that the international relationship with the Albanians they "liberated"
five long years ago has undergone a radical shift. The peacekeepers, now in
imminent danger of further attacks from the emboldened Albanian mobs, are expressing
disgust with their tactics and goals. One American special policeman from the
Close Protection Unit blasted the rioters' indiscriminate targeting, saying,
"I'm sorry but that's just ridiculous, attacking the elderly and little kids."
He and a colleague also expressed their concern with the wholesale destruction
of Serbian churches last month: "…that was just uncalled for. That kind of stuff
has got to stop."
In a break with precedent, NATO
commander Admiral Gregory Johnson called the Albanian riots examples
of ethnic cleansing. An unnamed
UN official likened them to a "pogrom" – the Serbian "Kristallnacht."
The internationals are now promising
to maintain order, no matter what it takes. Swedish
Brig. Gen. Anders Braennstroem promised in late March "…to protect the
minorities that were nearly killed and ethnically cleansed last week… and I
will use every means I have. I have 3,000 soldiers with weapons in their hands."
Nevertheless, the local power-brokers aligned against the UN mission are far
too strong for the peacekeepers to control. "Purging" Kosovo's political scene
of criminals, as Javier
Solana vowed to do, would be suicidal. It would require a courage that
foreign occupiers inevitably do not possess.
While a deceptive calm currently prevails, everyone knows that even the slightest
spark can set off a major conflagration which can only be subdued, if at all,
by the deployment of many more foreign troops – no longer an option, considering
that Iraq is itself on the brink of civil war. The American police and soldiers
in Kosovo are doing their level best to protect the Serbian minority, but they're
not likely to get much back-up if and when they need it.
Shock, Embarrassment, Cynicism
"A lot of people here were very shaken by what
occurred," the senior OSCE official in Pristina told me. "Many sincerely believed
things were getting better, that the two communities could co-exist peacefully.
We're still dedicated to the same ideals… but the approach of forcing people
to live together who don't want to live together is now being questioned."
However, what do the internationals make of the Kosovo government's pledge
to rebuild all the houses and churches destroyed during the riots? The official
echoed the cynicism of many when he stated, "…in my opinion this is very much
just an alibi. The international community was shocked by the riots, and the
Albanian leaders needed to react somehow. But I didn't tell you that!"
"A lot of internationals are very disgusted by the Albanians," he said. "We
came to help them, and now they pay us back by behaving like the Serbs did to
them beforehand! We have tried for five years with monetary donations, with
training, with education and other support, but still everything is very superficial.
They have learned merely how to mimic the international language of 'human rights,'
but offer nothing more substantial."
Wet 'n' Wild in Caglavica
"Well, I just hope you're going to tell the truth,"
said the American cop with a chuckle. "You're not from CNN, I hope!" I had introduced
myself as a journalist interested in documenting his experience of the riots.
A thick-chested Texan, "Gary" was happy to oblige, having been in Kosovo for
two-and-a-half years and having seen little of the Kosovo reality reflected
in the international press.
At 10:00 AM on Wednesday, March 17, he said, "we got the alert." Having been
told that a "surge" of Albanians was bearing down on the village of Caglavica,
a few miles west of Pristina, the UN police geared up and prepared to stop the
rioting. "We had 6 armored vehicles and 40 personnel," Gary said. "We attempted
to catch up with the mob but all the roads had been purposely blocked by parked
trucks and buses, so we had to take the back route through Kosovo Polje, getting
to Caglavica around 12:00. At that time, part of Caglavica was already burning."
Once the detachment arrived on the scene, they tried to coordinate with the
Indian, Jordanian, Irish, and Swedish police teams present. Gary estimated the
mob at 5,000-6,000, all ready to raise hell: "…guys were lined up with rows
of Molotov cocktails prepared beforehand. They had AK-47's, heavy machine guns,
hand grenades, pistols, hunting rifles, farm tools, knives, rocks, you name
it. We were ordered not to fire."
This order vexed the policeman and to this day he believes that unnecessary
destruction was caused through this and other "command errors" that occurred
"The Indian policemen, who were facing the worst of it at the front, were
asking for permission to use rubber bullets. That permission was not granted
at the time. The ground commander thought that we could deter the mob with our
presence alone. But with the use of firepower we could have driven them back,
thus saving a lot of houses."
Seeing that the UN police were pushovers, the rioters upped the ante. Gary
recounts the order of events that resulted in the afternoon's first death:
"At this time we had no riot shields up front, and they were stoning us
pretty heavily. We retreated behind some officers who had shields – it
sounded like rain on a tin roof. We thought, 'come on, they can't continue.'
But they did, and still no order was given to use force.
"Finally, as the mob was pushing dangerously close, we were given a KFOR
water cannon truck. With the water cannon we were able to push the crowd back,
and this pissed them off pretty good.
"So we look, and barreling down the road at us here comes this brave Albanian
in a dump truck, all his countrymen rooting him on. And he drives up right in
front of the 2 soldiers holding the water cannon and lurches to a stop. The
crowd cheers. He lurches forward again and stops. More cheers. A soldier from
the back was then forced to take this idiot out because he was about to crush
our guys between his vehicle and the water cannon truck. And the crowd went
silent when they saw that he was dead. Now we're probably going to have a new
monument go up somewhere in Pristina, for this latest hero of the national cause."
Shortly thereafter, Gary says, his team was called back to Pristina to deal
with an unfolding refugee emergency. They were replaced that evening by American
soldiers who did have orders to use lethal force and for this reason commanded
a lot more respect from the mob.
Their contribution, and that of the extraction force that saved Serbian refugees
in Pristina, was acknowledged by the Serbian Ambassador in Skopje, Biserka Matic-Spasojevic,
who told me last week that "If it weren't for the Americans taking action in
Caglavica, over a thousand Serbs would have been lynched. We're really grateful
to the US for helping."
Gary contends that "As Americans, our philosophy is that deadly force can be
used. The UN takes a somewhat different approach. So it is sometimes frustrating
and restricting, working for the UN. To save life and property we were not allowed
to use deadly force."
Still, if not perfect, he says, the peacekeepers' reaction was vital: "If KFOR
hadn't come in at the time, they [the rioters] could have taken the whole province."
A Suspicious Silence
"Right now, there is a rather suspicious silence,"
brooded Stelios, a pessimistic Greek policeman in Gracanica. "I don't like it."
Taking a drag on his cigarette, he compared the current situation to the calm
before the storm, adding that all signs of goodwill have been eroded by the
"Nobody trusts nobody anymore. They [the Albanians] understood that we have
now seen them attack us. And so the KPS [Kosovo Police Service] are now walking
with their heads down, not making eye contact. It's a way of saying sorry, but
we are now enemies.
"Before these riots, you would see UNMIK and KPS officers sitting together
from 12-1 on their lunch break. Not anymore."
The new polarization is visible in the streets of Pristina and throughout Kosovo.
"This place has become much busier in the two last weeks," said one local observer
inside the Cookery Bar, a sports pub popular with foreigners and situated opposite
the UN complex. "The foreigners are starting to avoid the Albanian bars they
used to frequent, instead sticking to places like this." In front of the UN
building, fences and a partial concrete barrier have cut into what used to be
a wide avenue.
A German commander from the Close Protection Unit escorting the Serbian bishop
agreed. "The local people have been acting very differently towards us since
the riots. It's not an encouraging sign."
German and American peacekeepers
at the Serbian Monastery of Gracanica.
The Empowerment Problem
And there are still many nagging questions. Along
with the aforementioned doubts over the Albanian drowning story and the official
casualty toll, there is most importantly the issue of how the "spontaneous"
riots started, and who had ultimate control over them. "Why did [Hasim] Thaci
and [Agim] Ceku not say 'stop' until three days into the riots?" asked Stelios.
"And why, once they did say 'stop,' did everything suddenly stop?"
A former commander in the Croatian and then 1999 Kosovo conflicts, Ceku
is the most contentious figure in the Kosovo Albanian leadership. Some believe
there is a sealed
indictment for him at The Hague. He was arrested in Hungary
on a Serbian Interpol warrant last year, but both times he was released, due
to the frantic
intervention of UNMIK officials. Since the occupiers moved in, he has
been in charge of the pseudo-military TMK – "Thug Men in Kosovo," as Gary and
his peers jokingly refer to them. Mr. Ceku, who actually
offered the US Kosovo's "troops" for Iraq, has lobbied continually for
developing a real Kosovar army and air force. He, Thaci
and a handful of other men more or less control the entire province, commanding
the allegiance of formidable private armies and ow!ning many major businesses,
hotels, bars, and restaurants.
And so not only do these men dominate the official government and command the
formidable UN-approved security apparatus, they also have eyes, ears, and guns
everywhere. And so by giving weapons, uniforms, and legitimacy to the former
KLA leaders back in 1999, the UN administration set a trap that it would fall
into later. At the very beginning of the whole occupation, there may have been
a chance to perform the kind of "purge of criminals" Javier Solana dreams of
today. But that opportunity has been missed. The criminal and terrorist elements
have been allowed to consolidate their power, manipulating both the legal and
extra-legal bodies that guarantee it.
Ambassador Matic-Spasojevic maintains that the basic mistake was in simply
turning KLA members into KPS and TMK officers in 1999:
"…the main aim of that was to make them more easily controlled. The question
remains as to why they haven't been controlled. For example, none of the main
leaders have been confronted with the possibility of going to The Hague. Our
Ministry of Justice has around 40,000 pages of information on the KLA leaders'
crimes against humanity. The report weighs 27 kilograms. But Carla Del Ponte
has been very quiet on this issue."
Quite understandably, the international administration is terrified of reining
in the thugs who control the province. "They are aware that if they try to extradite
these leaders," says the ambassador, "there will be all-out frontal war on the
UNMIK and KFOR forces."
Reporting this week from Pristina, the
Spectator's Tom Walker makes a similar point:
"…since 1999, the KLA have not proved to be the great defenders of human
rights they were once cracked up to be: some 350,000 Serbs and other minorities
have fled, and of the 100,000 left, many will surely go. Empowered, the Albanians
have fulfilled virtually none of the conditions the UN has laid down as prerequisites
for independence, but nonetheless it is now universally agreed that that is
the only answer. The thugs have won the argument, and the last thing Nato or
the prototypical EU defence force wants is to have to take on the inheritors
of the KLA in their own backyard."
Schizophrenic Balkanians Endanger the Peacekeepers
That the Balkans represents some sort of parallel
reality, some black hole of reason goes without saying. But even for this hallucinatory
region, the speed with which riot-denial is setting in is remarkable. Gary told
me the following vignette:
"I got in an argument with this old Albanian guy today in a shop. I recognized
him from the riots. He saw the flag on my uniform and said, 'Oh! Mr. American!
We love you!' I said, 'Well, if you love me so much, then why were you shooting
and throwing Molotov cocktails at me the other week?' He waved his arm and said,
'No, no, no, that didn't happen. I saw on the TV news, nothing happened.' Most
of them really believe it was just a peaceful demonstration."
This experience was seconded by a tough-talking, silver-haired American cop
in North Mitrovica. He had fractured a foot and sustained leg injuries from
rocks hurled at him during the riots. "Oh, sure," he said, "You have the guy
who tries to hurt you one day, and the next morning you see him smiling at you,
sitting in the café and wearing a turban to cover where you had to clock him
the day before." Pausing to light up a stogie, the cop added:
"I don't want to hit anyone with steel. The last thing we want to do is
to hurt anybody, but we also have a right to protect ourselves. Nobody can predict
the future in the Balkans. The mentality here is angry, different from anywhere
in the world… I tell the new guys, you can become a goodwill ambassador for
your country in this job. But you can never lose focus. Things can change so
The Final Countdown
Indeed, as the Kosovo whirlpool gathers force,
things are indeed getting mighty volatile. However, there is little chance that
definitive changes such as plotting Kosovo's "final status" will be achieved.
While Serbian and some world media decried the ethnic cleansing aspect of the
March riots, the Albanians and their lobbyists in the press and US government
blame the violence on UNMIK's failure to make Kosovo an independent state. This
eruption couldn't be avoided, because we were just so frustrated and fed up,
they seemed to be saying. Sorry. This apologetic overture to impatience
is cynical in the extreme.
Now, everything is a mess and a mess it will remain. Serbia wants the province
to somehow stay a part of the country; Kosovo Albanians reject this on principle
and, as the senior OSCE official stressed, "…looking around, you will see it's
just not the case. This has become an Albanian province."
And although Serbian police have not been allowed to protect minority areas,
as Resolution 1244 envisaged, Belgrade is still servicing the Kosovar debt.
Property rights remain undetermined, important economic reforms undone, impetuses
for boosting employment non-existent. Even in the best of cases, an independent
Kosovo would not be economically viable. Yet were it first to be partitioned,
as the Serbian government suggested, then Serbia would retain the best mineral
deposits near the Trepca mines north of Mitrovica, leaving the rump Kosovo with
even less of a reason to exist.
While progress is slow, last month's riots showed the underlying volatility
of the situation – something which lends an air of urgency to the proceedings.
A brutally frank assessment of what needs to happen was disclosed to me by Oliver
Ivanovic, Serbian member of the Kosovo presidency.
Oliver Ivanovic: "things
will only work if you have a balance of fear."
"If you can't have a balance of interest," he said, "things will only work
if you have a balance of fear. Right now you have euphoric, well-protected and
rather brazen Albanians, and frustrated, fearful Serbs. Letting Serbia send
police to guard their enclaves would go a long way towards achieving this balance.
With moderate protection, we will start negotiating. But it is not fair, they
way the situation is now, to hold talks."
This assertion brings us to a very interesting logical juncture. Faced with
the prospect of not having enough troops to defend an increasingly vulnerable
Serbian minority, UNMIK will have to consider allowing Serbian forces to return
to Kosovo. However, since this would spark an Albanian rebellion against UNMIK
and Serbia alike, they would probably decide against it. What to do, then, if
UNMIK cannot prevent future riots and terrorist attacks against the Serbian
minority? States Ivanovic:
"…if the Albanians try to drive out every Serb from Kosovo, as it looks
like they're doing, this will cause a real war between Serbia and the Albanians,
and no one will be able to stop it.
"I said this to Richard Holbrooke in October, when he came here to make
a show of his big success with [former UNMIK head] Bernard Kouchner in front
of reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post. I told
him straight to his face that allowing this Albanian ethnic cleansing to continue
was exactly the way for a new Milosevic to appear. Except it will be a new one,
much cleverer than the old, and appearing in much different circumstances, now
that the US and EU are both fed up with the behavior of the Albanians. Holbrooke
just scoffed and kept saying, 'You're wrong.' But we will see."
A new war, for a Kosovo long thought lost? Anywhere else in the world, even
the idea would be considered absurd. Yet this is the Balkans, where nothing
is ever finished, and where reality tends to be fluid and elastic indeed. No
one can control Kosovo or dictate its fate – especially not the well-meaning but
hapless foreigners who are supposed to be doing so.
Peacekeepers, put on your helmets! It looks like it's going to be a wild ride.