Albanians' Cautious Response

Kosovo Albanians have seen Milosevic break too many agreements, and will only believe the peace agreement when they can return home.

Albanians' Cautious Response

Kosovo Albanians have seen Milosevic break too many agreements, and will only believe the peace agreement when they can return home.

With its acceptance of the Kosovo peace accord, it appears that, on paper, Belgrade has capitulated to all of NATO's demands. Yet Kosovo Albanians remain sceptical about the agreement and prospects for long-term peace.


Given their experience during the past 10 years of dealing with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo Albanians will not believe that the war is over until Serb troops have withdrawn from Kosovo and they have begun returning home.


"I don't trust Milosevic," said Baton Haxhiu, the editor of Pristina daily newspaper Koha Ditore which is now published in exile in Macedonia. "He has signed and then ignored too many agreements in the past."


These sentiments are shared by Bardh Hamzaj, political editor of the Pristina weekly Zeri, also now publishing from Macedonia. "Bitter experience has convinced us that agreements with Milosevic mean nothing."


For most of the refugees, whether in Albania, Macedonia or relocated in third countries outside the region, the overriding issue is whether and when they will be able to return.


For those in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia, the journey home will take a matter of hours at most. However, the Kosovo they return to will be a very different place from that which they were forced to leave. Many fear that their homes will have been destroyed.


The scale of the devastation may slow up the return of refugees. While military and civil engineers and construction workers are likely to accompany the first wave of peacekeepers, it will be difficult to reconstruct much accommodation before the onset of winter. Many returnees may find that they are obliged to continue living in tents at home.


Although the agreement calls for the "verifiable withdrawal of military, police and paramilitary forces", such a pullout alone will not transform Kosovo into a safe place. In the wake of the bombing and fighting, the province is littered with mines and unexploded ordnance.


Some Kosovo Albanian analysts fear that the difficulties faced by returning refugees in Bosnia--where few have returned to areas where they do not belong to the ethnic majority--may be mirrored in Kosovo.


Others are more optimistic. They believe that the international community has learned from its experience in Bosnia and will not repeat the same mistakes, and that conditions will be easier in Kosovo following the withdrawal of Serb forces.


All Albanian leaders, whether in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or in Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are frustrated that they were not consulted on the agreement. And they are dismayed that it does not mention anything about a three-year transitional period with the possibility of a referendum on the province's future at the end of that time.


Although the agreement specified that the KLA should disarm, Kosovo Albanian fighters have no intention of handing in any weapons. Having come so far and suffered so much, they feel that they have to press home their current advantage to achieve an independent Kosovo.


The KLA approves of the fact that all Serb forces must withdraw from Kosovo, but fears the future role of Russian troops in the UN peacekeeping force.


A few hundred Serb troops will be allowed to return to Kosovo to protect cultural sites; liaise with UN forces; help demining; and man border crossings. Any role at border crossings--which could imply vetting possible KLA members or other restrictions--causes particular concern.


Many Kosovo Albanians also wonder what the province's indigenous Serbs will do after the Yugoslav army pulls out. Since Belgrade has portrayed NATO as fascist aggressors and the KLA as terrorists, many believe that they may be about to witness an exodus of Serbs from Kosovo, akin to that which took place in Sarajevo in winter 1996 after Serb-held suburbs were handed over to the Muslim-Croat federation in the wake of the peace deal.


While countless obstacles thus remain, the agreement does at least offer a chance for a real solution. "A lot of details remain to be examined, discussed and agreed," says Zeri's editor-in-chief Blerim Shala, "but there is room for hope."


Daut Dauti is London correspondent for the Kosovo Albanian weekly Zeri.


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