Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Reconciliation in Kosovo Tougher than in Bosnia

The depth of animosity in Kosovo goes far beyond that in Bosnia making the task of reconstruction and ethnic reconciliation much more difficult.
By Janez Kovac

More than four months after the end of NATO's bombing campaign and the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo; the prospects for ethnic reconciliation appear grim.

Crazed by their suffering, Kosovo Albanians have turned against Serbs, Muslim Slavs and Roma who dared to remain in Kosovo during Serbia's ethnic cleansing campaign this spring. The victims have thus become persecutors in what appears a vicious historical cycle.

As a result, the future of Kosovo looks as bleak as its landscape, the abandoned meadows, devastated infrastructure and torched villages. While the physical destruction can be repaired, the scars on the hearts and souls of Albanians and Serbs are unlikely to heal in the near future, if ever.

In private, many Western officials in Kosovo say that the war here has never ended, but that it merely changed direction and intensity. They also admit that without greater resources, better designed strategies and stronger political resolve, the international community cannot hope to find solutions for all Kosovo's peoples.

At present, it appears as if the international community is shifting its aid money from Bosnia and elsewhere to Kosovo. However, simply pumping money into the province will not, of itself, achieve ethnic reconciliation.

Diplomats with experience from missions to Bosnia have rapidly realised that Sarajevo Banja Luka and Mostar are quite unlike Pristina, Pec and Kosovska Mitrovica. Although the war in Bosnia lasted almost four years, generated tens of thousands more casualties and destruction, and the international mandate there is much weaker, evidence of grass-roots ethnic reconciliation was apparent soon after the end of fighting.

In Kosovo, ethnic divisions appear to have much deeper roots. As a result, all international agencies can do at the moment is to contain the conflict by maintaining the borders within and around the province.

"This is a low-level civil war," says a foreign diplomat in Kosovska Mitrovica. "They hate each others guts, and whatever we do, they continue jumping on each others throats."

The remaining Serbs are being threatened, harassed, evicted and, in some instances, murdered on a daily basis. Since large numbers have left for Serbia and many more are in hiding, nobody knows how many Serbs remain in Kosovo.

A close aide to Kosovo administrator Bernard Kouchner, who previously worked in Bosnia, admits that often their 20-hour-a-day work routine appears fruitless. "Compared to Kosovo, Bosnia looks like paradise in every sense," he says with resignation.

During his first visit to Kosovo as NATO Secretary-General, Lord George Robertson warned Albanians that "NATO will not stand by and see the creation of a single-ethnic Kosovo." However, NATO officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, say that there is nothing much they can do.

International forces appear set to remain in Kosovo for many years to come. For in the event of their withdrawal, many analysts believe that Kosovo's Albanians would either declare independence or even join up with their southern neighbour to form a "Greater Albania," an event which would likely trigger a new conflict with Serbia.

Despite deploying more than 40,000 troops on the ground, the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) is unable to protect every single non-Albanian at all times, and thus prevent ethnic violence. While UNMIK is supposed to take over responsibility for policing, it only possesses some 3,000 international police - many fewer than Kouchner wanted.

This month the first class of the Western-funded joint Kosovo police academy graduated. Of the 173 new police officers, 17 were non-Albanians. It remains unclear, however, how these individuals, especially the Serbs among them, will operate.

Meanwhile, racketeers from Albania continue to enter Kosovo via its porous borders, patrolled only by unarmed UN observers, to set up operations. And, at the same time, displaced Albanians from the devastated countryside pour into towns bringing with them their rural lifestyles and hard-line attitudes.

In this environment even foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists find themselves in danger if they dare speak a Slav language. One Bulgarian working for the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was gunned down in the middle of Pristina, apparently for speaking in his mother tongue. A few days later, a Serb interpreter employed by UNMIK was wounded when a bomb was thrown into her flat.

The combination of hard-liners, peasants and racketeers threatens not only Serbs and Serbian-speaking foreigners, but also those Albanians who still hope for some kind of co-existence with Serbs.

"Albanians like me, who don't think like the street mob, are in as much danger as the Serbs," says a 41-year old ethnic Albanian woman who asked not to be named for security reasons. "We don't dare to go out at night."

The woman and her small family survived the Serb violence by hiding in Belgrade, in a small apartment of her best friend, a Serb.

"I believe that when this madness settles down, Serbs and Albanians will find a way to live side by side," she said. Yet she admits that those Albanians whose relatives were killed in the Serb oppression probably have a different idea.

Sitting in the Grand, Pristina's main hotel, among the crowd of suspicious-looking Albanian businessmen and former officers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, 33-year old Agim Shala is one of those who have a different idea.

"We will not stop as long as a single Serb remains in Kosovo," Shala said, sipping brandy. "We won here. Now we could come to Bosnia and win there too. Co-existence with the Serbs is simply out of the question."

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a journalist from Sarajevo.