Things are getting better in Kosovo, so don't pick holes in its reconstruction

`We must not let individual acts of retaliation obscure the bigger picture of what is happening in Kosovo'
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IT HAS become distressingly fashionable of late for pundits and pessimists, such as your correspondent Robert Fisk in his recent articles, to belittle the international community's efforts in Kosovo and present a picture of frustration and failure.

The situation in Kosovo may not be as good as he or any of us would like. And there will always be obstacles, setbacks and individual cases of suffering to which those with a negative cast of mind can point. How could it be otherwise in a province that was the scene of desperate ethnic warfare for the best part of a year, and where more than half the population was at one stage evicted by President Milosevic?

But do the acts of hatred and vengeance that still occur - albeit on a much smaller scale than before - represent the whole story in Kosovo? Is life so bad for the local population that it calls into question the rightness of Nato's decision to launch the air campaign last spring to stop "ethnic cleansing"? Clearly not.

We must not allow individual acts of vengeance and retaliation, no matter how reprehensible, to obscure the bigger picture. Only six months ago, 850,000 refugees were living in hastily built camps in Albania and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Inside Kosovo, a further 550,000 people were on the move, having fled their homes. Houses were being systematically destroyed to prevent families returning.

Today, more than 810,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo from abroad, and that has been with unprecedented speed. The hostilities that affected all of the population, not just a few individuals or groups, have ended. All the Serb forces have withdrawn. The Kosovo Liberation Army has been disbanded and demilitarised by KFOR, and it has handed over more than 10,000 weapons.

Although Mr Fisk chose to highlight individual attacks against the Serbs and other minorities, overall the murder rate in Kosovo has dropped significantly - from 190 per 100,000 of the population in June, to 25 in October.

This is 25 murders too many, but it is fewer than the monthly average in many of the world's big cities. Fewer than half of those killed were Serbs or other minorities, and nearly half of KFOR's troops are now expressly devoted to protecting minorities, particularly in Serb areas such as Mitrovica and Kamenica. That said, restoring law and order in Kosovo will remain Nato's most immediate concern.

There are still too few international police - about 1,800 have been deployed so far - but fully 60 per cent of the province now has a civilian police presence. The United Nations' civil police force has just taken over responsibility for law and order in the Pristina and Prizren regions, and a few days ago the first multi-ethnic class of the Kosovo Police Academy graduated. They will form the core of the local, multi-ethnic Kosovo police service and the next class will start at the end of December. Thousands of local men and women, including many Serbs and people from other minorities, have applied to join this new police force.

Judges and judicial officers, on a multi-ethnic basis, are being appointed by the UN Mission (Unmik) to courts in Pristina, Prizren and other districts. As these judges take up their functions and sentence convicted criminals, deterrence of crime will increase and law and order will improve. By any measure, today's situation is far from the picture of anarchy and lawlessness that is presented. It is also a far cry from President Milosevic's apartheid decade, under the Serb minorities' ruthless rule.

On the humanitarian front, too, the situation has improved. Preparations for winter are about 70 per centcomplete, and 50,000 homes have been repaired. The World Food Programme is giving aid to 650,000 Kosovars and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other agencies are providing shelter kits to benefit 387,000 people. About 544 schools have been cleared of mines and unexploded ammunition, and 300,000 children went back to school in September and October to be taught in their own language for the first time in 10 years. The main power plant in Kosovo was recently reopened.

The UN Mission is building up its authority; Unmik is now present in all 29 municipalities of Kosovo and is paying salaries to local civil servants. Pledges of more than $1bn (pounds 645m) in aid until the end of 2000 were made at the Second Kosovo Donors' Conference, in Brussels on 17 November.

War crimes investigations are also well in hand. The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague has received reports of more than 11,000 bodies at 529 grave sites. So far, work has been completed at 195 sites and more than 2,000 bodies have been exhumed. The remaining 334 sites will be investigated and any bodies exhumed in the spring, as soon as weather conditions permit. Investigators have found evidence that bodies were removed from mass grave sites before the arrival of the international teams, so the full scope of the killing may never be known.

The situation in Kosovo is far from rosy, but it is far better than Mr Fisk has painted it. Kosovo suffered through 40 years of disastrous Communist economic policies and 10 years of Serb domination under President Milosevic, even before "ethnic cleansing" began.

Against this history, reconstruction, reconciliation and the building of a just and secure peace will take more than the few months that KFOR and Unmik have had in Kosovo so far. But the experiences of Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina show that, with patience and determination, progress that was once thought impossible can be achieved.

Our goal of a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo will require consistent attention and a big commitment of resources over the next few years. If not, the hope felt by Kosovars will give way to disillusionment, and our investment in stabilising this dangerous corner of Europe will be lost. The UN and the other international organisations involved deserve full support.

Those who go seeking out bad news will, of course, always be able to find it. But those who look for the facts will find that today's Kosovo is far better off than the province was this time last year. The international community, although it has its work cut out, has made a good beginning. We must see the job through.

The writer became Secretary-General of Nato this autumn