Peace of fear, fires and tears

Nato is failing to prevent reprisals against Kosovan Serbs. Soon ethnic cleansing will be complete
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The Independent Online
he old gypsy woman was shaking so violently with fear that she kept falling down. Blood ran from a gash on her forehead. How she had acquired it was impossible to tell, but two shrieking Albanian women had been trying to drag her from her front yard. As houses burned on several sides in the district of Taslidje, just north of the centre of Pristina, a group of younger girls, about 10 or 12 years old, alternated between catcalling the old woman and laughing at her inability to stay on her feet. "They are telling her to go to her sons in Serbia," said my interpreter.

In the midst of all this was a British paratrooper, struggling to intervene. Seizing the interpreter, he asked him to tell the gypsy woman that if she wanted to stay in her house: "Nato will protect you". If she wanted to leave, soldiers would escort her and find somewhere else for her to live. But the old woman knew better than the foreign soldier that there was no choice: she had already packed up her things. Lying on the ground, looking like one of her cloth-wrapped bundles, she said through the interpreter: "Just get me down the hill, and I will go on by myself." The Paras did so, after their medics had looked at her wound. With the best of intentions, the British Army had just become party to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

While K-For pours heavy armour into the province to deter any return by the armed forces of Yugoslavia, individual incidents such as this are driving out Serbian civilians and their supposed collaborators, the gypsies, by the thousand. Nato has succeeded in bringing peace to Kosovo, if you define peace as the absence of organised violence - but if peacekeeping means quelling anarchy, instilling a sense of security and restoring institutions of civil society, the alliance has barely started.

Taslidje, built on a slope overlooking central Pristina, illustrates many of the problems the soldiers face. The Serbian purge of Kosovo's capital during the Nato bombing has dislocated the life of the quarter, where Serbs, Albanians and gypsies once dwelt side by side. Many houses are empty, with no one sure whether the occupants are alive or dead, while others have been taken over by people no one knows. There is talk on all sides of bandits coming in from Albania, given some credence by the off- road vehicle with Tirana number plates which shot past during the blazes. Inside were four wild-looking men with deep tans and heavy beards.

By the time the gypsy woman was ejected from the district, fires had been spreading from one smashed and deserted house to another for 24 hours. People were loading trailers with furniture, but whether they were looters or householders seeking to protect their possessions, nobody knew. Certainly no one tried to stop them. "If we arrest people for looting, we have to let them go after four hours anyway," said one soldier.

Instead the Paras stuck to their base, a Serbian Orthodox church halfway up the hill. "It's frustrating," said the soldier, "but we have no fire- fighting equipment," which left aside the question of whether the fires could have been prevented. "We have been tasked to look after this church, because if it goes up all the Serbs will leave." Yet as he spoke a Serbian family left their home across the road, wheeling their belongings down the hill in a barrow. "You know better than us who is starting these fires," was all they would say.

"The bottom line," said a human rights worker, "is that soldiers are trained to kill people. They can only respond with deadly force, and are not very good at such civilian policing tasks as crowd control and handling demonstrations. But K-For has to deal with reprisals now, or there are not going to be any minorities left in Kosovo." If what happened in Taslidje is any guide, there is little sign that K-For is giving any special priority to preventing retaliation - indeed, the sight of soldiers impassively watching looting and burning gives local people the opposite impression.

The size of the task facing the international community in Kosovo was spelt out by Daloni Carlyle of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "Just before the bombing we asked people here what they needed, and they all said safety and security," she said. "Now the nature of the problem has changed, but their priorities are the same.

"Albanians are coming home to the danger of mines, booby traps and unexploded Nato ordnance. There are many bodies in wells, contaminating the water supply. There is no food security because in most places the harvest has been missed, creating dependency on aid. There is no economic security unless you can speak a foreign language and can get a job with an international organisation. For minority groups the need is safety from physical attack in their own homes. The issue of security informs everybody's lives at the moment."

But Nato, which had to make up the war against Slobodan Milosevic as it went along, now appears to be improvising the peace. Each national contingent is applying its own law to dealing with civil unrest: in Mitrovica, where the French are policing a tense stand-off between Serbs and Albanians, they have given up arresting the main Serbian troublemakers, because under French law they have to be released after 24 hours. Each time the leaders receive a hero's welcome from their followers, undermining the peacekeepers' authority.

Unlike the British, the French and Italians have been able to bring in paramilitary police - the gendarmes and the carabinieri - who have more experience of public disorder. In south-western Kosovo, bordering Albania, the Germans have sought to curb growing lawlessness by imposing a curfew. Around Kosovo some 200 people are in detention on major charges such as murder and rape, awaiting the judicial machinery which is only now being put in place. Last week the UN Mission to Kosovo (Unmik) started appointing a panel of three judges, two investigating magistrates and four prosecutors, carefully balanced as to ethnic origin, to begin dealing with cases. They will apply Yugoslavian law, except where it conflicts with the Security Council resolution establishing the Kosovo mission or with international conventions on human rights.

Last week, too, the first contingent of 37 civilian police arrived from nine countries, but Kevin Kennedy, the Unmik spokesman, emphasised that they were "the advance party of the advance party". They will be attached to the headquarters of each K-For zone in an advisory capacity; although armed "executive police" are due to arrive later, Mr Kennedy stressed that K-For commanders would remain responsible for public order "for the foreseeable future".

Ben Ward, a researcher for the American-based Human Rights Watch, criticised this correct and deliberate approach, saying civilian police should be deployed much more quickly. "It is not just reprisals which need to be addressed urgently, but also the rise in crime and the general exploitation of the absence of a law and order framework," he said.

There were two other priorities: leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army had to show that their statements on ethnic tolerance were aimed at their own people, not just the outside world, and the victims of war crimes needed to see that the perpetrators were being brought to justice, otherwise collective retribution would be visited on whole communities. The international war crimes tribunal , based in The Hague, often showed little inclination to tell the world what it was doing, said Mr Ward. "In Bosnia they have only just got around to a public information campaign, more than five years after they started work there."

K-For, however, is proceeding to a different plan, coloured by military thinking. The emphasis is on its success in getting the KLA out of uniform, disarmed and demobilised, rather than what is happening among the civilian population. At a briefing a British forces spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Hodges, appealed to his audience to keep things in perspective, pointing out that over the previous two nights there had been no murders in Pristina. "Any killing is too much," he said, "but in the two weeks since we arrived we have gone from complete anarchy to relative stability."

It is true that, for the first time in more than a year, you cannot hear shooting in Pristina every night. But that does not mean fear has left; it simply changed sides. The ICRC returned to Kosovo on 24 May, before the bombing ended. "Our Serbian staff resisted pressure from their people and got us going again, but now their houses have been burnt, and they have gone," said Ms Carlyle. "The last representative of the local Red Cross, who demonstrated through their work that they were not part of what the government was doing here, has just left. There was no room for them."

Another aid worker, who did not want to be identified, said: "The international community has only one chance to get this right, and it is slipping away. What is happening now is very important in shaping the future of Kosovo. If reverse cleansing is allowed to happen, it delivers the message that only ethnically pure states work, and that is not good for Bosnia or Croatia - or Serbia, for that matter."