War In The Balkans: A deadly crop of mines is sown in Kosovo

Weapons of Power
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THE FIVE Albanians who died yesterday when their car hit a landmine are unlikely to be the last to lose their lives in this way.

In recent weeks, Yugoslav soldiers in Kosovo have been planting mines on the Serb side of the Albanian border, apparently in response to a potential assault by Nato ground troops.

Yesterday's deaths were the civilian "collateral" of what is intended primarily as a military defence. Crucially, however, there are an increasing number of reports that Serb forces are deliberately planting mines in civilian areas - to intimidate the Albanian population, forcing them to flee or making it impossible for them to return.

Anti-personnel mines have been placed in fields, schools, and houses. According to some reports, Albanians themselves are being used as forced mine-layers in parts of Kosovo.

Nato's force in Macedonia includes bomb-disposal engineers who are ready to deal with the mines in the event of a peace agreement. But that seems a long way off. Even if any peace deal were to be struck, experience suggests that it can take many years before all the mines are made safe. Children especially are vulnerable, treading on or picking up unusual objects while playing in woods or fields.

The use of anti-personnel mines has been condemned worldwide. A high- profile campaign against them succeeded in achieving the apparently unachievable. The internationally best-known figure in this campaign was Diana, Princess of Wales, famously photographed stepping through an Angolan minefield. Jody Williams, one of the co-ordinators of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for this campaign against all the odds - "a new way of moving humanitarian mountains", as it was described.

More than 130 countries last month finally signed up for the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel mines. The United States found itself in the company of Russia, China and North Korea resisting the treaty to the bitter end. Yugoslavia signed the accord. But, following an increasingly familiar pattern in Belgrade, the promises soon proved to be worth rather less than the paper they were written on.

Serbs began laying mines in Kosovo even as their officials signed up for the Ottawa treaty. Anti-tank mines are not outlawed, but the Serbs also use anti-personnel mines, which include tiny devices just a few inches across that can kill or maim an individual, and more powerful mines which can kill a number of people at once.

Theoretically, even these anti-personnel mines can serve a military purpose. In practice, their main advantage is simply that they are very cheap. Their inconspicuousness means that civilians are those who suffer most - either while still living in the conflict zone or after returning home.

The Serb use of landmines is part of a much larger pattern of defiance. Recent examples have included the "ethnic cleansing" and killing which moved on to such a huge scale when the Nato bombing raids began. And yesterday, Nato claimed to have images of 43 mass grave sites in Kosovo, some dug by gangs of Kosovo Albanians dressed in red jackets - to make it difficult for them to escape - who were compelled by Serb forces to bury their countrymen.

"There have been numerous refugee reports of Serb police assembling Kosovo Albanians into grave-digging chain gangs," said Brigadier General Giuseppe Marani, the Nato military spokesman.

Mass rape, repeatedly used as a weapon of power and hate in Bosnia, has come into play in Kosovo, too. But most Serbs are ready to deny that their compatriots have committed ugly crimes. At best, there is a weary acknowledgement that "terrible things can happen on all sides, in wartime".

As in Nazi Germany, however, the apparent loss of a moral compass does not indicate a complete obliviousness to what the rest of the world can regard as crimes against humanity. Just as the Germans were eager to destroy all traces of Auschwitz before the Allies arrived, so the Serbs seek ways of airbrushing the crimes out of existence. For both technological and human reasons - including satellite cameras and the testimony of refugees - this is proving to be even more difficult for the Serbs than it was for the Nazis.

As in wartime Germany, the professions of ignorance and denials are sometimes contradicted by Serbs. As every German history book now emphasises, it was impossible for ordinary Germans not to be aware that horrific things were happening to the Jews. A similar logic applies in Serbia today.

In one conversation in a hotel in the provincial town of Nis, a Serb assured me confidently that reports of horrors in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica -where thousands were led away and killed by Serb forces in 1995 - were invented. I disagreed, and tried to put forward some proofs. He continued to disagree. Several hours and several drinks later, he suddenly announced: "Of course we know what really happened in Srebrenica. Everybody knows."

That confrontation with the truth - on mines, on ethnic cleansing, on slave labour, on rape - still lies ahead, for most Serbs. It will be a painful confrontation, when it comes.