Kosovo Reckoning: The humanitarian who loves media's spotlight

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The Independent Online
BERNARD KOUCHNER does not suffer overly much from self-doubt. But the former student rebel leader of 1968 who has made the long political journey to the heart of the Paris establishment, has taken over a daunting task in Kosovo.

As the head of the United Nations civil administration, Dr Kouchner has a high-profile post and considerable power. But he now faces huge problems - lack of resources, a shattered infrastructure and, as the massacre at Gracko showed, murderous enmity between the province's Albanians and Serbs.

Yesterday, flanked by Lt-Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the British commander of Nato's Kosovo Force, Dr Kouchner was declaring that the killings of the 14 Serb farmers will not derail the process of normalisation. It has, however, already caused a serious delay. The Serbo- Albanian provisional government meetings in Pristina, meant to rebuild trust between the two communities, have been postponed indefinitely. The deaths have also given Solobodan Milosevic in Belgrade an excuse to blame Nato and demand the return of Yugoslav forces.

Dr Kouchner's friends and supporters say he is used to facing and overcoming formidable obstacles, and he is no stranger to the brutal frontline of international strife. After the student demonstrations of l968, he went off to see what was happening in Biafra, and came back with a strong belief that direct humanitarian action by the West was a moral imperative. Three years later, the young Bernard, a gastro-enterologist, was one of the founders of Medecins Sans Frontieres, which rapidly gained a reputation for undertaking hazardous duties in the world's trouble spots.

But Dr Kouchner's bullish advocacy of humanitarian intervention led to charges of self-aggrandisement. He was accused of revelling in the media image as "medecin-barouder" (doctor/warrior) and he is indeed in the habit of pulling out a wad of 1992 photos of a wrecked car in Kurdistan, blown up just yards from the one in which he was travelling with Danielle Mitterand. A few weeks after that trip, the doctor is fond of recalling, he was taking Mme Mitterand's husband, the President, for a Sunday stroll under the snipers' sights in Sarajevo. In Somalia, during the famine and civil war of 1992-93, Dr Kouchner posed before television cameras carrying a bag of rice on his shoulder. His enemies nicknamed him Uncle Ben.

There were also complaints that Dr Kouchner either ignored or failed to understand complex socio-economic issues, preferring instead to go for soundbites and dramatic television footage. The crunch came when he organised the Boat for Vietnam project to aid the boat people in l979, bringing in the now-deceased Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron. His opponents quipped the mission should have been called Boat for St Germain du Pres (after the fashionable liberal intellectual elite met).

Following a series of spats, he was forced out of Medecins Sans Frontieres. He promptly went off and set up Medecins du Monde, which went on to achieve great success.

Despite the heckling from critics, Dr Kouchner's professional life and enterprises have followed a similar pattern of success. United Nations Resolution 688 of l991 is his legacy. It broke away from the tenet of national sovereignty being paramount, and authorised the armed protection of the Kurdish minority in Iraq. The doctor continued his personal upward path, with a ministerial post and a cluster of international humanitarian awards.

It is acknowledged, even by most of Dr Kouchner's critics, that he has genuine sympathy for the dispossessed and the oppressed and deep antipathy toward those who profit from their misfortune. In the early l990s, he described the late Zairean president, Mobutu Sese Seko, as " a walking bank safe in leopard skin hat", thus causing acute embarrassment to the French government, which he was serving, and which had just sent in troops to drive out anti-Mobutu rebels.

In Kosovo, it remains to be seen whether Dr Kouchner will temper his humanitarian zeal with the required amount of realpolitik to help bring reconciliation and hope to the blighted land.