A Return to Ethnic Cleansing

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As music blared, firecrackers popped and AK-47s crackled in the night air, tens of thousands jostled in the streets of Kosovo's main towns to celebrate Flag Day--a commemoration of independence borrowed from neighboring Albania. Then around midnight in the capital Pristina, a mob of young men spotted a small car carrying a Serb, his wife and mother-in-law. Dragoslav Basic, 62, a professor of civil engineering, was reportedly heading for the hospital when the cry went up, "Kill the Serb." In minutes, all three were dragged out, beaten and the car torched. Then someone pulled a pistol and shot Basic in the chest. When a British medic arrived shortly afterward with a patrol of NATO soldiers he was stoned as he tried to save the dying man. "They were baying for blood and chanting slogans of the [Kosovo Liberation Army]," said one British soldier. "It was sickening."

Several days earlier U.S. President Bill Clinton had exhorted Kosovo Albanians to put the past behind them. "No one can force you to forgive," he said. "But you must try." If last week's attack is anything to go by, too many Kosovo Albanians are not trying hard enough--and seem unlikely to any time soon. Basic's murder was just the latest in a grim catalog of attacks--children setting on elderly men, mobs stoning fleeing refugees, women drowned in their bathtubs--that have plagued Kosovo since the bombs stopped falling in June. The victims are mainly Serbs and other minorities, and the motive is no longer simply revenge for years of attacks on ethnic Albanians. Increasingly, the attacks are driven by politics, theft and the pursuit of precious housing for ethnic Albanians.

A 330-page report released this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) details a "systematic pattern" of hundreds of attacks over the past five months aimed at intimidating minorities throughout Kosovo. Many "appear to have been organized" and there are "serious indications" that perpetrators include "members of the ex-K.L.A., people posing as members of the ex-K.L.A. or other armed groups," the authors say. Recent trends documented in the report include the singling out of elderly Serbs for violent abuse and the participation of children in the persecution. With only rare exceptions, ethnic Albanian leaders in a position to slow the bloodletting have refused to do so. "It's basic human revenge which has ... become systematic," says Veton Surroi, a local publisher and one of the few ethnic Albanians to denounce the attacks.

The spiral of violence plays directly into the hands of hard-line Serb groups and the Yugoslav government, who consistently use reports of attacks to demand the return of Yugoslav police and military to the province. Last month, in a report to the U.N. Security Council, Belgrade accused the U.N. in Kosovo of tolerating "mass terror directed against Serbs and other non-Albanians." Meanwhile, newspapers controlled by Belgrade play up every atrocity, real or imagined.

And the pro-Milosevic press has plenty to play with. Of 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo prior to the war, more than half have already fled. Most of the rest are barricaded in their apartments or living in ethnic Serb enclaves. Towns like Pristina, where 45,000 Serbs lived earlier this year, are now essentially ethnically uniform: only about 500 Serbs remain in the town. Elsewhere, the ethnic cleansing is still under way. In the southern region of Zupa, where Serbs and Muslim Slavs were once the majority, gangs of youths are spreading terror. Nedelko Nedelkovic, 78, was ambushed by four young men recently when he tried to leave his small farming village to buy groceries. Putting an axe to his throat, they told him to "go home and stay home," meaning, presumably, Serbia. "Ten years ago, the Serbs forced us out," says Sezo Bajrami, 29, a vice president of the local administrative council in the ex-K.L.A.'s self-styled provisional government "Now it's our turn."

The expulsions also have a political motive. The area around Zupa was until recently majority non-Albanian, and unlikely to support ex-K.L.A. leaders. Now the demographics are changing. Several international officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the attacks amount to a pattern of "ethnic vote cleansing" aimed at shoring up support for ex-K.L.A. candidates by removing Serb voters prior to local elections next year. Other attacks are driven by the lack of housing. In Pristina, ex-K.L.A. officials are running a Municipal Housing Commission which a senior official told Time is evicting Serbs from apartments to make room for ethnic Albanians. Investigators say the commission, run by the provisional government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, is behind the expulsion of thousands of Serbs. Its director Mohammet Latifi, a former K.L.A. officer, denies the charge.

The impunity with which the attacks and expulsions are carried out has generated handwringing--and desperate measures--from the international community. The U.N. refugee agency unhcr has launched a program to construct door barricades and also transports Serbs and other minorities under military guard from one enclave to another. In Pristina, British soldiers cordon off a small marketplace on Monday mornings for minorities to shop. Serb monuments, including Orthodox churches and monasteries, are under heavy guard. Without the 50,000 troops of KFOR, Father Sava, a spokesman for the Serbian orthodox church in Kosovo, believes there wouldn't be a single Serb left. "All this would be in ruins," he says, referring to the medieval monastery at Gracanica in which he lives.

Senior Albanian leaders have uniformly distanced themselves from the attacks, insisting that those carried out in the organization's name are the work of impostors. "We want a tolerant Kosovo in which all citizens will be equal," Thaci told Time. Investigators question his sincerity, though, noting that local ex-K.L.A. officials, who wield enormous influence through their control of major businesses and industries, have rarely lifted a finger to stop the attacks. When Veton Surroi's independent ethnic Albanian newspaper likened the persecution of Serbs to fascism, the press service run by ex-K.L.A. officials slammed him as a "vampire Slav."

The OSCE report urgently calls for more investigators, forensic teams, international police and judicial experts. All that would help, as would forceful condemnation of the most brutal attacks from ethnic Albanian leaders. Last week Thaci and others issued statements expressing regret for the murder of Basic, but refused to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the attack. More than this meager gesture is needed if the killing is to stop.

With reporting by Anthee Carrasava/Pristina