The tide turns

Serbian troops begin to leave Kosovo and refugees plan their return as a welcome but uncertain peace takes hold in the region.


Laura Rozen
June 10, 1999 1:00PM (UTC)

The great tide of human migration turned on Thursday, when for the first time in 11 weeks the people leaving Kosovo were not Albanian refugees, but defeated Serbian troops, whose convoys of military vehicles made their way north on broken roads and bridges, past the burned houses and fields and ruined lives of the million Kosovo Albanians they had driven out. Their campaign of ethnic hatred drove NATO to bomb a sovereign country for the first time in its 50-year history, but after 78 days, the order to halt the bombing came on Thursday, at noon.

"A few moments ago I instructed Gen. Wesley Clark to suspend NATO's air operations," NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana told a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday. "The withdrawal of Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo is taking place" on schedule, he said, adding, "If everything goes OK ... tomorrow we may see the first KFOR (Kosovo peacekeeping) soldiers deployed in Kosovo."

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In the wake of the departing Serbian forces, elite NATO parachute units and engineering regiments prepared to move into Kosovo from Macedonia at nightfall. Thousands more NATO soldiers -- part of the 50,000 NATO-led troops who will make up the Kosovo peacekeeping force -- assembled here in Macedonia all day Thursday, arriving in a steady stream of helicopters and cargo jets and in green armored convoys.

"It's kind of exciting," said Maj. Mark K. Ballesteros of the U.S. Task Force Hawk, a regiment of some 1,500 troops moving from Albania to an American base in Macedonia Thursday. "I'm watching choppers from the 82nd Airborne and C-17 cargo jets landing over at the airport, and they are bringing M-1 tanks. Some Bradley fighting vehicles are coming overland" from Albania, Ballesteros added from his vantage point at Camp Able Sentry, near Macedonia's airport in Petrovac, which will serve as the main staging area for U.S. troops moving into Kosovo.

Ballesteros said some 3,500 U.S. troops would be part of an initial "enabling" force that would move into Kosovo over the next hours and days, to prepare for the arrival of the bulk of some 7,000 U.S. troops.

Despite the fact that Serbian forces seemed to be complying with a withdrawal timetable agreed to by representatives of NATO and the Yugoslav military at a dusty French NATO air base near the Macedonia-Kosovo border late Wednesday night, NATO officials acknowledged the Kosovo mission posed serious risks. NATO is concerned about the presence of an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 land mines in Kosovo, booby traps, unexploded NATO bombs -- particularly American cluster bombs, which are considered the most unstable -- and the possibility of renegade Serbian troops, snipers and armed civilians who might try to obstruct NATO.

Paul Beaver, a military analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly, said the NATO armored convoy preparing to enter would stretch 110 miles long, and as there was only one usable road between Macedonia and Kosovo, even unarmed Serbian civilians could hold up the convoy for days.

Another potential roadblock in the march toward peace could come from the Kosovo Liberation Army. But its leaders were pledging to support the agreement, even though it did not accomplish all the KLA wanted.

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"I can't say it's victory. We have to wait a bit. I can say it's a very important move. And I hope it's a first step to the final defeat of the evil we have seen perpetrated in Kosovo," said Pleurat Sejdiu, a spokesman for the KLA, by cell phone. "Only when Kosovo is empty of Serbian troops will we have won."

As the peace agreement became reality, it also became clear that the level of cooperation between NATO, in particular the Americans, and the KLA has been higher than previously disclosed. In recent days a KLA leader and Western officials have suggested that the U.S. even helped the KLA with supplies, making sure that the rebels acquired sophisticated global positioning satellite equipment, for instance, and satellite telephones that enabled them to provide crucial targeting information to U.S. and NATO forces during the air campaign.

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Sejdiu wouldn't confirm the level of coordination between NATO and the KLA, but did say, "We had daily contact with NATO. But I can't confirm it happened through satellite telephone."

One hitch on the way to the agreement was fear by Kosovo Serbs that they would be targeted by the KLA or ordinary ethnic Albanians for reprisal. American diplomats have been holding high-level meetings with the KLA near Tirana, Albania, for the past two days, reportedly in part to get the KLA to agree not to attack withdrawing Serbian troops and remaining Serbian Kosovo civilians.

Sejdiu said the KLA had promised NATO leaders that they would not target Serbian civilians, but ominously, he warned that the KLA could not control Kosovo Albanians who might seek revenge. "The Kosovo Liberation Army is committed to respecting the human rights of all civilians of Kosova," said Sejdiu, a dark-bearded doctor by training, living in exile in London. "But we can't rule out any individual acts of Albanians in Kosova when they go back and see the destruction."

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Some KLA leaders and others have suggested that its estimated 15,000 soldiers might become part of a Kosovo police force. But Sejdiu said most of the soldiers would go back to their former lives.

"Look, most of the KLA are students, political activists," Sejdiu said. "Everyone will go back to their own duties."

But for himself?

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"I am so involved in this. I am waiting for my government and for my commander to give me instructions. I am willing to sacrifice myself to continue to serve."

The Serbian capital Belgrade -- nerve center for the 40,000 Serbian troops sent to Kosovo and the target of thousands of NATO bombs over the past 11 weeks -- celebrated the end of the NATO airstrikes with cheers, alcohol, honking horns and the burning of U.S. and British flags, the symbols to Serbs of the most hated NATO armies. But the ebullience was tinged with deep bitterness at NATO and their own leadership, and fears about their own dark future.

"This is a very bitter army," said Zarko Korac, a psychology professor known for his liberal views, by telephone from Belgrade Thursday. "The Serbian army now is like the defeated German army after World War I. The feeling here now is that this was a futile war, and many people died for nothing. There is rampant unemployment waiting for them, a destroyed country. And they feel betrayed. We are heading toward very difficult times."

While many people in Belgrade seemed to understand that the Serbian army leaving Kosovo was a defeated one, their leader, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, went on Serbian television Thursday to tell the Serbian people they had won a victory.

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"The people are the heroes," proclaimed Milosevic, who was two weeks ago indicted by a U.N. tribunal for war crimes. "We survived and defended the country. I wish all the citizens of Yugoslavia much joy and success in the reconstruction of our country."

For ordinary Kosovo Albanians uprooted by the Serbs, signs of the end of war brought a sense of irrevocable loss.

"I can't help but feel sad," said Arianne, a Kosovo Albanian human rights worker living as a refugee in Macedonia, who asked that her last name not be used. "I stayed up all night after I heard about the peace agreement, I couldn't sleep, I felt so sad. This war has gone on too long. Too much has been lost."


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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