Mass graves and mine-riddled neighborhoods

Refugees and NATO troops make their way into war-torn Kosovo


Laura Rozen
June 14, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)

Two U.S. soldiers sit under a green military tent between an abandoned Kosovo gas station and an Albanian graveyard, near the southern Kosovo city of Kacanik. One soldier is reading a horror novel by Stephen King. The other stares into the distance.

The soldiers, who arrived in Kosovo only a day ago, look to be guarding the graveyard, which has white marble headstones decades old. But if you stand at the wrought iron fence, the smell that greets you is of flesh not buried. A tall mound of loose dirt stands at the back of the cemetery, containing what local villagers say is more than 80 bodies of Kosovo Albanians killed by Serbian forces in early April, shortly after NATO began bombing Serbia. Some of those in the mass grave, local villagers say, are old people who refused or were unable to leave their homes after Serbian forces demanded they leave Kosovo, and were then burned with their homes. Others insist some of the people were shot.

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The American soldiers won't let anybody onto the site to verify. They are under orders to guard the site until forensic experts -- with the FBI or international war crimes tribunal -- come to investigate. Villagers gathered in a mosque nearby say there is another mass grave on the other side of the road. But because the hills surrounding the main road have been mined, it was not yet safe to investigate.

This is the mixed homecoming scene that greets the dozens of Kosovo Albanian refugees who have ventured back to the province since a peace agreement was reached late last week. Despite the fact that the first NATO troops moved into Kosovo early Saturday morning, and some 15,000 had deployed into the Connecticut-sized province by Monday, the peace that had settled in Kosovo by then appeared extremely uncertain. Heavily mined fields and hills, and the lingering presence of some uniformed Serbian soldiers and civilian-dressed Serbian paramilitaries just off Kosovo's main roads, has so far prevented NATO troops from venturing very far off Kosovo's four main paved roads, for fear of an unwanted early confrontation.

Meanwhile, some 200 Russian troops led by a three-star general have blockaded themselves inside Kosovo's main airport west of the capital Pristina. For days now, a tense standoff has ensued between the Russians and British NATO troops who had intended to make the airport the headquarters for the NATO Kosovo peacekeeping force, known as KFOR. While diplomats tried to iron-out the increasingly alarming standoff, and Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin spoke by phone, those efforts had not, by late Monday night, succeeded. On Sunday, British NATO soldiers tried to pass the Russian blockade, which only led to the Russians reinforcing their barricade with an additional armored personnel carrier. Ominously, some of the Russian troops at Pristina airport have painted over the KFOR insignia on their armored vehicles with black paint, and are allowing only Yugoslav military vehicles to pass through what they describe as their "sector."

The Russians are not the only hiccup troubling the NATO peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. Two German journalists working for the magazine "Der Stern," were found dead, apparently shot in separate incidents on Sunday, about 30 kilometers south of Pristina. It is not clear yet who killed them or why, but there is a suggestion that some Serbian paramilitary units were deliberately targeting them because they were German. German NATO soldiers also had two separate serious run-ins with Serbian forces who had not yet pulled out of the southwestern Kosovo city of Prizren when the German troops arrived Sunday. One incident led to two German troops being shot, and the other led to two Serbs being killed.

In the Kosovo capital Pristina, under British control, British NATO soldiers shot dead an off-duty Serbian police officer after he reportedly opened pistol fire on them Sunday.

While the peace that has settled on Kosovo is terribly uncertain, and has so far enabled few of the more than 1 million displaced Kosovo Albanians to return to their homes, the Kosovar people by and large greeted the deployment of NATO troops to Kosovo as a holy miracle, unrivaled by any other event in their lives.

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No longer are Kosovo Albanians harassed at the border by Serbian border police, who did their best to humiliate, delay and intimidate them, while letting Serbian cars whiz past with a smile and a wink.

Now, American GIs, looking terribly young and slight in their camouflage helmets and flak jackets, man the Kosovo-Macedonian border. Uncertain of the dangers they face on this new mission, they carry their weapons defensively, but treat the Kosovo Albanian refugees arriving on the border on foot and in cars like human beings. After checking that no one is carrying weapons, the U.S. troops give the Kosovo Albanians the go-ahead to move on into Kosovo unimpeded: the first taste of freedom many of them have had in over a decade.

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Some of the returning Kosovo Albanian men, thinned and suntanned by weeks spent in the blinding sun of refugee camps in Macedonia, can hardly believe it.

Groups of them walk in the middle of the road, unable to wipe the smile from their faces. They hold their fingers up in the V-for-victory sign to all who pass, honk in euphoric greeting as they see friends, and wave and cheer wildly in gratitude at the convoys of serious-faced NATO soldiers who move thunderously past in enormous, heavy, slow-moving convoys of armored personnel carriers, tanks, trucks, jeeps and humvees carting their water, food, fuel, ammunition and tents.

While the NATO soldiers try to see themselves as neutral in this conflict, the Kosovo Albanians openly regard their presence in Kosovo as the greatest miracle they have ever witnessed. The American soldiers can't help but be moved as the Kosovo Albanians cheer them as they pass, the children chanting, throwing flowers, snapping photographs. The handwritten sign just inside the Kosovo-Macedonian border crossing says simply "WELCOME NATO."

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"It feels good to make them happy," said Sgt. Joseph Webb, of the 82nd Airborne, out of Fort Bragg, N.C., manning a .50-caliber machine gun mounted atop a tank. It is Webb's first hour in Kosovo and he has no idea what to expect, but the hills above his machine gun are green and quiet for the moment, and the Kosovo Albanians he passes are the friendliest people he has seen in his career.

"I guess they like what they see," says Webb's tank mate, Staff Sgt. Ryan Murphy, also of the 82nd Airborne, trying to suppress a smile.

Further up the road, an American military convoy stops by the side of the road while mine experts check the territory they are to move into, in southeastern Kosovo, for mines and booby traps. A group of Kosovo Albanians comes out of their houses to welcome them.

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Standing in the shade next to their truck, task force surgeon Eric Mansfield, a doctor from Columbus, Ga., and Staff Sgt. George Fitzgerald, from Mission Hill, Mass., are giving high-fives and shaking hands with the smiling Kosovars coming to greet them.

Fitzgerald, with red hair and freckles, says he feels a special connection to this mission because his mother was a refugee from post-World War II Croatia, which, like Kosovo, was part of the former Yugoslavia.

"I feel honored to be here," says Fitzgerald. His mother immigrated to America from Croatia in 1949, met his father in a bar in Brigham Circle in Boston, and died shortly after a new war broke out in Croatia in 1992. "My mother died after seeing the war start. It made her feel so sad, like the war that made her leave Europe was starting again."

Mansfield, a smiling, bespectacled African-American, says his buddy Fitzgerald wept when they moved into Kosovo and saw the Kosovo Albanian refugees walking home.

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"He got all choked up and cried when we went past the refugee camp, and he saw the guys walking home," confides Mansfield.

Mansfield says that even though his own ancestors don't hail from the region, he too feels drawn to help the Kosovo refugees and end the bloodshed in Kosovo.

"I just can't imagine having to pick up all my stuff and run for my life, and leave my wife and children behind," he says as groups of refugees go by. "If your heart can't go out for that, then you don't have a heart."


Laura Rozen

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

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