Chaos envelops Pristina

As Serbs mark their historic defeat at Kosovo Polje 610 years ago, the future doesn't look much brighter.


Laura Rozen
June 28, 1999 3:30PM (UTC)

Ten years ago, on the 600th anniversary of the defeat of the Serbs by the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Kosovo Polje, 2 million Serbs gathered to rally around then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's call for a greater Serbia.

Today, 10 years later, Milosevic has been indicted by a United Nations tribunal for crimes against humanity, more than half of Kosovo's 200,000 Serbs have fled the province in the wake of Serbia's capitulation to NATO airstrikes and only some 20 Serbs came to Kosovo Polje to witness the 610th anniversary of the battle.

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"It's pretty sad," Aleksander Mitic, a Serbian journalist for a French news agency, said Monday. Mitic attended the grim ceremony at Kosovo's "field of blackbirds," as the name of the village is translated. "It was mostly journalists who came," Mitic observed.

The marking of the Serbian defeat at Kosovo Polje came as violence has gripped the Kosovo capital, Pristina. On Saturday, someone ransacked the media center at the Grand Hotel, which is currently home to most of the world's Kosovo-based press corps. They broke down doors, ripped out computers and telephone lines and terrorized the center's Serbian staff, who fled.

Then on Sunday, some 20 ethnic Albanians stormed the hotel and demanded their old jobs back. The hotel's Serbian staff, which has run the Grand since Milosevic revoked the rights of Kosovo's Albanian majority in 1989, called in units from the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, who prevented a firefight. Now only those with KFOR accreditation can enter the hotel, which also runs the only restaurant in this city.

Also on Sunday, an international staff member with the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and his translator were killed, although the details of who killed them and why are not clear.

An eerie atmosphere of unrest bordering on lawlessness has descended on Pristina, which formerly was gripped by an oppressive fear of the Serbian police. People are looting stores, sometimes in plain site of KFOR forces and the international press. KFOR is beefing up its 250-member military police force to 500, but is calling on the United Nations to rapidly ramp up an international civilian policing program.

Currently the U.N. is due to deploy some 3,000 international police, and to recruit local ethnic Albanian police, including 2,000 former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, to keep law and order in the province.

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Monday also marked the first day of organized refugee resettlement in Kosovo. But while some 400 Kosovo Albanians living in Macedonian refugee camps boarded official U.N.-secured buses to Kosovo Monday, more than 300,000 have already returned on their own, against the advice of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, over the past three weeks.

As Serbs of every class and profession flee Kosovo, which is technically still part of Yugoslavia, questions linger about who will control the province's key assets. These include the ransacked Grand Hotel, Pristina's city hospital, the main television and radio station, Pristina University, the power and electrical utilities, the Trepca coal mine and the Feronikl plant in Glogovac, 20 kilometers west of Pristina.

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Every day ethnic Albanians storm those assets and demand their right to control them, and every day, more Serbs flee from Kosovo to Serbia, and add to the increasingly raucous calls for Milosevic to resign. They blame the Serbian leader not for the atrocities committed against Albanians, but for the NATO onslaught that caused them to lose their homes.

Opposition to Milosevic unites Yugoslavia's returning army troops, its unemployed (which now make up a majority of its working population), hard-line nationalists who formerly supported him as well as the traditional democratic opposition. President Clinton reiterated last week that no international reconstruction assistance -- "not a red cent" -- would go to Serbia while Milosevic remained in power.

Maybe most persuasive among the chorus of voices calling for Milosevic's removal is that of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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On Monday Serbian Orthodox leaders came to the Gracinaca monastery to mark the anniversary of the defeat of Kosovo Polje, and to call for Milosevic to step down. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, told gathered journalists and a small crowd of 200 worshippers Monday morning that he blames Milosevic, Kosovo's Albanian separatists and the NATO-led peacekeeping force for the exodus of Serbs from Kosovo, the Connecticut-sized province that served as the birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church in early medieval times.

"The Serbian Orthodox Church has officially demanded the resignation of Mr. Milosevic, not because he lost in Kosovo but because he made war in Kosovo and because we think the problem could have been solved differently," Kosovo Bishop Artemije told Reuters.

Church leaders also begged the world community to prevent "ethnic cleansing" that would remove Serbs from Kosovo.

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"It is rather difficult to understand that despite the presence of at least 20,000 KFOR troops in the region, the most dreadful crimes against civilians are being carried on at an unabated rate, especially in the cities," Serbian Orthodox bishops wrote in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"The failure of KFOR to take more active and robust measures against the perpetrators of these crimes is understood as an encouragement to various gangs of robbers and murderers, especially in the western part of the province," the bishops wrote.


Laura Rozen

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

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