Two months after NATO bombs cut short Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s systematic effort to purge Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, mounting evidence suggests that some Albanians are now engaged in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign of their own--in this case, with the province’s remaining Serbs as its victims.
Initially, the widespread slayings of Serbs, and the torching of their homes and churches, were seen as individual acts of revenge for atrocities carried out by Serbian troops during the war--crimes that claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians. But as the days pass since NATO-led troops began occupying Kosovo on June 12, and the crimes against Serbs continue, patterns in the violence are beginning to emerge:
* Here in the provincial capital, “a disturbing pattern has arisen in the method of intimidation used against Serbs still in the city,” the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has found. “First, a warning letter is received ordering them to leave their homes, then the threat is delivered in person, followed a few days later by physical assault, in some cases even murder.”
* Dozens of Serbs have been slain execution-style in Pristina, military police have said. Evidence shows that the victims were commonly bound at the wrists and made to kneel on the ground before being shot in the head. Many were blindfolded.
* In dozens of Serbian villages throughout Kosovo, Serbs have fled after repeated threats and acts of violence, only to have their villages burned behind them. In at least one case, authorities suspect that a Serbian village was raided at night and that all its residents were slain before it was destroyed.
* At least 40 Serbian churches in the province have been vandalized and burned, Serbian Orthodox Church officials say. Many were then bombed to complete the destruction.
“It’s not that we think, we simply know it’s organized activity and systematically performed,” Bishop Artemije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, said.
Serbian church officials are not the only ones who see a conspiracy behind the violence. At separate news conferences last week, U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Craddock said they believe there are organized forces behind the anti-Serb violence.
“This is one of the things that we’re looking at very closely. It’s more than just neighbors getting upset at each other,” said Craddock, who commanded U.S. troops in Kosovo until his departure last week.
Asked who might constitute these organized forces, Craddock said: “That’s a work in progress. If I knew that, we’d have this thing licked, wouldn’t we?”
Whoever is behind the violence, it is having an effect. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that only 1,000 to 2,000 Serbs remain in Pristina, down from the 27,000 who were counted in the 1991 census. The agency found that many of those who remain are among the most vulnerable to attack: the elderly, the disabled and those without families.
“Conditions for those who remain have noticeably worsened over the last few weeks, with increasingly violent attacks on the rise,” Redmond said. “Old women are now being shot through the doors of their apartments, including two women in their 70s within the past week.”
Despite the dire circumstances of the Serbs left in Pristina, however, Bishop Artemije said the church will not help relocate them to a safer place or give them sanctuary in churches or monasteries outside the capital.
“The church can’t exist without people. Our churches and monasteries without people would turn into ash very soon. And it would look like the church cooperated with the [Kosovo Liberation Army] on creating an ethnically cleansed Kosovo, or at least a town, which can’t be accepted by us,” he said.
The bishop, who spoke through a Serbian translator, said that he empathized with the victims of anti-Serb violence in the capital but that the situation was beyond his control. He said the “international community,” including the United Nations and KFOR, the peacekeeping force led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is responsible for the safety of Serbs.
“I’m afraid that any elderly man or woman killed [is] one defeat more for the United Nations,” he said.
KFOR officials have defended their effort, saying it’s impossible to put a soldier next to every Serb in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid workers are attempting to find and assist Serbs in Pristina who are essentially trapped in their homes.
“The freedom of movement of Serbs . . . is virtually nonexistent, basically the same situation as Albanians faced here just a few months ago,” Redmond said.
Unlike U.N. and KFOR officials, Artemije and other church officials did not hesitate to lay blame for the plight of the Serbs. He said that if the Kosovo Liberation Army and its political leader, Hashim Thaci, are not behind the attacks, they at least have the power to stop them.
“All his declarations of a democratic nature are just for the world’s ears. His supporters [are repeating] all kinds of crimes that were done against Albanians during the war--looting of houses, evictions, beatings, rapes, burning of houses, destroying of churches,” the bishop said. “Mr. Thaci calls himself the commander of the [KLA], the prime minister, the head of the supposed government. If it is so, why doesn’t he give an order to the members of the [KLA] to stop these things?”
Father Salva Janic, a Serbian Orthodox priest and an aide to the bishop, has documented the destruction since mid-June of more than 40 churches and monasteries throughout Kosovo, many of which date back to the 14th century.
“They want to destroy every remnant of Serb existence to prevent their return,” the priest said.
“For someone to destroy these churches, they need freedom of movement. They need explosives, and they need military experience. This is not the work of frustrated villagers,” Janic said.
Bilall Sherifi, Thaci’s chief of staff, countered that everyone in the KLA “government,” from Thaci on down, has repeatedly spoken out against the violence.
“But such pleas don’t do much good,” Sherifi said, speaking through an interpreter. “If they did, even you in the United States wouldn’t need a police force.”
Rexhep Selimi, the KLA’s “minister of order,” or top police official, said that, because neither his government nor its police force is recognized by the U.N. interim government in Kosovo, his hands are tied.
“The KLA has the power to stop these things, but it has not been given the opportunity,” Selimi said. “For the military police and the [U.N. civilian] police, it will be very difficult to stop these things because they don’t know the people here. And without the cooperation of the KLA, they can’t be effective.”
Meanwhile, Redmond, the U.N. refugee agency spokesman, said his office gets phone calls every day from Kosovo Albanians concerned about Serbian neighbors but afraid to be seen reaching out.
“We’re sure that the vast majority of the Albanian population, which has already suffered so much, wants nothing to do with those who terrorize and shoot old women, evict innocent people from their homes, bomb churches and employ some of the same disgusting tactics that were used against the Albanians themselves just a few short weeks ago,” he said.