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Kosovo Harvest Yields Bounty of Ethnic Mistrust

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two Apache gunships hover overhead, and a dozen armed soldiers stand poised by a remote wheat field in southeastern Kosovo. It’s 7 a.m., and the moment of truth for “Operation Harvest” has arrived.

Will Serbian and ethnic Albanian farmers, bitter enemies, turn swords into plowshares?

In a bold experiment, U.S. Army Maj. Steve Russell hopes to entice the farmers to reap their fields together in return for free gas and heavy security. It seems a far-fetched concept in this war-torn province where mistrust and hatred divide the land as surely as a combine separates wheat from chaff.

But even a baby step will be progress, Russell insists. “If we can just get them thinking about the small things like harvesting the wheat instead of looting and burning each other’s houses,” the Oklahoman says, “it’ll be a big start.”

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Just hours after Russell has succeeded in the first feat--getting Serbian and Albanian farmers to gather in the same room to hear his plan--the odds against him rise. Fourteen Serbian farmers harvesting their fields are gunned down elsewhere in Kosovo, allegedly by ethnic Albanians.

The massacre understandably makes the Serbs even more terrified of Albanians seeking to avenge last spring’s slaughter of thousands of ethnic Albanians at the hands of Serbian forces during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 11-week air war against Yugoslavia.

But the incident doesn’t deter Russell’s vision--and in fact, he says, it bolsters his case because the Serbs desperately feel the need for additional security.

A silver-tongued idealist whose oratorical skills have earned him the nickname “Governor” in the Army combat unit known as the Big Red One, Russell, 36, is one of the senior operations people at the helm of the 5,000-member U.S. peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

He is the epitome of the New Age soldier’s evolution from fighter to peacekeeper to peacemaker as ground wars become fewer and farther between.

“This isn’t attacking a hill,” he says, “but it is about coming up with the same techniques to solve a problem.”

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Since it rolled into Kosovo in mid-June along with other NATO troops, the Army has tried to fill the huge vacuum created when Yugoslav forces withdrew from the separatist Serbian province as ordered. There were no longer police, courts or civil administrators to run schools or operate formerly state-owned industries, utilities and social welfare institutions.

U.S. troops are doing everything from helicoptering land-mine victims to the hospital to erecting electricity and telecommunications towers while a fledgling U.N. government tries to get up and running. It could be a long wait: Only one administrator from the United Nations has arrived in the United States’ area of responsibility near the eastern town of Gnjilane.

In the meantime, the soldiers are trying to resolve disputes between warring neighbors about everything from chairs to chickens to houses.

And so it was that Russell recently returned a cow to its rightful owner, seeking to build trust in a Serbian community through a symbolic gesture. A Serbian farmer had complained that an ethnic Albanian in a nearby village had stolen his cow. Russell says he accompanied the Serbian farmer to retrieve the cow, which clearly recognized the Serb.

“Is that your cow?” Russell recalls asking the ethnic Albanian. “But what about my cows?” replied the ethnic Albanian, whose cows were stolen during the war. “We’ll worry about your cows later,” Russell said. The Serb walked off with his cow in tow.

The Serbian town now is less hostile to U.S. forces, Russell says.

“They all tell me, ‘You don’t understand the history,’ ” says Russell, who has a master’s degree in military history. “I tell them, ‘We don’t want to know anything about the history, anything about the hate.’ I have no desire to hear it and every desire to be impartial.”

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Many ethnic Albanians, returning from foreign countries where they took refuge during the spring, have avenged their losses by taking the property--or, in some cases, the lives--of the Serbs who have remained in Kosovo. NATO and U.N. forces are trying to ensure that a multiethnic society remains.

For now, an immediate problem is getting the wheat out of the fields and into the flour mills before the summer rains begin, so that there is bread come winter. There are very few combines in the area, and many of the farmers cannot afford fuel, which has doubled in price.

Russell’s first step: gathering the mayors of the various towns together on a Friday afternoon in a gymnasium now occupied by the U.S. troops. The fearful Serbian farmers, most of them now hunkered down in wholly Serbian towns clustered amid the largely Albanian landscape, arrive under the protection of U.S. soldiers.

The Serbs sit on one side of a horseshoe-shaped arrangement, the Albanians on the other, with Russell and his crew at the head.

Russell explains the structure of the co-op: how the towns will be divided into two co-ops, each made up of delegates from Albanian, Serbian and mixed villages. How the U.S. troops will provide security. How Serbian and Albanian combine and tractor owners will be issued picture IDs to get their gas.

“This plan is about sharing your assets, sharing your sweat and reaping the benefits,” Russell tells them, explaining that he has an affinity for their work because his father-in-law is a chicken farmer.

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“I take a risk for your peace every day, and I’m not even from your country,” he says. “Why don’t you take a risk for peace?”

A date is set for Tuesday, four days later, when the cooperatives will meet to discuss the plan.

The two ethnic groups do not fraternize.

Afterward, the Serbian mayors say they are willing to cooperate.

“It’s a good idea,” Dobrivoje Paunovic, 53, of the village of Pasjane, tells a reporter, noting that Kosovo is so unsafe for Serbs that they can’t even venture out to the market.

“We always worked together. We had many friends who were Albanian, and for 20 years we lived together, but the war spoiled everything. . . ,” he says. “We are sorry Albanians were killed and their houses burned, but we Serb villagers are not to blame.”

Traditionally, the three combines in the Serbian village of Pasjane would harvest the fields of the Albanian town of Lastetia, which has no harvesting machines. “We’re willing to help them because the wheat doesn’t recognize the hatred,” Paunovic says.

Separately, the ethnic Albanians also say Russell’s plan is a good one--but in the same breath they say it can never work. It is a dialogue similar to those heard by international workers all over Kosovo.

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“How can you cooperate when the Serbs massacred us, burned down our village and killed 24 of our villagers?” says Mustaf Berisha, 70, pulling out a list of 127 articles looted from his home and farm.

Told of his former friend Paunovic’s remarks, he gets particularly angry: “He’s the very man who led police into our village--the one distributing arms to everybody in the village, even the children.” (Paunovic strongly denies this and says Berisha is mistaken.)

By the time Sunday morning rolls around, the Serbian farmers are up in arms, and Russell is going from Serbian village to Serbian village trying to salvage the experiment. Not only has word spread of the killings of the 14 Serbian farmers two days before, but ethnic Albanians have pulled down a huge statue of the Serbian King Lazar in downtown Gnjilane.

“It’s not a small thing a man could hide--you had to notice,” a Serbian mayor says sardonically, adding that if KFOR, as the international peacekeeping force is known, can’t protect such a large thing, how could its troops protect a farmer?

Russell explains that U.S. troops are repairing the monument and plan to put it up again, just as they would strive to protect any Albanian monuments.

In each village Russell travels to, he pulls the leaders out of the crowd and takes them aside. Pretty soon they’re drinking coffee and making some progress.

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For every example the Serbs cite of a Serb being killed, he gives one of an Albanian being murdered, and he does the same thing with Albanians he will meet. Over and over, Russell appeals for tolerance.

Early Tuesday, a few dozen Albanian farmers show up in the Albanian town of Zegra to receive fuel and begin work. But no Serbs arrive. Two Apache helicopters fly overhead for security, but the fields are too wet to harvest. The fuel is distributed, but the joint harvest is postponed until the next day.

Berisha, the Albanian farmer who accused his former friend, loads five five-gallon jugs of fuel onto his wagon pulled by a tractor. Will he really participate the next day?

“I’ll come,” he says solemnly. But he’s counting on the Serbs not showing up. “There will be no Serbs here tomorrow.”

The next day, the Albanians drive their tractors to the fuel distribution point, which on that day is in a Serbian village.

There are some flickers of reconciliation. Srecko Conic, a 36-year-old Serb, wanders over to shake hands with Albanian Ahmet Abazi, 53, whose brother once worked for Conic. Both say Albanians and Serbs can work together.

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But things quickly turn ugly. The troops have enough diesel for only 10 farmers, which annoys the Serbian townspeople, who order the Albanians out of their village before any fuel is distributed. Tensions rise.

When the fuel is moved to a more neutral location nearby, a sole Serb with a combine, Vasic Dragan, 20, shows up. He says he is willing to work with Albanians. “I don’t have to worry because I didn’t commit any harm to anybody,” Dragan says.

At least one Albanian with a combine, Myrtez Syla, has harvested Serbian fields in return for cash: He wouldn’t have done so, he says, without the program.

But the two sides will not work together collectively. “Operation Harvest” has failed.

In the end, Russell relents, and free fuel is given to both Serbs and Albanians anyway, with 10,000 gallons distributed all told.

And Russell and his crew have lowered their expectations dramatically. Says Capt. Glenn Tolle, “If we can get all the wheat in with no more killings, then that will be a success in itself.”

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