Strife Rattles Kosovo Like Aftershocks
The war in Kosovo began outside Ibrahim Rexhepi’s home a year ago today, and in the first hours of battle he lost a brother and a son.
They were both farmers--and fighters in what was then the underground Kosovo Liberation Army--living in the restive Serbian province with their wives and children in white houses with roofs of red tile.
Rexhepi’s 30-year-old son, Beqir, died in the ruins of a village house after police in camouflage fatigues arrived in armored vehicles, firing machine guns while a helicopter strafed the rooftops.
Beqir left behind two children and an AK-47 assault rifle with the KLA’s double-eagle insignia carved into the wooden stock. His father loves all three as if they were his own.
“I sleep next to this rifle,” Rexhepi said as he cradled his son’s Kalashnikov and stood in the snow by his grave Saturday. “He left me this rifle, and I will care for it as well as I can until the end.”
However, Rexhepi respects his leaders as much as his son’s wishes, and if the KLA decides to make peace with Serbian authorities at talks in France next month, he will have to surrender the AK-47.
Rexhepi will do it with honor, he said. He has even worked out how, and he offered a demonstration.
Taking the rifle’s barrel in his weathered right hand, he aimed it at himself and then gently, with a touch of ceremony, passed the weapon across to an imaginary soldier from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“I do not want to point it in the direction of NATO,” he explained, and he said it with respect, not fear.
If Kosovo Albanian and Serbian negotiators sign a peace deal after talks resume in France on March 15, NATO is likely to send about 28,000 troops to patrol Kosovo.
Foes’ Commitments to Accord Fragile
Yet as tensions build in Kosovo, which is primarily ethnic Albanian, the commitments made this month at a 14th century chateau in Rambouillet, France, are close to unraveling.
Sporadic fighting continued Saturday. The victims included a police officer killed in an attack on a patrol car driving along a main highway linking Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, with Pec on the west side of the province, Serbian authorities said.
Serbia is one of the two republics remaining in Yugoslavia, and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s government still publicly insists that it will not allow NATO troops on its soil--although Milosevic has floated the idea that United Nations peacekeepers might be acceptable.
But the U.N.'s failure earlier in this decade to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its already overstretched peacekeeping budget, make a costly and dangerous U.N. mission in Kosovo unlikely.
The KLA is also unhappy with the tentative peace plan because it does not explicitly guarantee a referendum on independence for Kosovo after three years of limited self-rule. And it would force the KLA’s fighters to give up their weapons and take off their uniforms.
Adem Demaci, a former Marxist-Leninist turned hard-line nationalist, spent 29 years in jail for demanding Kosovo’s independence. He is trying to persuade the KLA to reject the compromise offered in Rambouillet.
The KLA’s organization “has changed massively” in recent months and now has a much more centralized command that is genuinely looking for a consensus on the peace deal, said a foreign monitor who meets regularly with guerrilla leaders.
The crucial question is whether, as several commanders insisted in recent interviews, Demaci’s voice is powerful enough to silence moderates in the KLA and in the Kosovo Albanian delegation who want peace.
A disarmament compromise that some KLA leaders find interesting would put the guerrillas’ weapons in storage compounds, or cantonments, under joint control with NATO officers, said the monitor, who spoke on condition he not be identified.
“If the KLA disbands and disarms, it doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a successor organization,” said the monitor with the mission run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “I think a willingness on the part of the international community to provide a degree of flexibility will improve their willingness to be disbanded.”
However, foreigners have made serious errors trying to fathom Balkan logic before, as recently as Rambouillet, where mediators underestimated the ethnic Albanians’ commitment to independence, the official said.
One worrying sign is the KLA’s choice last week of its first overall commander, which put a hard-liner in charge of the fighters at the same time as intense foreign pressure was softening up the Kosovo Albanians in Rambouillet.
To the surprise of many here, the title of KLA general commander went to Sylejman Selimi, a former soccer player and metallurgy student also known as Sultan.
He comes from the rebels’ hard core in the Drenica region and fought alongside the KLA’s legendary founder, Adem Jashari. A Serbian court on July 17, 1997, sentenced both of them, in absentia, to 20 years in prison for terrorism.
Legendary Separatist Figure a Hard-Liner
As the same guerrilla leaders debate whether they can stand down so soon after winning international recognition, some will ask what Jashari would have done. Compromise is unlikely to be the first thing that comes to their minds.
Jashari was killed in action a year ago this coming Friday, just days after the war he spent years preparing for in the hillside forests of Drenica had begun in earnest.
A 42-year-old farmer with a thick gray beard and a long reputation as a local tough, Jashari wanted to bring the war to the people’s doorsteps, and so he made his command post his home in the village of Donji Prekaz.
“He had a chance to be far from his house, but he wanted to show everybody that the best defense of your homeland starts from your own home,” said Gani Koci, a senior KLA information officer who was a friend of Jashari’s in his underground years.
Jashari got his wish on the morning of Feb. 28, 1998, when special police units with armored vehicles and heavy weapons retaliated for the killing of four officers in an attack on one of their patrols.
After the guns fell silent that day, Beqir Rexhepi was dead along with at least 25 other ethnic Albanians in Cirez and the nearby village of Likosane.
Several were executed at close range, survivors told human rights investigators.
The brutal tactics were supposed to crush the KLA, but instead they handed the guerrillas more recruits, as one village after another came under attack and people fled ruined homes.
When it was formed in 1993, the KLA was a small, loosely knit movement of farmers and a few intellectuals brought together as much by family ties as by a radical-left ideology and Albanian nationalism.
The guerrillas were organized in cells, often with nothing more powerful in the way of weapons than hunting rifles or shotguns. Most of their early operations were hit-and-run attacks on police.
After war broke out, a Serbian offensive forced about 250,000 people from their homes. Western governments tried to isolate the KLA and deal only with moderate ethnic Albanians like the widely popular Ibrahim Rugova.
By July, European strategists were fuming because U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke had changed the game plan by going behind rebel lines to meet with guerrilla leaders.
Last week, Hashim Thaci, a senior KLA commander whose war name is Snake, was meeting with U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander, at the chateau in Rambouillet.
The strategy may backfire by making the KLA feel even more cocky than it already does, although its commanders know they will be on the run again if another full-scale war breaks out, the foreign peace monitor said.
“These are not stupid people,” added the official, a military officer who said he has grown to respect several KLA top commanders.
“I think they recognize this is going to be the best they’re going to get, and the alternative is not very attractive,” he said.