Mitrovica's Bridge Too Far
by Stephen Schwartz
Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, is an unsightly industrial city, among the largest in rump Yugoslavia. Under Communist dictator Joseph Tito, it expanded as investment was pumped into the nearby Trepca mine complex. Today, almost a year after the start of the Kosovo war, Mitrovica is split by ethnic hatred as ugly as the surrounding buildings. The line that separates the two sides runs down the middle of a bridge over the shallow Ibar River.
Mitrovica has become a symbol for Serbs, who dominate the northern part of the city, and who refuse to abandon their claims in Kosovo. For Albanians, an isolated minority in the northern neighborhoods but homogeneous south of the line, the bridge from which they are normally barred dramatizes what they consider the failure of NATO peacekeeping.
The most important actors in Mitrovica are neither Serb nor Albanian, however. They would be the French contingent within KFOR, the multinational force keeping the peace in Kosovo, which has been thrust into an escalating series of demonstrations and clashes over the past eight months. The most severe round of atrocities came on Feb. 3, after a rocket attack on a United Nations bus, almost certainly by Albanian Kosovars, left two Serbs dead. A grenade was later thrown at a Serb cafe in the north side, and, almost immediately, thousands of Serbs attacked buildings in northern Mitrovica where Albanians were still living. Six Albanians were killed, including a young boy who died in hospital.
A Texan member of the international police in Kosovo who attempted to stop the Serb rioters told the Washington Post that French troops had fled the scene, refusing to protect their fellow peacekeepers. Other members of the international police force in Kosovo echo his charges, but like the Texan decline to reveal their identities, saying they fear French retaliation, including the refusal to cooperate with the international officers.
The Albanians are already accusing the French of not preventing attacks on them. The Gjakas, an Albanian family who says it was attacked by Serb gunfire and grenades as its members huddled in a friend's apartment, charge that they waited to no avail for French troops stationed no more than 200 meters away. Finally, they said, a team of American police battled their way through the mob to rescue them. But Nerimane Gjaka, mother of the family, died later that night, from a shrapnel wound in her stomach. The French also allegedly refused to allow victims of the fighting to be treated at their field hospitals.
Notwithstanding indignant denials of dereliction of duty by French officers, British troops were ordered to replace the French at the Ibar River bridge last week. For their part, Albanians have been convinced for some time that the French are partial to the Serbs, and even allege that the Serb riots in Mitrovica occurred with French foreknowledge. The survivors of the assault on the Gjaka family, for example, complained that everybody in northern Mitrovica knew an attack was coming after the rocketing of the U.N. bus, but that the French refused to take any preventive measures. Similar claims were voiced by the U.N. police.
In such a situation, it should come as no surprise that Albanians are now accused of attacking the French. On Sunday, two French peacekeepers were wounded by sniper fire in the tense city. On Monday, NATO chief Lord George Robertson said attacks of this sort would undermine support for the organization's peacekeeping role in Kosovo.
Evidence of French bias toward Serbians has come from an unexpected source: the Serbian press. In December, Reporter, a weekly magazine based in Bosnia's so-called "Serb Republic," but which is respected for its independence from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's clique in Belgrade, published a two-part series from Mitrovica. Its portrayal of French relations with Serbs was alarming.
According to one of the reports, the same day one of the French commanders claimed that an orderly situation obtained in northern Mitrovica, "an elderly Albanian man crossed the bridge into the Serb sector. He did not get further than 50 or so meters when three boys, 14 to 15 years old, descended on him, beating him on the head, and delivering a series of kicks to his body on the dirty asphalt. All the French soldiers could do was to remove the almost lifeless body."
The story quoted a Serb tough among those "defending" the bridge, who, describing a Serb-Albanian melee, said, "a French soldier asked me: 'Why are you throwing only stones at them?'" Serbs seem proud of such stories, viewing them as evidence for their superiority, as Europeans, to the Albanians. Given that the attitudes of the French are so easily portrayed as partial in the Serbian press itself, the only surprising event here is that it is taking so long for these stories to make their way into the international media.
Albanians claim, for example, that while Serbs travel in U.N. buses accompanied by KFOR military patrols, Albanians are rebuffed when they ask for protection to visit their homes. They also claim that Albanian women and girls who are allowed to cross the bridge are subjected to humiliating searches by French troops. But much more is at stake in the Mitrovica confrontation than access to lost homes.
Northern Mitrovica also houses the main local university buildings, and Albanian youths claim they are effectively being barred from resuming their studies. In addition, behind the controversy there remains the massive Trepca mining and metallurgical complex, and the issue of who will own it -- Serbia or an eventual independent Kosovo -- and who will work in it. A recent report from the International Crisis Group on Trepca noted that Albanian fears have been fed by reports that a French enterprise would get control of Trepca, supposedly to the disadvantage of Albanians. The Serb-controlled zone also houses the only hospital in Mitrovica, and Albanian medical personnel, in addition to patients, have been expelled from the facility.
Balkan accusations of French favoritism toward the Serbs have become common. Muslim Bosniacs will not soon forget General Bernard Janvier, the French commander who refused the request for NATO air strikes to prevent the Serb massacre of Bosniacs at Srebrenica in 1995. The Mitrovica situation is, in its own way, even more disturbing. This is why the actions of the French KFOR troops at Mitrovica should be fully investigated. For the time being, the French KFOR contingent should be transferred out of Mitrovica.