Marching Toward Freedom
by Stephen Schwartz
MITROVICA, Kosova — An interesting pair of events took place on Monday, July 21: President George W. Bush welcomed Kosova's Albanian leaders, President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, to the White House. Bush was all smiles, declaring, "I'm a strong supporter of Kosova's independence. I'm against any partition of Kosova. I believe strongly that the United Nations mission must be transferred to the EU as quickly as possible." Then late that night, Serbia announced the arrest of its number-two indicted war criminal, the Bosnian Serb poet and government psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic, with the declared intention of turning him over for trial at the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The Serbian action is one indication that Bush was right on the money: The stronger the U.S. support for a Kosova whole and free, the harder it is for Serbia to press its continuing claim to this former Serbian province. The Serbs still exercise de facto control of northern Kosova and of half a dozen enclaves in the rest of Kosova, where the Serbian dinar, not the euro, is the currency in use. Panicked at the prospect of Washington's frustrating their designs on Kosova, the Serbs sought to create a distraction and some good press in the West by sacrificing one of the villains of the bloody Bosnian war.
They shouldn't get away with it. While the United States and the main European powers have extended recognition to Kosova, Serbia continues to harass the new country--and the United Nations is complicit in this interference. The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) remains the official civilian authority in the northern part of the republic, but the Serbs are working overtime to create parallel institutions there. Something called EULEX--the European Rule of Law Commission in Kosovo--is scheduled to take over elsewhere.
In one example of Serbian aggression, there are frequent clashes in the northern Kosova community of Suhodoll, which means, appropriately, "dry valley." Foreign aid paid for the installation of a new sewer and water system in the locality, but Serb militants began assaulting the Albanian residents with stones and gunfire, and work on the utilities was interrupted. Serbian authorities, directed from Belgrade, claim jurisdiction over any improvement to the area. The UN stands aside and allows constructive work to be impeded.
On Tuesday, July 22, I came to the divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosova, to witness a demonstration against the siting of a chemical waste dump in the Albanian section of the municipality. I walked with Halil Qela, a local labor leader, up a steep hill as activists with bullhorns called on the residents to join the protest. An elderly man invited us into his garden and showed us how sulfuric acid residue from the dump has blighted his carefully nurtured plum trees.
The protest began, and the UN-controlled Kosova police, accompanied by French and Greek troops, soon appeared. I saw people knocked down and beaten with clubs for talking back to the police. One man who indicated his contempt by an eloquent shrug was pointed out by an officer, and five descended on him, with truncheons flailing and kicks administered in unrestrained fashion.
Three young women, students from Prishtina, the Kosova capital, were arrested in the demonstration. Pretty and vulnerable-looking, they were favored with the full force of UN authority, their arms twisted behind them as they were thrown to the ground and then rushed into trucks. People in the crowd shouted at the police to stop beating the girls, and the men in heavy helmets, with their assorted weapons, including pistols, advanced on those who spoke out, threatening them with the same treatment. In all, 17 protesters were carted off. (On Wednesday, another such demonstration resulted in worse beatings and 20 arrests.)
I ambled through the crowd, alternating between cautious discussion with the French soldiers and police officials on the scene, and talks with the organizers of the protest--labor activists, ecologists, and members of the Vetëvendosje movement for Kosovar self-determination--as well as ordinary residents. This was not, apparently, approved behavior, as the head of the police crew approached and demanded my identification, asking who I worked for. I told him I was only visiting, and he gazed at my U.S. passport as if he had never seen one before, but said nothing further.
An archetypal Albanian Muslim elder watched the incident unfold: Haxhi-Ilmi Imeri, who is 83, was dressed in a rather elegant suit, with a white prayer cap entwined with a scarf to approximate a turban-the style of three generations ago. He told me, "We are afraid of the Americans leaving and the Serbs coming back. We belong to America. Without America we would still be under occupation. We will do anything America asks."
Americans make up about 10 percent of KFOR, the 16,000-strong NATO-led Kosovo Forces, drawn from 34 nations, that provides military security in Kosova. But people here typically refer to them as the Americans, in deference to the United States' leading role in securing Kosova's independence.
A dentist who had joined the protest told me his view of American politics. "We are afraid of Barack Obama," he said. "We know that the rest of Europe is in love with him, but we fear he will make some deal with Putin and sell us out. We are hoping and praying for the victory of John McCain."
All these fears and tensions lurk behind Serbia's showy arrest of Radovan Karadzic. Western media, led by the inimitable Bush-Bashing Club -- sorry, the British Broadcasting Corporation -- were quick to interpret the arrest as proof that Serbia has become democratic, pro-Western, and worthy of trust. Serbia wants to join the EU, which has made the extradition of war criminals a prerequisite for membership. A significant test, then, will be whether the Serbs turn over an even more notorious individual for trial at The Hague. He is General Ratko Mladic, the man operationally responsible for the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in the so-called "safe area" of Srebrenica in 1995. At least until Mladic is in custody, we should remain wary of acclaiming Belgrade for any supposed return to respectability.