Published on Sunday, March 19, 2000 in the Boston Globe
A Year After Kosovo War,
UN Is Facing A Quagmire
by Kevin Cullen

PRISTINA, Kosovo - A year after NATO launched its 78-day war over Kosovo, this United Nations protectorate remains a potholed tangle of contradictions, a former war zone that is relatively peaceful but lawless, swimming in international good will but choking on coal dust, traffic, corruption, and crime.

Some, including many of the 6,000 US soldiers here, say the UN's goal of building a civil, multiethnic society is noble but unrealistic, and say the ethnic hatred that fanned the conflagration is so intractable that the peacekeeping mission is doomed to drag on forever.

The UN faces a daunting task, and its critics say it has not done well. Garbage is piled everywhere. Power and water outages are constant nuisances. The drone of generators is Kosovo's white noise.

The Serbian government, which drove out 1 million ethnic Albanians and slaughtered thousands more before NATO bombed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into submission, somehow managed to do a better job than the UN has at picking up garbage and keeping the electricity and water on. The UN insists it is doing the best it can under the circumstances.

Most of the refugees have returned, and they show an inspiring resilience and determination to rebuild lives and communities. But others are determined to exact revenge on the remaining Serb civilians, sorely testing the UN's resolve to keep Kosovo a place where Albanians and Serbs can live side by side.

Here in the capital, the cafes and restaurants are bustling, the shops chock-full of goods that were not available before the war. But the cafe culture, most of it serving well-paid foreigners, masks a more depressing reality.

More than half of the natives are unemployed. In places like Mitrovica, a divided northern city that is a flashpoint between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, more than 85 percent are jobless, so agitators have time to stir up trouble.

Smog hangs over Pristina, where the prewar population of 200,000 has jumped to 450,000, putting an unbearable strain on a crumbling infrastructure. The roads throughout the province are abysmal, pocked with potholes that blow out tires, dent rims, and have spawned a thriving tire repair industry. It costs just $1.50 to fix a flat.

There are almost 40,000 heavily armed peacekeeping troops from 36 nations, and 2,500 police officers from 45 countries, sprinkled among a population of less than 2 million, but more than 500 people have been murdered since the war ended. Few killers have been brought to justice, and some walked free in a dysfunctional society where hardly any courts are open, and where the UN pays the few working judges one-quarter of what it pays interpreters and drivers.

Some countries that vowed to help, meanwhile, have not lived up to their obligations. There are 10,000 fewer troops than first pledged, and only half of the promised police officers have arrived.

A city of crime, corruption

Awash in cash, policed and governed by well-meaning but often clueless foreigners, Kosovo is a petri dish for crime and corruption. With the justice system in disarray, gangsters have flocked in, driving around in flashy BMWs, overseeing their illicit enterprises of drugs, guns, and prostitutes by cellular telephone. Soldiers and police look on helplessly, while some accuse UN administrators of looking the other way.

Many of the 500 American police officers who were lured here by the chance to make $100,000 in a year say they are frustrated and disillusioned. About 50 have given up and gone home.

''Sure, the money's good, and it will help my daughter go to college, but we also came here hoping to make a difference, and so far we're not,'' said Larry Guyton, who took a leave of absence as deputy sheriff in North Carolina to work here.

Bernard Kouchner, who heads the UN mission, said the international community has too much invested in Kosovo to let it die from neglect. But having spent whatever it took to win the war, the West may be in danger of losing the peace, now that the urgency that spurred NATO to attack a sovereign nation for the first time has dissipated.

Kouchner said the $295 million he needs to run Kosovo for a year amounts to about half of what NATO spent each day it bombed Yugoslavia. But Kouchner has to beg constantly for the international community to keep paying the tab.

If, as President Clinton and other Western allies have claimed, this was the first war fought for humanitarian reasons, many here believe the UN strategy for transforming this into a modern democracy is muddled at best.

''The UN can't even keep the electricity on, so why should we expect them to really reform this place?'' said Veton Surroi, a newspaper publisher whom many Western leaders see as the eventual leader of an autonomous Kosovo.

Surroi says the UN plan is reactive and crisis-driven.

''If the international community is only going to react when things get worse, then things will surely get worse,'' he said.

Ylber Hysa, director of Kosova Action for a Civic Society, said that while crime and corruption are major problems, the vast majority of people ''have shown restraint.''

''The question now, for the UN and for people in Kosovo, is whether you want to build institutions or remain dependent on gangsters. Is there a long-term strategy to bring this about? I don't see one,'' Hysa said.

Still, Surroi and Hysa give Kouchner credit for establishing a power-sharing administration with Ibrahim Rugova, the leading Albanian moderate, and Hashim Thaci, who led the Kosovo Liberation Army until NATO ordered the rebel group to disband. Hard-liners like Thaci want an independent Kosovo, something the UN and Western countries oppose. Getting Thaci's contingent to share power with moderates is the first step in creating the democratic institutions that, in theory, will someday allow the UN to pull out. Getting Serbs to agree to participate, and getting Albanians to go along, will prove harder.

Given the level of hatred and the breakdown of the basic services and infrastructure that most societies take for granted, it is hard to imagine a day when Kosovo will be able to stand on its own. Surroi, who spent the war hiding in squalid basements from Serb secret police who would have liked to kill him, was threatened recently by Albanian extremists after he spoke out against the revenge killings of Serbs.

And it could get worse. Mitrovica has been the scene of repeated, violent clashes between ethnic Albanians who live on the south side of the Ibar River and Serbs who live on the north. Serbs have taken over Albanian homes on the north side, refusing to budge, while UN troops have the unenviable task of trying to keep the two sides apart while returning displaced Albanians to the north and Serbs to the south.

Hearing it from both sides

General Klaus Reinhardt, a German who leads the peacekeeping Kosovo Force, or KFOR, acknowledged in an interview that Mitrovica will remain a tinderbox. He called the town a symbol of the Kosovo dilemma, and of the challenges facing his troops and the UN mission.

''The Albanians say we don't do enough to go after war criminals, which by their definition is any Serb over the age of 18. The Serbs say we don't do enough to go after the terrorists, which to them is anyone who served in the KLA,'' he said in his modest office high on a hill overlooking Pristina.

Some former Kosovo Liberation Army members refuse to accept that the war is over, and have been trying to foment trouble along the eastern border with Serbia. Calling that part of Serbia ''eastern Kosovo,'' the extremists have been ambushing Serbian police, who have killed civilians in retaliation.

US Army officials, who launched a crackdown last week on the extremists by searching homes near the border and confiscating weapons, are convinced the Kosovo Liberation Army members are trying to provoke an overreaction by Serb forces, such as the atrocities against civilians that triggered the war last year, or to draw US fire at the Serbs.

The ground in Kosovo, meanwhile, still holds hundreds and perhaps thousands of bodies of victims of the Serbian scorched-earth policy. Investigators from the UN war crimes tribunal will begin digging again next month, in an exercise that could inspire ethnic Albanians to step up their campaign to kill or drive out the remaining Serbs, and that may remind many why the war was fought in the first place.

While some in Congress are grumbling about the cost of and risk to US soldiers, the troops continue to expand and fortify two huge bases, putting up permanent buildings that suggest the Army intends to stay indefinitely. Camp Bondsteel, the bigger base, has a Burger King and looks like a sprawling little city, its lights providing a glow at night that locals call ''the Kosovo Star.''

And while nearly all Albanians still welcome the troops, especially the Americans, as liberators, many US soldiers are uneasy about their mission, seeing the kind of complacency that has dogged peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and the kind of lawlessness that eventually spun out of control in Somalia.

''This place reminds me of Bosnia, and I can see it becoming another Somalia,'' said Staff Sergeant Lee Sodic, who served in both places before coming here. ''People are nice to you during the day, then they shoot at you at night.''

More than half of the 200,000 Serbs who used to live here have fled north to Serbia, convinced that Albanian extremists are bent on killing them and that NATO troops will not or cannot protect them. Those who remain live under the KFOR's protection.

Serbs as virtual prisoners

In the few enclaves that remain, Serbs are virtual prisoners in their homes or villages. About 100 British soldiers act as bodyguards for the 300 Serbs left in Pristina, providing a human shield when the Serbs, most of them elderly, venture out of their apartments for food.

Whenever the Rev. Sava Janjic, a leading Serb Orthodox priest, leaves the monastery in Gracanica, just south of the capital, KFOR troops drive him in an armored personnel carrier. Despite being a moderate who has denounced Milosevic as a despot and called on Serbs to acknowledge the violence done to Albanians in their name, Janjic is in mortal danger. As his armored escort trundles through villages, ethnic Albanians routinely draw their fingers across their throats, expressing a desire to slit his.

Although more than 5,000 troops are assigned to guard Serb religious sites, 80 Orthodox churches have been destroyed since the end of the war, Janjic said.

''Kosovo needs to be freed of extremists on both sides,'' the priest said, sitting in a 14th-century monastery that is an oasis from the violence and chaos just outside its walls.

Milosevic, though indicted for war crimes, sits entrenched in Belgrade, the beneficiary of a divided, flaccid opposition and a population cowed by his secret police and beaten down by a decade of lost wars and economic sanctions.

Accused of carrying out the slaughter of several thousand Kosovar Albanians at his behest, some of Milosevic's secret police sit just over the border, licking their wounds after being forced out of Kosovo as part of the settlement that ended the war. They try to stir up trouble in Mitrovica, and could restart the war if they slaughter civilians around Presevo, but if they hope to return to Kosovo anytime soon, they will probably be disappointed.

Pristina's chronic traffic nightmare is emblematic of a chaotic, largely lawless society. Few traffic lights work, and those that do are often turned off, as many locals prefer streets where there are no rules.

A crumbling infrastructure

Pristina is choked not just with cars - many of them stolen, and none registered or insured - but also with coal dust from a power plant that is inefficient and environmentally primitive.

According to Tom Koenigs, the UN director of civil administration, the water system is in such disrepair that more than half the volume leaks from underground pipes before it gets to the taps, which often go dry for hours at a time. Still, Koenigs insists that the UN is doing the best that can be expected.

''This is dinosaur technology. In any other country, you'd pull down the lot,'' Koenigs said. ''We are trying to transform this from a rotten socialist-command economy to a modern European market economy. We spent the first three-quarters of a year focused on emergencies - shelter, food, basic security, law and order, minority protection. The starting of an economy still has to come.''

With its economy entirely cash-based, its fledgling business community paying neither taxes nor licensing fees, and its peacekeepers and police preoccupied with keeping a lid on the desire for revenge, Kosovo, especially its capital, is a gangster's paradise.

The UN's determination to repatriate refugees before winter set in allowed thousands of Albanian gangsters to slip in, blending in with returning refugees, passing themselves off as some of the unfortunates who had been stripped of their identification papers and dignity by Serb police.

Most cars do not have license plates, some because they were confiscated by Serb troops last year, many because not having them provides a convenient cover for driving stolen cars.

Extortion is Kosovo's most robust industry. Nearly every cafe, restaurant, and shop pays tribute. Most business owners simply shrug and pay the mobsters, some of them former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who have morphed from freedom fighters into shakedown artists.

Those who don't want to pay say the UN is indifferent to their plight.

''There is no law here,'' said John Foreman, an Englishman who runs a bar in Pristina. Foreman said he has been threatened repeatedly by former Kosovo Liberation Army members who are demanding that he pay them about $3,000 a month for the privilege of doing business. They have followed him home, telling him he is a dead man. They have stolen his generators four times.

Foreman says his bar has been targeted because it is multiethnic. His staff and clientele are Albanian and Serb. Two weeks ago, men who Foreman said are former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters burst into the bar and threatened Albanian and Serb customers and bartenders, ignoring the foreign patrons. The threats were especially brazen, given that the bar is a regular haunt of UN police officers whose headquarters is around the corner.

''This is the only multiethnic bar in Kosovo, and they can't stand the fact that we're open,'' he said.

Foreman, 40, a former British soldier who has worked in the Balkans for seven years, said he expects to get a bullet in his head for his obstinacy.

''It's not the money, it's the principle,'' he said.

While Kosovo is measured by its failures, the fact that so many ethnic Albanians have returned and resumed their lives after witnessing appalling atrocities and enduring squalid conditions in exile is its one indisputable success story.

In Bela Crvka, a village where 65 men, women, and children were slaughtered by Serb forces the day after NATO began bombing last March, the elementary school opened as usual in September. Asim Kadiri, a teacher at the school, which is called Liria, or freedom, said nearly all of the 450 students lost a relative or close friend in the massacre.

Dreams amid the nightmares

Standing in the dirt field that serves as a playground, Kadiri put a reassuring arm around the shoulders of 11-year-old Jiton Popaj, whose father and 16-year-old brother were among those murdered.

''I want to be a doctor,'' said the smiling Jiton, who like the other children received only perfunctory grief counseling.

At KFOR headquarters, General Reinhardt dismissed suggestions that some countries are becoming complacent and have not fulfilled troop commitments or are pressing to bring troops home. He said there are enough troops, but he needs at least two or three times as many police.

He rubbed his chin when asked how long he thought the troops would stay.

''A minimum of five years, and that may be optimistic,'' he said. ''KFOR and the UN have to stay here until the economy and culture are working again. We have to turn it back as a democratic province. But you can't see this place in isolation. You have to look at it in the context of the surrounding region.''

So until the Balkans catch up with the rest of Europe, international peacekeepers will likely be patrolling the mean, congested streets of Kosovo, while the UN tries to build a normal society with a bureaucracy of its own.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.