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Uneasy Calm after the Storm

The ethnic clashes between Albanians and Serbs that broke out in Kosovo earlier this month ripped away any remaining illusion of peaceful, if fragile, co-existence. Five years after the end of the war, the sudden outburst of hostilities--triggered by the drowning deaths of three Albanian children who were reportedly chased into a river by Serb kids--erupted with such velocity and intensity that it took everyone, even those involved, by surprise.

Not a surprise, however, was the post-violence verdict on the international bodies that have been acting as the province's guardian, protector, and interim government since the war ended. Even as burned villages still smoldered, observers said the international community's strategy for achieving interethnic reconciliation and integration was as flimsy as the paper it was written on.

Both sides have their own view of what drove the violence. Serbs believe Albanians were driven by the desire to ethnically cleanse majority-Serb villages and terrorize the population, a perception shared by many international officials. Albanians tend to blame local leaders and administrators at the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Some Albanian leaders also have pointed to the Serbian intelligence service and parallel Serb structures in Kosovo, whose real aim, they say, is to disrupt the peace.

Issues of blame aside, the consequences of the clashes were devastating for both sides: 28 dead, more than 600 injured, 110 houses and 16 Orthodox churches burned to the ground, and thousands--mainly Serbs--displaced. “I don’t know, what did we win this time with all this violence?” one Albanian asked a TV reporter.

Members of the province's international administrations and local institutions were caught off-guard by the clashes; the absence of a strategy to combat the riots was clear as NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping troops resorted to evacuating Serbs from besieged villages instead of quelling the clashes. Local leaders say they need more authority from international bodies if they are to play a bigger role in preventing violence. The province's only security force is KFOR and UNMIK police; the main duty of local police officers is regulating traffic. Indeed, killings and revenge attacks are nothing new in Kosovo. In August 2003, three Serb children were killed in the Serbian enclave of Gorazdevac; one month later, three Serbs were found dead in their house. The perpetrators were never found.

The deaths of the Albanian children are thought to be triggered, in part, by the drive-by shooting in which a young Serbian man was wounded the night before in the village of Caglavica, a few kilometers from Pristina. In response, Serbs in the village blocked the main road from Pristina to Skopje, which links many of the province's towns and connects it with Macedonia.

This time, UNMIK has come in for criticism for not immediately investigating the drowning deaths of the children. Police say they were unable to enter the village where the drowning occurred because the fighting was too fierce. The only survivor, 13-year-old Fitim Veseli, whose younger brother died in the incident, told reporters that he could identify the people who he says chased him and his friends into the river. But UNMIK police cannot make an arrest "based on a TV interview," Chappel said. "We need to have a statement of a witness, the statement of the surviving child."

(TOL 26.iii.04)

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