'In the hands of God'

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 19 1998

'In the hands of God'

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 19 1998

Waiting for NATO

Refugees face new woes as the Kosovo crisis deepens



For thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees trapped in the hills above Malisevo in central Kosovo, there was little relief from suffering. In the tiny village of Pagarusa, a mobile clinic from the French organization Doctors Without Borders was the only source of health care for hundreds of women and children lining up outside last week. “We need a permanent doctor to treat epidemics and diarrhea,” said Shefqet Paqarizi, a local medical administrator working with the French volunteers. As Paqarizi spoke, two beleaguered ethnic Albanian guerrilla leaders entered the clinic. Weakened after months of fighting Serbian forces, the two acknowledged that the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army is unable to defend the civilian population that gives them food and sustenance. “Whenever we deal a blow to the Serbian forces, they take their revenge on the civilians,” said one, who was visibly angry over recent reports of Albanian women and children being slaughtered.

As NATO last week intensified its threats of punishment against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Albanians and Western observers feared that even a limited assault would bring more revenge attacks by Serbian forces. ‘We see paramilitary units already gearing up for strikes against Westerners and refugees,” said one U.S. observer. Yet even many refugees saw few options left in the struggle to bring some kind of

respite to Serbia’s bloodied southern province.

The Albanians, who outnumber Serbs 9 to 1 in Kosovo, began fleeing their homes seven months ago after Milosevic vowed to put down the Kosovo independence movement. According to UN officials, there are now as many as 200,000 refugees in Kosovo, while an estimated 1,500 civilians have been killed. Throughout, Milosevic, an adroit politician usually able to whip his countrymen into a patriotic fervor, has repeatedly tested the West’s resolve to intervene—aware that the West did not want to see an independent Kosovo. But the standoff intensified after Serbian security forces crushed a summer rebellion by the KLA with the kind of brutality not witnessed in Europe since the war in Bosnia, which was halted in 1995 with the help of NATO air strikes.

In early October, with the KLA in disarray, the UN Security Council demanded that the army return to barracks. Some units did, but the reign of terror was far from over. “Despite a Yugoslav army pullback, there are still Serbian interior ministry police positions throughout Kosovo and there has been no significant reduction,” Gavin Buchan, a Canadian diplomat attached to the 50-member multinational Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission, told Maclean’s. “Displaced persons are understandably reluctant to return to places where the police forces are in occupation.”

As a result, NATO’s threatened missile and

air strikes appeared closer than ever. U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke warned Milosevic that he must withdraw his forces from Kosovo immediately. “NATO continues intensifying and planning its preparations for action,” Holbrooke said during a break in negotiations in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, “and we’re continuing and intensifying diplomatic action to see if that’s going to be necessary or not.” If it is, Western diplomats expected NATO to make its final decision this week.

That decision is bound to be controversial. Russia and China both opposed an attack. Nor was it certain how a military scenario would unfold. In London, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said NATO plans involve possible “successive co-ordinated attacks” against Yugoslavia, not just one air strike. But French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said an initial strike would not be on a large scale and would be followed by a pause for further negotiations. Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy insisted that despite such apparent disagreements, NATO is resolved to act. “It is compelling that there truly is a broad consensus,” the foreign affairs minister told Maclean’s. “People are disgusted and want to take some action.”

One thing is clear: threats of retaliation made by Milosevic and his supporters are being taken seriously. Most Western embassies in Belgrade have evacuated family members and non-essential staff to Hungary, 400 km away. A skeleton staff was still running the Canadian Embassy last week, but Ottawa was prepared to shut it down altogether if necessary. The foreign exodus took place after Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj called diplomats from Western countries “spies and saboteurs” and warned they would not be protected by diplomatic conventions should NATO launch air strikes. “These are very worrisome threats coming as they do from a very powerful person in the Serbian government,” said Canadian Ambassador Raphael Girard. “You can’t simply dismiss this man as a crank.”

Still, many Albanian refugees say they favor air strikes to relieve their plight and force their Serbian persecutors to back off from further offensives. “I think our only hope is NATO,” said Milaim Mazreku, the 37-yearold head of 17 family members living in and around a small tent. “The KLA is too weak to confront the Serbs. All our fighters can do is try to prevent massacres from happening.” That, too, was the challenge for the West.