Amid a refugee deluge, NATO rethinks its war for Kosovo
Scenes from the heart of Europe in the last year of the 20th century: The knock on the door. The order to get out—or else. The trains packed with families, from newborns to grandmothers, rumbling through the mountains and woods. The slow final trek to the border. The people, tens of thousands of them clutching bags and babies, stranded on hillsides in the first days of a bleak Balkan spring.
The warplanes streaking into the sky. The grim-faced generals promising to punish the evil-doers. Buildings aflame in the centre of a capital city, and a people shouting its defiance. Sullen-faced young soldiers paraded before the TV cameras by their captors.
The military planners who unleashed NATO’s air assault against the Yugoslavia of President Slobodan Milosevic insist they knew it would be difficult, costly and bloody. They just didn’t know how bad it would be. By last week, the answer had become horrifyingly clear: worse than anyone had expected. While NATO warplanes, hampered by the rain and fog that hung over the region for days, struck at the Yugloslav military, Milosevic’s army and Serbian paramilitary units inside Kosovo were hard at work. Far from recoiling before the Western onslaught, they dramatically stepped up their campaign against the province’s Albanian majority. The result could be seen at Kosovo’s borders with Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro: tens of thousands of Albanian Kosovars fleeing c their homes in the face of Serb threats and g violence. On Good Friday, 20,000 huddled in 1 the rain on a field where Macedonia and g Kosovo meet—martyrs to the century’s ? enduring curse of hatred between peoples.
The human flood grew larger all week— creating the worst refugee crisis in Europe since millions of displaced people wandered the continent after the Second World War. As they geared up for a massive relief effort—including an initial $10-million commitment by Canada—aid officials counted more than 300,000 Kosovars surging across the borders in the 10 days following the start of bombing on March 24. By week’s end, NATO officials estimated that 765,000 Kosovars, more than 40 per cent of their total population of 1.8 million, had been forced from their homes in the past year— and that all could be gone in another 10 to 20 days. Milosevic, they alleged, had decided to use the conflict as cover for his own final solution to his meddlesome Kosovo problem—to empty the province of its Albanian population and “ethnically reengineer the inside of Kosovo,” in the words of NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.
The result was a disaster for the Kosovars—and for NATO itself. On the eve of the air campaign, President Bill Clinton declared that “our objective in Kosovo remains clear: to stop the killing and achieve a durable peace.” But with more killing than ever under way and peace an increasingly remote possibility, the pressure was on for Clinton and other NATO leaders to take the one measure they have consistently ruled out—putting troops on the ground in Kosovo to stop the Serb offensive.
After 10 days, the Western campaign had produced a litany of catastrophe. The most wounding charge was that the very air strikes designed to save the Kosovars instead provided the means for their destruction. Western officials reacted to that suggestion with mounting anger. Milosevic, they argued, had what Shea called a “master
plan” to expel the Albanians. Why else, they asked, would he have upped his forces in and around Kosovo to 40,000 troops and 300 tanks as soon as it became clear in February that peace talks at Rambouillet, France, were foundering? In Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels, military planners let it be known that they had warned their political masters about the risks. Pentagon officials, in particular, claimed they had told the Clinton administration that air attacks might prompt the Serbs to strike out against the Albanians— though none claimed to have foreseen how quickly and ruthlessly they would act.
Still, it was undeniable that NATO’s bombs were the trigger that set off the biggest ethnic-cleansing operation since Yugoslavia began its slow-motion collapse eight years ago. At the same time, the air campaign threatened to destabilize the fragile democracies that border Kosovo, and confront the West with a terrible dilemma: abandon the Kosovar Albanians to their fate orbe drawn deeper into a Balkan quagmire. Milosevic’s regime even gained a propaganda coup when Serbs captured three U.S. soldiers along the Macedonia border and displayed them on television.
Most troubling for the Western alliance were signs of divisions in NATO’s ranks and shifting goals as the air campaign failed to produce the promised results. Though the 19 NATO members remained publicly united on the need for continued bombing, they disagreed on how to wage the campaign. Washington pushed for harder blows against the Serbs; some smaller members worried that civilian casualties might produce an antiwar backlash. By week’s end, the evidence that the Americans had won out was clear, as NATO’s warplanes took the attack for the first time to central Belgrade, turning two buildings housing Yugoslavia’s police headquarters into an inferno.
At the same time, though, Clinton, the alliance’s de facto leader, indicated that he was less than sure of his own tactics. The air campaign, he said, has “quite a good chance” of succeeding—leaving open the unsettling possibility that it has a good chance of failing, as well.
The fight in Kosovo, it became clear, is no place for half-measures— or ambiguous goals. It was being waged house to house, with pistols, rifles and knives. To that, the cruise missiles and smart bombs launched by warplanes from the United States, Canada and 11 other NATO countries offered no answer.
All they could do was, in the NATO commanders’ phrase, to gradually “degrade” Milosevic’s forces by targeting arms factories, munitions supplies, fuel dumps, barracks and the like.
That, however, could take weeks while the Kosovars’ future inside their home province seemed to be measured in days. NATO, observed Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dave Jurkowski, was in a “race against time” to stop the Serbs before they completed their task. NATO added more forces—bringing additional fighters and an aircraft carrier battle group from the United States, as well as six additional CF-18 Hornets from Canada to their base in Aviano, Italy, doubling the Canadian contingent. And it widened its targets to include military offices and strategic targets like two bridges over the Danube at Yugoslavia’s second-biggest city, Novi Sad. The alliance also said it would send a 6,000 to 8,000 member force, mainly of British and Italian soldiers, to Albania—
rUf* solely, it said, to help aid the masses of refugees.
But despite the increasingly tough rhetoric from V NATO capitals, the campaign was far from an all-out - assault. Poor weather hampered the attackers, who ¡gPLi»'„ cannot accurately target their laser-guided weapons through heavy cloud. More important, NATO’s political leaders insisted that their forces fight a measured campaign—gentlemen’s rules in a region better known for vicious knife fights. They did not want to risk so-called collateral damage (the military’s euphemism for dead civilians) or to put their own pilots at risk by having them fly low to attack Serbian troops before Milosevic’s air defences were crippled. Defence Minister Art Eggleton implicitly acknowledged the constraints when he told Maclean’s late last week that Canada’s pilots are trying hard not to injure civilians. “Unless they can be sure of the target, they don’t lock on to it and they don’t fire,” said Eggleton, “simply because if they do not hit the target or if they
NATO goslavia warplanes as tens broadened of thousands their strikes of refugees on Yupoured out of Kosovo. The alliance said it was targeting Serbian troops and tanks directly involved in assaults on ethnic Albanians in the southern province, and began attacking targets in central Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital. But there was little sign that the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had been brought to heel. Milosevic even managed a propaganda victory when his troops captured three American soldiers on the border with Macedonia. The Russians also stepped into the fringes of the conflict by sending a navy ship into the region to monitor the war, with six
more ready to go.
NATO, meanwhile, deployed more
ships and planes, including an additional six CF-18 fighters from Canada sent to Aviano airbase in Italy. The United States prepared to dispatch Apache attack helicopters and the Theodore Roosevelt battle group, which includes an aircraft carrier. For much of the week, the air campaign was hampered by dense cloud cover that forced some NATO jets to return to their bases in Italy with payloads intact. But destruction was clear, including two interior ministry buildings set on fire in downtown Belgrade, two bridges in northern Novi Sad and an appliance plant in the city of Cacak.
hit the wrong target it could result in a lot of civilian casualties.” As a result of bad weather, about half of the CF-18s returned to base without releasing their weapons.
Serb forces, it became clear, were under no such limitations. NATO officials were reluctant to use the word “genocide” outright— mainly because of the implications it carries under international law. But they freely described what was happening inside Kosovo, an impoverished speck of Balkan real estate barely twice the size of Prince Edward Island, as “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes.” Albanian Kosovars, who formed 90 per cent of the province’s population before the expulsions began, were stripped of identity papers and even bank records before they were allowed to flee, making it harder for them ever to reclaim their homes. NATO officials, observing the pattern of ethnic cleansing under way, theorized that Milosevic was frying to clear much of central and northern Kosovo of Albanians—perhaps setting the stage for an eventual partition of
the province that would leave Yugoslavia holding a Serb-only enclave after the violence subsides.
That is an outcome the West rejects. Instead, the new goal emerging is the eventual return of the Kosovars to their homes. At week’s end, Clinton spelled out Washington’s aims as providing “for the return of the Kosovars in conditions of security” and making sure they achieve the kind of political autonomy that Kosovo had in the Yugoslav federation before Milosevic abolished it in 1989. Clinton stopped well short of endorsing eventual independence for Kosovo, which would set troublesome precedents for other would-be breakaway minorities, such as Kurds in Turkey. But simply making it possible for the Kosovars to go home would imply some kind of Western ground force to ensure their safety. The big question left hanging is: would such a force go in only after Belgrade is bombed into accepting a political settlement, or would it have to fight its way into Kosovo?
As the failure of air strikes to stop the ethnic cleansing became
THE ‘WIZZO’ WAR
NATO’S airborne attempt to stop Serbian assaults in Kosovo is a high-tech campaign that relies almost totally on cruise missiles and laserand satellite-guided bombs. The bom-
bardier of yore has been replaced by the “wizzo,” who, like a kid with a Nintendo joystick, can use a hand controller and video screen to guide a weapon to its target. Even the venerable B-52 bomber has been turned into a space-age launch pad, capable of firing eight cruise missiles, each carrying a 3,000-lb. warhead that can destroy a highrise building
in one wallop. As the missile drops, its turbo-fan engines kick in and it is
guided by satellite directly to its target.
Many NATO fighter-bombers are equipped with smaller cruise missiles. As these camera-carrying missiles approach the ground, the wizzo keeps it on track as he watches the target grow progressively
larger on his cockpit video. Most of the jets also carry laser-guided bombs. The pilot illuminates a target with a laser and the munition follows it down to its target.
More powerful, the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber drops satellite-guided bombs, including 5,000-lb. bunker-busters.
The allied assault also comes from the ocean, where U.S. navy and allied ships fire Tomahawk cruise missiles carrying 1,000-lb. warheads.
To step up pressure on Serbian ground forces, NATO last week deployed five B-1B supersonic precision bombers, which could be used against tank formations. In that effort, NATO will
also rely heavily on the A-10 Thunderbolt, a tank-buster known as theWarthog. Its pilot is protected from ground fire in a titanium shell as its armour-piercing 30-mm gun fires up to 3,900 rounds a minute.
painfully apparent, a chorus of critics emerged to argue that NATO should no longer shrink from committing soldiers to the fight. Clinton, commanding by far the most powerful NATO force, repeatedly and forcefully ruled out ground troops in the run-up to the crisis. “It was a political impossibility for the President to threaten ground troops,” said Morton Abramowitz, the state department’s former chief of intelligence and now head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “The Congress would have killed him.” As a result, NATO entered the fight having declared that it would not employ the only means to effectively counter Serb forces on the ground. The gamble was that simply threatening Milosevic with air strikes would make him relent at the last minute and sign on to the peace agreement negotiated at Rambouillet. “The attitude was, ‘He always backs down’—but he didn’t this time,” said Ralph Peters, a retired U.S. lieutenant-colonel and military analyst. “Clinton thought he was going to cut an Arkansas political deal, but it’s not the Ozarks.”
That leaves the option of sending in the marines—and perhaps tens of thousands of other NATO ground troops—to drive Serb forces out of Kosovo. On the face of it, such a move would violate every conclusion the U.S. military drew from its disastrous experience in Vietnam and its more recent debacles in Lebanon and Somalia. Don’t get sucked into other people’s civil wars. Don’t fight on alien terrain for an unclear goal. Don’t go in with anything less than overwhelming force. And in fact, NATO last year estimated that it would take a massive contingent of 200,000 NATO soldiers equipped with heavy armour to throw out the Serbs and occupy Kosovo.
The obstacles are obvious. Kosovo is mountainous and landlocked. Unlike the Desert Storm operation to eject Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, which was launched from friendly territory in Saudi Arabia, an inva-
sion of Kosovo would have to be staged from unstable Macedonia or Albania. There are only 16 roads into the province—all of them narrow and winding and all easily mined by the Serbs. Bringing in heavy armour would be near impossible. “It’s a light infantry fight,” said Peters, “and that is absolutely the kind of fight we have refused to prepare for.”
An áll-out invasion, though, is highly unlikely for the same reasons that NATO ruled it out at the beginning. All leaders know that their voters would shrink from such a costly and bloody commitment. A more realistic option would be sending a smaller force—perhaps 20,000 strong—to establish a safe haven in southern Kosovo that would allow some Albanians to return and provide a staging ground for a more protracted struggle against the Serbs. That could be combined with supplying the rebel Kosovo liberation Army with arms—if there is enough of the KLAleft after the fierce assault the Serbs launched on it under cover of the bombing campaign.
All those options, however, involve facing off against the Yugoslav army and Serb militia units, hardened by eight years of fighting in Croatia and Bosnia. No one knows how the Yugoslavs, equipped with 1970s-era Soviet-style armaments, would fare against a 1990s U.S.-led force. But the conventional wisdom among Western analysts is that the Serbs would fight tenaciously in defence of what they consider their historic homeland. Kosovo has only a small Serb minority, but it was once the heartland of Serbian culture and still contains some of the most sacred Orthodox monasteries and shrines. Milosevic may have eventually turned his back on his fellow Serbs in Bosnia, goes the thinking, but no Serb leader could let Kosovo go.
Evidence of that could be seen in the way Serbs of all political persuasions rallied around Milosevic. More than 10,000 Serbs attended
A CRACKDOWN ON FOREIGN MEDIA
Maclean’s Europe Bureau Chief Barry Came was detained by police in the town of Subotica, just inside Yugoslavia’s northern border with Hungary, before he moved on to report from the Macedonian capital of Skopje (page 39). In Subotica, he got a glimpse into the life of Serbia’s security forces far from Kosovo. His account of a long evening:
Much to the delight of this one small unit of President Slobodan Milosevic’s widely feared paramilitary police, Donald Duck heads the meagre bill of nighttime fare on Yugoslav television. Hauled off the Budapest-Belgrade train on suspicion of visa violations, I have been marched into the train station’s police post to await a verdict from higher authority. Inside, a squad of combat-ready troops, clad in dark-blue-and-violet camouflage fatigues, lounge amid a scatter of flak jackets and AK-47 assault rifles. They are glued to a lone television set, where there is a steady diet of
Serbian patriotic fervour interspersed with hours of Donald Duck cartoons. And it is only when the famous duck appears, quacking in shrill Serbo-Croat, that they come alive: chattering, gesticulating, laughing.
The sight is incongruous, even a little grotesque under the circumstances. For eight long hours, there is not a single picture of the human tragedy unfolding in Kosovo, perpetrated in no small part by police wearing the same blue-and-violet fatigues. To be sure, Kosovo is mentioned in the newscasts, but only in connection with words like “separatist” and “terrorist." What mostly appears when Donald is not cavorting are shots of defiant crowds in Belgrade, waving Yugoslavia’s flag and sporting the black-andwhite target signs that have become the latest fashion in the Serbian capital.
Foreign coverage has been limited. Most reporters from NATO countries left, and some were physically expelled, on the second day of the air campaign when Aleksan-
dar Vucic, the Serbian information minister and member of the ultranationalist Radical party, ordered them out. The federal Yugoslav information ministry countermanded that order, reflecting divisions within Milosevic’s coalitions at the Serbian and federal levels. A few correspondents were allowed back in, but many were not, as the Serbian interior ministry weeded out undesirables.
The task of dealing with my case fell to the police sergeant who escorted me off the train. Initially at a loss as to what to do, he spent close to an hour on the telephone before announcing that my visa was no longer valid since it was issued the day before NATO warplanes went into action. “The situation is changed,” he said in broken English. Gesturing skyward, he added: “Blame NATO. Very bad.” He declined my request to spend the time until the next train back to Budapest, eight hours later, in the rail station. “It is for your security,” he said. “If people hear you speaking English, you could have trouble. They are very angry.” Maybe so, but surely not as angry as that duck, even in Serbo-Croat.
As Serbs rally behind Milosevic, many say the NATO attacks have been disastrous for Yugoslavia’s democratic opposition
daily rock concerts in Belgrade’s main square to protest the NATO attacks. Many wore T-shirts decorated with target symbols to advertise their defiance of the air strikes, and a program called NATO Kitsch on government-run television featured a lineup of top models and singers rejecting all things American. Demonstrators have also burned the Canadian flag, and the vandalized Canadian Embassy now bears the graffitti “Republic of Quebec” and, for NATO, “North American Terrorist Organization.” At protests, police and leading members of Milosevic’s government mixed freely with the crowds—an unimaginable sight two years ago when thousands gathered in the same square every day for three months to protest his manipulation of election results. Opposition voices fell silent. The normally reclusive Milosevic appeared daily on state television, at one point in a dramatic and apparently friendly meeting with Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate elected leader of Kosovo’s Albanian majority. NATO leaders could only suggest that Rugova must have been “under duress.”
Many Serbs said the NATO attacks have been disastrous for Yugoslavia’s democratic opposition. “This time Milosevic needs no propaganda,” said Svetlana Djuric, a 48-year-old former journalist who pointedly describes herself as a ‘Yugoslav Jew” and not a Serb. “This action killed all the opposition here and all the free media for good. Milosevic doesn’t even need to use any force against them.” Aleksa Djilas, a prominent historian and longtime critic of Milosevic, said Serbia might well lose Kosovo—but anti-Western feeling will endure for decades. “This is a situation in which he almost cannot lose,” Djilas said as the noise of NATO jets could be heard over his apartment. “He’s either Napoleon or he says I lost against the devil incarnate armed with superior technology.” The most vulnerable politician in Yugoslavia was not Milosevic, but the pro-Western president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic. Western leaders voiced fears last
week that he might be removed in a coup led by the Yugoslav army—consolidating Milosevic’s power down to the shores of the Adriatic.
The Yugoslav leader scored another coup with the capture of the three American soldiers, staff sergeants Andrew Ramirez, 24, and Christopher Stone, 25, and specialist Steven Gonzales, 21. Part of a holdover American contingent co-ordinating with the 12,000-strong NATO force stationed in Macedonia as potential peacekeepers in Kosovo, they were patrolling near the border when they disappeared, only to turn up the next day as prisoners displayed on Yugoslav television. A highranking Western official said in Belgium that NATO believed Yugoslav special forces kidnapped the trio in Macedonia. Western sources in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, speculated that the Americans might have fallen into a trap laid by Serb villagers on the Macedonian side of the border who resent the NATO patrols and informed Serb forces. Yugoslav officials said the three were “prisoners of war,” implying they would be treated according to the Geneva Convention on the conduct of war.
With each day bringing more bad news, Western leaders were left urging patience. It would take time, they said, for the air campaign to bite deeply into the Serb forces and show results. “Milosevic has not yet seen the sort of impact that air war can bring,” a senior U.S. official told Maclean’s. “It will have a severe impact on his people.” Clinton himself urged Americans, and by extension others in the NATO alliance, “to be resolved and to be firm.” “People are frustrated because we live in an age when everything operates like a 30-second ad,” he said. “This is not a 30-second ad.” More, it turned out, like a terrible movie with no obvious end.
With BARRY CAME in Skopje, JOHN GEDDES in Ottawa and GUYDINMORE in Belgrade