Mike Martens knows that Serbian and Albanian riflemen are hiding in the darkness. But each night, the 26-year-old corporal with the Royal Canadian Regiment from CFB Petawawa, Ont., summons his courage and ventures out. His mission: to keep the two sides from killing each other in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. Nearly one year after NATO launched the bombing campaign that ousted Serbian forces from Kosovo, Mitrovica has come to symbolize how entangled the NATO allies have now become in the region. Despite nearly three months of air attacks that paralyzed his country, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic remains in power, and in Berlin last week, instead of celebrating their victory, NATO officials were considering sending more troops to Kosovo. According to Martens, they are badly needed. As he headed out on patrol, he freely expressed his concerns. “There is a considerable
sniper threat,” he told Macleans.
“It never goes away.”
The continuing danger from Serbia, which has again amassed troops on Kosovo’s northern border, was supposed to have ended with the NATO bombing campaign that began last March 24. The air assault, which included Canadian CF18 Hornet fighters based in Aviano, Italy, ended 78 days later with the Serbian retreat from Kosovo. As the nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees, who had earlier fled in fear, returned home, Western politicians hoped Kosovo would eventually become a peaceful multi-ethnic state. As U.S. President Bill Clinton put
Then: Before the bombing, Slobodan Milosevic reviled.
Now: Still in power and still reviled, Milosevic indicted in May as a war criminal, accused of more than 340 murders.
Then: 2,000 civil war deaths in the year before NATO bombing.
Now: 500 people dead, killed in NATO bombings.
Then: No Western troops or police in Kosovo.
Now: 40,000 troops and police, with more sought.
Then: 250,000 ethnic Albanian refugees before the bombings.
Now: Of nearly one million people displaced because of the war, 350,000 to 400,000 have chosen not to return.
Then: Western officials claimed Serbian ethnic
cleansing killed as many as 100,000 people.
Now: The current death-toll estimate is 2,000.
it at the height of the war: “We’re fighting for the principle of a multiethnic and tolerant democracy.”
Now, even the most optimistic observers believe NATO’s objectives are in a shambles. And amid a growing debate over whether the war was justified, the alliance is on the verge of adding 2,000 more troops to the 30,000 peacekeepers, including 1,600 Canadians, already in Kosovo. “If provoked,” warned NATO secretary general Lord Robertson, in a pointed message to Serbia last week, “we will take robust action.”
The most severe threat to NATO’s control is in Mitrovica, a mining city of90,000 people, just 45 km south of the Serbian border. The areas ancient orthodox graveyards cradle the bones of many Serbian saints. And the region, which is rich in mineral deposits, is home to 50,000 Serbs. NATO officials claim Milosevic has sent infiltrators into Mitrovica as part of a plan
to ultimately carve the city and area out of Kosovo. This should surprise no one, says retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who headed the UN peacekeeping mission to neighbouring Bosnia in 1992. “His supporters have to see,” he says, “that he has not abandoned the shrine of Kosovo.”
Tensions reached the boiling point in Mitrovica in early February when thousands of Albanians attempted to cross a bridge over the Ibar River, which divides the city, to an area where they lived prior to the war and is now mostly occupied by Serbs. When French soldiers tried to stop the Albanians’ advance, they were pelted with
rocks. American troops going house to house in search of weapons on the Serbian side of the river were also harassed. But British, and 200 Canadian soldiers, managed to restore order, although it took them three days. NATO officials now openly worry that Mitrovica could become an “urban Belfast,” with Western soldiers trapped between Albanian and Serbian snipers.
That possibility is not lost on peacekeepers such as Master Cpl. Michele MacDonald, 37, from CFB Kingston, Ont. MacDonald recalls that as she recently talked to a crowd of children who had gathered around her, some drew a finger slowly across their throats to illustrate how they would cut the necks of their former Serbian neighbours. “These were very small children,” MacDonald said in an interview, “but there is no changing their minds. This has been the situation for centuries.”
The continuing tension has also badly undermined a key NATO objective set out at the end of the bombing campaign: to turn policing over to the local population—eventually. Working under UN auspices, as many as 5,000 police officers from 43 countries were to be sent to Kosovo. So far, about 2,000, including 100 Canadians, have arrived. But it will be a long time before the lightly armed police replace NATO soldiers, according to Insp. Randy Kolibaba of Regina, who is based in the central Kosovo city of Pristina and heads the Canadian police mission. “We are trying to establish law and order,” Kolibaba told Macleans, “but we don’t have enough resources to take over.”
Most analysts also believe it will take years before a formal government emerges to replace the NATO authorities in Kosovo. Others, including MacKenzie, question whether
the bombing was even necessary. He maintains it would have been better to carve Kosovo in half, giving the north to the Serbs. “NATO,” he said, “is now trying to enforce an impossible objective.”
And while Western politicians last year claimed the Serbs had killed as many as 100,000 innocent people in Kosovo, the United Nations now believes the actual death count is closer to 2,000. As a result, a growing number of activists around the world want NATO leaders charged with war crimes over what they believe was the “wanton destruction” of Kosovo. And they have asked the UN International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to prosecute a number of Western politicians, including Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. “There is a lot at stake here,” says Michael Mandel, a professor at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School, who wants the politicians charged. “For the court not to act is a blow to its image of impartiality.”
As the court deals with those pressures, the allies remain committed to protecting Kosovo. “There is no doubt that NATO forces will have to remain for many years to come,” said Dana Allin, a Balkan specialist at Londons International Institute for Strategic Studies. But despite the quagmire the West finds itself in, Allin maintains that NATO had to act. He notes that in the summer prior to NATO’s action, 250,000 Albanians had already fled their homes. “Kosovo may well be a disaster at the moment,” says Allin, “but it would have been even worse if NATO had not intervened.” And as Cpl. Martens headed out into Mitrovica’s streets, he knew his fellow NATO soldiers would be there for a long time to come. “I have seen it up front,” he said, “It’s going to take a long time to fix.”
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