An Albanian boy peers over a concrete wall. Squinting, he looks
up at a Serbian police officer standing watch at a building 300
feet away. Pointing at the building, the boy speaks to someone behind
the nearby mosque, and within minutes a man in camouflage emerges.
Positioning the boy in front of him, the man looks through binoculars
at a half-constructed building now serving as a Serbian police checkpoint.
Moments later, five children nervously stroll out from behind the
mosque. A half-dozen men, all carrying automatic rifles, use the
children as human shields to sprint to a bunker just behind the
mosque. After taking a position behind stacked sandbags, a sniper
points his rifle at the police officer. The children scatter. "This
is how it goes everyday," says Serbian police officer Trifko Trifkovic.
"Sometimes they use the kids, other times they just run to the bunker."
This is southern Serbia, a place where the Kosovo war continues
outside the lens of the world's media. Shortly after the NATO bombing
ended and an international force assumed administration of the southern
Yugoslavian province, armed Albanians calling themselves the Liberation
Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) began carrying out
attacks on Yugoslavian and Serbian security forces outside Kosovo.
The Presevo Valley, as Albanians refer to the region, is majority
Albanian. The UCPMB say they are fighting to liberate the area from
Belgrade's repression and unite it with Kosovo.
"At the end of the war, the Yugoslavian government positioned its
police forces from
Kosovo in this region," says Shaip Kamberi, president of the Albanian
Human Rights Council in Bujanovac. "This made the situation even worse
because these forces have significant anti-Albanian sentiments. They
were harassing Albanian citizens physically and psychologically."
A Serbian police officer
watches over Bujanovac.
Kamberi says that when the UCPMB first emerged, local Albanians
were confused. "But after they occupied parts of the area, people
began looking at them with sympathy. We now have a number of young
people from local villages who have joined the UCPMB."
Over the past 14 months, the UCPMB has regularly shelled Serbian
villages, launched grenades into police and army posts, and opened
fire on Yugoslavian security forces with sniper rifles and heavy
machine-guns. They have killed 11 police officers, one soldier and
eight civilians, according to official government sources. The attacks,
numbering well into the hundreds, have destroyed scores of homes
and wounded dozens of civilians.
The UCPMB, an offshoot of the Kosovo Liberation Army, is operating
out of the 58-mile-long, 3-mile-wide demilitarized zone separating
Kosovo from Serbia. Under the agreement, signed between NATO and
Belgrade at the end of the war, only lightly armed Serbian police
are allowed to patrol the zone. But the uniformed, armed Albanian
forces, supposedly banned from entering the area, now run it almost
entirely. It is from the eastern part of Kosovo, patrolled primarily
by U.S. forces, that the UCPMB are penetrating the zone, carving
pockets deeper into Serbia proper. As Yugoslavia's Secretary of
Defense Milovan Coguric says: "It's a zone of insecurity."
In November, Serbian security forces and the UCPMB agreed to a
de facto cease-fire after three Serbian police officers were killed
in the village of Dobrosin. But in early February, as the newly
elected government in Belgrade began winning increased international
backing for its plan for the area, which includes greater integration
of Albanians into government institutions and local police forces,
as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in economic aid, the
UCPMB launched some of the most intense attacks in months, shelling
the Serbian villages of Lucane and Veliki Trnovac.
These attacks came just hours before the arrival of the top two
U.S. diplomats for Yugoslavia, Ambassador William Montgomery and
special envoy James Pardew. As the armored convoy carrying the two
diplomats traveled to a Serbian police checkpoint in Lucane, UCPMB
forces fired two sniper rounds from the neighboring mountains. The
convoy sped away.
Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica's government has ordered
its forces, clearly better-armed, better-trained and greater in
number than the UCPMB, not to take action. Serbian forces are to
respond to attacks only if they face an imminent threat. "Our forces
don't need more than one day to resolve this situation militarily,"
says Rasim Ljajic, Yugoslavia's federal minister for ethnic and
national communities, who recently served as a special envoy to
the region. "But what comes after this? We would endanger the lives
of the remaining Serbs in Kosovo. They would become like clay pigeons
for the Albanians."
Yugoslavian and Serbian officials say the aim of the UCPMB is to
provoke its security forces into a radical response to demonstrate
that the new government is no different than the regime of Slobodan
Milosevic. But Belgrade is giving the international community, mainly
the forces of KFOR in Kosovo, time to make good on its pledges to
defuse the situation. "We believe that we can solve this problem
in a peaceful manner, together with the international community,"
says Coguric. "But it's never too late for a war."
On the frontlines among Serbia's Special Police Force, patience
with diplomacy is wearing thin. "We are certainly in a state of
emergency because terrorists are actually carrying out attacks in
Serbia proper," says Col. Goran Radosavljevic from a muddy trench
during a UCPMB attack. Radosavljevic, the newly appointed head of
Serbia's most elite force, became a national hero during the revolt
against Milosevic: He was one of three senior commanders who refused
orders to have his troops fire on demonstrators. "Actually declaring
an official state of emergency is not our jurisdiction," Radosavljevic
adds. "That's something the government does."
Another top Serbian police official says they are expecting even
heavier attacks by the UCPMB over the next few weeks. If the international
community fails to take action as promised, Belgrade will have a
difficult time convincing not just the security forces, but the
Serbian people as well, that a diplomatic solution exists.
Jeremy Scahill was one of the few foreign journalists
in Belgrade during the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. He frequently
reports for Pacifica's Democracy