Voices against the war in Kosovo [1999]
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[Source: The New York Times July 29, 1999]


As U.N. Organizes, Rebels Are Taking Charge of Kosovo


PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The Kosovo Liberation Army has taken sweeping political control in the province, establishing a network of ministries and appointing local councils, seizing businesses and apartments, and collecting taxes and customs payments in the absence of a strong international police presence.

Despite a peace agreement that calls for a United Nations-appointed administration, and the fact that the Albanian militants have no legal standing, they have created a fait accompli, and these days they talk not of ceding power to the United Nations but of cooperating as if they were equals.

"We will work with the United Nations," said Muje Gjonbalaj, the new deputy minister for reconstruction and development, "but this is our country and our government. We are in charge until the elections, when a permanent government will be installed."

The rebel army's swift move to take power has been aided by the squabbling and ineffectiveness of the moderate opposition, along with a disorganized United Nations administration that is short on personnel and awaiting the police that member countries promised to send to help maintain order.

In the absence of a United Nations police force, NATO peacekeepers have tried to provide some order. But they are not intended to serve as the police or as civil administrators.

Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations chief administrator in Kosovo, said he was aware of the abuses being committed by the rebel army, and insisted that the world organization was working to curb them. The United Nations is planning to deploy a 3,100-strong police force, although it has only 156 officers in Kosovo at the moment. American officials have criticized the United Nations for moving slowly, and Kouchner, who arrived July 15, said he is working to set up legal mechanisms that will sort through issues such as property ownership and taxation.

"It is always like this after wars of liberation," he said. "Things take time. What we want to avoid is an internal war. Some of these activities are carried out by the K.L.A., others are carried out in the name of the K.L.A., but we must work with them to establish law and order. It will take more than 10 days. It was exactly the same in my country when the British, the Americans and the Canadians liberated France."

The ramifications for Kosovo, and for the international powers that have set up this protectorate, are immense, for the raw, often unschooled fighters have as their political patron the Government of Albania and care little for the civilities of Western-style democracies.

Despite the presence of the 35,000 NATO peacekeepers, violence has been rising steadily, especially against the remaining Serbian civilians. The looting and burning of Serbs' homes, as well as dozens of assassinations and kidnappings of Serbs and a few Albanians, including the massacre of 14 Serbian farmers on Friday, speak of a province slipping into the kind of gunslinging lawlessness that has characterized Albania in the last few years.

"The only political group that has any structure is the K.L.A.," said Baton Haxhiu, the editor of Koha Ditore, an Albanian-language daily. "It is using it to take power, backed eventually by a police and a national guard force it alone will control. It will be very hard to turn Albania into Kosovo, but I expect very easy to turn Kosovo into Albania. Each day it is becoming more dangerous to think and speak independently."

The rebels are supposed to turn in their weapons to the NATO-led peacekeepers, known as KFOR, before the end of September. But they have been slow to comply with the demilitarization agreement and are hiding large amounts of weaponry, NATO officers said.

In Prizren, German soldiers on Friday stumbled onto a cache of 10 tons of ammunition squirreled away by the rebels. There is an average of one murder a day, most often of a Serb, and three or four lootings and house burnings in Prizren, which is in many ways a typical city in postwar Kosovo. In Prizren the city hall and municipal buildings have been commandeered by the Kosovo Liberation Army. Former fighters sit in the offices and run the city.

In Pristina several large buildings have been taken over by the group and turned into ministries. Small cafes, shops, apartments and the huge shopping center in Pristina are in the hands of a rebel cadre.

Most of these new entrepreneurs come from rural areas and have nothing but disdain for the Kosovo Albanian urban elite, who, they say, failed under Ibrahim Rugova to drive away the Serbs. Rugova, the nonviolent political leader of a faction of Kosovo Albanians, remains in exile in Italy after a brief visit to Kosovo, saying he has delayed his return because of concerns about his security in rebel territory.

Hetem Hetemi, who said he led a unit of 20 fighters in the war, most from his immediate family, was seated outside his new business, the Mozart Bar, which was seized from its Serbian owner.

"My sons and I showed up in Pristina with our weapons and decided to take this bar." It was a point of pride to Hetemi that one of the enemy, a Serbian paramilitary leader known as Arkan who has been indicted on war crimes charges, used to drink at the bar.

Hetemi said, "Everything we had in our village was destroyed. I took a Serb car but the KFOR soldiers stopped me and made me give it to them. What am I supposed to drive? These peacekeepers are worse than the Serbs."

The provisional government is headed by Hashim Thaci, a rebel commander who has appointed himself Prime Minister and his friends and relatives to head various departments, including his uncle Azem Syla to the post of Defense Minister.

Thaci's orders are usually delivered by bands of sunburned young men, many carrying concealed pistols. The orders are handed over with warnings that failure to comply will lead to beatings or death.

Thaci says he will govern Kosovo until parliamentary elections, which are expected to be scheduled sometime during the next nine months. But he does not speak of disbanding the structures that have been set up to allow the United Nations to assume responsibility.

There is no deadline for elections -- local elections may precede parliamentary or regional votes -- meaning that Thaci could be in power for well over a year before any vote is organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Under Thaci, the large ministries here hum with activity. In the lobby of the old social security building in Pristina, now the rebel movement's Defense Ministry, groups of wiry young men sat huddled at their desks over coffee cups and dented tin ashtrays filled with cigarette butts.

Rebel commanders, many with pistols tucked in shoulder holsters, moved in conversation up and down the central spiral staircase. New bureaucrats, with fancy titles and late model sedans and jeeps, all parked outside and curiously lacking license plates, barked orders and passed out documents stamped with "The Defense Ministry of Kosovo."

The reach of these newly formed institutions is increasingly felt in the streets and neighborhoods, where most people say they are afraid to run afoul of the self-appointed authorities. Business owners interviewed in recent days were reluctant to give their names, but many said they were being pressed for money by the rebels or have had their vehicles confiscated.

Tahir Canolli, 49, a heavy-set man with a deep baritone voice and the soothing, obsequious mannerisms of a salesman, ran a furniture store in Pristina for nearly three decades. He bought his couches, chairs, dressers and tables from a furniture factory near Nis, and doggedly fended off Serbian tax inspectors, who visited frequently with demands for money. He, like many businessmen, hoped that when he returned to Pristina from the refugee camps in Macedonia, such harassment would end.

Instead, a group of fighters arrived at his shop two weeks ago with a paper issued by "The Ministry of Public Order" demanding the keys to his 1990 Audi 80 and his store.

"They were arrogant, brutal and rude," he said, unfolding the stamped order that he now carries in his pocket. "They told me that if I did not comply immediately they knew a cellar I might like to visit."

Within hours, $50,000 worth of furniture was loaded onto trucks brought by the officials who had demanded his keys. The looters not only stripped the store of its contents but also ripped out the heaters, lamps and mirrors. They carted away 24 large flower boxes that had been outside the building. The next day several flower boxes of the same design and with the same kinds of plants were placed outside the building where Thaci works.

Thaci's appointees said that such confiscations, especially of state-owned buildings, were part of their effort to determine property ownership. They also defended the decision to begin collecting money from businesses, a practice many shop owners have labeled "extortion."

"If mistakes are being made they will be corrected," said Gjonbalaj, the deputy minister. "There were many irregular contracts. We need to regulate things in Kosovo and this means collecting taxes, or contributions, rather, to rebuild. We are the legitimate government and we must assume all governmental responsibilities."

Canolli has spent hours outside Thaci's ministries in recent days in the hope that he can reclaim some of his property or be compensated for it. But each attempt has been rebuffed.

"I saw the K.L.A. police inspector who gave me the confiscation order driving my car, although it had no license plates," he said. "I went to his office but was told at the door that I should never come back or attempt to speak with him. I am afraid. I survived Serb occupation to be destroyed by my own people."



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