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Making A Deal: Will The K.L.A. Play Along?

3 minute read
Massimo Calabresi/Vienna

At 1 P.M. last Thursday, the loudspeakers at the sprawling Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia announced the promise of peace. There was little rejoicing. “Our faith rests only with the K.L.A.,” said Refic Dema, 24, referring to the Kosovo Liberation Army. Dema, the sole member of his family to survive a massacre at the village of Zhegra in eastern Kosovo, said, “If [K.L.A. leader Hashim] Thaci says it’s a good deal, then I will try to smile.”

Hundreds of miles away, in Germany, Thaci wavered. “I’m skeptical,” he told TIME. He had good reason. The deal crushes the K.L.A. and any immediate hopes for an independent Republic of Kosovo. Instead of gloriously liberating–and then governing–Kosovo, the battle-ready K.L.A. now must demilitarize. And there is no clear mission for it in postwar Kosovo. Policemen? Militia? NATO hopes the K.L.A.’s fighting waiters and bus drivers will simply return to their jobs.

To begin with, even a “friendly” country stuffed with guerrillas can be bad for force protection, as the U.S. learned in Somalia. More immediately, with the Serbs on the way out and NATO not yet in, K.L.A. soldiers spoiling for a fight will soon have free run of the province. Says a senior NATO officer in Macedonia: “We have to be in as soon as the Yugoslav troops pull out in order to fill the vacuum.” Otherwise, K.L.A. forces may zip in and wreak vengeance on the estimated 100,000 Serb civilians remaining in the province. While few envision the K.L.A.’s fighting NATO, it’s clear the rebel army has no plans to disappear.

At the very least, the K.L.A. may prove a breeding ground for a new generation of politicians. Thaci, 30, is a typical example. Journalists who met him in his early days thought little of his triumphalist talk or his childish nom de guerre “Snake.” And though the guerrillas’ military performance in the war was weak, the K.L.A. has been a bastion of Albanian pride. Cast with a patriotic glow, Thaci has quickly become a serious political player.

By contrast, the West’s favorite Kosovar politician has substantially dimmed. Ibrahim Rugova, the pacifist leader, was posing for pictures with Milosevic while Thaci and his forces were struggling in the hills. Although most everyone agrees that the Milosevic meetings were conducted under duress, the images hurt Rugova. He still has many loyal followers in the camps of Albania and Macedonia, but he also has no shortage of political enemies.

Of course, an essential mission of the war was to give Kosovars the ability to choose for themselves. In Tent H-26 at the Stenkovec camp, the debate has begun. “Rugova’s policies led us to this mess,” says Rashit Hazir, a teacher from Pristina. “Only the K.L.A. can guarantee our protection.” Counters Najle Cerkini, 33, a farmer’s wife: “Rugova is a man of the West, and the West came to our rescue, not the K.L.A.” After heated debate, a tentwide vote gives Rugova the victory, 5 to 3. NATO’s toughest mission may be to ensure a similarly peaceful vote back in Kosovo.

–Reported by Anthee Carassava/Stenkovec and Jan Stojaspal/Tirana

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