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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Province Is Nearly Fully 'Cleansed,' NATO Says

Kosovo: Both West and ethnic Albanians still inside are in no-win situation: Do they stay or do they go?

April 17, 1999|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As NATO marked the 24th day of its air war over Kosovo on Friday, allied officials acknowledged that the "ethnic cleansing" they once hoped to halt is nearly complete.

All but about 400,000 of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians are, in every practical sense, homeless, according to alliance estimates. By that measure, the forces of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic have accomplished roughly 80% of their campaign to clear Kosovo of ethnic Albanians, even under a hail of allied bombs.

In recent months, about 660,000 Kosovo Albanians have fled the province, and an additional 700,000 are estimated to be camped in deep forests and on rough mountainsides within Kosovo, eating roots and drinking from streams. Many of their homes have been torched by the same Serbian forces that turned them out, sometimes at gunpoint.

Those numbers suggest a troubling judgment for an operation that was launched, in President Clinton's words, "to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo from a mounting military offensive."

But for military and humanitarian leaders alike, they raise an even thornier problem: Would it be better for the remaining Kosovo Albanians to leave their province, allowing the allied military to conduct unfettered operations, or should they stay and fight for their land?

"It's a really hard dilemma," said Fernando Chang-Muy, an immigration law expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

Relocating Kosovo's Albanians to neighboring lands would not only give NATO warplanes a freer hand in attacking Serbian targets; it also would allow international aid organizations to better care for the refugees, he said. And Serbian forces would be denied the use of refugees as hostages or "human shields."

"But that would be giving in to the ethnic cleansing," Chang-Muy said.

"If you say, 'No, they should stay in their own province and fight,' as many are, then NATO can't accomplish its objectives," Chang-Muy added.

The alliance's military organizations are deeply torn over the refugee dilemma for another reason: They have been called upon to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to providing food and shelter. The burgeoning humanitarian operation has become a significant drain on military resources and, to some top brass, a distraction from the central mission of winning back Kosovo by bombing Serbian forces into submission.

On the other hand, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians camped in Kosovo's woods, NATO militaries already face mounting pressure to air-drop food and other aid to them.

Clinton administration officials acknowledge that they are not happy about the risks of such flights, especially from the portable shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles carried by Serbian forces. While NATO bombing has done much to degrade Yugoslavia's fixed air-defense network, military officials believe the Serbs have plenty of these portable missiles left, and cargo-carrying aircraft--flying low and slow to deliver pallets of food--would be easy targets.

"Clearly there's a lot of planning about what to do with these people and how to help them," said Brian Atwood, who is directing the Clinton administration's refugee effort in the region. But he acknowledged that the Serbs' air defenses--and the absence of organized refugee groups on the ground to distribute the aid--have been major obstacles.

In any case, the completed "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo would leave allied militaries in a bind.

"Militarily it's distracting, and diplomatically it's defeat," said New York University law professor Arthur C. Helton.

But the allies' dilemma is nothing compared with the anguish of Kosovo refugees, Helton said.

"The refugees can't win. That's one of the corollaries to them becoming an object in the conflict: They simply can't win. If they stay, they're at risk of NATO bombs but at the same time vulnerable to savage episodes of ethnic cleansing. And if they manage to escape, they are treated coldly and inadequately by their places of asylum. And other countries are unwilling to resettle them because that would be to admit defeat."

The basic problem, Helton said, is that more than any instance of forced migration in recent history, refugees themselves have become a central object of a conflict. Their forced displacement is a clear objective of Milosevic and his forces, and their hold on their homes is an explicit object of NATO's air war.

"The outcome of refugees will become a measure of victory or defeat, irrespective of their wishes. There's a temptation to treat refugees as pawns, and I worry whether in the end, they will be offered resettlement or whether they will be pushed back into an insecure situation in order for NATO to declare victory."

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Times staff writer Joel Havemann in Brussels contributed to this report.

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