PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — In many ways, it would be simpler if Fadil Bajraj and Tomislav Novovic could just be enemies and get on with their separate lives.
Unlike most of their ethnic brethren, the two men--one a Kosovo Albanian and the other a Kosovo Serb--are best of friends. But nearly a year after NATO began bombing in the name of human rights and lasting peace, they are separated by Kosovo's chaos.
They are two idealists battered down into dark pessimism, not just by the brutalities of war, but by the hypocrisies and contradictions of peace. They are sick of hearing politicians at home and abroad say one thing, only to watch them do another.
As the March 24 anniversary of the start of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign nears, Kosovo and its people are beset by myriad problems, among them rampant crime, ethnic violence and political corruption. Beneath them all is the failure to resolve a fundamental contradiction between the West's promises when it intervened and Kosovo's anarchic reality.
On paper, Kosovo is a multiethnic province with "substantial autonomy" within a sovereign Yugoslavia. On the ground, it looks more each day like an independent state that will be controlled by ethnic Albanians.
The United Nations is trying to define Kosovo's autonomy in a way to get ethnic Albanians to abandon their demand for independence and live together with Serbs in the same country. Even if international officials succeed, they face another daunting problem: how to return an estimated 250,000 refugees, most of them Serbs, without setting off a whole new spiral of violence.
"NATO and the U.N. said they came here to protect human rights. I don't believe it," Bajraj, an ethnic Albanian, said over coffee in a Pristina cafe. "They still do not have any political options for Kosovo, which is shameful.
"Things are worse now than they were a year ago. The Serbs didn't allow us to go to school, so we set up our own, which to us were legal. What is happening now is that Serb children can't move from their apartments. As a nation, that is shameful for us."
Before the airstrikes began, Novovic had spent three years fighting a system designed by Serbs to divide Kosovo's ethnic groups. He managed projects run by billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute, and he was the only Serb on a staff of 30.
Now Novovic lives as a refugee in his own country, eking out a living by selling the books of his cherished library from a rusty metal stand on a street corner in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. He is disgusted with people who claim to protect rights he no longer believes in.
"One totalitarian system was replaced by another totalitarian system in Kosovo," he said. "Only the roles have switched between the victim and the perpetrator. All of my life, I've tried to live with [Kosovo] Albanians, side by side.
"I believe in human rights principles that are universal, that are equally applied to everybody," he continued. "But this experience has proved to me there are very few things in life that we decide ourselves, and that I had a poor understanding of various groups dealing with human rights--even those rights themselves."
Across the Chasm, a Bond of Faith
Across the ethnic chasm, in Pristina, Kosovo's provincial capital, Bajraj is one of the few people in whom Novovic still has faith. He is a proud hippie, a Jerry Garcia look-alike with a Bob Dylan button pinned to his vest. He writes Albanian-language subtitles for Hollywood movies.
He also has worked for the Soros foundation and is one of the few ethnic Albanians who sound convincing when they say Kosovo needs Serbs--not the war criminals who committed massacres and other atrocities, but the many people who did not.
On a recent visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright insisted that conditions are improving in Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans. Her spokesman, James P. Rubin, visited Kosovo this week and bluntly told Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders that it is time to rein in extremists who are persecuting Serbs.
Bajraj said Rubin's message was about nine months too late. He argued that by openly backing former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci and other ethnic Albanians who have no popular mandate, Washington is trying to impose leaders that most people in Kosovo don't really want.
The U.S. once supported Ibrahim Rugova, who sought nonviolent change in Kosovo, but dumped him in favor of Thaci and his KLA guerrillas as part of a strategy to force a settlement on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Yet Rugova placed well ahead of Thaci in a recent Gallup poll in Kosovo funded by Washington.
"The West has betrayed Rugova a couple of times," Bajraj said. "I am not for Rugova, but he is the best of the worst. The West has time to correct its mistakes, but it just pushes harder through our so-called political leaders. They are not leaders. The West has imagined they are leaders."