July 15, 1998
The Kosovo Liberation Army has grown from a small band of rebel fighters to a force capable of challenging Serbian police for control of Kosovo. Who are they and what is their significance to the current crisis in that region? Charles Krause files this report.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Six months ago, the Kosovo Liberation Army was a rag-tag force of no more than 50 to 100 armed men. Today, it's the fastest growing insurgency in the world--thousands of armed guerrillas battling Serbian police and army units for control of Kosovo, a Serbian province where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian. The Albanians' demand: Kosovo's independence from Serbian rule. Religious and political conflict in the province goes back centuries, intensified a decade ago when Serbia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, revoked Kosovo's autonomy and, with it, the Albanians' cultural and political privileges.
But massive popular support for armed resistance to the Serbs, and for the KLA, goes back only to last February and March. That's when Serbian special forces units, responding to a series of KLA sniper attacks, massacred more than 80 Albanians in a region called Drenica. Many of those killed were Albanian women and children. And according to Jonathan Landay of the Christian Science Monitor, it was the premeditated brutality of that massacre which radically changed the dynamic of conflict in Kosovo, turning the Albanians toward the KLA.
JONATHAN LANDAY, Christian Science Monitor: It was the greatest of "the" watershed events that I know of, that transformed the KLA from what was still essentially a fringe group into a movement into a movement--into the leader of a popular insurrection, because this said to them, we've gotten nowhere with the Serbs; they are now prepared to use the same methods on us that they used in Bosnia; we have to protect ourselves.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch New York has just returned from three weeks in Kosovo, where he investigated the Drenica massacres.
"The attack was indiscriminate and brutal."
FRED ABRAHAMS, Human Rights Watch New York: The attack was indiscriminate and brutal. The police moved in with helicopter gunships, with APCS, and with special police forces, anti-terrorist units, and in an indiscriminate and brutal way attacked the Yasheri compound and the village of Brahaz. Many innocent people were killed in that attack, including women and children. In villages nearby, there were cases where the evidence very strongly suggests summary executions. That is, Albanians were killed by the police after having been taken into detention.
CHARLES KRAUSE: At the Yugoslav embassy in Washington, Charge Nebojsa Vujovic says that whatever excesses may have taken place, the Drenica massacre was provoked by the KLA.
NEBOJSA VUJOVIC: My government regrets the loss of any human lives, including civilians who died, but the problem was that they turned those houses into bunkers and they used them to fight the Serbian institutions of the system, and that resulted in a bloodshed on both sides, and that was unfortunate.
CHARLES KRAUSE: How do you explain, though, that so many women and children were among the 80 who were killed?
NEBOJSA VUJOVIC: The figure is not correct for the march because the figures of 80 includes 59 and includes the victims on both sides, and includes those Serb officers and the military officers who died both from--in the ambush, there were five of them, or those who had been killing during the fight. So that was... the victims on both sides. So it was not fighting between police and women and children. It was a fight against the terrorists.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But the State Department said the United States was "appalled" by what happened at Drenica, adding that "the vast majority of violence in Kosovo is due to actions of government authorities." Abrahams says he's convinced the Serbian atrocities were deliberate.
FRED ABRAHAMS: I think the evidence is irrefutable. I mean, we've stated that summary executions have taken place. I think there really is no question that the police, with extreme brutality, moved against noncombatants, they indiscriminately attacked so that women and children were killed, and they also summarily executed individuals who were in their detention. I think the evidence is very strong that these are war crimes, crimes that can be prosecuted under the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
|The U.S. supports autonomy, not independence.|
CHARLES KRAUSE: For the architects of U.S. policy in the Balkans, the Drenica massacre and the resulting ground swell of support for the KLA was a serious setback. As recently as last February, the State Department was calling the Kosovo Liberation Army "terrorists" because the U.S. is opposed to any move toward an independent Kosovo--the KLA's stated goal. By openly criticizing the guerrillas, the U.S. had also hoped to forestall yet another outbreak of the kind of ethnic cleansing and religious violence that's torn apart Bosnia and other regions of the former Yugoslav Republic. In Kosovo, the U.S. has supported Ibrahim Rugova, the Albanian Kosovars' political leader, who, in line with U.S. thinking, advocates passive--rather than armed resistance-to the Serbs. But Landay says that U.S. policy notwithstanding, the Drenica massacres undermined Rugova's credibility because passive resistance no longer seemed viable.
JONATHAN LANDAY: It completed the-if you will--I should say it accelerated the hemorrhaging of support for Mr. Rugova and his party, and when I was there, I found no one except the people immediately around Mr. Rugova who thought that his methods were an answer any longer.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The U.S., however, continues to believe that a peaceful settlement--short of full independence for Kosovo--is still possible and that another Bosnia can still be avoided. Since March, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke has visited Kosovo several times and continues to meet with Rugova, as he did earlier this month. But he's also made contact twice with the guerrillas, trying to find out more about them--how many men they have under arms, who the KLA's commanders are, and whether they're willing to settle for some sort of autonomy for Kosovo, rather than total independence.
So far, Holbrooke and his colleagues here at the State Department have few answers. What's known out the KLA is sketchy: its military capabilities--and even its leaders--are largely unknown. Still, a number of American journalists and others have spent time with the KLA--one way or another-providing the beginnings of a portrait of the insurgents, their weapons, and their goals. Landay, for example, was stopped at a roadblock and detained by the KLA for seven hours last April--giving him an unusual opportunity to observe the guerrillas first hand.
JONATHAN LANDAY: My experience was that they're--at least the unit that I was taken prisoner by, was extremely well disciplined to the point where they had codes that they were using on their walkie-talkies, brand new walkie-talkies, Motorolas; that there was a chain of command; brand new uniforms, including American combat uniforms. I saw American grenades, at least standard NATO issued grenades. They had checkpoints out in the open less than a kilometer from a major Serbian police station near the border. About half an hour after they took me prisoner, there was an alarm that went up and I was able to watch how they responded to this. I mean, everyone know where their plans were. It was immediately--everybody grabbed their weapons. Out the door they went. They knew where to go. They knew who had to go where, and plus the response to the command showed me that there was a clear commander and that these guys knew what they were doing.
|A rebel force takes shape.|
FRED ABRAHAMS: When you encounter them, you may meet a villager with a hunting rifle defending his home, or someone who clearly has had military training--and everything in between. It's very difficult to assess really the organization. What I would say is what does appear to be the case is the organization seems to be horizontal in nature, and there are regional command bases. A more vertical structure is not yet apparent. As far as how well armed, you clearly, the force is well supplied with small arms, but there is no evidence of larger weaponry.
JONATHAN LANDAY: The weapons that we believe they have are mostly coming from--have come from Albania. In 1997, there was this incredible chaotic chaos in Albania where government authority crumbled as a result of the collapse of pyramid schemes. It set off this tumult across the country where mobs were breaking into Albanian army bases and looting armories, breaking into police stations and looting the armories, and so it's believed that a lot of these weapons were sold to the KLA and then brought over the border.
FRED ABRAHAMS: Definitely, arms are coming. They're small arms, but this also suits their needs. They have been, and they will be, fighting a guerrilla war. They do not have the capabilities to wage any sort of frontal war against superior Serbian forces. And the Albanians have--they may not have arms, but they do have heart. And while the Serbs are deserting from the army, Albanians are joining the KLA day by day.
CHARLES KRAUSE: While the exact number of KLA soldiers is not known, U.S. intelligence agencies have produced a map which shows that the KLA already controls nearly a quarter of Kosovo's territory and other areas are contested. Sources close to the insurgents say they've established five military commands and have been helped by several foreign military advisors, including two American Vietnam veterans, now training KLA troops in Northern Albania and in Kosovo itself.
Meanwhile in the United States, many Albanian Americans like Florin and Burim Krasniqi are also helping the KLA. They're providing substantial amounts of money and materiel to the guerrillas, including vital communications equipment.
FLORIM KRASNIQI, KLA Supporter: Every day they contact with me, and that's why I make so many trips, because something happens every day.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The Krasniqis are in close contact with the KLA in Kosovo, traveling back and forth several times a month.
CHARLES KRAUSE: What is the aim of this war?
|The goal? "Freedom."|
FLORIM KRASNIQI: Simple. Freedom. Freedom and freedom. Only freedom.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But does freedom have to be an independent Kosovo?
FLORIM KRASNIQI: That's the only way. Nothing less. There has been a lot of talk about a peaceful solution.
BURIM KRASNIQI: Making peace.
FLORIM KRASNIQI: Making peace. We don't want to make peace. We want to-
BURIM KRASNIQI: We want to be free as a nation, as a nation.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But, as you know, the United States Government is talking about autonomy for Kosovo, not independence.
FLORIM KRASNIQI: The United States do know-Holbrooke does know autonomy doesn't work. He cannot ask for independence. We have to ask and fight for it. If we win, what is he going to say? Just he's not going to accept our freedom?
CHARLES KRAUSE: Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is the center of New York's large Albanian American community. And it's here in the restaurants and shops that news of what's happening in Kosovo spreads almost instantaneously. The KLA even has an office on Arthur Avenue where the organizing and fundraising take place. Virtually everyone here has close relatives in the Balkans, many of them in the villages where the fighting has been most intense. Dervish Ukehaxhaj told us his brother and cousin were killed just last month defending their homes in the town of Carrabreg.
DERVISH UKEHAXHAJ: Somebody come from different places with special forces and special arms and attacked us at home-we got shot and killed and raped-and massacred. I don't even mention what happened over there. But I know this-we got hurt.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Around the corner at Illyria, the Albanian-American newspaper, editor Josef Hajrizi told us he believes his family is still alive.
JOSEF HAJRIZI: They're somewhere in the woods hiding, the women, the children, the elderly. My brothers, I have two brothers there--they have guns, they've armed themselves and they're trying to defend the village. And last week I spoke to them and they said that there is no way that to the last man--until the last man goes down, this village is not going to fall.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Along Arthur Avenue, there's enormous confidence that the KLA can defeat the Serbs quickly--despite the heavy weapons that give what's left of the old Yugoslav army overwhelming military superiority in Kosovo. The Albanians are also up against the demonstrated cunning, and determination, of Milosevic, who's used the crisis in Kosovo to keep himself in power--suggesting to the Serbs that only he can keep Kosovo under Serbian control. But the violence that Milosevic unleashed at Drenica to terrorize the Albanians seems to have backfired. Now they say they have no option but to fight to the bitter end for their homes, their villages--and their independence--from the Serbs.
FLORIN KRASNIQI: We going to go back under the Serbian rule? That will never happen. The biggest joke-whoever thinks we're going to give up. Our village was liberated with a lot of blood and hard fight. No one in the world-not even NATO-European Union-is going to go back and rule our village-that's the end of it. Our village is free, and it will be free-
BURIM KRASNIQI: And remain free.
FLORIN KRASNIQI: --as long as this world is left.
JIM LEHRER: The U.S. and other nations called last week for a cease-fire by the KLA and the Serbs but sporadic fighting has continued.