By Tom Walker
Gornje Kusce, Kosovo
March 5, 2000
Six centuries ago it was the Turks who were rampant. Now, as Nato and the United Nations look on bewildered, it is the Albanians... With Pristina, the capital, in the grip of the criminals, there seems to be little hope for towns such as Gnjilane...
The Serbs have not been the only victims of the anarchy: several Albanians who legitimately bought houses from fleeing Serbs have been shot by KLA fighters who believe they have a divine right to the spoils of ethnic cleansing.
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Gornje Kusce, Kosovo. The grave of Dr Josef Vasic is in the middle of a cemetery on a steep hill beneath the Orthodox church in Gornje Kusce. Heavy rains that washed away much of Kosovo's winter snow have reduced the flowers, cigarettes and apples left to comfort the doctor on his heavenly journey to a sodden mess.
For the beleaguered Serbs of Kosovo, the province has again become the grim land of eternal sacrifice celebrated in the epic poetry they hand down from generation to generation.
Six centuries ago it was the Turks who were rampant. Now, as Nato and the United Nations look on bewildered, it is the Albanians. Ethnic cleansing continues unabated and Vasic, a gynaecologist with three young children, was its latest victim.
One of two remaining Serbian doctors in eastern Kosovo's main city of Gnjilane, Vasic, 37, who had spent most of his professional life treating Albanian women, was gunned down in the street at 9.30am just over a week ago.
"I heard four shots," said his widow, Dragana. "He had already been beaten up once and had a grenade thrown at him. I didn't think it could happen a third time."
A few minutes later she knew the worst. Vencislav Grozdanovic, a biochemist who had been walking with Vasic from the clinic where they both worked, described how a dark-haired man in his thirties had shouted at them to lie down.
Grozdanovic instinctively ran. Behind him, Vasic shouted in fear before the shots rang out.
Apart from Nato-led Kfor peacekeepers, the only organisation fighting the losing battle to contain Kosovo's anarchy is the UN international police force. Their two commanders in Gnjilane, an American and a Russian, have admitted that little can be done to halt such cold-blooded assassinations.
If an Albanian wants to murder a Serb, UN sources say, he can do so with virtual impunity. Any attempt to find the perpetrator is lost in the conspiracy of silence that casts a depressing pall over a province in the grip of a powerful Albanian mafia.
Valeri Korotenko, Gnjilane's deputy UN police commander and a member of the elite Russian Spetznaz special force, has done what he can for the Vasic family. Such was the fear of further attacks that the doctor could not be buried in Gnjilane. Under heavy Kfor protection, Dragana Vasic and the couple's daughters - Andriana, 3, Jovana, 5, and Jelena, 8 - along with the dead man's mother Ruzica and a few other relatives, were taken to Gornje Kusce, two miles to the north.
This is one of several villages that serve as havens for the Serbs. All have an Orthodox church or monastery, ringed by barbed wire and surrounded by a few hundred families.
After the funeral the Vasics returned under guard to their apartment block, where American soldiers are on permanent duty and UN police occupy the more vulnerable flats.
"There used to be 11,000 Serbs in Gnjilane, now there are about 1,000," said Korotenko's colleague, Commander Gary Carrell from Montana. "Quite frankly it's a very dangerous place right now."
Much of the UN organisation in Kosovo appears apathetic, but Carrell and Korotenko provide an uplifting example of international co-operation, their strength as a team drawn from serving together in Bosnia.
Carrell believes the "vast majority" of Albanians do not approve of the continuing murders, but are scared of speaking out because the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) extends its intelligence network through Gnjilane's chaotic and litter- strewn alleyways.
The UN had pinned much hope on training a local police force, which was supposed to have been multi-ethnic and conformed to international standards. The backbone of the force should have been former Albanian policemen sacked in 1989 by Slobodan Milosevic when, as Serbian president, he rescinded Kosovo's autonomy. Carrell and Korotenko found the KLA deeply suspicious of such a force. Many former policemen, now in their forties and fifties, knew too much about the KLA for comfort.
Under the political leadership of Hashim Thaci, a man described by Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, as "Kosovo's Gerry Adams", the KLA made sure that its own men took the bulk of the new police posts.
It also created the so-called Kosovo Protection Corps (TMK) as a form of home guard. Carrell and Korotenko have little doubt that the TMK, which gave out 15,000 uniforms despite being limited to a maximum strength of 5,000, is merely the KLA under a different name. They find some members arrogant and troublesome. "We suggested they could help clear the rubbish from the streets," said Carrell. "They said they were war heroes."
About 20 Serbs have been killed in Gnjilane since Kfor entered Kosovo last June, and there are four or five attacks a week on those who remain.
Two weeks ago the UN police believed they had made a breakthrough when they arrested three teenagers with a stock of grenades. But one of Kosovo's newly appointed Albanian judges released them pending trial, even though they had failed lie detector tests.
The Serbs have not been the only victims of the anarchy: several Albanians who legitimately bought houses from fleeing Serbs have been shot by KLA fighters who believe they have a divine right to the spoils of ethnic cleansing. With Pristina, the capital, in the grip of the criminals, there seems to be little hope for towns such as Gnjilane. The inhabitants of Gornje Kusce are escorted by Kfor on shopping trips two or three times a week. UN sources have criticised American troops for running weapons searches in the village. "They all have guns, otherwise they wouldn't still be there," said one official.
Last week there was a near-riot as the Americans ploughed through the narrow roads of the village. Groups of men shouted "Nato terror". The irony, however, was that without Nato protection the village would have emptied months ago.
Some diplomats have predicted that the few remaining Serbs in Kosovo's large towns will soon move north to Mitrovica, the one urban centre under Serbian control in the province.
Dragana Vasic is not interested. "Why swap one nightmare for another?" she said. "I have lost a beautiful and brave husband. I have nowhere to go."