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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
War drags on despite Serb defeat
by Francois Cremieux

Doctor Preveza Abrashi has just left Mitrovice. She is a surgeon, an ethnic Albanian, who had been living in an apartment in the Serb part of town, north of the river Ibar. The flat was well situated on the second floor, twenty yards from a French APC stationed on Metohia square. A French lieutenant looked in regularly to make sure the family was still all right, that it had not been intimidated or worse.

Despite months of this protection, Dr Abrashi has now thrown in the sponge, let her flat to some UN police and moved to Prishtina. Her job in Mitrovice has disappeared. Since 29 September of last year, Albanian staff have been barred from their hospital. A few demonstrations by a section of the Serbian staff, a few stones thrown at buses carrying staff or patients, were permitted to crush the ethnic Albanians' determination to retain access to the town's sole hospital.

The day the French army made a decision not to use force to protect free access, it ensured not just the closure of the hospital, but the probable expulsion - one day - of the thousands of ethnic Albanians who still live north of the river. The signal sent to the Serbs, and to the real extremists among them in particular, that the north was their territory and the hospital their political football, has brought the physical expulsion of every family a step closer.

The Serbs are certainly going to act on this signal again before long, perhaps by doing away with the only law court in Mitrovice, also situated in the north of the town. And the message to the Albanians that they were no longer going to be protected in their workplaces - even the hospital - made every family think of leaving an area that now looks increasingly dangerous.

The hospital had been the largest institution in Mitrovice, employing more than a thousand people, including a good proportion of the intellectuals from both communities. Giving way on the hospital meant giving way on everything.

The ethnic Albanians have not yet all left the north bank of the river. But the process is under way, and there is no indication at all that the Serbs are going to abandon or modify their wretched political project, which unfortunately is still with us.

As with Bihac and Srebrenica in Bosnia, France is much involved in the fate of Mitrovice. Sometimes in a good way - as with the decent lieutenant who kept an eye on Dr Abrashi - and sometimes in a bad way, as on the strategic and political levels.

But whenever criticism is voiced, certain French diplomats and military are very quick to point out that Mitrovice is really the responsibility of the UN and NATO, virtually presenting the French army as a mere sub-contractor. Any neglect, any error or retreat, is invariably blamed on the feeble UN administration, never on France.

Two realities detract from the credibility of these arguments. First, the people whose firearms ultimately guarantee security are soldiers commanded by a French general. While it is true that the various chains of command between the UN, NATO and the national contingents (and their home governments) are extremely tangled, national orders are crucial in determining strategic choices. To understand this, all one has to do is listen to the criticisms made by any contingent present in Kosova of the work done by any other contingent. The French in Mitrovice have responsibilities equivalent to the ones they attribute to the British in Prishtina and the Americans in the eastern part of the region. Nothing less.

In any case, in the eyes of the Kosovar populations or the foreigners present in the country, these fine distinctions are meaningless. Where everyday life is concerned, Mitrovice is under French authority for the maintenance of order and the protection of individual rights. Some may regret this and wish that the UN police, more `international' in makeup than the military contingents, would play a larger role in maintaining order, but so far this wish has not become reality.

Moreover, the deficiencies of the UN administration, which were equally evident in the days of Srebrenica, in no way dilute the responsibility of individual countries for what happens.

Sometimes for ideological reasons, sometimes as an excuse for inaction, sometimes even as an alibi, it is also often recalled that the Serbian expulsions of ethnic Albanians are only the response - and in many cases a less violent response - to the expulsion and killing of Serbs in Kosova in the months after the end of the war. It is important to remember two basic principles here. Firstly, no violation of human rights can be explained or justified by reference to any other violation. Dr Abrashi's right to live safely in her flat in the heart of a UN protectorate remains intact. The international community's duty to protect Albanian families living in Mitrovice is absolute, with no limits or exceptions admitted for any reason whatsoever. It is equal in every way to the duty to protect Serb families in the rest of Kosova and enable them to return to their homes in safety.

Secondly, the process that forced Dr Abrashi to leave her apartment is fundamentally different from the one that sent the Serbs of Prishtina into exodus. Obviously the short-term consequences for Dr Abrashi and for her Serb colleagues who had to leave Prishtina and move to the northern half of Mitrovice are identical. The difference is that Dr Abrashi was expelled as part of the establishment of a political order, while her Serb colleagues were driven out by everyday pressure from some of their neighbours and co-workers. History is tragic, and no doubt it will take months or years for all the Serbs to go back to Prishtina. But the hope remains that those without blood on their hands can return one day, for the simple reason that no political order has been established to exclude them.

Dr Abrashi on the other hand was expelled by political militants, organised in groups equipped with field radios (and some weapons), disciplined and coordinated, writing up reports every evening address by address, and systematically installing a Serb family in every dwelling within hours of the expulsion of its former Albanian occupants. The French army knows who these militants are.

Abruptly, in the aftermath of some more than usually frightening incident, or through a gradual, almost insidious loss of heart, day by day, the ethnic Albanian families are leaving the north bank of the river Ibar. One day soon they will all be gone. Their departure will have been the result of a complicated cocktail centred on the confrontation of two complementary extremisms, each essential to the other's credibility. The international community, and France in particular, will be fully aware bystanders, guilty through inaction.

At the heart of the cocktail lies a Serbian government, headed by Slobodan Milosevic, remorselessly pursuing its war for the same old reasons, around the same old ethnic principles, and despite successive defeats. This is the only way that leadership can survive. To understand that fact and stand firm, giving way on nothing - not even Dr Abrashi's right to live in freedom - would protect Mitrovice Albanians today and Montenegrin democrats tomorrow.

Above all it would protect and hearten some of Dr Abrashi's colleagues and friends, ethnic Serb doctors at the Mitrovice hospital, who are physically threatened if they speak out and no longer have an effective way of expressing opposition to their own ethnic leadership.

Francois Cremieux is the former director of the Mitrovice hospital. This article appeared in Le Monde, 26 January 2000, and was translated by John Howe.

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