Geert Lovink on Sat, 3 Apr 1999 17:00:27 +0200 (CEST)

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Syndicate: KLA Commander's Talk Of NATO Betrayal (IWPR)


KLA Commander's Talk Of NATO Betrayal

By Fron Nazi in Kukes, on the Kosovo-Albanian border
(Published on April 2, 1999)

The Kosovars call it the 'Besa' -- the sworn vow on which an Albanian
stakes his life. Kosovo Liberation Army soldier Shkem Dragobia says NATO
made such a pledge to his people. And broke it.

"When we signed the Rambouillet agreement, we were led to believe that
NATO and the US will help the Albanians. So we stopped arming and
mobilising ourselves," he says.

The KLA was strongly pressured to reduce its military activities. The talk
in France was of decommissioning, and plans to convert the KLA into a
force to peacefully police its own communities. At all costs, they were
told, the KLA was not to take advantage of any NATO action to embark on an
offensive of their own.

The Albanians say they kept their word -- on the expectation that NATO
would do its part to prevent the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that is
now unfolding.

"NATO has failed to keep its part of the besa," he adds.

He is speaking in a tight room, packed with rifles, machine guns, helmets
and other basic military hardware, on the outskirts of the town of Kukes,
Albania. Outside, around a hundred wagons and carts pass the
Albanian-Kosovo border, each one packed with ten, 15 desperate, despairing
people, an entire extended family for each miserable transport.

It is a devastating spectacle, and for Albanians the most bitter
illustration of the failure of the West's strategy. But while the
international refugee agencies and journalists count the numbers, at
Dragobia's base in a small warehouse, others are counting potential

According to Dragobia, all agreements are now off. If NATO refuses to
enter Kosovo with ground forces, the KLA is calling on the West to provide
heavy arms, artillery and other materiel so that it can take up the fight

"We call on all Albanians and our friends to join us now," he says. "It's
now or never." He asserts that if the West fails to find a way to turn the
tide in the ground war now, the conflict between the KLA and Yugoslav
forces could last for five years.

But since the onset of the NATO campaign, behind the massive displacement
of civilian refugees, despite the daily strikes at the Yugoslav military,
the Belgrade troops have been giving the KLA a hammering.

Like all KLA sources, Dragobia refuses to give details, but it is clear
that fighting has stretched far beyond the central Decani area where the
pre-strikes clashes were concentrated, and throughout the western part of
the province. The town of Pec, the province's second city, has been
emptied and reportedly largely destroyed, and Prizren and Djakovica are
said to have suffered similar fates.

Serbian TV continues to show coverage of the mass evacuation of Pristina.
Refugees claim the Yugoslav forces are storing their military hardware in
Albanian homes and other civilian buildings, especially throughout
Pristina, to evade NATO air power.

The KLA is still active in the mountains, but have suffered from loss of
communications and limitations on movement. The roads and all the towns
are firmly under Yugoslav Army control.

Significantly, a strategy is emerging. Serb authorities are organising
buses for the displaced, but appear to be directing them not to Macedonia
-- which for many would be the nearest refuge -- but towards Albania.

It suggests a calculated plan by Belgrade to unsettle Albania, which has
directly supported the KLA, while easing the refugee burden on Macedonia.
The West is particularly sensitive to the political disruption that a
massive ethnic Albanian migration could cause to Macedonia's fragile
multi-ethnic balance.

It's a kind of strategic ethnic cleansing.

"We are trying to stop Kosovars first from leaving Kosova by expanding our
control over the territory, and secondly we are trying to stop them from
leaving Albania," says Dragobia -- a nom de guerre, taken from a mountain
peak in the province. Like many other KLA members, Dragobia feels that if
the West, in particular Italy and Greece, take the refugees, without clear
hope of their return, they will be directly aiding Belgrade's campaign of
ethnic cleansing.

So the KLA is trying to reassemble a fresh army by recruiting among the
streams of dispossessed, presently around 160,000 people, that are now
entering Albania.

Men freshly expelled from their homes and villages are presented with a
quick choice: sign up for the KLA and join the counterattacks or resign
themselves to an uncertain life in a refugee camp.

Dragobia again declined to give numbers, but he said that Albanians from
Albania are also joining the KLA, though they are being kept in reserve.
But the main recruits are from Kosovo itself. Angry and in shock, most
refugees sign on.

To meet Dragobia we pass around 100 KLA soldiers, armed to the teeth with
kalashnikovs and the mixed weaponry of a guerrilla force. Twenty or so
young men, no more than 21 years old, in civilian clothes and possibly
refugees, take the same route. "We want NATO and the US to keep their
original promises," Dragobia stressed. That would mean the use of Western
ground troops. "If not, we want them to furnish us with arms and to give
us time to reorganise and equip ourselves," he said.

That implies an escalation of the air war against Yugoslav forces and NATO
supply routes and even military advisors within Kosovo. "If this cannot be
done, than our wish is that they leave us alone to resolve our own
problems. We're convinced we can handle the Serbs by ourselves, if we have
to," he said.

As we departed the warehouse, the 20 young Albanians, new recruits, had
been freshly attired in neatly creased camouflage uniforms, new boots and
bright red berets. They looked at each other awkwardly, like students just
signed up to a college sports squad, and getting used to the new jerseys,
about to play a very dangerous game.

Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.