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Marching Toward Freedom

Kosovo's ongoing struggle to assert its independence.

12:00 AM, Jul 24, 2008 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Mitrovica, Kosovo

AN INTERESTING PAIR of events took place on Monday, July 21: President George W. Bush welcomed Kosovo's Albanian leaders, President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, to the White House. Bush was all smiles, declaring, "I'm a strong supporter of Kosovo's independence. I'm against any partition of Kosovo. I believe strongly that the United Nations mission must be transferred to the EU as quickly as possible." Then late that night, Serbia announced the arrest of its number-two indicted war criminal, the Bosnian Serb poet and government psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic, with the declared intention of turning him over for trial at the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

The Serbian action is one indication that Bush was right on the money: The stronger the U.S. support for a Kosovo whole and free, the harder it is for Serbia to press its continuing claim to this former Serbian province. The Serbs still exercise de facto control of northern Kosovo and of half a dozen enclaves in the rest of Kosovo, where the Serbian dinar, not the euro, is the currency in use. Panicked at the prospect of Washington's frustrating their designs on Kosovo, the Serbs sought to create a distraction and some good press in the West by sacrificing one of the villains of the bloody Bosnian war.

They shouldn't get away with it. While the United States and the main European powers have extended recognition to Kosovo, Serbia continues to harass the new country--and the United Nations is complicit in this interference. The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) remains the official civilian authority in the northern part of the republic, but the Serbs are working overtime to create parallel institutions there. Something called EULEX--the European Rule of Law Commission in Kosovo--is scheduled to take over elsewhere.

In one example of Serbian aggression, there are frequent clashes in the northern Kosovo community of Suhodoll, which means, appropriately, "dry valley." Foreign aid paid for the installation of a new sewer and water system in the locality, but Serb militants began assaulting the Albanian residents with stones and gunfire, and work on the utilities was interrupted. Serbian authorities, directed from Belgrade, claim jurisdiction over any improvement to the area. The UN stands aside and allows constructive work to be impeded.

On Tuesday, July 22, I came to the divided town of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, to witness a demonstration against the siting of a chemical waste dump in the Albanian section of the municipality. I walked with Halil Qela, a local labor leader, up a steep hill as activists with bullhorns called on the residents to join the protest. An elderly man invited us into his garden and showed us how sulfuric acid residue from the dump has blighted his carefully nurtured plum trees.

The protest began, and the UN-controlled Kosovo police, accompanied by French and Greek troops, soon appeared. I saw people knocked down and beaten with clubs for talking back to the police. One man who indicated his contempt by an eloquent shrug was pointed out by an officer, and five descended on him, with truncheons flailing and kicks administered in unrestrained fashion.

Three young women, students from Prishtina, the Kosovo capital, were arrested in the demonstration. Pretty and vulnerable-looking, they were favored with the full force of UN authority, their arms twisted behind them as they were thrown to the ground and then rushed into trucks. People in the crowd shouted at the police to stop beating the girls, and the men in heavy helmets, with their assorted weapons, including pistols, advanced on those who spoke out, threatening them with the same treatment. In all, 17 protesters were carted off. (On Wednesday, another such demonstration resulted in worse beatings and 20 arrests.)

I ambled through the crowd, alternating between cautious discussion with the French soldiers and police officials on the scene, and talks with the organizers of the protest--labor activists, ecologists, and members of the Vetevendosje movement for Kosovar self-determination--as well as ordinary residents. This was not, apparently, approved behavior, as the head of the police crew approached and demanded my identification, asking who I worked for. I told him I was only visiting, and he gazed at my U.S. passport as if he had never seen one before, but said nothing further.