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Kosovo and the winter lull

I think of Agron a lot these days. Agron Bajrami is a young editor with Koha Ditore (the Daily Times), the largest daily newspaper in Kosovo.

He spent a month with us in October, studying my newspaper in Salt Lake City, and learning about America, a country he had not previously visited. He came under a program sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Freedom Forum to expose journalists from less-free countries to the American press.

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Like most such visitors, he was awed by the freedom the American media enjoys. His own newspaper, expressing the viewpoint of ethnic Albanians in a province of Yugoslavia ruled harshly by Serbs, is frequently harassed. Police have stormed the newspaper's offices.

When I asked Agron whether he himself had been threatened, he answered matter-of-factly, "Oh yes, beaten up."

Americans are friendly and generous. Agron was overwhelmed by their kindness and stunned by the beauty of Utah's snow-capped mountains. The "finest day in his life," he said, was when one of our editors took him horseback riding in a blizzard in the hills above Park City. But he was ambivalent about the good time he was having in America. He was guilty that the colleagues and countrymen he had left behind in Kosovo were, as he put it, "living in hell."

For obvious reasons, when he went home to Kosovo's capital of Pristina he did not want to travel through Belgrade. He planned a circuitous route. And he must have passed through Kosovo's shattered villages, their houses burned and blackened by Serbian police and troops, in which terrible crimes against women and children, as well as men, were enacted before those who were able to escape went staggering off into the forests to survive winter as best they could.

In the face of all this, the Albanians of Kosovo are not passive. Their Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) is waging a guerrilla war against Serb forces. It wants independence for Kosovo.

As Agron said in an interview: "When Albanians see their children, women and old men with cut throats, all they think of is how to break away from this monstrous regime... How can the West expect the victim to live with the butcher?"

Things are a little quieter in the wake of the Oct. 13 deal between Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic and American negotiator Richard Holbrooke.

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Mr. Holbrooke is a veteran of long and angry negotiations with Milosevic over Bosnia. He does not particularly enjoy his company. But to save lives, he will treat with tyrants. In the face of threatened NATO bombing, Milosevic promised to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo and permit monitoring by unarmed foreign observers.

This has allowed some of the refugees to avoid spending winter in the forests and return cautiously to the ruins of their homes. But Serbian police still lurk. Fear and terror remain.

The withdrawal of his troops has not been a hugely significant concession for Milosevic to make.

Fighting would have tapered off anyway during winter, and the real question is whether come spring the Serbian soldiers will be back to engage in more slaughter, or whether there will be real progress to determine a peaceful future for the formerly autonomous, but now Serb-ruled, province of Kosovo.

Holbrooke has just published a fine book, "To End a War." It is the story of his tortuous negotiations over Bosnia with Milosevic. In it he is sharply critical of three years of Western procrastination in the face of Milosevic's duplicity in Bosnia, which probably cost thousands of lives.

I dropped Holbrooke a note complimenting him on the book. I suggested he make a note on his calendar around April of next year to follow up on Kosovo. The people of Kosovo do not need the agony we permitted in Bosnia.

* John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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