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Repatriating refugees, rugs, and VCRs

You won't find "furniture Repatriation" in any US Army manual.

But in the caldron known as Kosovo, Capt. John Lerner's artillery unit is employing a novel honor system to avert looting and burning in the US-patrolled sector.

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Three weeks into their mission, NATO peacekeeping forces in each sector (French, German, British, Italian, and American) are struggling to restore order. But the situations are so varied and volatile, it's unclear if any approach will prove foolproof.

Captain Lerner's men are encouraging Serbs in Klokot to return property stolen from ethnic Albanians in the nearby village of Radovice.

The project, which US commanders hope to duplicate, began with a psychological warfare unit visiting Klokot to play videotapes urging the Serbs to place stolen goods in schoolyards for pickup by KFOR. It appears to

Patchwork of approaches be working.

"Some stuff showed up, and when I went to pick it up, they were in the process of holding a town meeting to select a committee to work with KFOR," says Lerner.

And the mound of returned goods is growing.

For the past 10 days, Lerner's unit has been guarding a garage in Radovice filled with televisions, VCRs, sofas, refrigerators, door frames, radiators, kitchenware, farm implements, and clothing. Ethnic Albanians are escorted by troops as they scour the garage for their property.

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Claims must be backed with proof of ownership, which is difficult given most of Radovice's homes were burned. One couple brought a snapshot of them sitting on the sofa they said was theirs, while several people have returned goods after determining they did not belong to them.

"Furniture repatriation is not part of our normal training," says Lerner. "When we go to the field, we train to shoot rockets, shoot artillery, to kill."

Asked if he thought the program had averted violence, he replies: "If we weren't here, it's not too far-fetched that that could happen. It's quite obvious the two towns are not the best of neighbors."

The furniture program is emblematic of the different strategies being used to restore order and quell Kosovo's ethnic hatreds.

German troops are quietly relying on ethnic Albanian rebels to help them curb surging crime, while their French counterparts are keeping a key town partitioned into ethnic Albanian and Serbian areas to avert clashes.

Manpower-short Italian soldiers are trying to protect a pocket of Serbs and two holy sites as looting and burning by ethnic Albanians rage out of control. British soldiers are cracking down on anti-Serb attacks and arresting suspected war criminals. United States troops are combining a tough "zero tolerance" policy toward unrest with efforts to win hearts and minds.

Learn as you go

But it remains far from certain that any approach, be it the iron-and-velvet hand of the Americans or the "friendly and firm" German attitude, will succeed.

"I think that more and more the feeling of lawlessness is spreading all over the province," says Kare Elterberg, head of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe assessment team. He and other officials are skeptical the Serbian exodus can be reversed and Kosovo's multiethnic makeup preserved.

NATO officials counter that it has been only three weeks since peacekeepers moved in as Serbian troops and police withdrew under the peace plan forced on Belgrade by 78 days of bombing. They say that as they reach a full strength of 50,000 troops - about 24,000 are now deployed - and a United Nations police force and interim administration are set up, tensions should begin cooling enough to allow a return of the 71,000 Serbs who have already fled.

"All commanders do whatever is in their means to create this safe and secure environment," says Maj. Jan Joosten, a spokesman for KFOR, as the NATO contingent is known. "What we are asking is for people to have faith in us."

That is proving difficult as ethnic Albanian refugees flood home. More than 500,000 of the almost 1 million have now returned to destroyed towns and villages and mass graves filled with relatives and friends. They bring with them not just a thirst for revenge and a desire to see all of Kosovo's 123,000 Serbs gone, but the ordinary crime that plagues all societies.

With KFOR intent on being evenhanded, many ethnic Albanians and Serbs accuse the peacekeepers of favoring the other side. The former say KFOR is protecting Serbs who participated in Europe's worst atrocities since World War II; the latter, incensed by NATO airstrikes, charge KFOR is failing to stop killings and evictions of Serbs by vengeful ethnic Albanians, especially Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels. Both sides say KFOR, now in the process of collecting KLA weapons, is failing to disarm the other.

Attempts at impartiality

"We are really, really being very cautious in trying to stay impartial between the two communities," retorts Navy Lt. Bertrand Bonneau of the French KFOR contingent.

For French troops and police, that means maintaining for now the division of Kosovska Mitrovica into ethnic Albanian and Serbian zones. French troops have been deployed at barricades on bridges over the Ibar River since ethnic Albanians tried March 26 to march from the southern half of the town to reclaim homes on the Serb-held northern side. Only KLA chief Hashim Thaci's intervention averted major bloodshed.

Overstretched and lacking firefighting equipment, the French have been unable to stop the looting and burning of the town's Gypsy quarter by ethnic Albanians who accuse the Gypsies of collaborating with the Serbs. Attacks on Gypsies are also raging in the British and Italian sectors.

With virtually all 18,000 Serbs gone from their zone in western Kosovo, German peacekeepers are mostly facing law-and-order problems. Escalating violent crime, including robberies, rapes, and beatings, has forced them to impose a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew in the town of Prizren. German officers say they have an informal arrangement with the KLA, under which local rebels are helping to arrest suspects. More than 60 people are now in Prizren jail awaiting trial once the court system is restored.

The Germans are taking a tolerant attitude toward the seizure of abandoned Serbian homes by ethnic Albanians whose houses have been destroyed. They are allowed to stay if they sign contracts pledging to leave if the owners return. The contracts will be renewed every three months.

Just like the French, Italian troops have arrested dozens of people for the looting and burning of Serbian and Gypsy homes that have continued for more than a week around the town of Pec. But without local police, they hold only murder suspects, while freeing others after 24 hours. Looters drive trucks and handcarts piled with booty through Italian checkpoints as smoke lofts into the sky.

"We patrol the roads, and we have checkpoints," says Italian Army Capt. Josepe Cavalo. "But a lot of fires begin after we leave. We'd have to put a soldier in every house [to stop them]. The Italians have their hands full protecting the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate in Pec and a 500-year-old monastery in Decani, two of the holy sites for which Kosovo is cherished by the Serbs. Aside from the monks and nuns, Serbs fleeing KLA threats and attacks have sheltered in the sites until escorted by the Italians to nearby Montenegro.

Only about 300 of the area's 15,000 Serbs remain, taking refuge in the village of Gorazdevac, where an Italian battalion is based. On Wednesday, Patriarch Pavle, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, paid a brief visit to Gorazdevac to hold a service, arriving in an Italian Army truck protected by Captain Cavalo and a dozen rifle-wielding soldiers.

Earlier, Pavle and a small retinue visited the flame-blackened Serbian Orthodox church in a Pec suburb, torched a day earlier. As they poke through ashes and glass shards, salvaging singed ornaments and icons, they chant a mournful hymn. Cavalo grips his pistol while his men nervously finger their triggers as ethnic Albanians loot and torch nearby.

US Marines and Army troops, deployed around the ethnically mixed region around the southern town of Urosevac, are taking a "zero tolerance" approach to unrest. They set the tone quickly, arresting and disarming more than 100 KLA fighters on their arrival, and have shot dead at least two Serbs who shot at them.

"A lot of Serbs now think we are siding with the Albanians," says Marine Lt. Donnie Hasseltine. "We try to explain to them that we don't care who fires at us, we are going to return fire."

The Americans are using unmanned surveillance aircraft to monitor their area and in addition to checkpoints, foot and vehicle patrols, constantly have helicopters in the air. Looting and burning incidents appear to be limited, but violence has continued, especially at night, troops say. "There is no real objective to the violence except to try to hurt each other," says Lieutenant Hasseltine.

In addition to the furniture repatriation program, the US contingent is also trying to encourage dialogue. American officers are trying to bring local leaders together and earlier this week held a dental and medical "fair" for members of both communities in Cernice.

A marine who is also a professional clown entertained the children as their parents stood in separate groups.

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