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Preparing to break the violent cycle in Kosovo

Groups like UNICEF are developing programs to keep young Albanians from

Almost six months after NATO rescued Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, revenge killings against Serbs and other minorities continue to grab headlines.

While the behavior of their new charges has Western officials outraged and embarrassed, relief workers on the ground are scratching their heads, wondering what can be done to break the cycle of violence. In particular, the focus is on youths, who are blamed for most of the killings.

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So groups like UNICEF are devising programs to keep young Albanians occupied and distracted. UNICEF is restructuring the school curriculum to include required courses in civics and "peace education."

But the fact remains that the wounds of war are too fresh. And with the onset of winter, there are greater priorities.

"There's been conflict and tension for too many years to talk about [interethnic tolerance] now," says Melissa Brymer, an American clinical psychologist with UNICEF's Center for Crisis Psychology. "First we have to make sure everyone has enough food and shelter."

When the time comes, Ms. Brymer and her colleagues will face numerous obstacles. The history and culture in this corner of Europe tolerates vigilante justice. Not everyone partakes, of course, but few dare to complain too loudly.

Silence on revenge issue

The current political climate in Kosovo only reinforces this. Albanian politicians and community leaders are conspicuously silent on the revenge issue. Many reason that the reprisals are an understandable reaction to systematic brutality. They resent the suggestion by some Westerners that Albanians are now "just as bad" as Serbs.

"We are against these killings, but the blame cannot be equalized," says Sevdije Ahmeti, a prominent human rights activist in Kosovo. "What the Serbs did to us was state-sponsored violence. They terrified, killed, raped, and shelled civilians. What's happening today is the work of individuals and a consequence of the pain they carry."

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Ten years of Serbian apartheidlike repression in Yugoslavia's southern province culminated this spring with the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians.

It unleashed roughly 800,000 refugees, one of Europe's largest exoduses since the Holocaust. It also left an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 dead, 3,000 to 7,000 missing, and tens of thousands of homes, businesses, and schools burned.

Three months of NATO airstrikes persuaded Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in June to withdraw his Serbian police and paramilitary forces from Kosovo. It was assumed that any Serbian civilian guilty of something was among the thousands who fled with the armed forces - well ahead of the returning refugees.

So it raises eyebrows that, today, elderly Serbs have become such frequent targets of attacks.

Albanians respond by raising the thorny issue of complicity. They draw a parallel with Nazi Germany.

"All Serbs knew what Milosevic was doing, but they did nothing. So they're all guilty," says Shefqet Gjinovci in a local cafe. "It's just like the Germans during World War II. All Germans knew what Hitler was doing to the Jews. And what did they do to stop it?"

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kosovo saw widespread lawlessness in its first four months as a UN protectorate. There were 348 murders, 116 kidnappings, 1,070 lootings, and 1,106 cases of arson. The UN police have repeatedly requested that their force be beefed up.

Still, it's unclear whether the ongoing attacks are only random acts of individuals or something more sinister. Some observers speculate that the violence is orchestrated by the new Albanian political elite - the former chiefs of the militant Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Murders now average about one per day, though that is far less than the first few weeks after Serbian forces pulled out, says UN Police spokesman Dmitri Kaportsev. Most of those detained or suspected, he notes, have been teenage boys or men in their early 20s. While this age group is prone to radicalism in every society, some observers also see their rage as a direct result of the system that shaped their youth.

Among the repressive measures carried out in Kosovo, Albanian children were kicked out of high schools and university. Their parents responded with a "parallel" school system that operated mostly out of private homes. Kids no longer learned the official state language, Serbo-Croat, which created a situation in which some kids were unable to even communicate with Serbian neighbors.

As society grew increasingly segregated and polarized, the few Serbs with whom young Albanians interacted regularly were Serbian police - Mr. Milosevic's brutal enforcers. This was further compounded during the conflict, as many children were forced to witness the shooting of a father, the rape of a mother, or the burning of their family home.

"It's easier for young people to hate than the older generation," says Fetah Bakija, a veteran television journalist in Kosovo. "They don't have the passions of the older people. We remember when life was good. They also haven't seen the good side of some Serbs, like I have.

"I have a cousin whose two sons were killed," adds the TV journalist. "He told me, 'I have no reason to live, except to find the Serbs who did this.' ... Now, what can anyone do or say to stop this guy?"

Warnings about situation

When Veton Surroi, the widely respected editor of Kosovo's leading newspaper, warned that Albanian revenge and intolerance of minorities had the makings of fascism, he was denounced by the KLA-controlled media as a "traitor." Such an accusation is potentially lethal in Kosovo today.

Practically the only other figure to speak out has been Ismail Kadare, who is widely considered to be the greatest living Albanian writer. Mr. Kadare, who lives in Paris, recently urged Albanians to show they are "brave and noble" by not answering violence with violence.

Time will be needed, say Albanians. The youths are fueled further by widespread joblessness, which gives them too much time to dwell on their hatred. Nearly half of Kosovo's 2 million inhabitants are under age 25; some two-thirds of the workforce is unemployed.

Signs of optimism are few and far between. Yet many humanitarian groups are receptive to helping youths. While other agencies often complain about the scarcity of funds, UNICEF's Brymer says youths have no shortage of sponsors.

Relief groups are working to organize cultural activities and athletics, even to set up an Internet club. Those who benefit the most are in the capital, Pristina, where most foreigners are based.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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