A Sense Of Trust Betrayed

Even in death, Merite Shabiu was a beautiful child. A U.S. Army officer gave a photo of the 11-year-old's battered corpse to her father, Hamdi, 41, an ethnic Albanian in the crumbling Kosovo town of Vitina. The Americans said they had jailed a suspect in the girl's murder: one of the U.S. Army peacekeepers who patrol the town. "She was like every child here," Shabiu recalls. "Saying 'NATO! NATO!' when she saw them, throwing them flowers..."

U.S. officials clamped a tight lid on the incident. They said only that U.S. Army S/Sgt. Frank Ronghi of Niles, Ohio, was charged with premeditated murder and indecencies to a minor. The Army has moved him to Germany pending a pretrial inquiry to decide if he will face a court-martial. Ronghi himself has made no public comment, but his friends and family say there must be some mistake. Their Frank was a gentle, decent guy, not a killer.

The peacekeepers are sweating. No one wants a repeat of the wildfire protests that engulfed Okinawa after three U.S. servicemen were charged and convicted in the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995. The Kosovo peacekeepers already get a full ration of resentment just by trying to prevent further violence between sworn enemies. They need no help making the job even more impossible. "We knew the Serbs were criminals," says Muharma Samakona, who lives in a fifth-floor apartment just across the street from the Shabiu family. "But we thought America was our savior."

Neighbors saw Merite playing alone outside her house on Jan. 13, the morning she died. Later that morning Samakona's 13-year-old son, Musafa, saw a stranger in a peacekeeper's uniform carrying a burlap sack out of his building's basement. The soldier heaved the sack into a Humvee outside. As the sack landed, the boy was sure he saw a human leg slip out. The next day, after Merite's parents had reported her missing, U.S. troops cordoned off the basement. A trail of blood on the concrete floor led to a bloodstained storage room. A two-foot iron bar, one end caked with dried blood, was left behind the room's metal door, apparently overlooked by the investigators. The girl's body was found where the killer apparently dumped it, in the hills outside town.

Shabiu sits at home with his family, telling a foreign journalist he doesn't blame the peacekeepers for what happened. One of Merite's uncles interrupts: "Why don't you tell him? [The Americans'] behavior hasn't been that good the last few weeks. They behaved like Serbs!" Remxia Shabiu, the girl's mother, leaps from her stool to stop him. "Shut up!" she warns. "Shut up, you!" Hamdi turns to the uncle and hisses, "We are not going in this direction." So the peacekeepers hope.