'Tottering On The Edge'

Imagine the scene last week in Kosovo. The acrid smell of burning metal. The scraps of clothing, children's books strewn across the road, the blood and bits of bodies--the sad human detritus of a bus blown apart by a powerful mine that killed seven Serbs on a holiday pilgrimage to the graves of their ancestors and wounded more than 40 others.

Now consider this. What if the gruesome scenes flashing across CNN involved some of the 5,200 American soldiers stationed in Kosovo? Or their far more numerous NATO allies? You can almost hear the angry recriminations, the calls for a withdrawal of U.S. forces--and the pressures on the new Bush administration. Shades of Somalia.

Fanciful fear-mongering? Hardly. It almost happened. Last week's bombing was a thoroughly professional hit, flawlessly targeting a convoy of five Serb buses. But from Washington's perspective, it could have been worse. The mine could have easily exploded beneath one of several armored personnel carriers (full of Swedish soldiers) escorting the procession. Nor was this the first such close call. Earlier in the week, in another part of Kosovo, ethnic Albanian snipers fired on a convoy of Serbs, killing one and wounding three. A crowd of several hundred Serbs from the dead man's hometown quickly gathered, throwing rocks at U.N. and KFOR peacekeepers and burning several vehicles, protesting the international community's inability to protect them.

Two weeks ago similar scenes played out in the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica. Then there is the fighting in what is known as the Presevo Valley, farther to the east in Serbia proper, where Albanian guerrillas have been skirmishing with Yugoslav military and police--and occasionally taking potshots (deliberately missing, so far) at U.S. and British troops who threaten to intervene.

It has been nearly a month since I returned from Kosovo, after a year's leave from NEWSWEEK working with the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Often, over drinks with colleagues after this or that act of violence, we would ask ourselves: when is it going to happen to one of us? By that we meant that sooner or later an "international" on assignment or a KFOR soldier would be killed, either by accident or intent. "It's only a matter of time," one senior diplomat remarked, echoing a common sentiment, as I made my round of farewells. The commander of one of KFOR's larger national contingents put it this way: "We can only succeed if allied with the community. The day we put ourselves in opposition to society is the day we rue our presence." As he sees it, "We are tottering on the edge."

For outsiders looking in, last week's carnage was just one more senseless episode of "interethnic" violence. It was that, of course. The obvious purpose of a year's bombings and shootings is to force Serbs out of Kosovo. But last week's incident sent a more ominous signal, especially worrying for its deliberateness. Ugly as it may be, the violence is an expression of something we in the West resist only at great peril--Kosovo's will toward independence and nationhood that, if thwarted, would put us "in opposition to society." Then the guns could turn, ironically, on those who came to Kosovo to save it: American GIs and their NATO allies.

Let's step back a moment. Kosovo is part of a bigger picture, a chunk of a puzzle. One of those pieces is neighboring Montenegro. It, too, seeks independence from the Yugoslavia of which it is a part. Washington and the European Union are doing their best to discourage it. But they will probably fail. Sooner or later Montenegro will almost certainly secede. That will prompt Kosovo to do so, as well. If the international community resists, seeking to keep Kosovo in Serbia against the wishes of virtually all Albanians, who constitute nearly 95 percent of the population, then NATO becomes the new enemy.

We are already treading that slippery path. The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic and the rise of a more democratic regime can only be welcomed. Yet Europe's rush to embrace Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has set alarm bells jangling among Kosovo's Albanians. I know from experience that they often see Serbia's gain as their loss, and possibly blame us for it. Last week, even as he condemned the latest killings, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson told Belgrade that he was willing to gradually shrink the five-kilometer "buffer zone" between Serbia and Kosovo. That's home base to those separatist guerrillas, whose spokesman promptly denounced the move as a NATO plot to "approve [Serbian] military intervention"--and promised to quickly "retaliate."

I can only hope that my concerns are premature, even alarmist. The perpetrators of the week's monstrosities are extremists, representing no one as a whole, least of all the overwhelming majority of Kosovars. On the other hand, the extremists have the guns.