19 February 2008 – For almost a decade western attitudes to Kosovo have reinforced Oscar Wilde’s adage that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.

In 1999, George Robertson, then Britain’s defence secretary, claimed that Nato had undertaken a “fight for a downtrodden people and it has won”. I’ve no doubt that forces controlled by Slobodan Milosevic were responsible for heinous crimes against the ethnic Albanian community that Robertson purported to champion. Yet there were other sections of Kosovo’s population whose abject suffering that year was arguably just as serious and yet was considered far less worthy of our collective attention.

In the security vacuum that followed Nato’s “victory”, there was a wave of violence against Kosovo’s minorities: the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (three groups often described as “gypsies”) and the Serbs. By some estimates, up to four-fifths of the 120,000-strong Roma community were driven from their homes. A litany of killings, arson and rape has been documented – in many cases allegedly perpetrated by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (Hashim Thaci, the KLA’s political leader at the time, is now prime minister).

Those who fled Kosovo have been reluctant to return and it is not hard to grasp why. Facing almost total unemployment and a dearth of social services, some Roma in Kosovo have been reduced to living on scraps of food from rubbish containers. With a principal Roma neighbourhood in Mitrovica almost completely destroyed in 1999, many of those remaining have found substandard shelter in an area of toxic contamination. Illness is unsurprisingly widespread.

Surely, there is an onus on those European countries who supported the Nato campaign and are now – probably rightly – recognising Kosovo’s independence to stand up for its beleaguered minorities. How can it be, then, that some of the same countries have exacerbated the minorities’ plight?

UN data indicates that about 2,000 people were forcibly sent back to Kosovo from other parts of Europe last year and more than 3,500 in 2006. A further 90,000 could still be deported, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, has said.

In 1999, Germany’s involvement in the Nato effort caused ructions among its Green party, which then belonged to the ruling coalition. To its shame, Germany has been happy to expel significant numbers of Kosovars who have sought refuge on its soil. According to reports, those expelled have included people suffering from trauma who will almost certainly not receive the specialist care they need upon return.

These expulsions disregard warnings by the UN’s refugee agency that Serbs and Roma risk persecution if forcibly returned. Similar conclusions have been drawn by Kosovo’s ombudsman, who found that returnees continue to be stoned on buses and have their property attacked. In 2006, some returnees were murdered and bombed, he added, and while such incidents had not reoccurred by the time his latest annual report was published, fear that they will persists.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, is perturbed by the woefully inadequate number of prosecutions stemming from past crimes, including war crimes. This means that the people accused of inflicting terror on minorities are frequently still at large.

In theory, the EU’s decision to dispatch a law-and-order mission to Kosovo will remedy some of the underlying problems by helping to establish a properly functioning system of justice. But it could still be a long time before the Brussels institutions merit across-the-board confidence in Europe’s newest country.

Author: David Cronin

Source: The Guardian (comments)