[KDN] TorStar: 'Why are soldiers firing at Albania?'
- THE TORONTO STAR, Tuesday, June 1, 1999 p. A10
Crisis in the Balkans
`Why are soldiers firing at Albania?'
Border residents live in fear as lines of war become blurred
By Olivia Ward
Toronto Star European Bureau
BARHOC, Albania - A rocket with a tail of fire arcs lazily over the
mountainside, landing with a blast and a puff of smoke on the opposite
The village schoolchildren scarcely blink as they stand watching the
Albanian army on its manoeuvres a few kilometres from Kosovo, where NATO
bombers are launching barrages of missiles at real targets.
``Why are the soldiers firing at Albania?'' asks an 8-year-old girl
named Donuta, pointing toward the nearby border. ``That's where Serbia
On the rugged Albanian border, nearly 70 days into the air war against
Yugoslavia, even children are aware that the current military strategy
to force an end to Serbia's massive deportation campaign in Kosovo isn't
Not only are refugees flooding into Albania from wrecked towns and
villages, but the frontier post where they used to cross to safety is
now in danger of attack from Yugoslav forces.
As the war spreads along the entire northern border, and villages as
far as 10 kilometres inland are threatened, local anger is simmering.
``We know that the aid agencies are starting to evacuate refugees from
this area because it's not safe for them,'' says Kutim Dauti, of the
nearby village of Gjegjan. ``We're also poor and in danger. Who's going
to help us?''
Hundreds of Albanians have already answered the question for
themselves, packing their belongings and moving farther from the border.
They are now internally displaced people, joining the 100,000 ethnic
Albanian Kosovars seeking refuge in the northern mountains.
The villagers have fled Yugoslav attacks on the borders that have left
several dead and wounded and homes burnt by marauding troops.
This week a father and daughter were killed by shelling in the village
of Cahan, and a Chilean journalist was wounded by a Yugoslav sniper at
the Morine border point.
The attacks were part of a new offensive by the Yugoslavs against
separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas who use parts of the
border as staging points for fighting inside Kosovo.
The KLA have been sheltered, and in some cases abetted, by Albania in
their quest to free Kosovo from Serbian control. But they have neither
the resources nor the interest to defend it.
``That is the responsibility of the Albanian government and army,''
said a KLA spokesperson.
But at the headquarters of the threadbare Albanian army's northern
command, Brig.-Gen. Kudasi Lama has other orders.
``For 20 months the situation has been very tense here,'' he admits
with an edge of exasperation. ``The Yugoslav army has crossed twice with
tanks and heavy weapons. They went deep inside the border area. But we
are trying not to be drawn into the war.''
Each night, when the fighting is at its height, Lama sits by his red
telephone waiting for calls that may dramatically change all that.
Twice this month, after the invasions, the brusque, burly commander
sent troops to the front and drove the Yugoslavs back.
He believes Serbia - the main partner in the Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia and engineer of the mass expulsions of Kosovar Albanians - is
trying to open a new war front that will distract attention from Kosovo.
``The main reason for starting this war is that the Kosovo problem will
be suddenly dark,'' he says. ``The West is very much afraid of a big
Balkan war. If they see it happening, Kosovo will become secondary.''
With or without an expanding conflict, it's easy to see that Lama has
one of the worst jobs in the Balkans.
Above Barhoc, in one of the army's newly planted camps near the border,
troops in 1990s sunglasses squint over equipment gleaned from China in
the 1960s, and a smattering of outmoded Russian items.
``If those Chinese tanks get anywhere near the Serbs the exhaust will
choke them to death,'' said a Western military observer. ``And if that
doesn't get them, their eardrums will blow out from the noise.''
When Albania's draconian brand of communism collapsed, and the shaky
new capitalist economy crumbled in 1997, riots swept the country.
At least three-quarters of the troops deserted, military storehouses
were looted, and many of the army's guns and moveable arms disappeared.
Morale in the army is now at rock bottom. The draft has become a joke,
and families routinely save and borrow to buy their sons out of national
NATO has offered to help modernize military equipment, but there is
little sign of that here. The cash-strapped military doesn't even have
the money to pay its electricity bills, and its 16 outposts run on local
But that is drying up fast, as Albanians feel increasingly vulnerable.
No one is more aware of the army's desperate problems than Lama. As the
war in Kosovo spreads, with no end in sight, he sees only two possible
``Either arm the KLA, or send in NATO ground troops,'' he snaps.
Outgunned and probably outmanned by the Yugoslav forces, Serbian police
and paramilitaries (estimated at more than 100,000 people), the
guerrillas have little chance of winning back Kosovo by themselves.
Bands of fighters have managed to clear a corridor into southwestern
Kosovo. But up against the big guns of the Yugoslav army, it's difficult
for them to hold the territory.
What the KLA lack in technical skills and arms, they make up for with
numbers. An aggressive recruiting program continues, and embittered men
who have lost relatives and homes in Kosovo are willing to risk their
lives for victory and revenge.
NATO is against sponsoring the KLA because of doubts about their
radicalism and reputed connections with crime. The West fears a KLA
victory could put them out of control, and result in a military-based
government bent on redrawing the borders of the Balkans.
In Albania, the KLA are already a law unto themselves, looked upon with
a mixture of respect, fear and resentment. They control areas reserved
for training camps and impose their own rules and discipline independent
of Albanian laws.
Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that, even while Western leaders
deny a NATO ground campaign is being planned against Serbia, it is
already happening here. The common wisdom is that Macedonia would be the
beachhead for a NATO invasion force because of its better-developed road
system and less problematical supply lines. But nervous about Serbian
retaliation, Macedonia has resisted. News that a NATO peacekeeping
force, which would only enter Kosovo after a settlement was reached,
would be doubled to about 48,000 troops, has been greeted stonily in
Uncertain of Macedonia's co-operation, Western military planners have
spent more than a month surveying Albania as an alternative route. There
are increasing signs that logistical planning is already underway.
The movement of refugees from the border area, organized by NATO
working with U.N. relief agencies, is speeding up as fighting flares
through the frontier. Within a month, the majority will likely be gone.
That would clear the way for the first troops. And the speedy expansion
of a 53-year-old air strip near Kukes would allow for transport of
troops and equipment. With few other alternatives, military strategists
appear to be setting aside worries that Albania's forbidding terrain and
collapsing roads are too difficult for launching ground forces.
``I have long experience here, and I can tell you it's easier to fight
in this territory than in a flat field,'' Lama says.
``Mountains are good for the military, if you know what you're doing.''
But he warns, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Yugoslav army,
which he believes is still strong and well-equipped after more than two
months of NATO bombing.
``We know there is damage, but how much is impossible to estimate,'' he
says. ``We also know they have a lot of heavy weapons, and they have
even reinforced their weaponry.''
Refugees in Kosovo are increasingly used as human shields, Lama says.
And as the air strikes have intensified, Yugoslav troops have broken up
into small units, hiding in local houses and buildings, threaded amongst
He stops short of saying that NATO has waited too long in its plans for
ground troops, which would take at least two months to muster.
In Albania, any criticism of NATO is kept under wraps. For most people
here, the Western alliance is the best, if not the only hope of ending
As the Albanian military manoeuvres continue at Barhoc, and artillery
fire clatters off the rock faces of the notorious Accursed Mountains,
American military vehicles climb above the line of tanks and disappear.
The little girls watching the manoeuvres with perplexed faces turn and
break into smiles.
``Natto, Natto!'' they chant.
And they point once again toward the Serbian border.
``Natto in Serbia,'' says Donuta. ``War finished.''
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