Kosovo Albanians Have U.S. Gripe
VITINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Lulzim Ukshini was hanging out with his buddies in Sam’s Pizzeria when a grenade exploded in a Serb store across town. The first he heard about the attack was when four U.S. peacekeepers came looking for him.
``They started to beat me nonstop, telling me to admit that I did it,″ he said. ``Then they pulled a knife out and threatened to cut me into pieces.″
Ukshini’s story of mistreatment at the hands of American soldiers is being echoed by other ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who tell of beatings, inappropriate body searches of women and daily harassment by U.S. troops.
The allegations come at a time of heightened concern following the rape and murder of an 11-year-old ethnic Albanian girl. U.S. Staff Sgt. Frank J. Ronghi, a weapons squad leader from Fort Bragg, N.C., was charged this month with murder and indecent acts with a child in connection with her death.
Ethnic Albanians say the killing is not their only complaint against the Americans.
Their allegations have prompted an official Army investigation and threaten a breakdown in trust between the U.S. peacekeepers and the citizens they were sent to protect.
U.S. officials declined to discuss specific allegations because many of the complaints are under investigation.
But the Army acknowledges it has a big problem with community relations in Kosovo.
``These are serious allegations that we do take seriously,″ Maj. Erik Gunhus, a public affairs officer at Camp Bondsteel, told The Associated Press. ``We will investigate and if we find they are true, we will act accordingly. We want to show that no one is above the law.″
In a statement issued Sunday, the Army said preliminary findings indicate several U.S. soldiers may have been involved in misconduct, ``including improper use of physical force and threats against Kosovar males and inappropriate physical contact with Kosovar females.″ Gunhus confirmed several soldiers have been transferred out of Vitina in connection with the investigation.
Still, Ukshini and other Vitina residents are skeptical.
``I wouldn’t complain to KFOR because it does no good,″ Ukshini said, using the acronym for the NATO-led peacekeeping force that entered Kosovo in June after a 78-day bombing campaign forced a halt to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians.
``Every time we went to complain, they told us: ’It’s not true. Our soldiers don’t behave like that,‴ said Ramiz Hasani, 21, whose father, Xhauit, has been detained by the Americans in the killing of a Macedonian policeman.
Hasani said American soldiers have entered his father’s restaurant several times in the past two months and harassed customers for no apparent reason.
Asked about the allegations, Defense Secretary William Cohen said he cannot comment on specific cases. But he said U.S. and NATO forces are doing police work in Kosovo only because there are not yet enough civilian police available. He emphasized the need for more police.
``We have long stated the position that the United States and our NATO forces can carry out a military operation quite successfully, but they are not for the most part _ there are some exceptions _ trained to carry out police work,″ Cohen said. ``They are not trained for that, they are not competent really to carry out police work, nor should they be doing it.″
Daut Xhemajli, president of the Vitina Municipal Board, says relations between the Americans and ethnic Albanians in this farming town 45 miles southeast of Pristina have become strained.
He blames the Americans.
``One night they randomly entered a bar and started shouting at the customers, ‘What are you going to burn next?’ and ’Who are you going to kill now?‴ he said. ``They were treating all of the customers as criminals.″
Contributing to the problem, Xhemajli said, is the fact that civilians have no avenue for lodging official complaints about the soldiers. ``There is no facility or a civilian institution where citizens could file a complaint against KFOR,″ he said.
As a result, many ethnic Albanians say they try to avoid contact with the Americans. This is particularly true of women, who have complained of body searches by male soldiers.
Zijavere Azizi, 24, said she was walking in the center of town with a friend several weeks ago when four soldiers stopped the pair and started searching them without explanation.
``One of the men grabbed my arm and another grabbed my friend and pushed him against the concrete wall,″ she said. ``They took everything out of my pockets and put their hands in my pockets, all of my pockets.″
``Normally, I don’t allow somebody to touch me all over my body, but I couldn’t do anything,″ she added. Since then, Azizi said she has left her home only when absolutely necessary.
Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who heads the U.S. troops in Kosovo, has met with Vitina leaders to express American concern over the allegations.
``We are seeing more serious efforts ... to cooperate with the citizens,″ said Xhemajli. ``We’ve been asking for this for a long time.″
For Ukshini and other Vitina residents, it’s a matter of restoring lost trust.
``When they entered (Kosovo), I respected them because I respect that uniform,″ said Ukshini, a wiry 28-year-old. ``But they behaved in the most inappropriate way.″