By Richard Mertens, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Their work finished for the morning, American soldiers tramp wearily through the muddy streets of the Bosnian Quarter, working their way along the brushy flood plain of the Ibar River, and then file across a rusty railroad bridge back to their temporary base on the south side of this ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo.
They speak little as their boots crunch in the coarse gravel, and a cold wind blows from the north, driving snowflakes past them.
It's been a tough week for international peacekeepers as they try to impose order in Mitrovica. On Feb. 20, the Americans were forced to retreat when a crowd of angry Serbs pelted them with rocks and bricks as they searched for guns on the northern, Serb-dominated side of the city. On Feb. 21, British, French, and Danish peacekeepers struggled to repel thousands of young ethnic Albanian men who tried to force their way across the bridge that divides the city.
In an effort to restore calm, the NATO-led force temporarily suspended house-to-house weapons searches Feb. 22. The soldiers were still searching cars and individuals for guns, however, as part of an effort to clamp down on the violence and unrest that have torn the city for the past three weeks. In the meantime, Kosovo's civilian officials faced the much more difficult problem of how to reintegrate the city, which has been divided ever since foreign troops entered Kosovo last June.
"It's pretty obvious that the first major priority is to establish law and order and security," Nadia Younes, a spokeswoman for the United Nations, said Feb. 22. But she added that long-term peace in Mitrovica also depends on bolstering the international police force, putting together a working court system, creating jobs for the city's mostly unemployed workforce, and bridging the political divide that yawns between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians on opposite banks of the Ibar River.
The Feb. 21 demonstration drew an estimated 50,000 people. Most were stopped or diverted by peacekeepers before they could reach the center of the city, but some broke through. As many as 10,000 gathered on King Peter Street, on the south end of the main bridge over the Ibar. There, young men holding Albanian, American, and UN flags marched toward the bridge, where several lines of peacekeepers stood ready to repel them. Again and again, the young men pushed forward, and peacekeepers turned them back. Tear gas scattered the demonstrators, but they quickly regrouped. The few who broke through the first line of soldiers, British infantrymen with experience in Northern Ireland, were wrestled to the ground.
But as ethnic Albanians gathered on the south side of the river, several thousand Serbs stood on the northern side, holding Serbian flags aloft and cheering when tear gas drove the ethnic Albanians back.
The demonstration ended in a surreal moment, when the commander of Kosovo's international peacekeeping forces, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, and Kosovo's UN administrator, Bernard Kouchner, appeared together on a balcony overlooking the crowd.
"Give us a chance to finish our job, to look for weapons in northern Mitrovica," General Reinhardt called through a bullhorn. "As long as you demonstrate, I can't do my job in northern Mitrovica, and I do my job for you."
The two men vowed to fight for ethnic Albanians who have been driven from northern Mitrovica. In the past three weeks, about 1,500 ethnic Albanians have fled the north side, leaving almost none of the thousands who once lived there.
The two men made no mention of the Serbs who now live in northern Mitrovica, but have been driven out of their homes on the southern side, and from other towns and villages across Kosovo.
The demonstration was a show of strength on the part of ethnic Albanians, who have vowed to fight the division of Mitrovica. It showed vividly how the problem of Mitrovica has galvanized the whole province.
"It's become a lightning rod," Ms. Younes says. "It has polarized the position of Albanian Kosovars and Serb Kosovars. We have to work to bring them together again."
The demonstration came on the second day of a peacekeeping operation that began Feb. 20, when 2,300 troops from 11 countries converged on Mitrovica to confiscate illegal weapons.
It was the biggest operation of its kind since NATO forces entered Kosovo in June. It was not clear Feb. 22 what the operation had achieved in its first days. The number of weapons found has been small. Indeed, French military officials in Mitrovica said they told leaders of both the Serb and ethnic Albanian communities beforehand about the operation, although they said they did not disclose its exact nature. Col. Michael Ellerbe, commander of the American force in Mitrovica, suggested that his warning may have been the reason so few weapons were found.
"The crucial point is surprise," he says. "We didn't have it." But Colonel Ellerbe argues that the operation had succeeded because it made an important political point. He says the Serbs in northern Mitrovica had created the impression "that you can't go in there without their approval. I think we demonstrated that that's not true."
Sending Americans into northern Mitrovica was bound to offend the Serbs, who remain angry at the US for its role in the bombing of Yugoslavia last spring. But Reinhardt wanted to internationalize the peacekeeping forces in Mitrovica after French peacekeepers, who are permanently stationed here, came under intense criticism from ethnic Albanians for being pro-Serb.
The operation this week came after two weeks of unrest in Mitrovica in which nine people have been killed and dozens injured. Over the weekend, Reinhardt said that soldiers alone could not bring Mitrovica together. He said they could at best create "stability" that would give political efforts a chance to work.