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Smoke hasn't cleared

International | After winning the war for Kosovo a year ago, NATO allies are facing a tougher task: preserving the peace

Issue: "Dr. Laura: Taking static," April 8, 2000

The espaliered fruit trees of northern Italy are blooming without Gen. Dan Leaf. As wing commander of NATO's air forces in the bombing campaign against Serbia, Gen. Leaf saw winter turn to spring then summer at Aviano Air Base in the foot of the Alps one year ago. Last week he was far, far from any flight line, testifying before Congress on the capability of unmanned aerial vehicles and other exotic weaponry.

In January Gen. Leaf's tour of duty in Italy ended, and he took up a desk job at the Pentagon. "I miss the green bag," he said, referring to the flight suit that was daily attire during Operation Allied Force. NATO's three-month, round-the-clock bombing campaign, which began just over a year ago, was run mostly out of Aviano and under Gen. Leaf's command. His service uniform, now everyday wear in Washington, is weighed down with a few more decorations: Gen. Leaf was awarded a second Legion of Merit-unusual for a one-star general-along with a Defense Superior Service Medal following his most recent combat duty. ("I would categorize them as routine," he said.)

One year after its commencement, NATO's victory over Kosovo remains understated if not controversial. For those who conducted the air campaign, the results were unambiguous. In Gen. Leaf's case, everyone under his command returned home. Thousands of hours of bombing missions and over 700 surface-to-air missile shootings from Serbs did not lead to a single combat casualty (two airmen from Aviano were killed off base in a car accident). Most importantly, Serb forces in Kosovo surrendered June 9.

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"They were defiant but they were leaving," Gen. Leaf recalled. "In the military sense, that was the measure of merit." Serb-based ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was over, he says, even though a military win "did not end all the problems in that poor land. Now they have to do something with the opportunity we gave them."

From the Pentagon to Pristina, questions remain about the NATO campaign. Human-rights groups charge the Pentagon with underreporting the number of civilian deaths associated with the bombing campaign. One report said as many as 150 civilians died in various incidents involving the use of cluster bombs. It said 500 civilians were confirmed killed in NATO raids, according to Human Rights Watch. The Pentagon sets the number of civilian casualties at about half that figure, while the Yugoslav government still puts the number of civilian casualties at 5,000.

Human-rights groups and other observers also accuse NATO (and by implication U.S. military brass directing the operation) of turning numbers into propaganda in order to justify entering the Kosovo conflict. At the outset of the campaign last year, NATO spokesmen said they estimated that as many as 100,000 Kosovars had been ethnically cleansed by Serb forces. At a June 25 press conference after the war, President Clinton said "tens of thousands" of Kosovar Albanians had been killed on orders of Mr. Milosevic. Forensics experts who entered the province at the end of the war, however, found far fewer confirmed cases of atrocities. Mass graves reported to contain hundreds of bodies were found to contain fewer than a dozen. The international team, composed of forensic specialists from the FBI and 13 other nations, announced late last year that they had exhumed 2,108 corpses. Not all were confirmed to be ethnic Albanians killed by Serbs. Work for the team will resume this month.

Humanitarian workers in general had very "mixed" feelings about the war, admitted Bob Johnson, dean of the Albanian Bible Institute and 25-year veteran of European missionary activity. When nighttime NATO bombing raids on Serbia began a year ago, the fighter jets from Aviano flew directly over Durrës, Albania, where Mr. Johnson and others already had been receiving Kosovo Albanian refugees.

Refugees began coming into Durrës, a major port and Albania's second largest city, up to six months prior to the NATO campaign. The city was trying to absorb up to 100,000 refugees even before the bombing raids began. The Albanian Bible Institute, together with the churches that supplied it with students, agreed to close the school temporarily and use its resources to serve refugees. A bread factory became a refugee center, and students and faculty transported mattresses and other necessities from the school. They also trucked in three meals a day to the hundreds of Kosovo refugees who began filling the center.

Unlike many other ethnic conflicts, including war in nearby Bosnia, the Kosovo refugees went home when the war ended. UN officials report that over 850,000 of up to 1 million refugees have returned to Kosovo. Many face the daunting task of rebuilding homes and villages, and quieting Serb-Albanian tensions. But Mr. Johnson said it could have been much worse.

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