The New Yorker

May 10, 1999

Five weeks ago, the bombing began. Now Europe is witnessing the worst conflict since 1945. How did so much happen so quickly?

A MAN-MADE escarpment of earth about a hundred feet high afforded a view of the whole scene. People came here to escape the dust, heat, and confinement below. Dusk was settling, and light was draining from the Macedonian sky. Kosovo lay five miles away to the north, over bare hills. In its direction you could hear muffled detonations and explosions. On the horizon, a convoy of NATO armored personnel carriers was visible, green metal moving among scrub pines. The most serious war in Europe since 1945 was close by, and yet it remained a ghostly presence, with bombers flying overhead, audible yet invisible in the fading canopy of the sky. A young couple sat on the escarpment, oblivious of everything, leaning against each other, wordless, as if needing time to take in the new reality: twenty-four hours before, in an abandoned ammunition dump below them, no one had been here at all. Now there was a tent city, with close to eight thousand people in it, and there were thirty thousand more at an airfield within sight. Chinook helicopters wheeled in the sky, with cargo nets full of tents and ready-meals swaying from their underbellies. As they landed on the hillside just behind us, swarms of children ran forward, disappearing into the clouds kicked up by the rotors. At the bottom of the escarpment, women and children with plastic bottles queued for water at the standpipes, and a long line, more than five hundred yards from end to end, wound right through the camp, like a dun-colored python, to a spot where French paratroopers in red berets and T-shirts were hauling ready-meals in bright yellow plastic covers out of cardboard boxes. Another line was forming behind it for the empty boxes-to use as flooring for the tents. Rain clouds were gathering. Once the rain fell, this place would turn into a quagmire.

The constituent elements of a nation were on view below: country women, in the flowing trousers known as shallvare; old men in suits, and wearing the conical hat known as a qeleshe; and urban dwellers in track suits and T-shirts-architects, doctors, lawyers, and professors-from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, only fifty kilometres up the road. The country people were stoical and sat cross-legged on blankets, poking at the strange American ready-meals, in tinfoil packs. The city people seemed to be stunned, wandering to and fro, hands to their faces, trying to take the measure of their dispossession.

The television reporters persisted in calling this place, Stenkovec 2, a refugee camp, and in describing its inhabitants as the victims of a humanitarian disaster. But they were not refugees. They were deportees, victims of a political crime-the largest single eviction of a civilian population in Europe since the Second World War. The Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic had already earned its place in the annals of political science for mastering officially deniable ethnic cleansing in Bosnia; now Milosevic had perfected the mass deportation of civilians as a weapon of war. With it, he destabilized neighboring countries: first immobilizing opponents' forces by handing them a humanitarian and logistical catastrophe; then keeping them off balance by stopping the flow of deportees at the border and turning it back on; and, finally-following the adage that a guerrilla swims in the local population like a fish in the sea-by draining the sea, exposing the guerrillas of the K.L.A., the Kosovo Liberation Army, who were left behind so that they could be finished off. Faced with war from the air, he decided to wage war on a people, and now a million men, women, and children were fleeing for their lives. Meanwhile, he denied having anything to do with their flight: the Kosovars, like the birds, he said, were fleeing the NATO bombs.

In quiet voices, members of a deported nation told their story, as if baffled by the Biblical scale of it. They emphasized the fact that they had all witnessed the Serbian preparations, which appeared to have preceded the NATO airstrikes by weeks. They heard the rumors spreading among their neighbors and saw the increasing numbers of armed men in the streets. They told of sleeping in their clothes for days before the police came, sure of their fate but helpless to avoid it, since those who resisted were shot in the streets in front of their houses; they told of being warned by Serb friends, who then painted "Srpska kuca" ("Serb house") on their own doorways, so that the marauding policemen would pass them by, and of the paramilitary gangs in ski masks who thundered on their doors with rifle butts, giving them so little time to pack that many forgot to take their photographs or their address books. They described the corridors of armed policemen who lined the roads, directing cars toward the borders, and driving the people without vehicles to the Pristina train station, where they were loaded onto trains. As they fled for their lives, the men with guns taunted them, saying, "Go to NATO! They will protect you!" On being asked if it was the NATO bombardment that made them flee, they vehemently declared, No, it was not so. They supported the bombardment, even though it resulted in the accidental deaths of their compatriots. Why, they asked, weren't more bombs falling on the men who had driven them from their homes?

Their experiences left them pondering the dark complexities of people they had once called friends. When a Serb came to warn them to leave, was he acting out of complicity or out of friendship? When he offered to keep their apartment safe, was he doing so from fraternity or from greed? When Serbs leaned on their windowsills and silently watched them go, did their eyes register fear or approval? There were no such ambiguities concerning the men in ski masks, some of whose voices they recognized as those of onetime colleagues, even friends. When the women recalled being searched-they had been manhandled and their family savings (usually a wad of German marks) ripped from their undergarments-their faces crumpled into tears that expressed anger and shame but also sad disillusionment. Below the escarpment lay a nation in pieces. Only its most elementary particle, the family, was left functioning. Lines of shoes were already ranged in order at the entrances to the tents. On the sloping canvas sides was the first laundry of exile. By nightfall, each tent had a small cardboard sign announcing the name of the family inside. The truly desperate were those who had been forced to leave alone. They now wandered up and down the rows of tents searching for their kin. If you had a mobile phone, they appeared holding out small scraps of paper with long dialing codes, and begged you to let them make just one quick call. This need to know-to discover who had escaped, who had managed to get to Germany, who was still trapped in Kosovo-was as fundamental a need as food, shelter, water, or sanitation. The French paratroopers who built the camp had provided for all the basic needs except this one. To fill the gap, a heroic trio of telecommunications workers from Pau, in southwestern France, who called themselves Telecom sans Frontieres, set up shop in a tent with a single satellite telephone. They seemed to be the only aid workers who grasped the point that the Kosovars didn't conform to the cliches of destitution lodged in our minds by Ethiopia or the Sudan. These people were modern Europeans, with relatives and friends in every city on the Continent, and they needed phones to activate those networks. But the trio from Pau was soon overwhelmed, and Inmarsat - a London-based satellite and mobile-telecommunications firm - was persuaded to send down two more phones. In Brussels, the Canadian Ambassador to NATO, David Wright, heard about the problem, and NATO enlisted the help of another telecommunications company, Iridium, to set up eleven more. Soon the line for the phones was as long as the one for water.

The cellular phone also changed the experience of being at war, abolishing the traditional silence between sides. Up on the escarpment you could dial enemy territory when the reception was good and talk to old friends in Belgrade - Borka and Aleksa, Zdenka and Znezana. If this had become a war between value systems-between ethnic cleansing and human rights, between moral universalism and ethnic nationalism - the uncomfortable truth was that many people on the other side happened to share our values. They had taken to the streets in the great anti-Milosevic demonstrations of 1991 and 1996-97, had worked for a free press, needed no instruction in what an open society was, and now felt that they were victims of a West whose convictions they had once held as their own. Why hadn't Western governments done more to support democracy in Serbia? they wanted to know. Wasn't this the central policy failure of the past decade? Now, they said, they were being punished and bombed for the criminality of their regime. They, Eke the whole nation, were being morally excommunicated. As they talked, you could feel their Serbian and European loyalties beginning to sunder and split apart. "I understand the mechanism of madness on my side. But do you understand the mechanism of madness on your side?" one friend asked. I listened, and told him as dispassionately as I could what the deportation of a nation looked like as it unfolded below me. I said that the images were worse than what he had seen on CNN, not because of the conditions-which were better than in many camps In Africa-but because the crime, the ethnic cleansing, had been more malign and more meticulous than he could ever have imagined. I found myself telling another Serb friend on the phone that there is no such thing as collective guilt and that to hold the Serb people responsible would be to succumb to the ethnic determinism of the regime itself My friend listened in chilly silence. After I described the refugee camp, I was told by another friend that her four-year-old daughter was walking around their flat in Belgrade with stereo earphones clamped on her ears to block out the sounds of fire engines and sirens. I sensed that the little girl's courageous Serbian mother was also blocking out the sound and could scarcely hear what I was telling her. Neither of us found it easy to listen. As I talked to her, I heard pots boiling on a stove and a meal being served. She asked me if it was true that such-and-such a building was on the target list - something that someone had heard on CNN-because if it was, she explained, I should know that it was only half a mile away from her apartment.

THERE was a cold clarity to be found on the hillside above the camp in Macedonia: it was as if I had at last got the meaning of a story that I had been trying to understand for years. I had lived in Belgrade as a child, in the late fifties, and had spoken Serbo-Croatian, as the language of Yugoslavia was called at that time. I began writing about the war during the fall of 1991, when Yugoslav warships shelled the old walled city of Dubrovnik to prevent Croatia from seceding, and United States warships cruised nearby, letting it happen. And I returned the following year and travelled through mile upon mile of ethnically cleansed towns on the plain between Zagreb and Belgrade, which had been left desolate by Milosevic's further attempts to prevent Croatian independence. Vukovar, that ancient episcopal town on the Danube, had been comprehensively bombarded, and its rat-infested ruins were then patrolled by Serbian paramilitary thugs who threatened to kill me if I wasn't gone by nightfall. Three years later, I drove through central Bosnia, past its toppled minarets, its gutted towns, and the downed bridge at Mostar, which I had crossed as a child when Yugoslavia was Tito's. Reaching Tuzla, I listened to the widows of the Srebrenica massacre telling their stories: how they had stumbled through the minefields and across streams, carrying children crazed with fear, leaving behind the bodies of as many as seven thousand men, executed by Ratko Mladic's Bosnian Serbs. In the following years, I went to Belgrade to visit the hostels and cheap hotels filled with the forgotten victims of Milosevic's wars: the Serbs-more than two hundred thousand of them-who had been driven out of Croatia in revenge. And now, sitting on that hillside In Macedonia, as I watched a dispossessed nation settle in for its first nights of exile, the full measure of what had happened in the past eight years-more than a quarter of a million people killed, - another two million driven from their homes-suddenly seemed insupportable. Only one thought seemed possible. This cannot go on. This must be stopped. Now. By persistent and precise military force. The claim that there was no national interest at stake here suddenly seemed offensively beside the point. Both our interests and our values were at stake: we had taken far too long to realize it, and these people now settling in for the night in the camps below had paid the price.

How was it that after a decade of repeating that we wanted to banish ethnic cleansing from Europe we found a whole nation being cleansed before our eyes? How had we misjudged Milosevic What had to be understood was the whole dynamic of American imperial power in this region. What had been the strategy for the Balkans? Was there one? Did the United States understand the tragic game it was playing?

I WAS to have lunch at the American Embassy in Skopje, in Macedonia, with Ambassador Christopher Hill. The Embassy had been one of the earliest targets of the war. On March 25th, the evening after the NATO bombing began, a crowd of about two thousand Macedonian Serbs swept aside metal barriers that had been erected to guard the grounds; smashed up the satellite trucks of the foreign television companies in the parking lot; and stormed over the security fence. A determined few used a flagpole as a battering ram to attack the bulletproof-glass entrance to one of the buildings inside the compound. They withdrew under clouds of tear gas, having failed to penetrate the building. Now, two weeks later, the Embassy was a Fort Apache in the south Balkans. At lunchtime, the Embassy canteen was serving hamburgers to huge American infantrymen in body armor, their M16 rifles racked up against the walls-gun butts wedged between rows of Kevlar helmets. Sitting in their midst was Hill, a sandy-haired, bespectacled, and athletic forty-six-year-old foreign-service professional, eating a Macedonian salad, and looking as out of place as a college professor in a barracks. Few American officials know the south Balkans better. He had attended an elementary school in Belgrade in the nineteen-fifties, when his father was political counselor at the American Embassy. My father had also been a diplomat in Belgrade, and I had attended the same school. We reminisced for a minute about certain indomitable Serbian spinsters who had been our teachers. When I asked Hill how his childhood in Belgrade had affected him, he said, "It kept me from being anti-Serb." As a diplomat, he had served throughout the whole inflamed region. In Albania, Hill had tried to help the democratically elected President, Sali Berisha, pull the country out of clan-riven chaos, only to watch it slide toward complete disintegration in 1997, when the Army's armories were looted, and most of the country outside Tirana fell to family clans and their gunmen. Hill had been a key member of Richard Holbrooke's negotiating team at Dayton in 1995, which brought peace but also ethnic partition to Bosnia. Early in 1998, Hill had warned Washington that Kosovo was set to blow up. And during that summer he shuttled between Pristina and Belgrade, vainly trying to get both sides to negotiate. I had last seen him in a hotel corridor in Belgrade in December, groggy with fatigue after a fruitless meeting with Milosevic, and wondering aloud why the West was still, at the end of the twentieth century, liquidating the Ottoman Empire. Now eighteen months of dogged and detailed diplomacy were more or less in ruins, and he found himself guarded by marines and by a security detail in jeans and T-shirts, who glided about in the background, with large-calibre revolvers tucked into their belts in the small of their backs.

Hill does not wake at night replaying the tape of those fruitless eighteen months. He sees no reason to apologize for negotiating with an unindicted war criminal. Like most post-Vietnam Americans, Hill thought that every alternative to war had to be exhausted. And he believes that it was. In Hill's eyes, the inducements for Milosevic to settle at last February's peace negotiations in Rambouillet, in France, were considerable: in return for allowing NATO troops on his soil and a measure of autonomy for Kosovo, Milosevic would retain sovereignty over the province and would see his mortal enemy, the K.L.A., disarmed. The Serbian people would have had, in Hill's words, "an open road to the West."

So why did Milosevic turn down the deal?

The Ambassador watched the marines clumping out to resume guard duty behind the sandbags around his office. "The honest answer is that I still don't know," he said. Maybe the "road to the West" held no attractions for Milosevic's increasingly anti-Western electorate; maybe any deal signed by the K.L.A. was bound to be anathema to a man who regarded it as an organization of terrorists. Most likely, he never negotiated seriously at all; at Rambouillet, the Serb delegation played for time, while back in Belgrade Milosevic was positioning his troops for Operation Horseshoe-a decisive semicircular sweep around Kosovo designed to achieve the final solution to his "Kosovo problem."

A WITTY Macedonian friend - Saso Ordanoski, who edits the monthly Forum - had reminded me that the Balkans were not a Newtonian universe. Balkan physics was chaotically unpredictable. The war was the result of a double miscalculation. Milosevic, in his cynicism, gambled that we would never fight for our values. In our innocence, we gambled that he would never risk destruction for his.

Hill said that Milosevic was a tactician, not a strategist, capable of thinking only one move ahead on the chessboard. What everyone failed to see was that he was tenaciously consistent. From late 1990, when the breakup of the former Yugoslavia became inevitable, Milosevic followed one simple principle. Faced with the demands for independence made by the country's constituent republics, Milosevic conceded it, but only where there was no substantial Serb minority, as in Slovenia and Macedonia. He let both countries go. In any country where there was a Serb minority substantial enough for him to arm, he armed it, and fought. The deaths of a quarter of a million people and the creation of two million refugees are the result of his unwavering application of this principle. Rather than allow other ethnic groups any chance for peaceful self-determination, he armed the Serbs and had them fight for their own self-determination. Rather than negotiate guarantees for the rights of Serbs in the states where they were the minority, he tried to destroy those states. And the West, lacking any equally consistent strategy for the dismemberment of Tito's Yugoslavia, let Milosevic have his way until it stopped him at Dayton.

Dayton brought peace to Bosnia, but it perpetuated an American illusion about Milosevic: that, while he was an unprincipled liar ("Believe me, I felt like washing my hands every time I came out of a meeting with the man," Dayton's chief architect, Richard Holbrooke, says now), he was someone Americans could do business with. The success at Dayton led them to believe that they had the measure of the man. In reality, it was he who had the measure of them. They watched as he traded away Sarajevo to the Muslims, betraying his Bosnian Serb cousins, while keeping Kosovo firmly under his control. He refused to meet with a group of Albanian-Americans who were pleading that Kosovo should be granted autonomy and that international observers should be dispatched to the province. Kosovo stayed off the Dayton agenda, and Milosevic emerged with his essential interests intact. In the years that followed-when NATO troops failed to arrest the Bosnian war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who had been responsible for the shelling of citizens in Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica-he drew the conclusion that the West could be counted on to talk about human rights and war crimes, and do nothing.

Western policymakers observed the cynicism with which Milosevic sold out fellow-Serbs in Bosnia, and they assumed that in Kosovo, where the Serb population had dwindled to less than ten per cent, he would do the same. After all, Belgrade wits in the nineteen-eighties used to joke that Serbs would do anything for Kosovo-except live there. We allowed ourselves to believe a cheerfully cynical scenario: that we would pretend to bomb Milosevic, and he would pretend to resist, and then a deal would be struck, with Milosevic abandoning a province that he could no longer control and handing it over to the international community. Certainly this scenario helps to explain the homeopathic dose of the first phase of the bombing: the bombs were messages in a diplomatic game that the West supposed was still in progress. In reality, diplomacy was over: Milosevic had reached what Holbrooke called "his red line." Milosevic could abandon the Serbs outside Serbia, but Kosovo was home ground: the site of the monasteries and churches of the Serbian Orthodox faith, the site of the 1389 battle in which the Serbian prince was defeated by the Turks, and, above all, a homeland that Serbs felt they were losing to the inexorable demographic increase of a multiplying population of ethnic Albanians, who seemed to be set on separation and independence. In deciding to go to war, Milosevic knew exactly where his ultimate interests lay, in contrast to Western leaders, who believed until far too late that interests could be dissociated from values.

Once the bombing began, the objective shifted from getting Milosevic back at the negotiating table to "loosen[ing] his grip on the levers of power," as one NATO general put it. But to seek this was to misunderstand the nature of his regime. Just as he had pioneered ethnic cleansing and the use of refugees as a weapon of war, he had also developed a new style of post-Cold War authoritarian populism. He was neither a Pinochet, dependent on tanks, nor a Saddam, dependent on security police. His government was in fact duly elected, however unstable its coalition of mutually loathing parliamentary factions might be. It was held to be an irony that bombing increased his popular support. Actually, he had always enjoyed a genuine popular base. Bombing rallied his people around him, and there was no real prospect of a military coup. He simply did not depend on the generals for his power. Rather, he was more vulnerable to a split within his coalition and to street demonstrations. Yet even these he was likely to face down, for there was an essential feature of Milosevic's character which rendered him especially resistant to both democratic and military pressure. This feature was more than ruthlessness or lack of scruple. No one in the West quite understood what Baton Haxhiu-the editor of Pristina's main Albanian newspaper, Koha Ditore, who is now in exile in Macedonia called Milosevic's "unbearable lightness of being," his blithe disregard for all human beings except himself, his wife, and his immediate family. We are waiting for capitulation from a man whose indifference to anything but his own survival is a matter of record.

Milosevic has also shown that he is able to use another old tool in a new way-the media. Instead of fighting NATO in the air, he has fought it on its own airwaves. By allowing CNN and the BBC to continue broadcasting, he hoped to destabilize and unsettle Western opinion, with nightly stories about civilians carbonized in bombed trains, babies killed in bomb shelters, and media workers incinerated by strikes on television stations. The most effective propaganda is always the kind that happens to be true, and these stories were confirmed by NATO: yes, we did bomb that convoy of Albanian refugees; yes, the pilot did see the vehicle on that bridge, but too late. Propaganda has been central to war since the dawn of democracy, but it has taken an authoritarian populist from the Balkans to understand the potential of manipulating modern real-time news to his own advantage. He has gambled his regime on the tenderness of Western hearts, on the assumption that the Western public will not allow an air campaign to become exterminatory. Perhaps for this reason, radio and television stations are regarded as legitimate NATO targets.

PRISTINA, Kosovo's capital, has been bombed. Its post office has been flattened, and the phone lines in the province are now mostly dead. The oil depots have been leveled. So have the barracks. But somewhere amid those ruins, or in a village nearby, were the Kosovar Albanians who had negotiated the deal at Rambouillet-the one that, if Milosevic had signed it, might have averted the war. They constituted one of the most unusual delegations in the history of diplomacy - a motley collection of guerrilla commanders, newspaper editors, and suave Western intellectuals, carpentered together for the occasion by the Americans, and so unfamiliar with each other that many of them had never met until they boarded the French military transport plane taking them from Pristina to Rambouillet. One of the negotiators, Veton Surroi, had been crucial in getting the Albanian side to defer its claim for independence and agree to disarm the K.L.A. "On fourth down, long yardage, with the seconds ticking away," as Hill put it, Surroi had placed his prestige on the line in order to cajole the K.L.A. leadership to sign. I had last seen Surroi, the dark-browed, elegantly dressed son of a former Yugoslav diplomat, at the Pristina airport in December, talking urgently to Holbrooke in an armored jeep on the tarmac beside Holbrooke's plane. After Holbrooke boarded the plane, Surroi told me, in bitter, accent-free English, that Ibrahim Rugova, the senior Kosovar leader, was "Jell-O all the way through." A week into the bombing campaign, Rugova had been forced to appear on television with Milosevic in a ghastly photo opportunity that, in the eyes of most Kosovar Albanians, consigned him to political death. With Rugova discredited, Veton Surroi epitomized the new generation of Kosovar leaders, who were in control of the Albanian movement.

But was Surroi still alive? When I asked Hill, he exchanged a quick glance with a staff person, Philip Reeker, then said that Surroi and his mother were alive, though low on food and hiding in a basement somewhere. That was all they knew about him, yet it was incredible enough: a man who only weeks ago had been savoring the cheese course at a French chateau in company with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the foreign ministers of France and Britain was now huddling in the dark somewhere in Kosovo, in fear for his life.

The Kosovo delegation at Rambouillet had had sixteen members. Hashim Thaci, the political leader of the K.L.A., had escaped to Albania and then re-entered Kosovo with what remained of his guerrilla units. Others were sheltering under the protection of K.L.A. units on the run from the Serb sweep, and still others had struggled across the border into Macedonia. Hill and Reeker thought that I might be able to find one of them-Blerim Shala, an editor and political activist, whom I had last seen briefing Holbrooke at the now trashed and burned United States Information Service cultural center in Pristina.

The search for Shala led me away from Skopje, along steep mountain roads, to Debar, a rain-soaked town near the Albanian border. In a pizza parlor overlooking a sodden square, the barman served up freshly roasted hazelnuts on a white paper plate, and as I nibbled and waited for Shala I watched Albanian women in kerchiefs and flowing trousers hop across the puddles holding on to their husbands' arms. Other women, younger, in, jeans and T-shirts, who had been emancipated from Muslim habits, smoked and joked with men taking shelter from the rain under the awning of the town's only functioning coffee bar.

Suddenly, Shala appeared-a slim, worn-out-looking man in his thirties, with several days of stubble on his angular face, and wearing a wet jacket. He was accompanied by a brother-in-law who watched us intensely and said nothing. Shala seemed amazed by his change of fortune. "Imagine," he said. "A month ago I was shaking the hand of Mr. William Cohen, the Secretary of Defense of the United States. And now? When I walk through the streets of this town at night, the Macedonian police stop me and threaten me with deportation." He told his story in a quiet, idiomatic English. In late March, the members of the delegation had flown back from Paris to Pristina in a French military aircraft, knowing that Milosevic had turned down the deal, that airstrikes were imminent, and that reprisals against them were inevitable. But the scope and the ferocity of the reprisals had caught them by surprise. First, the paramilitary squads killed the human-rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi (he had been collecting a dossier on Milosevic for a possible indictment by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes). After the murder of Kelmendi, the delegation went into hiding, its members letting their beards grow, wearing masks, and staying in basements: they would watch the paramilitary squads through cellar windows as they cleared the Albanian districts, block by block, house by house, apartment by apartment. After four nights, Shala made a run for it, with his mother and his brother's family, in a battered white Yugo. Failing to make it to K.L.A.-controlled areas, they turned back and joined a long line of cars heading for the Macedonian border. Like thousands of others, Shala and his family spent two nights sleeping in the car, but then they abandoned it and walked to the Serbian border post. The Serb frontier guards knew immediately that Shala was a member of the Rambouillet delegation, and for two hours he had to wait while Belgrade apparently made up its mind. Then the guards waved him through. Ethnic cleansing, in other words, could be fine-tuned: the regime could decide, individual by individual, whom to let through and whom to keep as a hostage. "I'm not alive because they missed me," Shala said simply. "I'm alive because they had orders." If Surroi was still alive in Kosovo, Shala believed, it was because Milosevic had decided that having him alive would be to his advantage. "You can't hide from Serb security in Pristina," Shala said. Ominously, Surroi's sister, in safety in Macedonia, disagreed. She feared that Surroi would either be killed or be forced to make some humiliating appearance, like the disgraced Rugova, on Serbian television.

As Shala looked back at Rambouillet, it seemed to belong to another world. In the surreal gentility of the French chateau, the delegations never actually talked. The Serbs were one floor below the Albanians, singing patriotic songs and carousing into the early hours. "They simply did not negotiate at all, Shala said. Meanwhile, Milosevic, back in Belgrade, had been boasting to everyone he met that all he needed was a few weeks to finish off "the terrorists." Though his intentions were never hidden, the scale of the operation exceeded anything that NATO intelligence had foreseen. What negotiation there was took place between the Americans and the Albanians, as Hill and Albright persuaded the Kosovars to defer demands for independence for three years and to disarm their guerrillas. To some senior American officials, it seemed like a chaotic waste of time to negotiate with only one side. But other officials maintain that the real point of Rambouillet was to persuade the Europeans, and especially the Italians, who tended to think of the Albanians as terrorists and drug traffickers, that the Albanians were actually "the good guys"if nothing else, Rambouillet served to get the Europeans to "stop blaming the victims" and to build NATO's resolve to use force.

Intellectuals like Shala and Baton Haxhiu, the exiled editor of the Pristina newspaper Koha Ditore, now have time to rue their own in miscalculations. By late 1997, these men had concluded that a strategy of nonviolence in Kosovo was getting nowhere, for Serb repression was getting worse and Western governments were looking the other way. Haxhiu told me that he had had secret conversations with top-ranking Serb security personnel in late 1997, and they had warned him that if the Kosovars persisted in demanding independence the Serbs would "burn every one of your six hundred and thirty-two villages to the ground."

When this threat was reported to the Americans, they did not react. Although American policymakers projected a tender conscience about human-rights violations, as long as the Kosovo problem seemed only a human-rights problem they did nothing. America's failure, Haxhiu said, was one reason that his generation decided to support the K.L.A. Young guerrilla commanders based in Albania who had bought arms elsewhere in Europe, through the Albanian diaspora (and, yes, through its drug barons), began striking at Serb postal workers, soldiers, and policemen inside Kosovo. In a scant few months, they did more to put the Serbs on the defensive than a decade of nonviolent protest had done, and by March of 1998 Western governments were at last awakening to the fact that Kosovo was no longer a human-rights issue: there was a full-scale civil war in the province. But the K.L.A. drastically over-reached itself, and Haxhiu believed that its tactical choices had been catastrophic. Trying to liberate villages and towns that it had neither the arms nor the men to hold, it exposed Albanian civilians to eviction and massacre by the Serbs. The K.L.A. also made other political miscalculations, the foremost being to demand full independence for Kosovo as a step toward a Greater Albania. Neither the Europeans nor America, the reluctant imperial guarantor in the region, had any appetite for altering existing frontiers. The prospect of an independent Kosovo terrified the neighboring countries -Macedonia, Greece, and Montenegro-that had Albanian minorities of their own. The extremists in the K.L.A. wrongly believed that they could change American minds. Today, in the cafes of Macedonia, there is plenty of time for Albanians to repent at leisure as they realize that they do not want the K.L.A. to become the primary political beneficiary of the NATO campaign. Chris Hill had remarked, in his wry manner, that the K.L.A. was never likely to win "the Thomas Jefferson award for citizenship." Baton Haxhiu emphatically agreed, saying, "We have had enough political commissars in Kosovo."

Now that the bombs are falling, and the West has entered the dark tunnel of a war that it sees no clear way of ending quickly, it is easy to conclude that all the mistakes were American ones. But if America misjudged Milosevic he also misjudged America. A case in point was Racak. This small village near Pristina figures in many people's recollections as one of the precipitating causes of the war. On the evening of January 15th, William Walker, the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, which was charged with monitoring a ceasefire that Holbrooke had negotiated three months earlier, received a call from his British deputy, General John Drewlenkiewicz, that something unusual had occurred at Racak. Walker set out early the next morning in a small convoy of orange-colored armored Chevrolet Suburbans. They reached the village at about ten-thirty on a bitterly cold Saturday morning. Distraught women pointed Walker and his party to a ravine behind the village, and there Walker came upon a body under a blanket. When he pulled back the blanket, he saw that the body was headless. Up the slippery, ice-filled ravine he climbed, past body after body-farm workers in muddy rubber boots and overalls, their cloth' wet with urine and blood-and at the top of the ravine he found a pile of bodies. The observers counted forty-five in all.

Survivors told how security police had invaded the village, gathered all the men, marched them into the ravine, and, standing above them on the sides, fired down, killing them where they knelt. Walker did not clear his next move with Washington. At a press conference that evening, he called the Racak massacre a crime against humanity, and left no one in any doubt that he held the Serbs responsible. Other American officials were appalled, because the denunciation appeared to bring the Verification Mission squarely down on the side of the K.L.A., at a time when human-rights violations were occurring on both sides. Within forty-eight hours, Milosevic had declared Walker persona non grata, and, while Walker defied his expulsion order and stayed on, his mission was effectively over: its cars were stoned, Walker himself was threatened, his verification monitors were in danger.

Milosevic had miscalculated: he drove the monitors out, but the Racak story proved critical in the Administration's attempt to mobilize the European members of NATO to take military action. Until then, the Serbs had carefully calibrated their ethnic cleansing to a level that they believed NATO would have to accept. NATO's Secretary General, Javier Solana, had been circulating an ugly little joke reportedly made by a Serb diplomat: "A village a day keeps NATO away." Racak was just another village massacre: thanks to Walker, it proved to be one too many. Without Racak, airstrikes would never have begun. Without Walker's reaction to Racak, Milosevic might never have concluded that the Americans had tipped their hand in favor of the K.L.A. On the two occasions when Holbrooke went to see Milosevic in March, the Serb leader refused to negotiate and, instead, raged that the Americans were now siding openly with the "terrorists." Holbrooke returned to Washington sure that war was inevitable. By then, moral disgust at Racak would have made further diplomacy took like appeasement. Milosevic thereupon made a deeper miscalculation: he assumed that when it came to the use of force Clinton and his European allies would prove to be as vacillating in Kosovo as they had been in Bosnia. In Bosnia, an inexperienced Administration first scuppered an international peace initiative-the Vance-Owen peace plan-in February, 1993; then proposed arming the Muslims and striking the Serbs from the air, only to lack the resolve to overcome European hesitation; and then stood back and watched a United Nations peacekeeping effort fall apart, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre of July, 1995. Four years later, Milosevic concluded that this catastrophic failure of will would repeat itself in Kosovo.

BUT it wouldn't be repeated. A number of things had changed. There was a new Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, the daughter of a Czech diplomat forced into exile after Munich, who was especially sensitive to the appearance of appeasement. (Her spokesman, James Rubin, recalls a conference in London at which he proposed that Albright consider a face-saving formula to describe the negotiations with the Serbs, only to find himself dressed down in public. "This is London, remember," she boomed, "not Munich.") Kosovo was not going to be this Administration's Munich. There was also a new generation of airborne weapons. At the beginning of Clinton's Presidency, Tomahawk missiles could target a building. By 1999, they could target a bedroom-even the bedroom of the leader of Serbia. Their accuracy seemed to lower the political cost of using them. They appeared to offer America a guilt-free war. The result, however, has been something infinitely more complex.

The appeal of high-tech warfare is that it saves lives. It presents a way of conducting a war that appears to be governed by two moral constraints: avoiding civilian casualties and avoiding risk to pilots. But the two constraints have turned out to e in direct contradiction. To target ethnic cleansers effectively, you have to fly low. If you fly low, you lose pilots. Fly high, and you get civilians. By the second month of the bombing, NATO's priority had become clear: the lives of its professionals were more important than the lives of innocent foreign civilians. But what was its strategy? Victory seemed to rest on one of two possible outcomes: either the bombing would eventually work, and Serbia would give up, or it would lead to a diplomatic solution.

In the first possible outcome, Serbia, with or without Milosevic, would be bombed into surrendering, and would no longer have the capacity to resist NATO's entering the country. The refugees would then be returned, and Kosovo would be made an international protectorate indefinitely. But how long would that take? Even the generals seemed to understand that the bombing's success depended not on military facts but on psychological imponderables: who would crack first, the Serbian regime or a Western public, disgusted by the carnage it was witnessing on its televisions? In fact, the generals have been explicit in declaring that the air campaign alone will not be enough - a declaration made with all the candor of military leaders who believe they must distance themselves from flawed political instructions. General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander, has been commendably frank: after five weeks of bombing, there are, he admits, more Serb forces inside Kosovo than when the bombing began.

In a second scenario, the Serbs, weakened by the bombing, would allow the Russians to dictate a settlement. Such a settlement would also introduce ground troops and turn the province into some kind of protectorate of the United Nations. Can the Russians play the role of peacemaker? They certainly recognize the need to be one. They are alarmed by the prospect of a victorious NATO expanding right up against their western frontier, and this alarm has been one of the fears that the American Administration has had to defuse. Yet senior Western officials, who have dealt with President Yeltsin and his envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin, maintain that eventually the Russians will cooperate and that in weeks, rather than months, the Russians could be in a position to force their Serbian allies to sign a surrender. But are the Russians really ready to take on that responsibility? As one Russian official told a senior Western diplomat, "We have many Kosovos of our own."

What then? What if neither bombing nor diplomacy works? What if Milosevic refuses to capitulate? You can imagine the result. NATO will declare the aggressor punished, announce victory, and return its bombers to base. The West will disguise its humiliation. But a deported Albanian nation cannot be disguised. It will remain in exile in the camps, and NATO's bankruptcy will be too obvious to hide. Even Henry Kissinger, long an opponent of Albright's moralizing arguments for intervening in other countries' conflicts, recognizes that, now that the bombing has begun, NATO cannot be allowed to fall. If it does, the entire strategic architecture that has linked American and European interests since the Second World War will be in ruins.

The remaining alternative is ground troops. Although NATO has not admitted it, the air campaign has clearly been designed to prepare for introducing troops into the war. Serbian troop concentrations have been bombed, artillery has been destroyed, and so have munitions dumps and oil supplies. And, while no one is prepared to say exactly how many soldiers would be required to suppress the Serb resistance that remains, the number is likely to be very large. An American military that is explicitly suspicious of its Commander-in-Chief's resolve might well insist on full enforcement of the Colin Powell dictum: overwhelming force superiority, colossal logistical backup, massive, persistent, and all-encompassing operations. Such a buildup, however, would take time, and would probably defer a ground assault until much later in the year: after the autumn rains and the winter snows. Meanwhile, an Albanian nation in exile under canvas would freeze to death.

There is another possibility, a riskier one, a deployment that relies not on overwhelming numbers but on speed and surprise: parachute units that could be lifted up over the mountains and dropped down along the key supply roads, Apache helicopters that would need to target Serb forces on the ground, and Marine troops, dispatched from the warships in the Adriatic, that would establish corridors of entry for the tanks, artillery, and ground troops that would follow. A surprise deployment would face an experienced Serbian Army that had superior knowledge of the terrain and a strong tradition of partisan guerrilla war. Such an army would want to fight asymmetrically, breaking into small units, avoiding full battle, and seeking not to win outright but to do whatever damage it could, bit by bit - downing just enough helicopters and killing just enough troops to break NATO's resolve. It could, in effect, be a European enactment of the Vietnam War. The prospect is sobering even for the most convinced interventionist. But a NATO defeated-and now anything less than Milosevic's capitulation and the full return of the refugees is a defeat-would leave the two global civilizations, Europe and America, without a credible defense alliance.

THE truth is that America has never had a coherent Balkans policy. It reacted to Milosevic; it never succeeded in anticipating his game. For a decade, America's policies were driven by massacre, crisis, and catastrophe. Now it has to grasp history itself and make it obey a grander design. After improvising for a decade, the Administration faces the challenge of devising a policy response equal to the size of the chaos that Milosevic has unleashed. But in an Administration where "the urgent," in one American diplomat's words, is "always crowding out the important, creating a new security architecture for the whole region is a daunting task.

Suddenly, much more than Kosovo is in question. An entire network of south Balkan states is at risk, and there is no quick answer and no neat exit strategy. A ravaged, burned, and bombed Kosovo will now have to be rebuilt. Macedonia, with its agonizing ethnic mixture and its shaky coalition government, will have to be stabilized with NATO troops. Montenegro, still a republic unwillingly yoked to Serbia, will also need protecting; a protectorate for Kosovo logically implies a protectorate for Montenegro, too. Albania, stunned by the impact of the refugee crisis, is a country without a state. Bulgaria and Romania, Serbia's neighbors to the east, need security guarantees of their own. America--the reluctant empire--is suddenly being asked, by every small country in the region, to be the guarantor of its peace and security. Of course, the Europeans could provide money, expertise, and humanitarian help. But the leadership has to come from a nation that has been notoriously ambivalent about "foreign entanglements." Not just a President but an entire generation of European leaders who came of age in the nineteen-sixties is now standing before the verdict of history.

IN Stenkovec 2, the refugees gathered in the darkness of their tents to make agonizing choices of their own. Promises had been made to them. Strobe Talbott, in Macedonia, had said, "They're going back to a Kosovo that is safe and secure and self-governing." William Walker toured a camp and made the same pledge. But when? Families huddled in conclaves to decide whether to accept the offer of a place in Trier, Germany, or to stay put and be ready to follow the troops back up the road to Pristina. I listened as families struggled to make sense, in private, personal ways, of the very abstract geopolitical arguments being conducted over their heads. With children dozing in their laps, parents leaned together, heads touching, trying to make choices that might change their lives and their children's lives forever. They knew that if they stayed they risked becoming trapped, Eke so many Bosnian refugees, some of them still in camps in Macedonia five years after the fighting stopped; if they left, they might never see Kosovo again. I listened, and when they asked for advice I tried not to deceive them. It was painful to tell them that the Administration and Congress were hesitating; that the earliest that troops could be ready for ground operations was late summer; and that if they stayed in the camps they could be trapped by the winter snows. Most reluctantly boarded the buses for the airport to take planes bound for Germany. They were weeping. The camps were no place for children. The families had no time to wait for men in Washington and Brussels to steel themselves for the next level of moral risk.

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