Reviled elsewhere, Americans are beloved in Kosovo

Thursday, February 6, 2003

DJAKOVICA, Serbia-Montenegro -- American flags flutter on peasants' homes. A couple grateful for U.S. help in ending Kosovo's war names a daughter in honor of Madeleine Albright.

A six-story-high poster of former President Clinton towers over the capital's main drag, renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard. And the president of Kosovo is building a new compound he calls the White House.

Americans may be reviled in many parts of the world and accused of waging a war on Muslims, but they're adored in this U.N. protectorate, where the Muslim majority sees the United States as a savior.

"When I see scenes on television of people elsewhere burning American flags, I'm deeply hurt," said Dr. Besnik Bardhi, who runs a clinic in the southwestern city of Djakovica, where 1,000 people remain missing after the 1998-99 war.

Bardhi's wife was pregnant with their first child during Slobodan Milosevic's savage crackdown on Muslim ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province. The couple promised each other that if they had a girl they'd name her Madeleine, and Bill if it was a boy.

'Woman who saved us'

Their daughter, now 3, danced impishly across their apartment and pointed to a framed photograph of Albright, who was U.S. secretary of state during the conflict. "This is the woman who saved us," she told a visitor brightly.

"If there is a God, his missionaries on Earth are Americans," her father responded.

Such adoration is heady stuff for Americans who live and work in Kosovo.

Reno Harnish, the top U.S. official in Kosovo and a veteran diplomat who has served in Egypt, Nigeria and other countries, said he's astounded. "I've never been received so well. It's kind of daunting," he said. "The Americans have an unusually strong moral authority in Kosovo. The leadership is quite eager to hear the U.S. opinion on things. I think they want the United States to continue to play a role in their lives."

To be sure, not everyone fawns over Americans.

The few remaining Serbs, a minority of 100,000 Orthodox Christians in the province of 2 million, have suffered revenge attacks, and accuse the United States of siding with the secular Muslim majority.

"I don't think God ever intended to create a superior nation ... as Americans like to think they are," said Savka Dimitrijevic, 73, a retiree in the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Led coalition

Europeans, who dominate both the 30,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force and the U.N. effort to build a viable multiethnic society, acknowledge the Americans deserve credit for leading the coalition that pummeled Belgrade with 78 days of airstrikes in 1999 to break Milosevic's grip on Kosovo.

Privately, though, many bridle at the attention the United States has gotten. A European official serving with the U.N. mission, who declined to give her name, said the European Union has poured millions into rebuilding Kosovo and winning hearts and minds.

But U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Daniel J. Keefe, who commands the roughly 3,000 U.S. troops still serving with NATO in Kosovo, said his forces have worked hard to earn and retain local respect.

Keefe's lieutenants meet with mayors in the American sector to discuss security, and doctors at Camp Bondsteel, the sprawling U.S. base in southern Kosovo, run treatment and training clinics to build goodwill.

"I tell my soldiers I want them to represent the best of America," Keefe said in an interview. "I tell them they're doing something bigger than themselves."

Keefe insists he has no orders to divert forces to the gulf, yet Muslims are fearful of an American pullout.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, some offered to send their own sons to fight in Afghanistan just to ensure U.S. forces stayed in Kosovo.

Two years ago, after a U.S. soldier's weapon accidentally killed a 6-year-old boy, the grieving father publicly forgave the soldier and said he considered him part of his family.

Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, credits former President Reagan and the first President Bush for policies that Clinton followed to avert genocide in Kosovo and end the war. President George W. Bush, he says, showed his commitment to Kosovo by visiting U.S. troops shortly after his inauguration.

"We like Americans because they're freedom-loving people who are pragmatic and love to help," Rugova said in an interview. "There is a great respect for America -- for the ideal.

"We are small, but even small friends can be important."

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