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Mission Impossible

An inside look at how Richard Holbrooke tries to halt the ethnic bloodshed in Kosovo

By Douglas Waller/Kosovo

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 6) -- Richard Holbrooke has become Washington's favorite last-ditch diplomat. The newly nominated ambassador to the U.N. doesn't balk at hopeless missions, but he doesn't always succeed either. Three years ago, he waded into the intractable war in Bosnia and crafted a cease-fire that has lasted to this day. In 1997, as President Clinton's special envoy, he stepped into the 24-year-old struggle between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus and has so far achieved no major breakthrough. Last week he gamely turned his hand to the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, the site of a festering rebellion between 1.8 million ethnic Albanians and their Serb overlords, and quickly found himself in a diplomatic theater of the absurd.

June 23, 8:30 a.m., aboard a U.S. Air Force C-20 executive jet. Holbrooke flips through confidential State Department cables and contemplates the task ahead. He has been dispatched to persuade Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian rebels to stop shooting and start talking. As he prepares to face the Balkan furies again, Holbrooke sits quietly, looking anxious. "The goal is to prevent a war," he tells TIME, which was given exclusive access to the trip. "But it may be impossible."

All Balkan conflicts are complex, but this one is a dilly. The province, about half the size of New Jersey, is internationally recognized as a territorial part of Serb-ruled Yugoslavia, land they hold dear as their sacred ancestral home. But its 2 million inhabitants are 90% ethnic Albanians, known as Kosovars, who have long felt stifled under the domination of Belgrade. Their patience has been running out since 1989, when Milosevic revoked their autonomy and two years later launched a violent crackdown.

Now tempers on both sides are exploding as the Kosovars demand full independence and Milosevic bids to bring the rebels to heel. Since March, when the Yugoslav army began an offensive against the guerrillas known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, about 300 people have died and an estimated 65,000 have been driven from their homes. When Holbrooke arrives, 50,000 Serb forces and several thousand K.L.A. fighters are skirmishing all over the province, targeting civilians in one another's villages.

The K.L.A., as well as the moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, insist that outright independence is the only acceptable solution. Milosevic shows no willingness to countenance that and has stalled on negotiations in order to launch his crackdown. The West frets that escalation of the conflict could lead to a Balkan war wider and more destabilizing than Bosnia's, drawing in Albania, Macedonia and even Greece. Holbrooke's aim is to cajole everyone to the bargaining table.

Tuesday, 10:30 a.m., Skopje. Holbrooke has made a brief stop to assure Macedonians that the U.S. will try to keep Kosovo's violence from spilling into their country. Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia who has spent considerable time with Milosevic in past negotiations, joins Holbrooke's shuttle. The envoys already conclude that the best Holbrooke might finagle from Milosevic is an agreement to pull some forces out of Kosovo, but Holbrooke must also persuade the Kosovar rebels to stop their advances. Concessions won't come easily from them either.

Tuesday, 1:08 p.m., the U.S. embassy in Skopje. Holbrooke and Hill meet with Rugova. It's 90 degrees Fahrenheit., but the Kosovar novelist and literature professor arrives wearing a sweater, coat and red silk ascot. As the men sit down, Holbrooke asks Rugova if he wants to remove his jacket. "No," Rugova responds. "I'm an Albanian snake."

Rugova is also uncompromising. "We have a right to be a new independent state," he says to TIME before the meeting. He tells Holbrooke that a NATO force, including U.S. soldiers, should deploy in Kosovo to establish an "international protectorate." Washington wants no part of such talk: it prefers that Kosovo remain within Yugoslavia as a fully autonomous republic but without the right to secede. Of more immediate concern is how much support Rugova commands among the increasingly bellicose and fragmented rebels. Holbrooke presses Rugova, who insists that he can speak for the K.L.A. in negotiations with Milosevic. Holbrooke is far from convinced. After the meeting, he taps out a FOR YOUR EYES ONLY message to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on his progress: no good news to report.

Tuesday, 6:10 p.m., Belgrade. Fresh from a chat with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister--in town to make sure Milosevic sticks to a promise he gave Boris Yeltsin to resume talks with Rugova--Holbrooke arrives at Milosevic's presidential palace. The two tuck into a four-hour dinner of steak, lamb and fish, while Holbrooke warns the Serb leader that NATO air strikes are inevitable if his army continues its clampdown. "What's left of your country will implode," Holbrooke says.

Milosevic remains evasive, knowing NATO is very reluctant to intervene. The Serbian strongman has only himself to blame for stoking ethnic Albanian resentment. As a Kosovar leader warns, "If Milosevic continues his current policy of negotiating and killing at the same time, there will be no solution other than for everyone to go and join the K.L.A." All too aware of this grim possibility, Holbrooke leaves the dinner with little more than a case of indigestion.

Wednesday, 12:15 p.m., Kosovo. An armored van carrying Holbrooke stops along a one-lane dirt road just south of the hamlet of Istinic. Rusted farm implements obstruct traffic, one of many barricades K.L.A. insurgents have set up. U.S. security agents scan the surrounding forest, fearing that the halted convoy may become a target for stray gunfire. Holbrooke orders the vehicles to head back to the town of Decane, which Serb forces burned last month. Coming through the town earlier, the convoy passed deserted buildings, but in the town's center, two dozen people sat at an open-air cafe sipping coffee and sodas. As Holbrooke drives back through the center, the cafe is empty: Serb security agents had staged a Potemkin-like show of normality. Holbrooke instructs a staff member to cable Washington, "We have just seen The Truman Show in Decane."

Wednesday, 12:40 p.m., the village of Junik. Holbrooke's convoy makes an unplanned stop after passing through Serb security forces guarding a nearby Serb refugee camp. Friendly Kosovar guides usher the diplomats through alleys to a walled compound, where they take off their shoes to enter a Muslim home. Holbrooke, his jacket off and his tie loosened, is introduced to Gani Shehu, 31, who identifies himself as Rugova's party leader in the village. K.L.A. "morale officer" Lum Haxhiu, 40, fondles a European assault rifle as he tells Holbrooke he was formerly a poet in Denmark. Outside, a bearded guerrilla puffing a Marlboro stands watch decked out in a black Ninja suit, cellular phone and holstered pistol. The unprepossessing leaders illustrate yet another conundrum facing Holbrooke: the K.L.A. has no effective political arm; fighters are already splitting into factions; and power is so diffuse that even if they succeed in liberating Kosovo, the lawless conditions that prevail today may continue. As a prominent Kosovar tells TIME, "It could be like Afghanistan."

Holbrooke sits down on a rug and Haxhiu plops next to him so that photographers can snap the first photo of a high-ranking U.S. official with a K.L.A. fighter. Holbrooke is furious that Haxhiu sits through the meeting with his assault rifle propped between his legs. Sipping Turkish coffee, Shehu reports that Serb attacks have reduced the population from 12,000 to 2,000, and the village remains under Serb mortar fire. He brushes aside Holbrooke's plea for a cease-fire and says the guerrillas will fight until Kosovo wins independence, or until death. "It reminds me of Bosnia on the eve of war," Holbrooke says as he leaves. "Both sides are ready to fight."

Wednesday, 6:15 p.m., Pristina airport. At every stop, Holbrooke holds impromptu press conferences to repeat the U.S. position to Kosovars: "We're trying to prevent this fighting from escalating into a general war," and autonomy, not independence, is the solution. His ability to work the media is legendary, but today false reports have gone back to Washington that his convoy has been shot at, and he has held an official meeting with the K.L.A., which would infuriate Milosevic. Standing on the runway, Holbrooke phones State Department spokesman James Rubin, catching him just before the daily briefing. The meeting with K.L.A. rebels was a "complete setup," Holbrooke insists, not an official meeting. Sending a cable home, Holbrooke likens the entire province to "the Wild West." Either side could start a war, he adds, "through miscalculation or a drunken brawl."

Thursday, 8:30 p.m., Belgrade. Holbrooke has returned to meet with Milosevic, but yesterday's chaotic events have shaken him. At this point, Kosovo remains a low-intensity struggle, but Holbrooke fears it will explode into real conflict. Provocations are threatening at the roadblocks lining the main highway running west from Pristina, and the mission has contracted to clearing two checkpoints, one belonging to the K.L.A., the other to the Serbs. Holbrooke pleads with Milosevic to hold off from attacking the Kosovar roadblocks, but the Serb is noncommittal. "We managed to stop a war in Bosnia," Holbrooke reminds him, "and our job now is to prevent a war. And this can be done by yourself."

Friday, 2 p.m., Pristina. Bleary-eyed and discouraged, Holbrooke has stayed up all night, phoning diplomats in Kosovo and officials at the State Department, the U.N. and NATO headquarters. He is concerned that the next Balkan war could start at Kijevo, a village so tiny that it's not even on the map. A few thousand Albanians, 80 Serb families and 250 Serb military police are surrounded by K.L.A. checkpoints. But no one there is able to tear down the K.L.A. barricades. Ambassador Hill will return this week to try to get the checkpoints cleared, and U.S. Envoy to the Balkans Robert Gelbard will continue to work on Rugova. But Holbrooke leaves Kosovo empty-handed: "I have no magic solution to offer."

As his C-20 waits for takeoff, Holbrooke accepts that this mission has at best bought some more time before war breaks out. His words betray a weary resignation: "There's no dishonor in trying and failing to prevent a war." His plane lifts into the air, Serb soldiers ready missile launchers and air-defense guns that ring the airport, while machine guns rattle in the distance.

--With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Pristina
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 6, 1998

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Mission Impossible
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