The land of sadness and wonder
VITINA, Kosovo — This is paradise, a fertile and beautiful corner of the globe where the unseemly aspects of the world have not yet invaded.
Where people live quiet lives of solitude, tending their fields in the shadows of mountains that seem always to remain in the distance. No cares. No struggles.
No ... wait. This is Kosovo.
This is where the world collapsed. Where pain is a way of life. And futures are as uncertain as that dark mass of clouds hanging around the mountaintops.
It's not paradise. It only looks like it through squinted eyes, when the roofless, burned-out homes come in a little fuzzy and the neglected farm fields overtaken with wildflowers and weeds seem to be colorful gardens.
About 7,000 American troops who will come to this southeast corner of Kosovo for the NATO peace implementation mission will, of course, arrive with eyes wide open.
They will see the valley that stretches through much of the real estate they will control. But they will notice that the wheat is, in many cases, last year's crop, lost to the farmer when the war came through.
And they will see the quiet, stately homes sitting on the plain, but they will notice that roofs are gone and the walls are blackened by fire and pockmarked by gunfire.
And they will see the small towns and villages that provide a sense of civilization to this remote region, but they will see the broken windows and the empty storefronts and the dusty, broken streets.
The U.S. sector begins in the south where mountains climb across the border with Macedonia and it rolls east and north, taking in this fertile valley cluttered by colorful red poppies that grow nearly everywhere.
The sector is one of five NATO-controlled areas in Kosovo, which is slightly larger than the state of Vermont.
Italy, France, Great Britain and Germany control the other four sectors.
Urosevac and Gnjilane are two of the biggest towns in the U.S. sector. The biggest concentrations of Army soldiers will be in or near these two towns, with patrols reaching into villages such as Kacanik, Strpce, Vitina and Zegra. At the border with Serbia, Serbs are supposed to create a three-mile military-free buffer zone between Kosovo, which is a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. Montenegro is the other Yugoslav republic.
This U.S.-patrolled sector of Kosovo was heavily populated by Serbs before the conflict, although Serbs only made up 10 percent of Kosovo's pre-war population. Some estimates say that nearly half of all the Serbs that lived in Kosovo lived in and around the U.S. sector.
But when the Serbian military left as part of the peace agreement in June, so, too, did many of the civilian Serb population; an estimated 50,000 had fled in the three weeks after NATO troops began moving into Kosovo.
The heavy concentration of Serbs in the U.S. sector will test peace keepers' abilities to protect both ethnic Albanians and remaining Serbs from the continuing cycle of violence that has wracked Kosovo.
"A lot of them moved away. A lot of them are still here," said Bekim Ramabaja, a medical student in Gnjilane, where the Marines have set up temporary shop. "Somebody with blood on his hands must move away."