Compared to so many other war-torn regions, the Balkan province of Kosovo was progressing nicely. Since NATO bombing ended in 1999, a government with limited powers had been elected. Security was improving. Kosovo Serbs, a minority in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province, could leave their fortified enclaves to shop, work, go skiing. "Things are getting back to normal," a Kosovo Serb restaurateur told Time last month. "People are ready to forget the past and move on."
Alas, civil war is not easily forgotten. In a rash of attacks that spread across the province last week like a bushfire, ethnic Albanian gangs rioted outside Serb enclaves, hurled stones, set fire to 16 Serbian Orthodox churches, including a 14th century monastery, and engaged NATO troops in running battles. At least 28 people were killed and 600 wounded, including dozens of U.N. and NATO peacekeepers. "These were ethnic attacks, pure and simple," said a diplomat.
And as the region knows too well, violence begets violence. In Serbia itself, drunken football fans and others vowing revenge on "Albanian terrorists" torched two mosques, including one from the 17th century that had miraculously survived the Bosnian war. Crowds moved on to smash the front windows at a local McDonald's. About 1,000 Kosovo Serbs have been evacuated to NATO bases inside Kosovo and another 2,600 driven from their homes. Camping out in a friend's apartment in the divided town of Mitrovica, medical student Ivan Radic, 30, a Kosovo Serb, said he has lost touch with his mother and uncle, who had been seeking refuge somewhere in central Kosovo. "I am so worried," said Radic. "God knows when I will see my family again."
What broke Kosovo's hopeful peace? The events that triggered last week's violence were unremarkable. On Monday, a Serb teen was hit in a drive-by shooting. The next day, three ethnic Albanian boys in Mitrovica drowned in the swollen Ibar River. Exactly how they died is not clear, but a surviving child said his friends had been chased by Serbs with a dog. From there rumors escalated into riots and eventually gunfire. Some senior politicians urged calm. Others, however, including the Minister of Public Services, Jakup Krasniqi, said the violence was the understandable result of five years of "anti-Albanian policy" by the international community.
That's a hint at the underlying causes. Kosovo Albanians have been pressing for full independence from Serbia since the war ended, and some are losing patience with the international community for failing to deliver. (The province is legally still part of Serbia, though it is run by the U.N.) Diplomats in the region said some of the violence appeared organized, probably by militants intent on forcing the international community to grant the province independence now. Veton Surroi, publisher of the independent daily Koha Ditore, said people leading the protests identified themselves as former leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or student organizations. "What started as a spontaneous protest turned into a mass upheaval which became an organized revolt," he said. "The violence is directed toward forcing out the Serbs and accelerating [the U.N.'s] departure."
U.N. officials stress the violence is in fact undermining Kosovo's chances for independence by damaging its reputation abroad. KFOR, as the NATO force is known, is strengthening its presence. Some 1,000 reinforcements, mostly British, are arriving to bolster an 18,500-strong contingent.
With many Serbs already on the move, some are wondering whether their days in Kosovo are numbered. "This might be the decisive battle for Kosovo and the survival of Serbs in Kosovo," a senior Belgrade official, Nebojsa Covic, said. The rhetoric has a familiar ring, but last week's events lent some credence to his apocalyptic view.