RECAK, Kosovo (Reuters) - Nusret Shabani hid in a ditch when Serb forces came for the men of Recak and survived. Forty-five other ethnic Albanians in the village were less lucky, including his son. They were shot dead.
But a new court in The Hague will try ethnic Albanians, not Serbs, for crimes committed during and after that conflict, a prospect that angers Kosovars who hail the soldiers of the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army as freedom fighters.
Around the ill-maintained memorial to the 1999 massacre, the children of Recak herd cattle in a village that has few other sources of income and where there is anger at the creation of the new court, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
“The KLA is as clear as a teardrop,” said Shabani, now 76, voicing widespread contempt at the likely prosecution of former fighters.
Western governments, which pushed for the court’s creation, believe prosecutions of both sides are needed to help bring reconciliation and stability to the war-scarred region and move it closer to the European Union.
Some Serbs and Albanians have been tried and convicted by international and local courts for crimes committed during the 1998-99 war, but many Kosovars see EU and U.S. demands for a new court as yet another unwelcome foreign imposition.
The war, brought to an end by NATO airstrikes against dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, was the last act in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia into seven successor states in a series of conflicts that lasted most of the 1990s and claimed over 130,000 lives.
Now, Kosovo’s 1.8 million population is Europe’s youngest, the result of a 1980s and 1990s baby boom, a source both of economic potential but also, with youth unemployment running at 60 percent, of instability.
Hemmed in, they need visas for all but a handful of countries. Some try their luck as refugees. Others support radical movements like Self-Determination (VV), the largest opposition party. It favours direct action to block a government that it says is too willing to do western powers’ bidding.
Its lawmakers let off tear gas in parliament to block votes on a border demarcation deal with Montenegro demanded by the EU. Other targets of VV’s ire include the new court and proposals for greater autonomy for the country’s Serbs.
“I don’t believe the way to justice and equality can come from a trial of only one side,” said Visar Ymeri, VV’s president. Tome Gashi, a defence lawyer for Albanian war crimes suspects labelled it a “racist court”.
Vicious reprisals against Kosovo’s Serbs soon after the end of the war created an environment of fear where Albanians were reluctant to testify in cases involving lurid allegations including organ trafficking, for fear of being labelled traitors.
The new court - EU-funded, internationally staffed, but applying Kosovo law - was the EU’s response.
Key witnesses have been spirited out of the country. Senior politicians could be indicted, with observers saying President Hashim Thaci, once a KLA commander, potentially a target.
The government of Prime Minister Isa Mustafa is in a bind, needing closer European integration to bring visa-free travel, work and desperately needed growth, while knowing that the court and other measures the EU demands in return are unpopular.
The government blames the tension on VV, whose young members have been linked to vandalism and attacks on public property. Six members were arrested for firing a rocket-propelled grenade at parliament, though VV says they were framed by the police.
“I call them anarchists. They are misusing these youngsters for their cause of trying to overthrow the government through violent means,” said Bajram Gecaj, a local government minister and adviser to the prime minister.
To win visa-free travel to the EU, Kosovo must settle all outstanding border disputes with its neighbours. But VV says the deal with Montenegro surrenders 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres)of land - a claim the government, the EU and the United States reject.
While many Kosovars chafe at what feels like international supervision, the country is heavily dependent on European support. The streets of the capital Pristina throng with international officials, many of them working to bolster the rule of law by investigating war crimes and corruption.
Behind that lies the spectre of Bosnia, another Yugoslav successor state that is still under international supervision more than 20 years after it was torn apart by a brutal ethnic war, politically divided and with a moribund economy.
Amid the gloom, Kosovo’s legion of young people seems defiantly optimistic, shrugging off the anger of older people who remember the conflict. Kosovar footballers and pop singers who have defied the odds to make it big in Europe are a subject of proud coffee house conversation.
“The older people are still thinking about the past,” said Adriatik Kallaba, 20, a piano student at Pristina University on his way to an exam. “I feel free... I like to live here.”
Editing by Robin Pomeroy