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Kosovo War Crimes Court Established In The Hague

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. During the Balkan Wars back in the 1990s, atrocities were committed on all sides. In 1999, the Kosovo Liberation Army, with the help of NATO bombing, liberated Kosovo from Serbia. And since then, Serbian leaders have been tried for war crimes at a special tribunal in the Netherlands. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, another special court has now been set up in The Hague. Next year, it will be trying Kosovars for alleged atrocities they committed against ethnic minorities and political opponents during and after the war.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Kosovo Liberation Army began in 1998 as a guerrilla group that launched attacks on occupying Serbian forces. The ethnic Albanian fighters soon became national heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: The lyrics of this KLA song - hail the boys of Kosovo fighting for their cradle of freedom, spilling their blood for the fatherland. Many of those KLA guerrillas went on to become the political leaders of the newly independent Balkan state. While some KLA members were tried in The Hague, few were convicted. Bekim Blakaj, executive director of the independent Humanitarian Law Center in Kosovo, says witnesses have always been the Achilles heel of war crimes trials against Kosovars.

BEKIM BLAKAJ: Because they are very often change in their testimonies from pretrial phase and in main hearing, most probably they are threatened. They are convinced to change their stories.

POGGIOLI: In 2011, the European Union set up a special investigative taskforce, which found substantial evidence of war crimes committed by some KLA members. In an attempt to ensure greater witness protection and a neutral environment, a specialist Kosovo Chambers is being set up in The Hague. It should start operating in the next few months. Defendants could include the president of Kosovo and other political leaders. In September, David Schwendiman was installed as the new special prosecutor. He took pains to insist that the court will not be biased against ethnic Albanians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID SCHWENDIMAN: I will make decisions based solely on the facts and on our best reading of the law, not on whether what I decide to do has political, diplomatic or any other consequence or implication.

POGGIOLI: Visar Duriqi, a reporter for Gazeta Express, says many Kosovars are unwilling to see their leaders go on trial.

VISAR DURIQI: People don't like to talk about the truth. People are willing to say that, look, we are the victims. It doesn't matter how much Serbs we killed. It doesn't matter how much spies of the regime we killed. It's just that we were victim.

POGGIOLI: But Ilir Deda, an independent member of the Kosovo Parliament, is convinced there will be no unrest once trials start because he says Kosovars are fed up with the governing party.

ILIR DEDA: The leaders of what used to be Kosovo Liberation Army have discredited themselves with their blatant corrupt activities, which they haven't hidden. And there have been numerous affairs published in the last two months which just prove the corrupt nature of the leaders of PDK.

POGGIOLI: Bekim Blakaj of the Humanitarian Law Center fears there are so many victims of atrocities that the new tribunal will be unable to fulfill expectations. The main problem in the war-torn nations of ex-Yugoslavia, he says, is that all communities continue to foster hatred and prejudices about each other.

BLAKAJ: Societies in different countries have created their own narrative about past which is based in a nation story, not in facts.

POGGIOLI: Blakaj and other human rights activists in the region are working together to create joint history textbooks convinced that reconciliation can come about only through a common shared view of the past. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Prishtina.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEIRUT'S "BRANDENBERG" SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.