PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- Elez Rexhepi was sleeping when the armored personnel carriers crept up to his village house on the morning of Oct. 14. First he heard the sound of his dog being shot. Then the Serbian police, about 30 of them, came for him.
Rexhepi, 50, neither resisted nor tried to run. He says the police pulled him out of the house, pinned him against a wooden fence in the back yard, and beat him with their hands and boots until he fell to the ground unconscious.
When he came to, Rexhepi says, the police forced him to sing nationalist Serbian songs.
Rexhepi is an ethnic Albanian living in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Like more than 90 percent of the people in the region, he speaks the Albanian language, practices the Muslim religion and shares a common ancestry with the people from neighboring Albania.
That is enough to make him a suspect figure in a land of ethnic hostility and fragmentation.
The police "said they thought I was a terrorist and they were searching for guns," explains Rexhepi, a slight man who earns a meager living as a farmer. "But we are poor people. We have no guns."
Kosovo is a land that progress seems to have overlooked, where shepherds guide their flocks over arid hilltops and barefoot children stare with wonder at passing cars. But Yugoslavia's next war could break out there.
"All it would take," says a Western diplomat in the Balkans, "is one incident that captures the heart of the people. . . . It would be a blood bath."
Serbian officials justify their nighttime raids -- there were four other similar attacks in Kosovo on the night Rexhepi was beaten -- as needed to control a Kosovo Liberation Army that they blame for 45 deaths since 1990 and 20 raids on police stations in the past three months.
International observers remain skeptical. "There probably are instances where terrorism has occurred," says a U.S. diplomat in the region. "But some of these events are being staged by Serbian authorities."
In one reported incident, Serbian police shot and killed 25-year-old Adrian Krasniqi, then photographed him lying dead near a rural police station with a grenade in one hand and a machine gun in the other. Officials said he was attacking the police station, yet no police officers were reported injured and the tiny station, an easy target from the nearby hills, remained perfectly intact.
"They call him a terrorist," says Krasniqi's uncle, Xhafer Krasniqi. "But where are the victims of his attacks?"
But whether the Kosovo Liberation Front is real or only a figment of Albanian hopes and Serbian fears, there certainly is sentiment among Kosovo's 2 million Albanians for independence. There is even talk of an eventual greater Albania, uniting Kosovo's Albanians with those in Albania proper, perhaps gathering in parts of Macedonia.
Either plan would split Serbia, which along with tiny Montenegro is all that remains of Yugoslavia. But Serbs are concerned about more than territorial integrity. They describe Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian civilization, even though they are believed to have lost their majority status there as long ago as 1690. Serbian kings built great Orthodox monasteries in the 14th century.
Turkey's military victory over the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389 led to a 500-year Turkish occupation. It is unthinkable, Serbs say, that shrines of Serbian history should be on foreign soil.
The Albanians also have centuries-old claims to the land. They say they are descendants of the ancient Illyrians, who dominated the Balkans before the arrival of the South Slavs, forebears of the Serbs.
In 1974, Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's post-World War II Communist dictator, created the autonomous region of Kosovo within a Serbian republic under the Yugoslav federation. Ethnic Albanians, then 75 percent of the population, controlled the government, police and schools.
As Yugoslavia unraveled in the decade after Tito's death in 1980, Slobodan Milosevic, then little known, inflamed Kosovo Serbs against the predominantly Albanian police. "No one should dare beat you," he told the crowd. As president of Serbia in 1989, he stripped the ethnic Albanians of their autonomy within the state.
"In 1991, the regime introduced a new curriculum at the university," recalls Muhamet Hamiti, an ethnic Albanian professor English. "Nine hundred teachers were sacked the same day I was. A Serbian colleague took my textbooks, threw them out the window and burned them."
The ethnic Albanians, led by Ibrahim Rugova, have responded ** with passive resistance. They have withdrawn from schools, government and most of the health care system. The strategy is to ignore the Serbs and create their own autonomous shadow world.
Rugova, whose father was executed by the Communists, is sometimes criticized for letting the situation stagnate during his six years of leadership, but he insists that maintaining the peace must be paramount.
"The threat of violence is real," he says. "It is not exaggerated. We ourselves never know what will happen. One should never forget the wars in Croatia and Bosnia."
Rugova rules his movement like a Balkan strongman, with propaganda, intimidation and financial leverage. He chain-smokes Marlboros and is never seen without a silk scarf ZTC around his neck. Financing comes from ethnic Albanians working abroad, and from a 3 percent business tax collected from Albanian-run businesses. Ethnic Albanians dominate business in the region, as Serbs work mostly in government and law enforcement.
Rugova is particularly popular in the villages, where peasants such as Rexhepi adorn their walls with dog-eared posters of him.
Kosovo's Albanians are better off than their neighbors in Albania, the poorest country in Europe. Albanian television stations closely cover Kosovo, however, and these broadcasts are received by satellite dish throughout the region. International observers fear that weapons are passing into Kosovo through the porous, mountainous border with Albania.
The international community does not support the border changes necessary for Kosovo to become an independent state. State Department spokesman James Rubin explained the U.S. position when Rugova was in Washington in August. "The unilateral redrawing of borders would not contribute to the stability of the region," he said. "A solution to the problem of Kosovo can and must be found within the framework of Serbia and the [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia]."
Meanwhile, popular frustration is growing. In October, ethnic Albanian students demonstrated in the streets in an effort to win back the university. Serbian authorities responded with tear gas. The demonstration proceeded without Rugova's explicit support, suggesting a growing dissatisfaction with the passive approach.
"We're at a crossroads," says Dukagjin Gorani, a political editor at the 9-month-old independent Koha daily newspaper in Pristina, which serves the ethnic Albanians. "The people are confused. For the past six years they've been told they will get independence. Now they're starting to realize that's impossible and they're becoming frustrated."
Pub Date: 12/23/97