Serbs and Albanians fear the rising threat of war Violence escalates near Kosovo battle zone


GRACANICA, Yugoslavia -- Inside a 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery where 15 nuns nurture faith and make honey, Snezena Stojanovic ponders battles raging nearby. The armed struggle for Kosovo edges ever closer to this peaceful place, and the 26-year-old Serb worries about the neighboring town of ethnic Albanians.

"We could never shoot at their town," she says. "I sincerely hope they couldn't do the same with us. But one never knows."

Afrim Demaj, 24, an ethnic Albanian, lives in the next town, which is dominated by a mosque. He, too, worries about war. He, too, worries about his neighbors.

"There have been massacres and ethnic cleansing in a part of our country," he says. "I'm sure it's going to happen here. We can't wait for that moment."

Kosovo seems at the threshold of more internecine Balkan bloodshed, and people like Stojanovic and Demaj are on a collision course. Both seem to sense that the war is coming.

More than 250 people have been killed, and tens of thousands have been forced to flee since fighting flared in February in the province, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. The ethnic Albanians are seeking Kosovo's independence from Serbia. But to many Serbs, this verdant land dotted with churches and a historic battlefield is virtually holy ground, the bedrock of their nation.

Last week, Serbian security forces directed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accelerated their campaign in southwestern Kosovo to root out elements of the secessionist guerrilla force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. Closing the area to outsiders, Serbian police and military units razed villages as thousands raced for their lives into the hills and woods and 5,000 refugees made a perilous journey into the mountains and misery of Albania, Europe's poorest country.

The nightmare possibility is of a Balkan war drawing in neighboring Albania and Macedonia -- which has its own Albanian minority -- and unrest in Macedonia then arousing Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, all of which have territorial and religious stakes in Macedonia. In the face of this, Western powers have been doing a lot of hand-wringing and threatening but not taking much action.

A United Nations peacekeeping force that includes about 340 Americans has been stationed in Macedonia since 1992. NATO chiefs have not yet taken a decision about sending troops to seal Albania's borders, which are so porous that arms and mercenaries flow into the region.

Separate struggles

For those who live close to the battle zone, frayed nerves mix with daily chores as the late spring sun beats down.

This is a land where two peoples remain separate, from the schools they attend, to the cafes where they socialize to the newspapers they read to the television news they watch.

In the Kosovo capital of Pristina, there are daily demonstrations by ethnic Albanians seeking independence. And the reasons for their unhappiness are evident. They make up all but a tenth of Kosovo's 1.8 million population but are treated as second-class citizens.

An example is an elementary school that is divided by a wall -- Serbs on one side in sparkling classrooms and ethnic Albanians on the other in rooms so crowded that there are four shifts a day. The schools have different names, use different languages and teach different versions of the same history.

The politicians talk of a sustained struggle.

"We have not enough force to beat the Serbs, and they have not enough force to beat us. We are in a clinch," says Adem Demaci, the ethnic Albanian president of the Parliamentary Party of Kosovo. Demaci, 62, jailed for 28 years for trying to overthrow the former Communist regime, preaches peace, yet girds for war.

"I'm afraid this situation will continue maybe two, 2 1/2 years to the finish," he says. "I think the KLA will gain and gain every day, and the Serbs will tire and tire."

But Radovan Urosevic, director of the Serbian-led Media Center of Pristina, says the security forces "are very certain they can manage the situation."

"Normal Serbs would like to see a normal life here and live with Albanians," he says. "We don't have to love each other like crazy. But we have to respect each other. Kosovo can provide a nice life."

Widespread tension

Outside the capital, there is tension as Serbian police, armed with Kalashnikovs, set up checkpoints. Military convoys rumble by. Atop one mountain west of Pristina, Serbian artillery sits covered with camouflage netting.

Travel is difficult. The advice offered by the official who hands over a new batch of press credentials rings true: "You can go anywhere you like except the places you'd like to go."

In the village of Obilic, a Serbian police chief named Boza Spasic sits inside a barracks fortified by sandbags. He speaks ominously of three guards attacked by KLA members at a local mine.

"We're almost facing a war situation," he says. "We have to defend our country. They're seeking land. This is our Jerusalem. Our mountains. This land belongs to us."

In Gracanica, a village of 700 homes where nearly everyone except the local baker is Serbian, peasant women walk to the fields carrying pitchforks and hoes on their shoulders. Business is slow at the main cafe, 1389, the date that marks the Serbian defeat by the Ottoman Turks at Kosovo Polje. Serbs mark the defeat as a critical moment in their national history and are loath to give up the battle site to an independent Kosovo.

Inside the Serbian Orthodox monastery, nuns wearing wool habits make honey, plum brandy and wine. There is a stillness in the church with its five domes, hundreds of frescoes and unlighted candles held in a massive gold chandelier in front of the altar.

But amid the tranquillity, past grievances intrude, long-past grievances kept alive and embellished over the centuries.

Stojanovic talks of Turkish invaders setting fire to a church tower that stored a precious library. She says marble floors were removed, gold altar pieces plundered, the frescoes defaced by Islamic Turks who poked out the eyes of holy figures. And she speaks of the monastery's founder, the Serbian King Milutin, a ruler of armies and builder of churches.

"King Milutin was a great warrior but a poor diplomat," she says. "Everything in his time ended with war and conquering territory."

Now, history may be repeating itself.

Historical importance of land

For those like Stojanovic, who came here 6 1/2 years ago from central Serbia to attend university and then work for a government institute charged with preserving historical monuments, this church and land must remain part of Serbia.

"The land is not on its own important," she says. "But the roots of the Serbs, everything starts here. To put it in their hands [ethnic Albanians], none of the Serbs will allow it."

She is confident that Serbia's young men will heed the call of Milosevic if it comes to full-scale war to retain Kosovo. After all, it was Milosevic who fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism in 1987 when he came to Kosovo and told the minority Serbs, "No one should dare beat you." Three years later, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomous status, and the province was ruled from Belgrade. All of the former Yugoslavia suffered in the ensuing years, with up to 200,000 killed in the fighting. But the conflict somehow bypassed Kosovo.

"I pray to God the uprising doesn't happen," Stojanovic says. Yet she is unclear about the grievances of ethnic Albanians who yearn to control this turf.

"They can live with us as they do now," she says. "The prettiest things in Pristina belong to Albanians. All the shops and money belongs to them. So, we're asking ourselves, what else do they want?"

Underground society

To find out, she could venture less than a mile to Ajvali, and she could hear the anger of Demaj, who is among the 8,000 ethnic Albanians who live in a town of unpaved roads and unrealized dreams. Eighty Serbian families also live in the town.

Like many here, Demaj, a former waiter, has relatives working outside the country. Their cash helps to sustain the community.

Yet Demaj, who wears jeans, a Nike shirt and running shoes, speaks of being treated as a second-class citizen in his own land, denied equal access to good employment, housing and schools.

Ever since Milosevic ended Kosovo's autonomy, leading to a purge of ethnic Albanians in the civil service, the majority population has set up its own, parallel society. There is an underground university, medical school and dental clinic for ethnic Albanians. But a parallel society is far different from a free society.

"We don't have the rights Serbs have," Demaj says. "They treat us like a second class. They have got used to Albanian people as waiters."

Some ethnic Albanians are now taking up arms. The shadowy and elusive KLA has yet to establish a presence in this area, but there is a belief in Kosovo that every village burned by Serbian forces serves as a powerful recruiting tool for the guerrilla group.

Demaj draws from the Balkan lexicon of fatal valor.

"We shall not die as cowards, I promise you that," he says. "We have nothing to fight with. But at least we have our souls, our faith. Yes, people may be killed. But we must have our freedom."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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