Kosovo's Serbs anxious, resolute; Small minority fears outcome of peace talks


LAPLJE SELO, Yugoslavia -- The tombstone maker will not budge.

Vladimir Petkovic's work and home are tethered to this enclave of 400 Serbian families in Kosovo's heart. His father and brother are buried in the Serbian Orthodox Church graveyard. His family and community expect him to patrol rolling fields and keep the village secure.

"All I can tell you is, we Serbs will stay," Petkovic says. "The only issue is if we will stay by peaceful means or by war."

These are anxious times for Kosovo's Serbs. Outnumbered 9-to-1 by the ethnic Albanian majority, the Serbs are up against a tide of history and world opinion.

For a decade, they have been Kosovo's rulers, writing the laws, running the police and civil service, securing for themselves the best jobs, schools, housing and land. Now, in a bid to head off war, the West is pressing for change in the Serbian province. Kosovo peace negotiations in France could lead to an agreement under which rights and powers go to the ethnic Albanian majority.

The Serbs here are armed and nervous. They fear they might be sold out by the negotiators. And they say they are under siege by the ethnic Albanian rebel force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army.

"We're not against Albanians," says Petkovic, a broad-shouldered 24-year-old with thinning blond hair. "We're against terrorists and separatists who want to see Serbs out of Kosovo."

Kosovo is part of the faith and history of the Serbs. It is home to old monasteries and the site of a famous 1389 battle in which the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs at Kosovo Polje and began more than 500 years of rule.

Kosovo is where the embers of modern Serbian nationalism were inflamed in 1987 by Slobodan Milosevic, now Yugoslavia's president. At a time when the ethnic Albanians had autonomy and power, Milosevic came to Kosovo to tell the Serbs, "No one should dare beat you." Two years later, Milosevic took away the province's autonomy, and the minority Serbs took over.

Amid the snow and ice, scars from the past and tensions of the present are apparent in Laplje Selo, 15 miles south of the provincial capital, Pristina.

There's a 250-year-old mill powered by a stream. Inside a musty wooden cabin shrouded with cobwebs, corn is ground into flour. On a weathered door are bullet holes that locals say were left long ago by the Turks.

Zika Jovovic's family has run the mill for generations. A 42-year-old with a gap-toothed grin and hands tough as gravel, Jovovic worries about the village's future and fears the violence in the area. On a recent night, he wouldn't let his son Andrija go to a neighboring village cafe to play an accordion.

"Where to go?" Jovovic says. "You can be guests somewhere for three days, and then you start missing your home."

Home-grown violence

Even as Jovovic talks of the violence outside the community, it is clear that there has been home-grown violence, too. In recent years, ethnic Albanians purchased two homes in the village. They are empty now, one burned and the other covered with graffiti.

At the Petkovic house, three generations gather over tea, cookies and cigarettes to talk of the future.

The women dress in mourning black, still grieving for Vladimir Petkovic's father, Mladin, who was killed in a car crash in August. The battered vehicle sits beneath a tarpaulin in the front yard.

"We're sitting here, and whatever the Lord says will be our destiny, we will take it," says Petkovic's mother, Ruza, 48, a dark-haired woman with hooded eyes.

Even though the family is not following the day-to-day negotiations in France, Ruza Petkovic says she has few illusions about the outcome.

"We have very little hope that something will be good for the Serbs," she says. "Whatever happens, we'll take it. The only way we will leave is if the Serbs order us out. We have invested our lives in this house. We hope the world realizes this is our home, too."

It is a home the family is prepared to defend. At dusk, male villagers head to the fields armed with weapons and flashlights, ready to root out any rebels. They used to patrol the main highway that runs by the village, but they stopped a few months ago.

"We have weapons," Ruza Petkovic says. "Whoever comes to our house will never leave it alive. We're all trained to shoot. We will defend ourselves here. They're flesh and bone, just like us."

For all the bravado, she is embittered. She says the world is taking the side of the ethnic Albanians, who are considered the severely outgunned underdogs in the conflict.

"Why is the world just defending them and never saying a kind word for us?" she asks. "Does the world really believe there is only one side to this?"

Vladimir Petkovic is angry, too, repeating much of the propaganda served up by the state-controlled media, which says the world is somehow against the Serbs. As he fills his father's shoes at work, at home and in the community, he is coming to maturity during an uncertain period.

Others uprooted

He knows that other Serbs once boasted they would never leave their land. But he has seen them uprooted from their enclaves in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Asked whether he and others will blame Milosevic if they are forced to leave Kosovo, Petkovic says, "I don't think these people will go to the refugee centers and sports halls. These people will knock on his door and ask for his head."

But Petkovic doesn't want to talk of leaving. He wants to prepare for the future. When winter ends, he will replace the wooden cross that marks his father's grave with a glorious tombstone cut from marble. And in September, after the family has finished mourning, he wants to give his new bride, Zorica, a proper wedding in the village church.

If there is peace, the church will be filled.

"If it's war," he says, "it will just be the two of us and the priest."

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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