Teen-age strife in Detroit suburb reflects ethnic conflicts of Yugoslavia's civil war

December 22, 1991|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. -- Yugo is not a boxy car. Albo is not a mispronunciation of a popular dog food.

Yugos are Yugoslavians. Albos are Albanians.

Romeo and Juliet they are not.

Here, in the northeastern suburbs of Detroit, in the parking lots and the malls, carloads of young Yugos and Albos -- Americans all -- are attacking each other. With fists and sticks. Often.

No one has been killed.

Drive-by shootings, directed at property, not people, number 14 from July to September. Before this summer, drive-by shootings were Detroit's problem, not Sterling Heights'.

The animosity and tensions of the war in Yugoslavia, and the troubled history of that country, clearly have something to do with what's going on here. There are many Yugoslavians -- Serbs, Macedonians and ethnic Albanians -- living in the Detroit suburbs.

"We are not supposed to be friends," said Serbian Alex Doroslovac, 18, a Sterling Heights High School senior, talking about Serbs and Macedonians -- Yugos -- and their relationship with Albos.

Mario Adamik, 18, another senior, is part Albanian, part Serb. He has Serbian and Albanian friends, "but mostly, I hang out with Albos."

His friends' parents are angry.

"Say it's a Yugo family," he said. "They see the news and say, 'Damn those Albanians.' That's what the kid hears."

What many people hear about is the civil war involving two of Yugoslavia's six republics -- Croatia and Serbia.

But a lesser-known confrontation is under way in the southeastern province of Kosovo. Though the Serbs consider Kosovo their ancestral homeland -- and they continue to control its government -- ethnic Albanians whose families have lived there for centuries predominate.

Last year, the Serbian government moved in to take control after Kosovo's provincial parliament declared independence. And when the province's Albanian majority approved a referendum for independence, the government rejected the vote as invalid.

The centuries-old animosity between the Serbian Christians and the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo seems to have arrived intact in the Detroit suburbs.

Mr. Adamik doesn't know if it's worse because of the current conflicts in Yugoslavia, but he and others say it has got worse in the last year or two. Albos and Yugos used to party together. Not anymore.

"In junior high, I used to say 'Hi' to a few Albos. Now, there's nothing said," said a Macedonian high school senior who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

"If I go and talk to an Albo now, my friends will say I'm a traitor. Date an Albanian girl? What? No way. My parents wouldn't like that either."

Lula Ulic, 17, is an Albanian girl. Violeta Grujovski, 17, is Macedonian. They are friends. They don't stare at each other in the hallways; they don't spit at each other.

"The girls get along. It's guys who are trying to prove who's tougher," said Violeta.

Lula and Violeta say their parents carefully follow what is happening in the homeland. On television. In the newspapers. For the Grujovskis, on a Serbian-language radio station in Detroit.

Parents talk about the conflict. Sometimes dispassionately, but often not.

"Then the parents go to work and the children are there, like clay on a potter's wheel," said the Rev. Rade Obsenica of the St. Lazarus Serbian Orthodox Church in Detroit.

Sixteen miles from downtown Detroit, Sterling Heights is a white suburb of about 115,000 white- and blue-collar residents, many of whom work in one of the three Ford or Chrysler plants, or in one of the many auto-related businesses. Six miles by six miles, with three high schools and three golf courses, it is a city of subdivisions rather than ethnic neighborhoods. Increasingly, it is populated by Eastern Europeans who moved from Detroit and Hamtramck, Mich.

There are just a few immigrants from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia or Montenegro, parts of the Yugoslav nation spliced together in 1945 by President Tito. But there are plenty of ethnic Albanians, Macedonians and Serbians.

Viewpoints in Yugoslavia are shaped by geography, history and religion; it is a land that has been conquered by different foreign powers -- the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; a land whose people have different religions -- Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim -- different languages and even different calendars.

In Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile blue-collar town surrounded by Detroit, the Albanian men at the Skadarlija coffee shop have no kind words for Serbs.

"I hope the Croatians and the Slovenes win. Then we got a chance over there," said Prela Lulgjuraj, an insurance agent. "And don't call an Albanian kid a Yugo. He's no Yugo. He's Albanian proud."

"The Serbs just want to be tough," said Zef Cacgc, 46, a Chrysler employee. He has told his two teen-age sons "not to be friends with them."

At Jean's Unisex Beauty Salon, Albanian owner Rocky Ljuldjuraj explains why it sometimes gets testy.

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