Kosovo teeters on brink of war Serb harassment of Albanian majority in region risks outside intervention

June 01, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The Albanian man walking by the downtown mosque was carrying a box. That was provocation enough for Dusko, the Serbian military policeman.

So, as a small crowd of frowning Albanians gathered to watch, Dusko searched the man. The policeman, who wouldn't give his own last name, asked for identification papers. He called in the man's name on a walkie-talkie.

No luck. The guy was clean. But Dusko remained skeptical.

"They are all suspect, from age 7 to 77," he said of the Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the local population but none of its official leadership. "Their very nature is insidious and sinister. It is their greatest honor to stab you in the back."

Thus, in a single burst of venom the policeman had tapped into a strain of ethnic acrimony going back more than 600 years in this Serbian-controlled province of Kosovo.

If not for the war sputtering along 130 miles to the northwest in Bosnia, the rest of the world might ignore the Albanians and the likes of Dusko for another 600 years.

But international policy makers have concluded that Kosovo is a tripwire for regional conflagration.

They fear that once the war in Bosnia is completed, the Serbs will move to drive out the Albanian majority here. Some of that is already happening, and critics accuse the Serbs of pursuing a policy of bloodless ethnic cleansing -- mostly bloodless, anyway.

Kosovo's Albanian Muslims are said to be obtaining arms, and Albania itself has said it would use "all the potential of the Albanian nation" to protect ethnic brethren in Kosovo.

Fearing a war that would move beyond Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration, seconding a threat first made by the Bush

administration, has vowed to take unilateral military action against Serbia if it launches a major assault on Kosovo's Albanian majority.

Under the circumstances, even the rantings of a junior security policeman can seem significant. For the more one listens to people talking around here, with all their symptoms of Balkan stubbornness, the more difficult any peaceful solution seems.

Listen to Mother Teodora, for example. She's an Eastern Orthodox nun at the ancient monastery of Gracanica, a few miles outside of Pristina, the region's capital.

The monastery is a bulwark of Serbian heritage, built during the glory days of empire in the 14th century. Mother Teodora came here 46 years ago, at age 16.

Back then the Albanians, who are mostly Muslims, were not a problem, she said. People got along. She could tote her small barrels of cheese to the markets of Pristina without fear, and the gates of the monastery stayed open all night.

Then again, she said, "Very few of them were here then. There were a few Turks, but Shiptars, you hardly saw them around."

Shiptars is what the Albanians call themselves, but when the word is used by Serbs the Albanians detect only scorn.

Nowadays, Mother Teodora said, there are far too many Albanians, and for this she blames Marshal Tito, the Croat and godless Communist who used to rule Yugoslavia. He encouraged Albanian immigration in the late 1960s and early 70s, she said, and there went the neighborhood.

As the Albanian population multiplied -- Kosovo still has the highest birth rate in the former Yugoslavia -- it grew restive being ruled from Belgrade.

Tito responded with money, building the monstrosities of glass and concrete that thrust oddly out of Pristina's muddled cityscape of tile-roofed hovels and festering garbage pits.

Autonomy now doomed

When the spending didn't buy loyalty, Tito made Kosovo an autonomous province. Then came the end of communist rule, and the days of Albanian autonomy were numbered.

These days, Mother Teodora said, the monastery gates are locked at dusk, and she rarely ventures beyond the stone walls except to work in the fields. That's where she stood as she spoke, a pitchfork in one hand and a cluster of spring onions in the other.

"The Shiptars provoke at any possible moment," she said. "There was one of them among a crew doing restoration work here. He was on a scaffold, smoking, spitting, spilling water on us when we walked by. He was saying this was going to be a mosque someday. And this man, the bastard, was a newcomer."

She sighed, then said, "I would be the happiest woman in the land if the Albanians could understand us. But they are illiterate, stupid."

Besides, she said, "They do not understand the significance of Kosovo to us. The Serbs now are saying that this whole territory can be leveled, hills and all, but we will never give up Kosovo."

By that, she means Kosovo's place in Serbian history. On the green plains just north of Pristina, where bright red peonies bloom like droplets of blood, the Serbian empire came to grief in a medieval battle 604 years ago.

Turk conquest in 1389

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