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

June 07, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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."

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