Pristina awaits NATO's bombs Nervous residents fear consequences in quiet Kosovo capital

'There will be fighting'

October 12, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The egg-seller is nervous. He prepares for NATO warplanes to resolve Kosovo's crisis. But he fears the consequences for this still-peaceful provincial capital.

"We're just waiting and waiting," says Aagron Fazliu, a 19-year-old ethnic Albanian who mans his egg stall at a neighborhood market. "The Serbs are not happy. But they are the people who brought this on Kosovo."

Nearby, Aca Velckovic, a 20-year-old Serb, sells pots, pans and telephones.

"There is no reason for the bombing to happen," he says. "It will make things much worse."

On edge and on alert, Pristina and its people are at the epicenter of the conflict over rebellious Kosovo province. Physically untouched, the city's population is emotionally racked as NATO threatens to unleash a bombing campaign to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown against ethnic Albanians, who comprise 90 percent of the province's population.

Since February, Kosovo's war has raged in small villages and isolated valleys as Serbian security forces rooted out the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, killing hundreds and rendering up to 300,000 homeless. To the Serbs, Kosovo is their historic homeland. To ethnic Albanians, it is a home they seek to control for themselves as an independent state.

While the groups rarely mingle in the rural villages, here they live side by side, wedged in a dusty valley city overflowing with refugees.

Yet here, too, the sides exist in parallel universes. The Serbs control the official government and gun-toting police force that routinely sets up checkpoints and harasses residents. The ethnic Albanians, who boycotted elections after Milosevic revoked their right to autonomous rule in 1989, have established a shadow government to run schools and hospitals. The people go to different restaurants, discos, even classrooms.

But on market days, they shop together for food and clothes, and try desperately to stock up on items such as flour, cooking oil and gasoline.

Many ethnic Albanians favor NATO bombing as a means of achieving independence. Serbs are opposed, adamant that Kosovo must remain a province of Yugoslavia. Nearly all fear bombing could set off local hostilities.

"They will take revenge against us," Fazliu, the egg-seller, says of his Serb neighbors.

"There are crazies from our side and their side," admits Velckovic.

The simmering resentment toward NATO is felt at the Tiger cafe, where Serbian police and undercover agents hang out.

One man, clad in a leather jacket, reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and shows a pistol. Asked what will happen if NATO bombs Serbian security installations, he says: "When the first bomb falls, there will be fighting here."

Another says: "We can hardly wait for the bombing. Those who are bombing are wimps."

Elsewhere, things are calmer, with people carrying on with their daily routines. The excitement comes whenever U.S envoy Richard C. Holbrooke hits town in a siren-screeching convoy.

In Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, he squares off against Yugoslavia's undisputed leader, Milosevic, in an effort to resolve the crisis peacefully. But in Pristina he is confronted with a fractured local leadership, with 16 political parties vying for power and a say in a final settlement.

The West has sought to designate Ibrahim Rugova, head of the Democratic League of Kosovo, as the undisputed leader of the local ethnic Albanians. On Saturday, Holbrooke praised Rugova

for continuing "to represent an important moderate leadership in a situation where all sides have resorted to violence."

The self-styled president of the shadow government, Rugova is known for his ever-present scarf and autocratic style. But he has grown increasingly removed from the population and political leaders.

"Rugova has a vision [that] America or foreigners can give Kosovo its independence," says Shkelzen Maliqi of the Soros Foundation, a U.S.-based philanthropy that supports independent media in Eastern Europe. "That is very wrong."

When the West wanted the KLA to declare a cease-fire last week, it did not turn to the man with the scarf. It sought out the politicians who could deal with the ragtag rebel force in the field.

Yet it is apparent that the KLA's cease-fire is a temporary Band-Aid, and diplomats say there is no chance for meaningful negotiations without the KLA at the bargaining table.

"The KLA is now preparing to fight against the Serbs, not only this year but for 10 years," says Adem Demaci, who was jailed for 28 years under the old Communist regime. Demaci heads the Parliamentary Party of Kosovo and is often considered a political voice of the KLA.

"I am afraid the war in Kosovo is not at an end," he adds. "I think the war will continue."

Others hope that the crackdown will end. But they say it will take NATO to persuade Milosevic.

If NATO doesn't come, they say, Kosovo will again be plunged into war because the KLA has not gone away. It's in hibernation.

"The KLA is the people of Kosovo, the people who defend themselves whether with their hands or their nails," says Mehmet Hajrizi of the United Democratic Movement, a party trying to forge a coalition. "The KLA can be damaged in one fight. But as the phoenix, they will rise again."

In the winter, the war will slow, Hajrizi says. But come spring, "it will start again."

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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