In Kosovo, visitors who won't go away Rebels and refugees wait for Serbs to leave their homes, territory

October 16, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MALISEVO, Yugoslavia -- It's one thing to take a battlefield beating. It's another to have the enemy move into your home and refuse to leave.

But that's the fate of Skender Krasniqi, a Kosovo Liberation Army leader in the Drenica region. While he sleeps in a friend's basement, his foes, Serbian security police, live inside his brick home. There's a machine gun nest on a balcony, sardine cans in the living room and a slogan on the outside: "You're Wasting Your Time Waiting for Kosovo."

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Krasniqi can't go home, even though the diplomats are claiming it will soon be safe to return.

"You tell him, if he leaves my house I'll go home today," Krasniqi says of the police who are tracking dirt on his carpets and destroying his couches. "Remove the arms. Everyone will get back to their homes."

Krasniqi figures to be spending the next few months, if not years, wandering the countryside and struggling for Kosovo's independence.

The 49-year-old former schoolteacher with hooded eyes, rumpled clothes and muddy brown boots without laces is an ethnic Albanian rebel with a cause. The KLA may have been pounded over the summer by Serbian security forces but it hasn't gone away. Instead, it has declared a cease-fire and gone into hibernation, taking to the hills and villages, licking its wounds, rearming and waiting to see what develops politically.

"Yes, the KLA is still in existence," Krasniqi says, standing in a remote village. "We are keeping ourselves ready. We are prepared."

Kosovo is still a dangerous place, with reports yesterday of sporadic gunfire and artillery rounds. Yet even as guns crackled and some Serbian military dug in, other security forces were moving out, their buses passing through miles of burned villages and scorched fields, with dead animals lying by the road.

"It's safe here," said the Serbian regional police commander who requested anonymity. "We didn't stop any people from coming back here. We even invite them to come here. But they have been stopped by the terrorists [the KLA]."

If the war still raged, Malisevo would be a front line. It was in this region last spring that the KLA moved from murky force to victorious rebel army, seizing roads and towns as it gobbled up control of nearly a third of Kosovo. But the Serbs reclaimed the area in a brutal summer counteroffensive.

Malisevo was gutted, sending tens of thousands fleeing into the mountains.

"We left July 27th," Krasniqi says. "They had big guns, 120 tanks. They were shelling. Hand grenades. Rocket-propelled grenades. The only thing they didn't use was airplanes. You can't do anything against that with a Kalashnikov."

In the opening rounds of the conflict the KLA was flooded with inexperienced recruits, many of whom left jobs in Europe and North America, received Kalashnikov rifles and a few days of training in Albania, then slipped across the border to join the fighting.

What remains of the force here is hardened by war, determined to win. Ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9-to-1 in Kosovo. But the Serbs have heavy weapons.

KLA men can be seen nearly everywhere in the region. Some wear black jumpsuits. Others dress in threadbare camouflage uniforms. Nearly all tote weapons as if they're out for a duck hunt.

Muharem Vrenezi, a 27-year-old former grocer, is asked about the weapons he carries. "Just war stuff," he shrugs. "We didn't have any choice but to fight."

Krasniqi's family also has chosen to fight. Four of his sons remain in the rebel army.

"We won't let our weapons down until we get what we want," says Krasniqi's 20-year-old son, who goes by the alias "TNT." "We will win or die. All of us."

The father is disappointed that NATO didn't use airstrikes to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table. And he is bemused that the peace deal includes a force of 2,000 unarmed civilians who will verify that both sides are complying with the settlement.

"The current situation is degrading for NATO," Krasniqi says. "They said they'd bomb and send armed people here. Now they say they are bringing 2,000 people just to watch us. It's a big degradation.

"This is the moment Kosovo should be solved," he adds. "If it doesn't get solved now, it's going to come back much bigger."

The family remains hopeful about the future. But before gaining independence for Kosovo, it would like to regain the house.

Krasniqi's wife, Xhezide, a 47-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and a firm handshake, rues the day the Serbian police took over the home that was completed in January. Furnishings were new. The wooden doors were polished, the kitchen spotless.

"We had so much," she says. "We'd like to come back. But where can I come back? That house is full of police. I worked for that house all my life."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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