Bombing campaign brings war in Kosovo to streets of Pristina

Serbs, ethnic Albanians trade charges as blasts rock cafes in the city

February 08, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- While others watched Saturday's televised opening of Kosovo's peace talks, a dark-haired 18-year-old named Vlora Humoli left her family's apartment to buy a cup of sugar.

She never came back.

Humoli was one of three people killed when a bomb destroyed a tiny shop in an ethnic Albanian neighborhood. The blast echoed through this provincial capital as French President Jacques Chirac addressed the would-be peacemakers at a chateau outside Paris.

The explosion served as a reminder that the conflict that has been waged in the countryside between Serbian security forces and rebel Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas could now be seeping into once-peaceful Pristina. A monthlong bombing campaign has sown fear and now spilled blood on the streets.

In a ramshackle city where ethnic Albanians and Serbs live side by side, residents now rarely venture out at night, shops close early and once-bustling cafes are empty after sundown.

"This is a war," said Humoli's uncle, Bujar Bajeami. "But it's worse."

Yesterday, a crowd stood silently as a work crew cleared away the shop's rubble. When the crew was finished, the crowd surged forward to get a closer look at the destruction -- twisted tin, smashed tables and shattered glass. The crowd hardly noticed the blood washed into the gutter.

"Albanians are the ones who are worrying, and Serbs are smiling," said Bekim Bytrqi, a baker and friend of the shop owner, 52-year-old Enver Shala, who was killed in the blast.

"There are so many forces in the street, and they can never get the people who have done these bombings," Bytrqi said.

The bombing wave hit Pristina Jan. 6, when a blast slightly damaged a Serb-run bar known as "Cafi Cool." Three days later, an ethnic Albanian cafe was bombed. A Feb. 1 blast at an ethnic Albanian burger bar killed one and left two others wounded.

Amid the campaign, the first major assassination of the conflict occurred when the chief of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Information Center was gunned down near his home.

The bombings have been running about two a week, with cafes the main targets in tit-for-tat exchanges damaging Serb and ethnic Albanian establishments. Although no one is certain who is behind the bombings, there is a sense the blasts could multiply as politicians try to negotiate a solution to Kosovo's seemingly intractable problems.

"Pristina is now the main target because it is closer to the world media," said Agron Bajrami, deputy editor of the local ethnic Albanian newspaper, Koha Ditore. `Whoever does this wants it on the news. Bombs in smaller areas would never reach CNN or the BBC."

Each side blames the other, with Serbs claiming the KLA is behind the campaign, while ethnic Albanians accuse Serb undercover operatives. Each side also accuses the other of bombing its own.

"Whoever is doing this seems to be keen on somehow sharing the blame," Bajrami said. He added it was unlikely the KLA would be instigating an urban campaign, especially since it is generally agreed that the Serb civilian population is armed to the teeth.

"If they wanted to, the KLA would attack some type of facilities, like police stations or military barracks," Bajrami said.

For now, civilians are dealing with the destruction unleashed by the bombers.

Outside the apartment where Humoli once lived, someone placed a pink carnation on a towel draped over a chair. Men huddled in groups and a delegation of women marched inside to pay respects to the family. Humoli's 21-year-old brother Valon wiped away tears as he recounted the Saturday night horror in which the bomb was apparently tossed from a car.

"We just heard the bomb exploding, and I went to look for her," Valon Humoli said. Eventually, he was called on by police to identify his sister, who lay curled on the pavement.

Family and friends had difficulty making sense of the killing. They also wondered about the future.

Before the conflict erupted a year ago, Humoli's uncle Bajeami had participated in a street demonstration and released doves of peace.

Would he release those doves again?

"No," he said. `Now, we have to get our weapons and protect ourselves."

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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