PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- With nothing but the clothes on her back and her eight children in tow, Sevdie Krasniqi has kept one step ahead of shelling by Serbian security forces in Kosovo.
In the past 10 days, she fled her village, bunked in a mosque, camped out two nights in mountains, hitched a ride on a tractor and grabbed a bus to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Serbia's rebellious province.
And yesterday, she was preparing for a NATO aerial attack on Kosovo.
"I'm still afraid," said Krasniqi, a dark-haired, dark-eyed 35-year-old ethnic Albanian. "The neighbors are trying to convince me that it is safe here."
But Krasniqi was not alone in her expressing her fear, as those in this increasingly anxious provincial capital hunkered down in anticipation of NATO air strikes they thought could come as early as today.
The locals are accustomed to the drill, as NATO threats have come and gone since October. So far, Western allies have been powerless to stop the yearlong fighting between Serbian security forces and the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, which claims to represent ethnic Albanians who make up 90 percent of the province's population.
But just in case a settlement can't be reached between the West and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, people are beginning to buy food staples, cut their work hours and remain off the streets well before dark.
"It's more serious this time," said Ruspem Ahmetiz, 29, who joined a friend for a few minutes of grocery shopping. Between them, they carted off three dozen eggs, three loaves of bread, sausages, fruit, vegetables and milk.
`Is NATO going to attack?'
"Is NATO going to attack? Will we win? Who knows?" said Ahmetiz, an ethnic Albanian who is desperate for the air campaign to begin.
But, Ahmetiz admitted, "We are afraid."
Yet daily routines continue. Laundry hangs from balconies of squat tenements. Kids play soccer on muddy streets.
In the meantime, Serbs and ethnic Albanians maintain a wary distance in this divided city that lies in a valley.
Apart from several bombings and shootings, Pristina has remained isolated from the war in the countryside. Now the city shows increasing nervousness over possible NATO attacks.
Armed Serbian police tightened their nightly checkpoints last night, appearing to bolster manpower while ringing the city with barriers.
Police officials said four of their men were gunned down Sunday night during a drive-by shooting in a predominantly ethnic Albanian neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Yugoslav army and Serbian military police, steeled by tanks and artillery, continued to charge deep into the rebel army's heartland on two fronts, north and northwest of Pristina.
In the Drenica region, 25 miles northwest of Pristina, the village of Gornja Klina was ablaze with hundreds of ethnic Albanian refugees huddling on a nearby road in freezing cold, unsure where to flee in an area ringed by government forces.
Albanian paper fined
The editorial staff continued to work at Koha Ditore while the ethnic Albanian newspaper appealed fines levied by Serbian authorities for "inciting ethnic hatred." The fines are part of the crackdown against independent media unleashed over the last few months by Milosevic.
Baton Haxhiu, editor of the Pristina paper, was personally fined 12,000 deutsche marks (about $6,850), but he doesn't plan to pay it.
"Maybe they'll confiscate something, like my house or car," he said.
Times have been hard for Haxhiu. He discovered his 37-year-old cousin Sabit Veliqi, an English teacher, was killed by Serbian special forces Saturday during a sweep through Srbica.
"Every Friday, he goes into this region to teach," Haxhiu said, relating to what his cousin's family told him. "He was killed early in the morning on Saturday. He was executed with eight bullets."
But the editor had little time for grief. He had to get out another edition as talks got under way in Belgrade between Milosevic and U.S. negotiator Richard C. Holbrooke.
"I think Milosevic can sign a deal," Haxhiu said. "These are the last days for Milosevic in Kosovo."
Yet even as he predicted that the Serbs would cave in to the West and sign a deal that grants substantial autonomy to Kosovo, Haxhiu was preparing for his newspaper's closing.
"I think we will be shut down soon," he said.
Beyond the political maneuvering, the suffering continues in Kosovo, where more than 2,000 have died and more than 400,000 have been rendered homeless in the year-long fighting.
20,000 newly homeless
In the Balkans, the civilians shoulder much of the burden and pain of war. The latest Serbian advance has added more than 20,000 homeless.
"They are not killing so many people," said Marte Palokaj, an aid worker with the Mother Theresa humanitarian relief organization. "They are devastating everything. They want to expel the Albanians."
Palokaj does not believe the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will attack. Even if the alliance does, there is little the aid workers can do.
"We cannot make any plans," she said. "There is no shelter for the population. The only shelter is their home."
One room home
Even a "home" as modest as Krasniqi's tiny triangular-shaped room with four beds and a stove, with its bathroom behind a sheet. She and her eight children live here with her mother and sister-in-law, who has three children.
The room is noisy. Most of the children are either laughing, crying, or playing, while Krasniqi rocks her year-old daughter to sleep in a cradle.
"This is the fourth time we've had to run in a year," said Myrvette Syla, Krasniqi's sister-in-law.
Their husbands are in the mountains, their homes are destroyed, and their possessions aren't much more than ragged clothes, but the sisters-in-law hope they can soon rebuild their lives.
"All of my children are the valuable things I have," Krasniqi said. "I have nothing else."
Pub Date: 3/23/99