Rallies mark different views on bombings

Lafayette Park speakers variously laud, denounce U.S. and NATO actions

War In Yugoslavia

April 01, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Two rallies, just hours apart. Two starkly different messages for President Clinton and the NATO alliance, delivered from the same sun-splashed promenade in front of the White House.

More than 1,000 Albanian-Americans -- their bodies draped in American flags as they chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!," making the scene feel like an Olympic hockey game -- poured into Lafayette Park to celebrate the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.

That event was at noontime.

At 5 p.m., it was the Serbs' turn.

About 100 Serbian-Americans and anti-war activists -- toting Serbian flags and a picture of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright with "Wanted for Murder" sketched across her face -- marched along Pennsylvania Avenue, footsteps from where the Albanian rally had ended. They insisted that Serbia is being punished for trying to hang on to it most historically cherished region, Kosovo. Americans are divided over the NATO airstrikes. Polls this week indicate that 60 percent approve of the bombings and 30 percent disapprove. At these protests, the voices from the extremes -- from people with a direct and personal interest at stake -- were being heard.

First came the Albanians.

"It's time to turn off the lights in Belgrade," shouted Ilir Zherka, executive director of the National Albanian American Council. Zherka applauded NATO efforts and implored the alliance to "step it up" and send in ground troops. "The greatest military alliance in history cannot lose a war to Slobodan Milosevic, the new Hitler," he said.

The rally began with a prayer for those killed by Serbs -- a 30-second period of silence broken only by the ringing of cellular phones in the crowd.

Agron Gashi taught demonstrators what they should do when the U.S. national anthem is played. "Take your right hand and put it over your heart," he said. An Albanian woman with a thick accent then sang the anthem, stumbling over some words.

Demonstrators burned a Yugoslav flag. Dozens of American flags flapped in the breeze alongside the red flags of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Members of the crowd told gruesome stories they had heard from relatives and friends -- one man told of 20 teachers executed by Serbs in front of their students.

Peter Marku, a restaurant owner from Detroit, said he spoke to his cousin, Julia, in the Kosovo village of Peja -- near the border with Montenegro -- on Sunday. She was hiding in her basement as Serbian police knocked on neighbors' doors, he said.

Marku tried calling Julia again Tuesday. "Nobody answered the phone," he said. "I'm so worried I cannot sleep."

At the pro-Serbian protest, Marina Evdochenko-Wells, a Kosovo-born Russian woman, said accounts of genocide have been one-sided. "We're given these bull stories of ethnic cleansing," she said. "Albanians were killing Serbs and raping Serbian nuns since 1968."

Malcolm Cannon of the International Action Center, the anti-war group sponsoring the event, poked fun at the U.S. fighter plane downed last week: "Hey, Stealth! Whadda ya say? How many times did you crash today?"

Many, like Maria Hughes, a Serbian-American, said they had opposed Milosevic's politics but now support him because keeping Kosovo in Serb hands takes first priority.

"The Jews have Jerusalem, Americans have Arlington Cemetery," Hughes said. "Serbs have Kosovo."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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