BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- It was two weeks into NATO's war against Yugoslavia that Dejan Nikolic left Kosovo.
The 19-year-old Serb took a bus out of Prizren and never looked back. And he figures others are sure to follow now that Yugoslav troops are on their way out of the Serbian province.
"I think all the young Serbs will leave," Nikolic said yesterday. "There are no prospects and there is no future."
In the coming days, the toughest question to confront Kosovo's Serbs is this: Should they stay or should they go?
Even with NATO-led peacekeepers set to enter the province as early as today, many Serbs fear for the future, and there are fears that they might all leave.
As Serb forces began pulling out of Kosovo yesterday, they were accompanied by about 20 carloads of Serbian civilians.
Kosovo's prewar population included 200,000 Serbs, compared with 1.9 million ethnic Albanians. But at least 50,000 Serbs fled before the NATO bombing began in March, and 300 previously mixed villages were emptied of Serbs, humanitarian officials say.
An exodus of Serbs would effectively leave the province to the ethnic Albanian majority that was rooted out during the war by the "ethnic cleansing" campaign unleashed by Serbian security forces.
Such a result would provide a stunning end to the Kosovo crisis.
With its wealth of Orthodox churches and compelling history as a cradle of Serbian nationhood, Kosovo provided fertile ground for the nationalism that propelled the career of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
If a wave of Serbian refugees were to head north, it could create dire problems for the regime, which is trying to convince people that Yugoslavia won the war.
It wouldn't be the first time that Milosevic's aim of a greater Serbia ended in a rout of his own people.
In 1995, up to 200,000 Serbs were forced from Krajina in Croatia by oncoming Croat troops.
Serbs also left Sarajevo and other parts of the Muslim-Croat federation and moved into the Republic of Srpska after the 1995 Dayton agreement ended the Bosnian war.
"Milosevic is fulfilling his promise that all Serbs will live in the same land -- only that land is much smaller," historian Predrag Markovic said. "He promised to Kosovo Serbs that no one is going to beat you."
But a flight of Serbs could also embarrass the United Nations and NATO, which would not want to find itself presiding over the wholesale move of a population.
"This is something we're very concerned about," Paula Ghedini, of the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, told reporters in Macedonia. "We don't want the return of one group to cause the displacement of another."
But Ghedini admitted "there is going to be a great deal of tension."
In a bid to help the two communities overcome their differences, UNHCR will run an information campaign in refugee camps raising the issue of law and order and reintegrating both communities.
NATO-led peacekeepers are also pledging to help.
British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Jackson said the Kosovo Force -- known as KFOR -- will take an "evenhanded" approach to provide protection for all civilians.
"The KFOR approach will be one of utter evenhandedness to all the people of Kosovo, from whichever ethnic background they may come," he said, noting that one of KFOR's tasks would be to establish a basic level of law and order.
"Our primary aim is to create that level of security within which all people can have the confidence to live a normal life," he said. "We will deal firmly and directly with anyone trying to prevent us achieving this.
Yugoslav authorities claim they want all people in Kosovo to live peacefully, and they say they want the Serbs to stay.
"We as a state achieved absolute security for Serbs living in Kosovo and Metohija," Yugoslav Foreign Ministry spokesman Nebojsa Vujovic said, referring to the province by its historic name.
In Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina, about 1,000 local Serbs attended a meeting Wednesday in which Serbian Resistance Movement leader Momcilo Drajkovic encouraged everyone to stay.
Local leaders in Milosevic's Socialist Party have also reportedly gone door to door to calm nerves.
Serbia's minister for refugee affairs, Bratislava Morina, a Kosovar Serb married to an ethnic Albanian, said Serbs will remain. She claimed Milosevic had a strategy but said it was a secret.
"Why should we have a situation where people should have to leave their houses and properties?" Morina asked.
Pub Date: 6/11/99