For family in hiding, Serb a guardian angel

Neighbor diverted troops on rampage of arson from house

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 14, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UROSEVAC, Yugoslavia -- Their guardian angel was a Serbian policeman named Dragan.

While other ethnic Albanians fled this hardscrabble city, Fikrete and Sadete Veliu wouldn't budge. Assured by their neighbor Dragan that they would remain safe, they stayed inside their house with five other family members for nearly three months.

And then, with the war over and international peacekeepers on their way, the sisters survived one last attempted fit of "ethnic cleansing." On Saturday, the day before the local army and police were due to withdraw, something dreadful happened in this town again.

Ten shops belonging to ethnic Albanians were burned. So were homes. But when paramilitaries came to the Veliu's neighborhood, they were met by Dragan, who told them that no Albanians lived there anymore.

So the home was spared.

"If he wasn't there, maybe we wouldn't be alive," Sadete Veliu said.

And yesterday, for the first time in three months, the Veliu sisters and a friend named Vjollca Hoxha walked the streets of this ravaged city. With pale faces and bright smiles the young women strolled past stores that still smoldered and homes that were looted. They seemed to ignore the landscape in a town that looked like it was hit by a riot, not a war. And they searched for old friends and looked for the new neighbors -- the British army.

"I'm so excited that we are free," said Fikrete Veliu, 22. "We are alive."

Things are changing in this city, where ethnic Albanians comprised 75 percent of the prewar population of 60,000, but where Serbs held power.

The British army is in town. The Yugoslav army has hit the road.

And so too, has the local police. Dragan, the man who saved the home of his ethnic Albanian neighbors, packed up and left with his wife, three daughters and son.

"He came to us and said, `I'm sorry, I have to go. We can't live here anymore,' " said Sadete Veliu, 25.

With KFOR troops and tanks flooding the province, these are wrenching and unusual times for just about everyone in Urosevac.

During the war, this was a way station on a trail of misery when ethnic Albanians were loaded in trains and taken to near the Macedonia border. There is now an eerie feeling here, with rows of homes in the ethnic Albanian neighborhood empty and smashed. The town's mosque remains intact, though.

Two platoons of British soldiers, with four armed fighting vehicles, are meant to keep the peace in town. When the soldiers arrived Saturday night, they received a chilly greeting from Yugoslav troops who shouted "Go home NATO."

"I would say they've been humiliated," said Royal Highland Fusilier Daryl Gibson. "One minute, they're holding out, the next, they're told to clear out."

The clearing took place yesterday, a long column of military vehicles sprinkled with beat-up civilian cars ferrying the families of soldiers and police north to Serbia. Serbs who remained behind claimed they would stay and said they were thankful that British troops were in town.

Standing on a street corner as British tanks rolled by, a few men discussed the current situation.

"I believe in this force," said Misha Ristec, a trade inspector with the local government. "They are welcome here."

Nemanja Stefanovic agreed that the force was welcome. And he claimed there was no way any Serb would leave.

"The Albanians are on Serbian holy land," Stefanovic said. "Western countries don't understand that. This is Serb land and it will always be Serb land."

Zvonko Janicijevic said the international peacekeepers can now protect the Serbs from ethnic Albanian guerrillas with the Kosovo Liberation Army. Janicijevic claimed he and his family were forced out of the nearby town of Stimlje by KLA fighters.

"They took advantage of the vacuum," Janicijevic said. "I want KFOR here. I want them in my village, too."

One Serbian man, who didn't want his name used, said local Albanians were actually in fear of the KLA.

"All of us are celebrating the end of the war," the man said. "But Albanians are not afraid of us. They're afraid of the KLA. They didn't go to Albania or Macedonia. They stayed with us."

But the ethnic Albanians who stayed behind don't view themselves as some sort of collaborators living under the protection of Serbs. They merely survived, as best they could, in horrendous circumstances.

As they walked the main street, the Veliu sisters were struck by the emptiness.

"The last time when I saw it there were lots of people," Sadete Veliu said. "There are no Albanians. I think maybe we are the only ones left."

Finally, the sisters were asked what they would do to their neighbor Dragan's home, now that he has left, probably for good.

Would they burn it?

"No," Fikrete Veliu said. "We can't do like what they have done to us. We are not like that."

Pub Date: 6/14/99

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