Kosovar Serbs ask NATO for protection

Families must decide during next few days whether to stay or go

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 16, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LAPLJE SELO, Yugoslavia -- Zika Jovovic packed Saturday, tucking a lifetime into suitcases, preparing to flee land his family has lived on for generations.

Fear darted past his door as a line of tractors and rusty cars filled with Serbian refugees bearing piddling possessions and pitiful stories crawled along the road on the outskirts of this Serbian hamlet.

Should Jovovic and his family join the exodus? Or should they stay? In the end, after crying and packing, they stayed.

But Jovovic remains ready at a moment's notice to flee Kosovo in a 20-year-old Zastava car. He won't be alone because the 400 families of Laplje Selo have struck a bargain among themselves.

"If we are going to leave, we will all leave together," Jovovic says.

What happens to Jovovic and the people of Laplje Selo could well signify the success or failure of the international peacekeeping effort in Kosovo. If Serbs leave this town 15 miles south of Pristina, they may inevitably abandon the entire province.

Such a sweep would leave the NATO-run Kosovo Force (KFOR) presiding over "ethnic cleansing" in reverse -- with ethnic Albanians returning to Kosovo while Serbs leave.

As Yugoslav military and police units continue their forced retreat from Kosovo, the next few days could prove crucial in determining the Serbs' fate.

Thousands are flooding from places like Dakovica and Prizren, shrinking the Serbian population from its preconflict level of 200,000. Tensions are also on the rise in the provincial capital, Pristina, with reports of Kosovo Liberation Army attacks against Serbian civilians.

Now, Serbs are pleading for protection from the very troops they vowed to fight to the death: NATO.

With its idyllic setting in a lush valley by a stream and a population of only 2,500, Laplje Selo does not seem like a place that would be wracked with fear. Yet for months, people here have been uncertain as they sought to cling to their place in a province where, before the war, ethnic Albanians outnumbered Serbs 9-to-1.

A visit here on an icy day in February -- a month before the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia began -- revealed a population that was frightened by the KLA and annoyed with Western politicians, who they claimed sided with the Kosovar Albanians. Then, negotiations were under way to craft a political settlement to the crisis.

But time, war and defeat have changed the mood in this town. Defiance has given way to acceptance that life is changing in the province.

The biggest change can be seen from the porch of Jovovic's home as a British army helicopter thunders overhead, while on the road a British tank rumbles past.

"We have a chaotic situation here," Jovovic says. "We hope KFOR will station their forces here as soon as possible and tell us where we can go if there is trouble. We have no police or Yugoslav army. Where do we go for help?"

He adds: "Personally, I would be very pleased to see KFOR soldiers policing in my street. KFOR has to protect us. That is their task."

Jovovic is a mainstay in this town. His family has overseen the water-turned flour mill for generations. The mill's rutted wooden door was reputedly struck by Turkish bullets -- Kosovo was ruled by the Turks until 1912. And now, Jovovic shows other war blemishes.

After NATO airstrikes, cracks developed in the concrete of his home. He also cracked his scythe, which he dropped in the fields during one daylight air attack that killed five soldiers in a nearby field. And his son's accordion was broken when it fell to the floor during a strike.

As he talks, the 55-year-old man with leathered hands and a creased face can hardly believe he is discussing moving on. He was born 100 yards from his house and hasn't moved very far since. He recalls sleeping in the flour mill as a child while his grandfather worked at night.

But now he's scared. He is so afraid of the KLA that he didn't sleep for two nights recently, staying up in his car to watch for anything suspicious in the nearby cornfields.

"I have 8 acres of land, and I'll be very sad if I have to leave this," he says. "It would be a catastrophe."

His loss would be immense, from chickens to cattle to the garden his wife lovingly tends. The strawberry patch is fertile this year, and the first leaves of lettuce are just about ready to be picked.

But if the KLA advances, he will leave to save his family, for he knows the alternative from the faces and tales he has heard from those refugees who drove past his home over the weekend. He even tried to persuade one of the fleeing Serbian families to spend a few days in his yard, to gather their thoughts and remain in Kosovo. But they refused.

Later, Jovovic started to have second thoughts about staying. It was his 20-year-old son, Andrija, who calmed the father's nerves then, persuading him to stay.

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