In Kosovo, some Serbian `Schindlers' shielded Albanians

And as in World War II, collaborators played role

June 23, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

PEC, Yugoslavia -- Zhivko Martinovic had a dank, cramped, concrete woodshed next to his home. It was the best he could offer -- 5 by 7 feet, cluttered with chopped wood, paint cans, old soda bottles, hammers, shovels.

For nearly three months, the Serbian man's shed served as sanctuary for his two ethnic Albanian neighbors, a refuge from the terrors of Serbian paramilitary attacks and NATO bombing.

"He opened his door and helped us," said 75-year-old Zymber Buqaj at the doorway to the shed, "because he knew they were doing massacres."

The Albanians call Serbs such as Martinovic the "Schindlers," friends of theirs before the war who went out on a limb to become their saviors when the "ethnic cleansing" began. Named after Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from Nazi slaughter, these Serbs risked their lives to protect Albanians.

Some warned Albanian families of a coming Serbian military attack. Others appealed to Serbian soldiers to release men the Serbian militiamen were trying to pull out of a column of fleeing Albanians. The bravest of Serbian civilians offered their basements or woodsheds as hiding places, hoping that the soldiers would not search a Serbian home.

Martinovic began helping his next-door neighbors by knocking down a part of the stone wall between their houses, enabling the Buqajes to sneak back in and out of their home at times without detection from the street.

Martinovic apologized for not being able to take Buqaj and his wife into the comfort of his house, saying they might be seen by the Serbian paramilitary, "and if they saw you, they would kill you," Buqaj recounted.

In a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, both Albanians and Serbs found their character tested. The Schindlers were not alone in crossing ethnic divides.

So, too, did Albanians who cooperated with the Serbian regime. Their ethnic brothers have a nickname for them, too: "Shiptar Te Shitur" -- "sellouts," roughly translated.

There were ethnic Albanians who decided it was more profitable to cooperate with, or even assist, Serbian authorities instead of suffering repression and, later, savage attacks.

In the region surrounding Dakovica, Albanians speak with hatred of one such family: the clan of Mush Ibrahimi, commonly called "Mush Jakupi," or the children of Mush.

After the war began, the Mush Jakupi reportedly lured targeted Albanians into opening their doors to Serbian attackers.

The paramilitary "used them. They called out in Albanian, and when they answered the door, they were killed," said Zeja Bejtullahu, a local resident.

"They were mercenaries!" screamed Linda Nikolici, 26, whose family's home was burned. "We all knew all of them. If I saw them now, I would massacre them, the way they did."

Other Albanians were deeply disappointed to learn that some of their Serbian neighbors, people the Albanians thought were their friends, turned on them in anger over the NATO bombings.

"My best friend was Serbian, and he threw a grenade into my house because I had had a Serb girlfriend," said Talat Nuhim of Prizren.

Blerim Hasi used to share meals regularly with a Serbian friend at a favorite restaurant in Dakovica. The friend, whom Hasi called by the nickname of Qile, burned the restaurant himself.

"He shot at me five times when I tried to stop the fire," Hasi said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Most of these Serbs, along with their ethnic Albanian sympathizers, are believed to have fled Kosovo, fearing retribution by Albanians.

Only the Schindlers are welcome now, but many of them, fearing an unpredictable future, have fled also.

In Prizren, the Bruti family had rented office space from Serbs who lived upstairs. When the Serbian soldiers were coming, the Serbian family, headed by a man the Bruti family would identify only as Stanislav, warned them.

Terrified, the Brutis considered running to Albania. Then Stanislav's wife interrupted: "Why are you going to Albania? Stay here and come in our home," recounted Afradita Bruti, 23.

The Brutis stayed, but when the war ended, Stanislav and his family chose to go.

"We begged them to stay. We said, `You can come in our house and be protected by us. We Albanians are not going to touch you if you didn't do anything harmful,' " Bruti said.

But the Serbian family fled during the Serbian military pullout, saying their knowledge that massacres were taking place left them vulnerable to retaliatory attacks. "I have no face to stay here anymore," Bruti recounted Stanislav telling him. "I know what the Serb soldiers are doing."

Albanians worry about the fate of the Schindlers. Kosovar Serbs are not well-liked in upper Serbia, where they are known as "Albanian Serbs." Bruti and others are concerned that the people who helped them will not find a safe home anywhere in Yugoslavia.

Even Martinovic, who had offered his woodshed to save his neighbors, could not be persuaded to stay, Buqaj said.

One of Martinovic's sons had run a local restaurant and was well-regarded by Albanians, but the other son had joined the paramilitary, Buqaj said, presumably joining in the attacks.

Sunday, a sad Martinovic met Buqaj and turned over the keys to his house. Buqaj sought to return his neighbor's brave favor to him, and offered his own home as shelter for Martinovic.

But the Serb man declined.

"Please take my keys. If your daughter returns, she can stay in my house," Buqaj recalled Martinovic as insisting. "I can't be here anymore."

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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