NYT - Strangers in a Familiar Land: the Serbs of Kosovo

December 18, 1999

By STEVEN ERLANGER

GORAZDEVAC, Kosovo -- Zivko Maksic walks around this village as if he were taking exercise in a prison yard. An electrician, he used to work at the beer distillery in Pec, about six miles away, but now it is too dangerous to travel there. In fact, he cannot even tend his fields, less than a mile from the village. When he tries, neighboring Albanians shoot at him.

Mr. Maksic, 54, is almost philosophical about his narrowed world. "The land we have that's close, we work that," he said. "But the land farther on isn't safe. We tried to work it but they attacked us."

Mr. Maksic is a beefy man who looks pale, ill and exhausted. He and his friends Radomir Jeremic, 36, and Sinisa Jovovic, 22, were standing chatting idly on a recent day, under a low roof against a freezing drizzle.

"We have no access to the town, that's the hardest thing," Mr. Jovovic said, referring to Pec. He is single, but cannot possibly think about getting married. He had a girlfriend in Pec but "that's finished now."

The Serbs in this last remaining Serbian village near Pec are surrounded by hostile Albanians and guarded by Italian troops from the international peacekeeping force that arrived in June. The troops have checkpoints at every road into the village to protect this enclave of "multi-ethnicity" in western Kosovo, but they do little patrolling.

In fact, there is shooting nearly every night, an effort to scare the Serbian villagers, and Albanians often cut off the electricity.

The other night, when a grenade went off and broke the windows of the last operating coffee shop, the Italians were nowhere to be found, Mr. Maksic said. When asked about the attack, the Italian captain, who would not give his name, asked in apparent innocence, "Oh, is that what happened?"

Still, the easygoing Italians are popular here. Residents cannot imagine how they could live without the protection.

"The Serbs here are O.K.," the Italian captain said. "Our problems are with the Albanians."

In the windows of a nearby shop, there was a pathetic collection of goods, all from Serbia: vodka and fruit brandy, filthy cans of tinned fish, some salt, cheap cigarettes and "Only!" brand cola and orange soda.

Pec, like the rest of Kosovo, is overflowing with goods from Albania and Macedonia. But the Italians say they have better things to do than to shop for the Serbs of Gorazdevac. German troops do bring in fresh bread from a bakery they have restarted in their zone, near Prizren.

But the only vegetables available are those the residents can grow or preserve. There are no newspapers, nor access to any Serbian-language media -- print or broadcast.

There have been a few protected convoys to Pec, Mr. Maksic said. "But they attack the buses with stones," he said. "Two buses went through Pec and they broke all the windows, and now people are frightened to go."

The Yugoslav government helps a little. Pensions are paid on time but do not go very far. A truck convoy comes about every 10 days, bringing supplies and animal feed, but it is not enough.

Other than farming, there is not much to do here. The only factory in town, which made cheap shoes, shut down five years ago. The peacekeepers sometimes pay residents 2 German marks an hour (about $1.10) to clean up common areas or about 5 marks an hour (plus fuel) if residents provide their own tractors.

Part of the tension has stemmed from the return of Serbs to Gorazdevac. Some fled at the end of the war and have come back; others have come from other parts of Kosovo. Some have come to stay; more have looked around, then left again.

By the end of October, about 600 Serbs were living here, about 60 percent of the population before the war this spring, but many Kosovo Albanians are convinced there are war criminals among the Serbs who use the protection of the peacekeepers' convoys to cover their movements. The peacekeepers have been reluctant to escort Albanians through Gorazdevac, even from nearby Pocesce, whose only access road to Pec runs through here.

In a report by the human rights division of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Gorazdevac is called "perhaps the most delicately balanced single issue" in western Kosovo. "It was also the most likely to initiate violence," the report concluded.

In general, the Serbs here deny deep feelings of guilt or responsibility over the mistreatment of Albanians by Serbian troops and militias, or at least they do not express such feelings to a foreigner. "The Albanians started this long ago," Mr. Maksic said. "They wanted a Kosovo republic, to leave Yugoslavia. They asked for too much."

Just outside the village are some burned-out homes where Albanians once lived. The Serbs say they know little about what happened. Mr. Jovovic suggested that the Albanians "moved out on their own," and that to prevent having Serbs use the houses, "they burned them themselves."

When told how bizarre that sounded, Mr. Jovovic shrugged.

Milijanko Jeremic, 45, and no relation to Radomir, said the problems all stemmed from "two policemen who came from Serbia during the war, and they made all the problems." The villagers, he insisted, were guilty of nothing. He shrugged. "It was war."

Of course he knew the Albanians suffered, Milijanko Jeremic said. But now, he said: "All the Turks, the Croats and the Serbs are being pushed out. It was a war, and a nasty war. But should only one people live here now? Is that what America wants? I have nothing in Serbia. My house and my country are here." (Serbs often call local Muslims Turks, a relic of Ottoman rule.)

He kicked at the grass. "We're not pessimists," he said, then laughed. "Of course, we're not big optimists, either."

Bozidar Radulovic, 65, said there was nothing good for anyone during the war. "But now we're in a bad situation," he said. "We live like in a quarantine, on a reservation." He pointed down the road to the coffeehouse, where the grenade exploded.

"There's lots of pressure on us," he said. "They provoke us. That shop was the only place we go out and they bombed it. We're afraid to go anywhere."

Suddenly there was an eerie screaming. In the center of the village, in a yard, Mr. Jovovic was helping Mr. Maksic slaughter a pig. As the blood pumped from its throat, the pig continued to squeal.

Aco Dakic, 57, fixing the tiles on his roof in the rain, barely looked up at the sound. He said about 10 houses of Serbian families had been burned on the outskirts of the village, and about six belonging to Albanians. His wife helped hold the ladder.

Will he stay in Gorazdevac? Mr. Dakic said: "Well, my wife wants to stay. Anyway, where can we go? We don't have anywhere else to go. Whatever we have, we have here. For 35 years, whatever I could earn or build is here."

They have three daughters, however -- 16, 19 and 20. "And what kind of life will they have here?" Mr. Dakic asked. His wife turned away. He swore an oath. "We don't know anything," he said bitterly. "We have no information."

Asked about the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, who had been popular with Kosovo's Serbs, Mr. Dakic said: "That's a political thing. I don't want to get into it."

What about his Albanian neighbors? Mr. Dakic looked upset. "We were fine, almost like brothers," he said. "But the Albanian leaders and our leaders needed to find a common language, not violence."

He stopped, then asked: "Why did NATO come? To push the Serbs out? I can't understand why they can't put things in order."

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