Kosovar Serbs board Freedom train

KOSOVO POLJE, Jul 2, 2000 -- (AFP) With a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Milovan, an 18-year-old Kosovar Serb, toasts the train which has become a lifeline for his embattled community.

As a resident of the ethnically mixed town of Kosovo Polje he lives as a virtual prisoner in his home, fearing to walk the streets where being a Serb could be his ticket to a beating, or worse.

On board Kosovo's only passenger train, which re-entered service last week, and surrounded by some 400 of his fellow Serbs, he can begin to feel free again.

"At night the Albanians throw stones at my window. Normally I stay cooped up at home. But not today," he explained as the train took him to the village of Priluzje, where he hoped to buy a new pair of trousers.

"The train is a little bit of freedom," he explained.

One reason for his confidence is the presence on board the train, in the stations and on the bridges along the route, of United Nations police officers and troops of Kosovo's multinational peacekeeping force, KFOR.

Since June last year when a NATO-led peacekeeping force entered Kosovo and the Yugoslav army and police left, many Serbs have fallen victim to revenge attacks carried out by ethnic Albanians, who themselves suffered oppression during Belgrade's campaign against separatism in the province.

Under the watchful eyes of the peacekeepers the train links 10 stops, including three villages with majority Serbian populations, on a route which takes it from Kosovo Polje in the south of the province to Zvecan in the north.

But if the locomotive, brought from France and christened the "Catherine Deneuve," was meant to bring the communities of Kosovo closer together it seems to have missed its stop.

Stations in Serbian areas are packed out, as the province's minority population seizes the chance to experience a change of scenery accompanied by an armed escort. Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority is unmoved.

"We have been waiting for the train for ages," said Biljana, a young Serbian woman from Kosovo Polje, travelling with her husband and three children.

"Today we're going to see my parents who I haven't seen for seven months, even though they live barely 40 kilometers (25 miles) away," she said.

Passengers on the Catherine Deneuve don't have to pay for a ticket, but each is frisked by KFOR troops before they get on board and overseen by UN police throughout the journey.

On the train's first outing after its return to service a KFOR helicopter followed overhead as it wound its way across Kosovo's central plain. Then, despite the beefed up military presence, only a dozen Serbs dared make the trip.

By Friday the four carriages were heaving as more and more Serbs seized the opportunity. "Confidence is returning," an Italian soldier said.

As the train passed the industrial complex at Trepca in the north of the province, Roma gypsies left their trailer park to cheer its passage. In the Serbian villages locals gave it their three figured victory salute. For their part, the ethnic Albanians let it pass with apparent indifference.

For the tradesmen who packed out the carriages with their crates of provisions the train has become an economic necessity. For Milovan it represents his sole link with the world beyond his doorstep.

"I have nothing to do but this, it's my only way out," the student said, wearing a T-shirt with the slogan: "Point zero."

Original article