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Documentary : A Roller Coaster Ride to Freedom : * Despite roadblocks and guns and an upside-down world, the Slovenes go about their daily business as best they can.

July 02, 1991|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Stunned by the punishing force Yugoslavia's army has unleashed upon them, the people of Slovenia have been riding an emotional roller coaster for the past week.

They are buoyed by their relative success in the first fight to defend independence. But faced with the angry and heavily armed federal forces, many fear they will not long bask in the role of the mouse that roared.

The Slovenes cope by going about their business as best they can, sticking to the inherent industriousness that is part of their Austrian legacy and that has made their republic so prosperous.

Unsure what else they should be doing amid a world turned upside-down, the Slovenes go to school or work or shopping as if by rote, seemingly almost oblivious to the bedlam around them.

Here in this picturesque capital, with its skyline of vaulted church spires and baroque architecture, antiaircraft guns now bristle from the castle clock tower and quaint cobblestone streets are barricaded against attack. Fatigue-clad militiamen carry grenades and submachine guns.

Church bells ring to signal the approach of intimidating aircraft, as well as the usual toll every hour to tell the time.

Bells and air-raid sirens scattered Slovenes to basements and shelters Sunday, when authorities warned by radio that Yugoslav fighter jets had scrambled and appeared headed for Ljubljana.

The few pedestrians out in public after a tense night of waiting and worrying about what the federal army would do--it had threatened a major assault to subdue the rebellious republic--calmly ducked indoors until the all-clear sounded nearly two hours later.

Exploding rockets and gun battles on the city's perimeter since late last week have understandably made Ljubljana residents skittish. Yet sometimes the crash is only thunder from what has become a routine of hot, muggy days that end in torrential rainstorms.

Virtually no one expected fighting in Slovenia, a serene and scenic republic that lays claim in its tourist and trade literature to being "the sunny side of the Alps."

The long-feared civil war was expected to rip through neighboring Croatia, maybe spreading to ethnically mixed Bosnia-Herzegovina, probably drawing in rebellious Kosovo Albanians in time.

Slovenia, a tiny enclave of towering mountains with an amiable population of 2 million, was thought to be immune to factional violence and safe from the wrath of the Serbian-led army.

Even now, despite the confusion of roadblocks and interrupted transport, shops and restaurants are usually open. Ice cream sales are booming in the sticky heat.

There are subtler changes of routine. No longer do couples cuddle along the Ljubljanica embankment, where weeping willows dangle in the gray-green water like spindly fingers.

The statue-lined bridges and walkways of the old quarter are bustling during rush hours, yet eerily empty after dark as Slovenes abandon their ritual after-dinner strolls.

Radios blare from every doorway and open window. Nearly everyone is tuned to Slovenian broadcasts to keep abreast of each nuance in the struggle to resist a forced alliance with the southern Yugoslav republics.

Key intersections and all approaches to Ljubljana are blocked with makeshift barricades--formed by city buses, dump trucks and snowplows--to prevent any military takeover of the republic's parliament or government center.

Fully loaded tractor-trailer rigs bearing Greek and Hungarian license plates have been abandoned by their drivers outside the roadblocks, inadvertently reinforcing the improvised defenses. But they impair city traffic in the process, afflicting Ljubljana's inner streets with gridlock.

Police officers in flak jackets and camouflage caps adorned with the new red-white-and-blue emblem of independent Slovenia direct vehicles around the impediments, calmly advising motorists how best to reach their destinations.

There is little panic even though most of the casualties in the fight to defend Slovenia have been civilians.

There is also little regret about the Slovenian government's declaration of sovereignty and even less hesitation about pressing on.

"We are united now because we are defending our own," said Srecko Javric, a 34-year-old auto mechanic manning a barricade on the road to Maribor.

"Sure, we're afraid," added a chambermaid discussing the latest news with two colleagues on a park bench. "We don't know what is going to happen next. We think Slovenia has right on its side and can win in the end, that we can retain our independence. We're peaceful people, but if they attack us we must fight back."

It has been a David-and-Goliath conflict so far, with the big Yugoslav military's image considerably dimmed. The outmanned and outgunned irregulars of Slovenia's ragtag forces have posted a moral victory by standing up to the federal attack and walking away with the lighter toll.

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