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World Perspective | CONFLICT

Fighting in Kosovo Fuels Serb Exodus

Warfare between Yugoslav forces, ethnic Albanian separatists yields refugees--and hatred--on both sides.

July 25, 1998|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Before the escalation of fighting between separatists and Serbian forces in the breakaway province of Kosovo, college student Snezana Jovanovic counted a few ethnic Albanians among her friends.

"There's an Albanian woman who used to be my neighbor," said Jovanovic, 18, who is a Serb. "Only a fence separated us. We used to eat together. I ate her bread, and she ate the bread my mother baked."

But now, as the death toll soars past 400 in fighting between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and government forces, never-great relations between the two main ethnic groups here are spiraling into mutual hatred.

Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees have been driven from their homes by mortar bombardments or other attacks by Serbian forces.

But as the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army shows its ability to fight, another exodus is also underway: frightened Serbs fleeing to safer parts of Yugoslavia. The flight is led by children, sent to relatives during summer vacation with plans to stay on when school resumes.

Aside from one bombing incident, Pristina, the provincial capital, has not been hit by the fighting. But fear stalks its streets.

"Over the past month, about 20,000 women and children have left Pristina," said Momcilo Trajkovic, a former Serbian official. He now leads the Serbian Resistance Movement and runs a downtown Pristina shop selling cold drinks, newspapers, magazines, fruit and vegetables.

"They're afraid for their lives," Trajkovic said of Serbs, who are outnumbered 9 to 1 in the province. "They see people dying every day."

One university-educated Serbian woman said that when her son went out to play, she would "constantly" be at the window, worried about his safety. She ended up sending him to join relatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she said.

Legal restrictions make it difficult for Serbs fleeing Kosovo to sell their property. But people find ways around the rules. The price of homes in Pristina has fallen by about 50% since last year, according to Serbian residents.

Other Serbs, citing their centuries-long links to Kosovo, say they will stay. Some are ready to fight.

The United States, by seeking to draw the guerrilla leadership into peace negotiations--and thus implicitly recognizing the rebels' legitimacy--sent exactly the wrong signal to armed Serbian civilians in Kosovo, who may start joining the battle in greater numbers, Trajkovic said.

"If the international community continues to support rather than condemn Albanian terrorists, then I'm sure Serbs will also organize to defend their homes and become a factor, and Serbs cannot be condemned for that," he said. "The U.S. says: 'What can be done? The KLA controls 30% of the territory.' Serbs can also start blocking free transit through enclaves they control and kidnapping people. Is that the way for Serbs to become a legitimate partner? That is the direction the international community is showing us."

Even where relations have not deteriorated to the point of violence between neighbors, old friendships have died.

Jovanovic, the college student who lives in a village just outside Pristina, said the Albanian woman who used to be her friend "is not allowed to see me anymore because of her husband: He's always one of the leaders of any Albanian demonstration."

"They want all of Kosovo," she said. "We gave them an arm, and they want our whole body, although they have no right to that. They joined us. They lived with us. They are part of us; we are not part of them."

Jovanovic said she does not plan to flee and hopes to finish her degree in economics.

Gordana Nikolic, 19, a psychology student in Pristina, said she too wants to stay.

"At first I was frightened, but later I began to think that God's love is very powerful, and it will probably help all of us," Nikolic said. "I will stay because this is the place I was born. Maybe it's patriotism. Maybe it's a wish to be a witness of the best and the worst in man."

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