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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Serbian Poet Is Lone Voice of Dissent Amid Silence

April 04, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Now that large parts of Kosovo's capital have been emptied of ethnic Albanians, the guns have gone silent by day and the city is suddenly calm.

It's as if the beast, sated by an orgy of "ethnic cleansing" and looting, has lain down to rest.

For a moment, at least, Pristina is quiet enough for a poet's voice to be heard. He is a Serb who wonders where his ethnic Albanian friends are, whether they are hungry and camped out in the cold and rain, or even alive.

It is not an easy concern to voice, not when North Atlantic Treaty Organization missiles are setting fire to the very center of Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital.

With Serbia suffering its worst attacks since the Nazi bombardments of World War II, to step away from the angry nationalist mob is to risk being branded a traitor.

But Alexander Simovich cannot ignore his loss, or Kosovo's, or the truth that war has killed any desire he had left to live in the land of his birth. He is sick of being seen as a member of an ethnic group instead of a person.

"Walking through the city these days, it's like a ghost town," Simovich, 30, said Saturday in Pristina.

"I saw Albanian refugees, kids crying, my neighbor not knowing where his family is. They are just people--unhappy people. Not Albanians. Not Serbs."

Simovich prefers writing short stories and poetry to talking politics. But when the talk does turn to the continuing crisis here, he lays the blame for it on his own people as well as on the Kosovo Albanians and NATO. Mistakes have been made all around.

Serbian authorities were wrong to keep trying to solve the worsening conflict in the province by dealing with pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova, who had lost all credibility with ethnic Albanians, Simovich said.

And the West shouldn't treat the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, as something more noble than terrorists while it calls Kurdish, Northern Irish and Basque separatist fighters exactly that, he added.

"This is the only place in the world where we cannot say 'terrorist.' We are supposed to call it a 'liberation army,' " Simovich said. "They had a pretty good life here. What kind of liberty do they want?"

Before almost all Western journalists were ordered to leave Kosovo after the first night of NATO attacks, a few operated a bar and restaurant named after U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. They called it Tricky Dick's.

When the Kosovo Albanian delegation signed a peace accord last month in Paris that the Serbs rejected, Simovich's ethnic Albanian friends had a party at Tricky Dick's.

They got drunk on good wine and cold beer and the thought that NATO might actually bomb the Serbs.

"It was five days before the bombing began," Simovich said. "I told them they had nothing to celebrate, that it was just propaganda for the cameras and the KLA."

Two weeks later, Simovich can't find any of the ethnic Albanian friends he drank with that night.

Not all of Pristina's ethnic Albanians are gone, but some neighborhoods have been deserted since police, soldiers and paramilitary gunmen shot up the streets and ordered people to leave their homes, and Yugoslavia too.

During a two-hour walk through once-teeming ethnic Albanian districts in east Pristina on Saturday, there wasn't a soul anywhere except a few police who had parked a large armored vehicle outside an expensive, deserted house.

Laundry hung on clotheslines over several balconies, but the only sound was of dogs barking and crows fighting over trash in the streets. The front doors to several apartments were wide open.

Many windows had bullet holes in them. The iron security grates had been twisted off shop fronts, their windows smashed and anything valuable looted.

In a city that wasn't pretty even before the war, Simovich is determined to show a little style. His short hair is combed straight back, and he has a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache.

He was dressed Saturday in a loose-fitting dark suit and freshly polished shoes. His tie was patterned with bright-colored brush strokes.

Simovich loves Bob Dylan and jazz and lyrical poets. In the moments when he still allows himself to dream, he is living in another country, like the United States. But the war keeps jerking him back to Kosovo.

"I try not to think of it," he said. "I deal with it by living an ordinary life, not hiding, not panicking."

There are few real air-raid shelters in Pristina, so most people make do with bathrooms or cellars or, in Simovich's case, a basement storage room that held cans of gasoline before NATO began bombing Yugoslavia and he had to move underground.

Now there are five beds squeezed in with a table, where Simovich can write by the glow of a lamp he made from a glass filled with three parts water, one part oil and a cotton wick.

Candles are impossible to find in the few state-owned shops that are allowed to open each day in Pristina. Other essentials of life in a bunker, such as batteries for transistor radios, are just as rare.

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