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Crisis in Yugoslavia | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Bombs Close Door on Teens' Peace Efforts

Outreach: Organization founded by Serb and ethnic Albanian sought to bring youths together and end cultural apartheid.

April 19, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Before the bombing, there was a small, old house in the heart of Pristina where Serbian and ethnic Albanian teenagers used to sit around, listen to music and talk peace.

They were members of a group founded in 1995 by two 15-year-olds, a Kosovo Serb and a Kosovo Albanian, who saw no reason to be optimists but didn't want to give up and be pessimists either.

So they called their new organization Postpessimists, got some Norwegian funding and set to work trying to end Kosovo's cultural apartheid in the one-story house in the oldest neighborhood of the province's capital.

"They realized they were almost the same and didn't hate each other," Goran Lojancic, the group's Serbian coordinator, said here Sunday.

That was a revolutionary thought in Kosovo, where Serbian and ethnic Albanian children didn't even go to the same schools, and often as not were raised to despise and distrust one another.

But the key last turned in the lock of the Postpessimists' front door on March 24, the day NATO began its air war against Yugoslavia. After 25 days of bombing, it was no closer Sunday to opening again.

Lojancic has one of the door keys, but he rarely leaves his own apartment anymore.

He doesn't even have the heart to go and check whether the Postpessimists' house is still standing after NATO bombs destroyed the nearby post office and telephone exchange, and a residential street, on April 7.

Violeta Selimi, the group's ethnic Albanian coordinator, is the mother of its co-founder, Petrit Selimi, who is now living in Oslo. She might have gone to see how the house was.

But she fled Pristina three or four days after the bombing began, when Serbian police, soldiers and gunmen drove her and thousands of others from their homes.

She is now living in forced exile in a refugee camp in neighboring Macedonia. Lojancic is trying to survive the bombs in Pristina.

And the chances of the Postpessimists ever meeting again are dying by the day.

"It really hurts," Lojancic said, staring down at hands that formed a cradle in his lap. "There has been mutual blame on Serbs and Albanians for years because together we created the situation, the one before NATO bombing.

"But what NATO did in the last 25 days is carry out the complete destruction of any possibility of resolving the situation. Basically, they misunderstood the problem and they misunderstood the solution."

Steinar Bryn, a Norwegian who helped Lojancic and other Kosovars bring adult Serbs and ethnic Albanians together in conflict resolution seminars, isn't much more optimistic about reviving the effort.

By bombing, NATO has only added fuel to Kosovo's fires and set back by 20 years any peaceful efforts to resolve the conflict, Bryn said from Oslo.

"In Kosovo, dialogue didn't fail," he added. "It never got a real chance."

The last time Pristina's Post-pessimists met, in March, they were about 40 ethnic Albanians and 25 Serbs, in an old house with a stereo and a couple of computers, one of which "was from the Middle Ages," Lojancic said.

One of the teens, a surprised convert, told Lojancic: "On the first day, I said to myself, 'I will never say a word to a Serb, I hate them.' But after three days, I realized they are not monsters. I am not a monster."

"It's just a story, but everybody thinks like that, Serbs and Albanians," Lojancic said. "They don't have a mutual life. They don't make contact. They just see each other on the streets without saying a word."

And now it is even worse. Many don't even live in the same country anymore.

When Kosovo's war was just a matter between Serbs and the ethnic Albanian majority, Pristina was largely untouched by the fighting.

Besides having the time to just sit and talk, the Postpessimists played sports, held art exhibits and carried out sociological surveys.

"I told them I had just two demands: that their parents know they were coming and that school must come first," Lojancic said.

Juggling schoolwork was often the easier demand to meet. Some parents showed up at the house angry and accused the adult coordinators of trying to sell their children to Western countries, or of plotting to subvert the state.

Actually, the coordinators were getting young people to talk about their fears so they wouldn't grow up to be like parents who had given their children war.

Some of the teens spoke of how they feared the blue uniform of Serbia's special police units, the ones that have shelled and burned Kosovo Albanian villages and forced people from their homes.

Others complained about the Kosovo Liberation Army, which Serbs see as a group of terrorists bent on chasing them from their cultural heartland so that Kosovo can join a Greater Albania.

"The fear has a thousand faces, but basically it is the same," Lojancic said. "It is also the fear of having no future, of sitting and waiting for something bad to happen to you which you didn't create.

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