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THE DEATH OF BELANICA

Serbs See History as Being on Their Side

Uncowed by NATO bombings, they are determined to fight--and die, if necessary--to keep their hold on Kosovo, the seat of their medieval glory.

April 25, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Just 19 years old and built like a wall, Rade Vulic is a prime candidate for conscription. If NATO invades Kosovo, he could well find himself on the front line opposite the most powerful military force on Earth.

Despite the invisible barrier that kept Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo apart even before the latest wave of expulsions and Western bombs, Vulic said he used to have ethnic Albanian friends.

Now, he says, he is willing to fight--and die, if necessary--so that Serbs maintain control of Kosovo.

"This bombing gives us great morale," the business student said as an accordion band played at one of the regular noon rallies in Pristina, the provincial capital. "The more they bomb us, the more stubborn we are."

"We survived World War I and World War II, and life under the Turks for 500 years, so this isn't much to talk about. You just have to understand the psychology of the Serbs, and NATO obviously doesn't."

To outsiders, that may sound like the bravado of a brainwashed citizen living under dictatorship. Western military spokesmen from the Pentagon to NATO headquarters in Brussels have claimed as much.

But in Kosovo, where the Serbian minority is hardened by more than a year of civil war against the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, and now NATO's daily airstrikes, such defiance doesn't sound hollow.

Serbs consider the KLA a terrorist organization and accuse NATO of openly encouraging the guerrillas while condemning Kurds, Basques and other separatist groups in the allies' own countries.

Ethnic Albanian refugees cannot expect to return to Kosovo unless "they come to reason and don't commit terrorist acts," Vulic said. "It's the terrorists who caused all this. And NATO advised them to do it."

The Serbian attitude stems from history. But it doesn't end there.

Medieval ruins that mark the height of Serbia's power in Europe stand at the mouth of a narrow canyon in southern Kosovo, where conquerors have come and gone for centuries.

The 14th century settlement, about two miles from Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, was smaller than today's shopping mall parking lots. With a monastery dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and a stone wall sealing off a hostile world, it stood in the shadow of a Roman fortress atop Mt. Sara.

Serbs refer to it as Czar Dusan Town, and from this remote corner of Kosovo, Dusan commanded a realm that extended across present-day Albania, Macedonia and all the way to Greece.

The Serbs weren't at the pinnacle very long. Dusan died just nine years after proclaiming himself emperor of the Serbs and Greeks in 1346.

When the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs in the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, just 43 years after Dusan's death, the conquerors found a new use for the stones of his church.

The Turks tore down the walls and transported each stone to the new seat of power at Prizren, where they built a mosque to honor the latest man to wield power over Kosovo: Sinan Pasha.

Despite widespread looting and expulsions in other parts of Kosovo, many shops remain open in Prizren, and ethnic Serbs, Albanians and Turks still walk freely in the streets.

Like most mosques across Kosovo, Sinan Pasha's hasn't been touched. Its white minaret towers over Prizren just as it has for almost three centuries.

Rather than destroy the symbol of the Turks' victory, Serbs chose to restore some of their own past glory by rebuilding a replica of Dusan's monastery on its medieval foundations.

But they had to stop March 24--when NATO dropped its first bombs on Yugoslavia--in order to focus on what Serbs see as another epic battle for survival.

"What NATO wants to do is take away part of our land," Vulic said. "Why don't they give Los Angeles to the Mexicans then? It's the same thing."

Although census figures are outdated and in dispute, Serbs made up an estimated 10% of Kosovo's 2 million people before the bombing, along with smaller minorities such as ethnic Turks and Gypsies.

The rest were ethnic Albanians, but hundreds of thousands of them have fled, most of them after NATO bombing began and Serbs sought revenge in a vicious orgy of "ethnic cleansing."

Serbs like Vulic say the air assault won't break them, although they would welcome the chance to fight NATO head on instead of waiting for bombs to fall.

"It's some kind of frustration or hatred toward us," Vulic said. "Nobody likes this. It's a psychological war. With these bombs and everything, they just want to kill a person psychologically.

"This is not man against man, as it would be with a ground force. That would be a real war, but this isn't," he said.

Like many European countries, Yugoslavia requires young men to do a one-year stint in the armed forces as their national service. Some have dodged the draft, but many others like Vulic insist that they are ready to fight. They seem to have Serbian society behind them.

Like most people here, Desanka Nicic was terrified when the bombing began.

But most of the bombs don't fall any closer than the edge of Pristina. Her nerves have eased, and she is back at work at the Yumco food store, one of the few shops open.

"There should be peace, but we will win," said Nicic, 46. "They shouldn't interfere here. People are ready to fight to the last person and give up their lives for the country. That includes me."

No matter how the war over Kosovo ends, Vulic is certain that life will never be the same.

When thousands of ethnic Albanians were forced out of Pristina, many of them at gunpoint, Vulic's neighbors asked if he would take the key to their apartment and keep an eye on things while they were gone.

"I couldn't because I don't want to be responsible if something gets stolen," he said. "They could come back someday. I wouldn't care if they do or not, but we could never be friends as before."

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