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For Many Serbs, No Sense of Guilt Over Atrocities

Yugoslavia: Some deny widespread violence occurred against Kosovo's Albanians. Others see themselves as victims.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Dragan Antic is appalled by what Slobodan Milosevic did to Kosovo and bold enough to say so in public. Standing in a downtown Belgrade square with 200 other defiant Serbs, he accused the Yugoslav president by nickname.

"It's Slobo who is guilty!" he shouted as police stepped in to break up the rally here in the capital.

Milosevic has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal for atrocities carried out by Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians. President Clinton has appealed to Serbs to "come to grips with what Mr. Milosevic ordered in Kosovo" and dump their elected leader.

But that's not what bothers Antic. Far more than the slaughter and mass expulsion of Albanians, the 44-year-old lawyer says he is furious about the messy surrender that swept him and other Serbs out of Kosovo on the heels of Milosevic's retreating army.

Defeat in NATO's 11-week air war has left Serbs feeling more angry than ashamed, more like victims than perpetrators. While their reaction is a threat to Milosevic's hold on power, it hardly begins to address the painful question of responsibility--individual or collective--for Kosovo's bloody spring.

The few Serbs trying to ask this question in public argue that Serbia cannot become a democracy or break the cycle of ethnic violence and revenge in the Balkans until it starts a soul-searching process such as Germany's denazification after World War II.

Such a moral reckoning is inhibited, however, by violent Albanian reprisals against the dwindling Serbian minority in postwar Kosovo and by a wall of denial in the rest of Serbia.

There have been no stories in Serbia's media over the past weeks and little public discussion as NATO peacekeepers sealed off mass burial sites and foreign journalists gathered accounts by ethnic Albanian survivors of the rampage of killing, burning, looting and rape in Kosovo.

Opposition Focuses on Damage to Nation

Nearly two-thirds of Serbs do not believe that such atrocities occurred, according to an opinion poll published last week in the Belgrade newsmagazine Nin. Most opposition leaders avoid the subject, preferring to emphasize the high price that Serbs are now paying for Milosevic's latest military defeat.

"What was the purpose of fighting this war if we had to give Kosovo away?" Antic asked at the rally last week. "Before the war, we were living in our own homes. Now we have nothing more than the clothes you see on our backs."

Antic is one of about 80,000 Serbs who have fled Kosovo since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stopped bombing Yugoslavia last month and began escorting ethnic Albanians back home to the Serbian province where they form the overwhelming majority. Serbia is the Yugoslav federation's main republic.

When separatist Albanian guerrillas poured into his native Prizren along with the returning refugees, Antic shed his army reservist uniform, turned in his gun and fled. "I didn't kill anyone," the lawyer insisted in an interview, "but an Albanian neighbor told me I would never be safe in Kosovo. I am a victim of their ethnic cleansing."

It matters little to Antic that many more Albanians--close to a million--fled under a Serbian assault that by all accounts was far more brutal, direct and systematic. In his view, the guilt and suffering on both sides negate each other. "They were victims, and then we were victims," he said. "It was a war, and the victors dictated their revenge."

Scores of Serbs interviewed during and since the war echo this zero-sum conclusion about a slaughter that, according to Western officials, claimed about 10,000 Albanian lives. Ask a Serb why the nation cannot bring itself to condemn its killers, and you're likely to get a long explanation that starts, "It's all very complicated."

In the Serbian mind, the "complications" go back a long time.

Albanian and Serbian clans in what is now Kosovo have fought each other on and off for centuries. Most Albanians are Muslims, like the Turks who occupied Serbia for half a millennium, whereas nearly all Serbs are Orthodox Christians. Albanians and Serbs speak different languages, and there is almost no intermarriage. The ethnic gap--and animosity between the two peoples--is among the greatest in the Balkans.

During World War II, some Albanians sided with the German occupation army that killed tens of thousands of Serbs in Yugoslavia. Under Serbian rule after 1946, Kosovo went through alternating periods of relative freedom for the Albanians, then Serbian police repression, then Albanian retaliation.

In this decade, Serbs saw themselves as the chief victims of Yugoslavia's violent disintegration as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina gained independence. Many Serbs embraced Milosevic's aggressive nationalism, applauded when he canceled Kosovo's political autonomy and elected him to office three times.

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