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THE PATH TO PEACE

A Few of the Proud Join Independence Party

Kosovo: Marines are guests of honor as ethnic Albanians celebrate America's freedom--and their own.

July 05, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

GNJILANE, Yugoslavia — It was vintage Americana. A small town block party with lots of flags and patriotic music.

But this time, it was in Kosovo, and the town's guests of honor were U.S. Marines.

More than 3,000 residents of Gnjilane wanted to make sure that American peacekeepers in the province would have a Fourth of July celebration to be proud of even though they are far from home. At the same time, the Kosovars were eager to revel in their own newly won independence from Serbian domination, a gift they ascribe mainly to the United States.

So Sunday evening's bash turned into a massive party, for their freedom and America's.

A band played. The people danced. And Cokes, Fantas and Johnny Walker flowed.

"This is just amazing. It is absolutely amazing. Everything they painted on the walls for us, I can't put it into words. It just feels so great," Cpl. Jason Green of Washington, Pa., said as he paused from dancing in a group of hundreds of Kosovo Albanians on the main road leading to Gnjilane.

Members of Gnjilane's ethnic Albanian community had spent the day preparing for the event.

As Ismail Kurteshi, a representative of the civil administration, explained: "This is America Day. . . . We will never forget what you have done for us."

Along the road, a local artist, Besnik Selimi, painted murals and signs that tried to convey the town's feelings. "Madeleine Albright Is Our Mother," read one. By early afternoon, Ramadan Isufy and two dozen of his buddies had crammed onto a tractor bed and were whizzing through town waving two American flags, one sporting a picture of Marilyn Monroe, alongside a red and black Albanian flag.

"America is the greatest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world," said Isufy, 31. "We will certainly celebrate every Fourth of July from this day forward, and the American flag will be present at all Albanian celebrations."

For the ethnic Albanians, it was the first time since the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation revoked their autonomy 10 years ago that they could dare to have such a public festival.

A line of young women dressed in traditional Albanian outfits soon materialized to entertain the crowd. The girls waved red and white scarves as they clasped one another's hands, their feet carrying them backward and then forward as they danced along the street.

"I feel a lot of emotion," said Agron Sadiku, 22, the lone male dancer and the only one old enough to recall the last time Albanians were allowed to don such clothing and dance in public.

The hundreds of spectators, meanwhile, soon swelled into several thousand. Missing from the celebration, however, were the guests of honor: the Marines.

The fact was not lost on the event's hosts, who dispatched a trio of messengers to Marine headquarters to remind the soldiers that they had promised to attend. All the party was lacking, the messengers said, were 10 U.S. fighting personnel.

The leader of 1st Platoon, Lima Company, 1st Lt. Randall Johnston, explained: "We're trying to get someone down there to show our appreciation. I want to celebrate the holiday myself, but we have to meet our obligations here first."

A diplomatic snafu was avoided when half a dozen Marines joined the celebration, which by then had poured into the street. Cpl. Green and his buddies were quickly whisked away by the crowd.

Restaurateur Islam Shahiqi, who owns a small pizzeria, showed his personal appreciation by laying out a free buffet for the Marines.

"This right here is what the Fourth of July was all about," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Hammond of Hamilton, Mont., on duty nearby. "It's probably one of the most meaningful Fourth of Julys I've had in a long time."

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