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THE PATH TO PEACE

Serbs Follow Yugoslav Forces Out of Kosovo in Reverse Exodus

June 13, 1999|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PODUJEVO, Yugoslavia — In the last war, Mile and Jela Bursac waited until it was almost too late to run.

So as NATO-led peacekeeping troops began their lumbering deployment into Kosovo on Saturday, the couple joined thousands of other fearful Serbs leaving on the heels of a defeated Yugoslav army that will not be here to protect them from any ethnic Albanians bent upon revenge.

"I first thought we might try to stay, but now it seems that every Serb is leaving," said Jela Bursac, 38, who had already sent away her two young children and was standing with her husband to hitch a ride out. "Nobody wants to be the last Serb here."

For three days, Highway E-80 running past this town and northward out of Kosovo has borne a near-steady stream of Yugoslav army and police convoys trailed by civilians in cars, flatbed trucks and tractor-drawn wagons brimming with household belongings.

Many Serbs in Kosovo are infuriated by the terms of the settlement that on Thursday ended 11 weeks of bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The accord obliges Yugoslavia's 40,000 army and police forces to leave Kosovo by next Sunday while nearly 50,000 NATO-led peacekeepers occupy the Serbian province and safeguard the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.

The civilian exodus defies a high-level campaign by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government to persuade the Serbs to stay and test NATO's pledge to protect all citizens of the multiethnic province. Their departure from many settlements is being spurred by uncertainty about the lag between the Serbian forces' withdrawal and NATO's arrival.

To avert armed clashes between the two sides, Yugoslav forces are supposed to withdraw from each area of Kosovo before NATO moves in.

Serbs caught in that gap are fearful of reprisals from ethnic Albanians and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army for the deportation, looting, robbery and killing of ethnic Albanians that peaked in the first weeks of the war.

Reprisals are exactly what some Kosovo Albanians promise.

"There will be cases of revenge, to be honest," Mirsat Jonuzi, a KLA rebel from Prizren, said Saturday in Kukes, Albania. "The massacres were terrible."

The Serbian convoys on E-80 resemble the ethnic Albanian exodus of early spring--except that the departing Serbs have not been under attack and have had time to pack such possessions as satellite dishes, television sets, carpets, washing machines, refrigerators and mountain bikes.

But many Serbs say their decision to flee came suddenly, and they have worn the same dazed looks that accompanied the ethnic Albanians into exile.

"People from the army came to us Thursday. They said they were leaving that day and we would not be safe without them," said a factory worker from Lesane, a village of about 300 ethnic Albanians and 40 Serbs near Suva Reka. He loaded a trailer and left Friday with his wife and two frail children, laboring north on E-80 with no idea where they would end up.

The factory worker, who declined to give his name, said all Serbs decided to leave the village because KLA guerrillas were in the woods nearby and because they had no idea when NATO forces would arrive to disarm them.

Srbislav Bisercic, the mayor of Podujevo, is alarmed that this "security vacuum" will empty his town of its minority Serb population. More than half the 1,500 Serbs, who were outnumbered 9 to 1 by ethnic Albanians before the conflict, have left since Thursday, he said, and "every hour, every minute," more follow.

"People are terrified of that vacuum," he said, cupping his hands a foot apart in illustration. "That vacuum is very dangerous. There should be a direct hand-over from our forces to theirs. Otherwise the KLA will come."

Scores of Yugoslav soldiers remain in Podujevo, and Saturday they rode around town in trucks, firing into the air. One soldier said politicians in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, had decided to stop the war; instead of feeling vanquished, he and his comrades in arms were using up their ammunition as a way to unwind during their last days in Kosovo.

The mayor, an imposing man who packs a pistol, said he is determined to stay after the soldiers leave. But his campaign to persuade others to do so was undermined the night of the peace agreement when his top deputy packed up and left in a hurry.

"The first people to pull up anchor were people from City Hall," Mile Bursac said. "Everyone is looking out for himself."

Bursac and his wife have been through something like this before. They were among nearly 300,000 Serbs who fled in 1995 as the Croatian army overran the Krajina, a predominantly Serbian region in Croatia with an autonomous government, in a bloody battle with Croatian Serb nationalists.

Jela Bursac recalled that they almost waited too long to escape the Krajina and watched their home go up in flames. They were resettled with 130 other Krajina Serb refugees in an abandoned schoolhouse in Podujevo.

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