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Kosovo's likely future cuts two ways

June 05, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

RACAK, SERBIA — On a green hillside here in Kosovo, schoolchildren paraded through rows of red tombstones marking the graves of 44 ethnic Albanians killed eight years ago by Serbian forces.

The field trip was organized, their teacher said, so the children would remember the massacre, a turning point that brought the West to the rescue of Kosovo's Albanians.

"It is important for us to remain united," Hafiz Mustafa, a whiskered, elderly survivor, lectured the students. Independence for Kosovo is at hand, he said, and long overdue.

"We paid with blood for our freedom," Mustafa said, before taking a seat on the grass next to his son's grave.

There is a certain inevitability to the cause of Kosovo's independence.

Backed unabashedly by the U.S. and much of Europe, the breakaway region dominated by ethnic Albanian Muslims will almost certainly be allowed to secede from Serbia in the coming weeks.

That is great news for the Kosovo Albanians, who for decades waged wars of passive resistance and, later, armed resistance to shed often-oppressive Serbian rule.

It is terrible news for the province's tens of thousands of Serbs, many of whom have fled while others remain in enclaves scattered about this southernmost part of Serbia, where they live in fear and uncertainty.

Since the U.S.-led NATO intervention of 1999 forced out Serbian military forces commanded by Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo has functioned as a United Nations protectorate.

Among the U.N.-mandated conditions for independence, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government is to provide for the return of Serbian refugees and foster a multiethnic society.

But with hatred and mistrust so deeply entrenched, few Albanians or Serbs expect the condition to be met.

For-sale signs (and sometimes just a phone number, implication clear) have appeared on Serb-owned properties in the suburbs of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The main Serbian Orthodox monastery, a historic structure near Pec, is building a wall around itself for protection.

"Kosovo will be an ethnically pure state, and the United States will have helped create it," said Budemir Maslar, an embittered Serb who fled his farm and fruit orchards in Kosovo because he was afraid of reprisals from long-suffering Albanians. He left behind his older sister, who was soon killed, probably by Albanian militants; no body was ever recovered.

"I'm the first to want to go back," said Maslar, 58, who now lives with his wife and son in a 6-by-4-foot cubicle in an old workers barracks on the mosquito-infested outskirts of Belgrade, the Serbian capital. "But if Kosovo is independent, we have no chance, a zero-point-zero-one chance to go back."

Travel from Belgrade to Pristina already has the feel of a trip from one country to another. At the still-unofficial border, there are military checkpoints, a money-exchange counter and a customs office. Outsiders must show a passport.

In just minutes, the Serbian red-white-and-blue flag is replaced by the Albanian flag, red with a fierce two-headed black eagle; signs in the Cyrillic letters used by Serbs give way to Latin letters forming words in the Albanian language. Mosques begin to outnumber churches.

Agim Avdyli, a former fighter with the Kosovo Liberation Army, acknowledged that the province was independent in all but name. But he said final official recognition was crucial for foreign investment, loans and other boosters needed to raise the still-moribund economy and create jobs.

Avdyli, a square-jawed 44-year-old who looks something like an Albanian Chuck Connors, said he was as confident Kosovo would be free as he was about the return of the Serbs.

"I don't believe any will be coming back," he said.

On this crucial question of displaced Serbs, a senior U.N. official in Pristina put it even more bluntly: "There won't be large returns of Serbs," he said. "It's history."

Zivojin Jovanovic, 76, is one of the Serbs trying to stay. In his village of Caglavica, just south of Pristina, he has watched two Serb families leave in recent weeks after selling their properties to Albanians.

The village was the scene of nasty attacks by Albanians on Serbs in 2004, one of a string of retaliatory incidents over the years.

But Jovanovic, a retired locksmith, said it was not violence he worried about. Kosovo's Albanian authorities recently widened a road through the Serb village into what is in effect an eight-lane highway, complete with a metal guardrail down the median. This has separated one side of the village, where the school and shops are, from the other side, making it nearly impossible, or at least very dangerous, for residents to cross.

Jovanovic sees the roadway's construction as an insidious form of harassment to push him and other Serbs into leaving.

"It is not ill treatment. It is not threats. No one has come to me and said, 'You have to leave,' " Jovanovic said. "It's these conditions. It's a pressure."

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