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Refugees At Heart of Ground Zero

June 15, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: June 15, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Farmers tend fields hemmed in by intricately built stone walls; children celebrate the start of summer holidays with a dip in an outdoor pool; teenagers gaze at flouncy wedding dresses in a shop window.
In Serbia’s restive province of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian, the town of Malisevo is under the control of ethnic Albanian rebels. But apart from street patrols by armed men — some in camouflage fatigues, others in jeans and baseball caps — this busy market town has an air of bucolic normality. At least by day.

But when dusk falls, the streets empty under a rebel-imposed curfew. Suddenly the wild dogs that roam refuse-strewed alleys howl in angry unison as they pick up the distant thud of artillery fire slamming into villages along the mountainous border with Albania. Throughout Thursday night, Yugoslavia’s reply to threats of NATO airstrikes could be heard for miles around. The nightly bombardment of border villages occupied by rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army has unleashed a flood of tens of thousands of refugees.

Caught in the cross-fire, they have seen their homes shelled, then torched by government forces in what other nations and international organizations have denounced as “ethnic cleansing.” NATO said Saturday that it would launch air exercises, dubbed Determined Falcon, over Albania and neighboring Macedonia on Monday as a prelude to further unspecified action if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refuses to halt attacks by the federal army and Serbian police on civilian areas. Serbia is the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.

Residents of Malisevo — in southern Kosovo — and the hundreds of refugees who have recently arrived here fear they will be the next target of Milosevic’s powerful military machine. It all depends, local politicians say, on how far Milosevic pushes his game of brinkmanship and whether NATO is willing to get drawn into another messy Balkan conflict that is already evoking the worst memories of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Malisevo is the main hub for supplying rebel bases and villages closer to Albania. At night, trucks roll in carrying sacks of flour, cases of cooking oil and other foodstuffs. Men hurriedly load consignments onto tractors that then trundle along rough tracks, some recently carved out of the rolling hills by bulldozer. But just six miles to the north, Serbian police forces are massing in the town of Kijevo while old T-55 tanks of the Yugoslav army have dug in nearby along the main north-south highway that links Kosovo’s provincial capital, Pristina, to military bases along the border. The poorly trained and equipped guerrilla forces have taken a battering in the south. Decani (population 20,000) and nearby hamlets are ghost towns. The army and police are sensing victory. Looting of cars and household goods compensates for their miserable wages of about $100 a month. But for the moment, locals say, there appears to be a tacit agreement between the two sides — the rebels don’t bother the north-south highway, and in return Malisevo remains a haven for refugees fleeing the Decani area. International aid agencies estimate more than 60,000 ethnic Albanians have been driven from their homes in Kosovo, including more than 12,000 who crossed into Albania. But in one village close to Malisevo, local people said they were sheltering 300 refugees, uncounted and unhelped by any foreign organization. It is clear that in Malisevo and the surrounding region of 55,000 people that Ibrahim Rugova, the leader of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, has lost his authority to the militant rebels. “The KLA has put this region under its protection,” said Cen Desku, a local leader of Rugova’s Democratic League of Kosovo. Rugova, elected “president” of the self-declared Republic of Kosovo in 1991, is committed to a policy of peaceful resistance. He has refused even to acknowledge the guerrillas’ existence, but in Malisevo, local Democratic League politicians such as Desku have to recognize the obvious. “Dr. Rugova cannot stop this process of radicalization. This is a crucial moment for the international community to help him find a solution,” said Desku. Moderate Democratic League politicians have joined the rebels. One has become its first spokesman. On the wall of Desku’s modest living room hang two portraits — one of Rugova and another of Adem Jashari, a clan leader and rebel commander killed in March by special police units in his village, along with some 20 relatives. Jashari has entered the pantheon of Albanian martyrs. Each generation boasts its own. Children in a nearby village school run by Rugova’s unofficial ethnic Albanian government in Kosovo learn about Shaban Poluzha, a nationalist killed by Serbian troops after World War II. “Now we tell the children how Adem Jashari died protecting his village,” said one teacher too afraid to give his name. “We respect Rugova as our president,” a villager said, appealing for international aid for refugees sheltered in his house. “But Adem Jashari is more popular here.” The cycle of bloodletting and vengeance is reflected on both sides of the ethnic divide. Serbian military commanders giving foreign reporters a tour of Decani’s ruins made no apology for the extent of the destruction and accused rebel “terrorists” of destroying houses from which they were firing. David Gajic, Kosovo’s security chief, claimed that Albanians fighting on Germany’s side in World War II “killed 40,000 Serbs in one night alone. “It’s very useful for you to get acquainted with why there is such a low number of Serbs here these days,” he said. Western envoys seeking to restart peace talks broken off by the Kosovo Albanians are banking on Rugova being able to deliver a political settlement that would give Kosovo autonomy, despite his commitment to full independence.

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