Life returns to Kosovo

A war-weary people emerge from the rubble with tales of neighbor helping neighbor, regardless of ethnicity.


Laura Rozen
June 16, 1999 3:41PM (UTC)

Now that Kosovo's provincial capital is teeming with NATO troops, foreign journalists and returning Kosovar Albanian refugees, the city's street scene is coming alive again.

At the Brooklyn Bar outdoor cafe, young Serbs are chatting over drinks, while keeping a wary watch on the NATO tanks and British soldiers patrolling the main street out front.

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At one table, Sandra, a young woman with curly blond hair, is joking with three men over cigarettes and drinks. There has been no running water in Pristina for the past 24 hours -- maybe because Serbian workers at the Pristina water station have departed with the Serbian army, or maybe because Serbian authorities are still trying to annoy the locals.

Whatever the cause, the result is that there is no espresso at this cafe. In one of many slightly comical scenes within the palpable sadness of this place, the waiter goes up to table after table, politely asking for orders, only to quickly apologize when almost anything his guests request is unavailable. In fact, the choices are three -- bottled mineral water, Sprite or vodka.

Inconveniences like this are hardly keeping city residents away, however. People have been penned up too long, enduring airstrikes and reprisals, so the end of all that, for now, has made the sheer act of going out and hanging with friends a sweet pleasure, for Serbs and Albanians alike.

Contrary to expectation, the talk at this cafe popular with local Serbs is
only partly tinged with resentment at the international community for changing the power balance in a province that until this week, Serbs have pretty much
dominated for a decade. The mood of the conversation is better characterized as a combination of wry gallows humor mixed with uncertainty and humility at what the future may hold.

"Everything's changing," says Sandra, 28, who worked as a translator for
the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe before it pulled out of Kosovo in March, a few days before
the airstrikes began. "It's different now from the beginning of the airstrikes, when the Albanians were afraid of the Serbs. Now the Serbs are
scared."

Sandra, who asked that her last name not be used, said although many Kosovo
Serbs are afraid of revenge killings by returning ethnic Albanian refugees
and the Kosovo Liberation Army, not all Serbs are guilty for the
atrocities committed against the Albanians over the past few months.

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"A lot of them didn't do anything. They are just ordinary civilians. But if
the KLA has a personal vendetta against the Serbs, it's not going to be
enough to say, it's not me you want, I didn't do anything," she says,
trying to explain the fear that has gripped Kosovo Serbs over the past few
days and driven more than 33,000 to leave the province so far.

One tragicomic moment comes when the stereo at the cafe begins to play the
song "Hit the Road, Jack," and cafe-goers sing along. Only a few streets
away, many of Pristina's Serbs are lined up in their cars
alongside the main police station, forming one of the last convoys
pulling out of Kosovo with the Yugoslav army. The police station is a place
that quite recently struck terror in the hearts of local Albanians, some of whom were imprisoned and tortured there, just a few weeks ago, by Serbian
forces controlling the province. "Hit the Road, Jack," the cafe-goers hum,
as some of their relatives and friends move out with the departing Serbian
convoy, "and don't you come back no more, no more. Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more."

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The irony isn't lost on Sandra's table. Over the past three months, Serbian
forces, police and paramilitary units have driven more than a million Kosovar
Albanians out of their homes, with over 800,000 flooding into
neighboring Macedonia and Albania, and others hiding out for weeks in the hills and
woods with little food. Now, as the Serbian forces withdraw according to the
timetable detailed in last week's peace agreement, Serbian civilians are anticipating that their returning Albanian
neighbors may make their lives so miserable that they, too, may soon have to leave.

But the conversation at Sandra's table reveals how complex and nuanced
the relationship between Kosovo's ethnic groups is, and how much
Serbs and Albanians have been helping each other despite the ethnic
violence that has riven the province. The first surprise comes when Sandra
herself reveals that she is indeed not a Serb at all, but half-Albanian,
half-Croat, sitting among Serbian friends at the cafe.

"My mother is an Albanian, and my father is a Croatian military officer,"
Sandra says. "When the airstrikes started, I was so terrified of the
Serbian paramilitaries. I told some Serb friends, 'I don't need food, I
need drinks, I only need coffee and cigarettes.' A week later, a Serbian
school friend of mine, who had been drafted into the Serbian army, came to
my home with cartons of cigarettes and coffee for me. A lot of Serbs help
me."

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Sandra says an ethnic Albanian told her that his family was helped by a
Serbian policeman who took care of them throughout the whole time during the
airstrikes when it was dangerous for ethnic Albanians to go out of their
homes to buy food, and even to stay in their homes.

"I know another friend," Sandra says, "who was mobilized into the Serbian
military police, who would use his military identity cards to buy emergency
rations of bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and then give it all away to the
Albanians," because they had a more dangerous time trying to get food
during the airstrikes.

The complicated ethnic politics of Kosovo is even revealed in language.
Sandra says her table mate, Bojan, a smiling 31-year-old, "is pure Serb,
but speaks perfect Albanian," in part because his best friend is a Kosovar
Albanian.

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"We went to school together," Bojan explains, waving his hand as if to
dismiss the importance of ethnic tensions in war-torn Kosovo. "In Pristina,
there really is no problem between Serbs and Albanians. The only problem is
between city people and people from the villages."

Smiling, Bojan adds, "Here in Pristina, we like sex, drugs and rock 'n'
roll. We don't care about anything else."

While Sandra's Serbian table mates intend to stay on in Kosovo, perhaps
because most of them speak good English and are therefore likely to find
high-paying jobs as translators with some of the 50,000-strong, NATO-led peacekeeping forces moving into the province these days, just
across the street, the scene is different. Most of the Serbs working in the Grand Hotel Pristina are preparing to leave the province over the next few hours and days.

"This is probably it," said Radovan Urosevac, the head of the Serbian media
center in the Grand Hotel, who has personally protected Western journalists
staying on in the province from the more ruthless Serbian paramilitaries.
"We are going to get the final word from Kosovo Polje later this afternoon,
on if we should leave," he said, naming the Pristina suburb that was the
site of a famous battle in 1389 that Serbs commemorate. Asked if he would
go to his brother's in Cleveland, Radovan, wearing a journalist's
safari vest, dark-rimmed glasses and several days beard, shakes
his head. "America? Never. Maybe to Greece," before walking away.

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A 30-year-old Serbian hotel worker named Zvonko, who has also protected
people from violent Serbian demonstrations, looks anxious. He says his
ex-wife and child had probably left that day. "I want to stay, but I don't
know what will happen here. I don't have anywhere else to go."

Sandra says her ethnically mixed apartment building reveals in miniature
some of the good and bad that has happened in Kosovo over the past few
months. Most of the ethnic Albanian families have been driven out. But her
Serbian neighbor, a driver for the Yugoslav army, came to her apartment at
the beginning of the airstrikes, handed her Albanian mother a piece of paper
with a telephone number, and said, 'If you have any problems, you call me.'
Now that the tables have turned, she and her mother are trying to help him.

"I told him, 'We will testify everything, that you are good, that you
helped your neighbors,'" Sandra said, but shows of goodwill between
one neighbor and another may not be able to overcome the violence that
has undone Kosovo. While for the time being the Serbian neighbor remains,
he has sent his wife and children out of Kosovo to safety.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen


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