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An Army of Anger Grows in Kosovo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nebih Dervishi’s three-story house went up in flames the other day, engulfing his sister’s bridal gown, a room full of gifts and nearly everything else the ethnic Albanian family owned.

The wedding is going ahead, but Dervishi is going to war.

In a clumsy assault on Albanian separatists, government troops have managed to shut down the farm where Dervishi, 33, was chief accountant, destroy the upscale village where he lived and drive thousands like him in Serbia’s Kosovo province into armed rebellion.

“Every time they burn a home,” Dervishi fumed, “they create a new guerrilla.”

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In Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia, 175 miles and a world away, Zoran Jakovljevic vented his own anger at the military. “This is not our war,” he told a rally of Serbian parents demanding the return of their sons from the battlefront in the southern province. “We don’t care about Kosovo.”

As radicalized Albanians join the Kosovo Liberation Army, news of the swelling insurgency is hitting home in what’s left of war-riven Yugoslavia, stirring resistance to yet another Balkan blood bath.

The motivation gap is a problem for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose countrymen are deserting the police force and dodging the draft rather than face the world’s fastest-growing guerrilla force.

About 50,000 Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police with tanks and helicopter gunships have been poured into a conflict with classic parallels to lost colonial causes. As in France’s battle for Algeria and Russia’s fight to crush ethnic separatists in Chechnya, the government here has superior firepower but scant popular support for a war.

The rebels, armed with little more than automatic rifles and hand-held rocket launchers, lack the training, coordination and hit-and-run mobility of a mature guerrilla army. But they have superior incentive--defending home ground against what they view as a foreign occupier.

Albanians make up 90% of Kosovo’s population, and most of them share the rebels’ goal of independent statehood.

“Only the Albanians know what they want and how to achieve it,” said Serbian military affairs specialist Aleksandar Vasovic. “For most Serbs, Kosovo is far away. There is no national consensus for a war there.”

Armed repression has fed the separatist cause since Milosevic canceled Kosovo’s autonomous status within Serbia in 1989. Building on a base of peasant self-defense militias that had operated in Kosovo for decades, the guerrillas began sustained attacks on the police last year.

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The rebels were thought to number no more than a few hundred until March, when Milosevic’s first major police assault on separatist villages killed 80 people in the Drenica Valley.

Instead of crushing a budding insurgency, the indiscriminate crackdown brought it to full bloom.

Now, with a new Serbian offensive reportedly underway, the once-clandestine guerrilla group is increasingly visible. Armed men and women, few in full uniform and no two dressed alike, stand at roadblocks outside their villages amid the spent bullet casings of recent skirmishes. They dart around in sedans with license plates reading “UCK,” their movement’s Albanian initials. They mingle easily with farmers and townspeople under their protection.

Studying a map sketched by two American reporters who had toured the province, Bosko Drobnjak, the Serbian government spokesman in Kosovo, conceded that it was “more or less” accurate. The map showed an uncontested guerrilla presence in about one-third of Kosovo, which is roughly the size of Los Angeles County.

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The New Guerrillas

Several thousand Albanians have taken up arms since Milosevic’s crackdown, according to conservative Western estimates. Ethnic Albanian civilian leaders believe that the movement now numbers 20,000 to 30,000 fighters.

The growth comes from three sources: victims such as Dervishi with little left to lose, villagers who fear their homes may soon be targets and Albanian expatriates drawn home to aid their kin. The new guerrillas are a cross-section of Kosovo society: farmers, poets, teachers, athletes and professionals.

“It was enough to turn on the news and see those graves in Drenica,” said a 23-year-old Kosovo Albanian who had been working for four years as a cook in Germany.

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Interviewed at a rebel checkpoint in Polluzha, he said he was one of seven armed men who have returned home to the village since March from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Despite shooting heard beyond the next hill, Polluzha was calm. Farmers planted corn and children played soccer.

The lanky, young fighter carried a wood-handled Kalashnikov rifle, a knife and a pair of binoculars that he said he had acquired in Albania on the way home. He wore dark green camouflage pants, presumably to hide himself from the waist down, and a loud red sport shirt visible from a mile away. A Chicago Bulls hat topped off the ensemble.

Along with fighters, the 400,000-strong Kosovo Albanian diaspora in northern Europe is mobilizing a war chest, hitting up individuals for $60 to $600 and companies for $900 to $3,000. The money moves through various channels to open-air arms markets in Albania, where guerrillas-to-be are hastily equipped and mustered for overnight mule treks into Kosovo.

Alarmed by the Serbs’ sweeping assaults, elders in some unscarred villages have also abandoned the peaceful independence struggle of Ibrahim Rugova, the best-known Kosovo Albanian leader, and tapped into the growing arms supply to form self-defense squads.

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“People told us, ‘Lead this effort or we’ll find someone else,’ ” said Xhemae Binaku, an activist in Rugova’s party in the village of Glogovac.

While denying its existence for months, Rugova has watched the rebel army undermine his authority. Recently, he said the rebels exist but lack popular support. Then he shifted again, calling them “ordinary citizens who are defending their homes” but need to be “brought under control.”

But the secretive guerrilla leadership is trying to assert its own authority over the independence movement. Recent communiques attributed to the rebels have criticized “political pluralism” in wartime Kosovo as “unnecessary” and warned that any negotiating by civilians without their participation will invite “punitive measures.”

The United States and European nations support peace talks between Rugova and Milosevic, but the rebels are not enthusiastic. At a busy diner in Malisevo, the largest town under rebel control, three Albanian fighters kept chatting over lunch during a televised offer from Milosevic to resume the talks; they didn’t even look up at the screen.

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Milosevic’s Critics

Cynicism over Milosevic’s undeclared war also runs deep on the Serbian side, which has already lost Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1991. Critics suspect that Milosevic knows that Kosovo is also lost and is looking for the exit that would least hurt his waning authority.

“His policy is neither courage nor madness,” Aleksandar Tijanic, Milosevic’s former minister of information, wrote in the Belgrade newspaper Dnevni Telegraf. “His plan for Kosovo is to have so many coffins brought back to disgust the Serbs and make them beg him to hand it to the Albanians.”

It has taken few government deaths in Kosovo--25 police officers and six soldiers--to spark protest.

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The outcry began as young men drafted in March were rushed to the front, beyond telephone contact with their parents, before completing the army’s standard three-month basic training.

Groups of parents shouting “Fascists! Fascists!” rally almost daily outside army headquarters in Belgrade. Parliament in Montenegro, the other Yugoslav republic, is demanding that its sons on duty in Kosovo be sent home. One Serbian lawmaker is offering legal advice for draft dodgers.

Alluding to Milosevic’s 24-year-old son, Marko, Christian Democratic leader Vladan Batic asked in a publicized letter to the army command: “Why are children of those responsible for the war exempt from fighting it even though they are strong enough to pull the tail off a horse?”

One group of 80 parents led by Gordana Ristic, 42, ventured into Kosovo on two chartered buses to look for their sons but were turned back by the police.

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“I was in a state of shock,” Ristic said. “The moment we entered Kosovo, I felt I was no longer in my own country. All those roadblocks. All those bunkers. Our own police put up a wall to keep us from seeing things. I felt persona non grata.”

As police officers stop buses to hunt down army deserters, war resistance is thinning their own ranks. The government has responded with posters advertising vacancies for “skillful, brave and resolute” men on the police force, which just got a 50% pay raise.

But with all the burned-out homes of separatist sympathizers, Milosevic might turn out to be a far more successful recruiter for the guerrillas.

“It’s almost as if he wants this to escalate into a full-scale war,” said a Western diplomat in the region. “That would enable him to rally nationalist support and do all sorts of things. But it’s an incredibly dangerous game.”

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