Serbs Follow Yugoslav Forces Out of Kosovo in Reverse Exodus
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.
On Saturday, they were among the last three of those families leaving Kosovo. They traveled light. Mile Bursac carried everything he owned in an athletic duffel bag--the same one he remembers carrying from Krajina. His wife carried a plastic shopping bag.
“We came here to forget our past, but now we’re reliving it,” she said. “I see the same horrible movie playing in my head.”
The Bursacs hitched a ride south to Pristina, the provincial capital, to join two of Mile’s brothers for the northbound drive out of Kosovo today. Mile said they hoped to reach Belgrade, where their children are staying with another brother, and throw themselves on the mercy of the international Red Cross.
On the way to Pristina, he winced while passing several houses on fire and remembered his own burning home in the Krajina. The houses here belonged to ethnic Albanians and were being torched by the departing Serbian forces before the owners could come home from exile.
“They are extremists,” he said of the arsonists. “I wouldn’t say they’re human. They’re animals.”
Like many Serbs in Podujevo, where ethnic Albanian shops have been looted and burned, the Bursacs said they had cordial relations with their ethnic Albanian neighbors. Extremists from outside the town--Serbian paramilitary forces on one side, the KLA on the other--were to blame for the brutality, they said.
Some civilians in the convoy with the Bursacs said they too might come back if NATO manages to pacify Kosovo and disarm the KLA.
“I have planted wheat,” said an elderly farmer named Pera, hauling a trailer full of belongings. “I will come back to reap it.”
Along E-80 not far from Podujevo, at Luzane, the departing convoys slowed for a bottleneck where traffic was forced to detour around a wrecked bridge. It was hit May 1 by a NATO missile that killed 24 people aboard a civilian bus.
As traffic backed up Friday, Stojan Pavlovic’s car overheated and stalled. Pavlovic, a 51-year-old Serbian electrical engineer with the power company, said he was taking most of his belongings out of Kosovo but would return for as long as possible.
His family has lived more than a century in the province, but he expects the ethnic Albanians to chase him out sooner or later, and he wants to be ready to leave quickly. The demographics are an omen: Thirty years ago, Serbs were a majority in Luzane, he said; now there are eight Serbian families among about 500 all told.
“The Albanians will come back for revenge,” he said over the roar of olive-green trucks taking away the army. “They won’t be able to strike Milosevic, so they will strike us.”
Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Kukes, Albania, contributed to this report.