In One Village, Albanian Men Are Everywhere
Something strange is going on in this Kosovo Albanian village in what was once a hard-line guerrilla stronghold, where NATO accuses Serbs of committing genocide.
An estimated 15,000 displaced ethnic Albanians live in and around Svetlje, in northern Kosovo, and hundreds of young men are everywhere, strolling along the dirt roads or lying on the grass on a spring day.
So many fighting-age men in a region where the Kosovo Liberation Army fought some of its fiercest battles against Serbian forces are a challenge to the black-and-white versions of what is happening here.
By their own accounts, the men are not living in a concentration camp, nor being forced to labor for the police or army, nor serving as human shields for Serbs.
Instead, they are waiting with their families for permission to follow thousands who have risked going back home to nearby villages because they do not want to give up and leave Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.
“We wanted to stay here where we were born,” Skender Velia, 39, said through a translator. “Those who wanted to go through Macedonia and on to Europe have already left. We did not want to follow.”
A foreign journalist spent two hours in Svetlje over the weekend, his second visit in less than a week, without a police or military escort or a Serbian official to monitor what was seen or said.
The closest Serbian security forces were two policemen sitting at a checkpoint half a mile up the dirt road, who weren’t pleased to see so many refugees moving back into the Podujevo area.
Just as NATO accuses Yugoslav forces of using ethnic Albanian refugees as “human shields,” the Serbs say KLA fighters hide among ethnic Albanian civilians to carry out “terrorist attacks.”
But Velia and other ethnic Albanians interviewed in Svetlje said they haven’t had any problems with Serbian police since the police allowed them to come back.
“For the month that we’ve been here, the police have come only to sell cigarettes, but there hasn’t been any harassment,” Velia said.
That isn’t what North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Javier Solana believes is happening in Kosovo.
Solana told BBC television Sunday that he expected much more evidence of “ethnic cleansing” in the province to emerge once the war is over. “You don’t see males in their 30s to 60s,” he said.
And on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said that as many as 100,000 ethnic Albanian men of fighting age have vanished in Kosovo and may have been killed by Serbian forces.
The claims and counterclaims are only part of the tangled web that threatens to trap NATO after nearly two months of bombing intended to make peace here.
Kosovo Albanians continue to flee Yugoslavia, often with detailed accounts of atrocities by Serbian security forces or paramilitaries.
Yet thousands of other ethnic Albanians are coming out of hiding in forests and in the mountains, hungry and frightened, and either going back home or waiting for police permission to do so.
While Serbian police seize the identity documents of Kosovo Albanians crossing the border into Albania or Macedonia, government officials in Pristina, Kosovo’s provincial capital, issue new identity cards to ethnic Albanians still here.
The Kosovo Democratic Initiative, an ethnic Albanian political party opposed to the KLA’s fight for independence, is distributing relief aid, offering membership cards and gathering the names of Serbs accused of committing atrocities.
“As an Albanian, I am convinced that the Serbian government and security forces are not committing any kind of genocide,” Fatmir Seholi, the party’s spokesman, said in an interview Sunday.
“But in a war, even innocent people die,” Seholi said. “In every war, there are those who want to profit. Here there is a minority of people who wanted to steal, but that’s not genocide. These are only crimes.”
As an Albanian, Seholi also knows the risks of questioning claims that Yugoslavia’s leaders, police and military are committing crimes against humanity in Kosovo.
His father, Malic Seholi, was killed Jan. 9, 1997, apparently for being too cooperative with Serbian authorities. The KLA later claimed responsibility for the slaying in a statement published in Bujku, a local Albanian-language newspaper, his son said.
There are pressures to toe the party line in villages like Svetlje too, where a man who overheard Velia speaking with a Serbian correspondent for Agence France-Presse told him to stop.
“Don’t talk to the Serbs,” the man said angrily in Albanian. “They are to blame for everything that is happening.”
Velia, his wife, Hajiri, their three children and his mother, Farita, 56, were among as many as 100,000 Kosovo Albanians who fled the northern city of Podujevo in the early days of NATO’s air war.
Some said Serbs drove them from their homes, while others said they were simply scared and left on their own. But they all ended up moving from one village to another, trying to escape fighting between KLA guerrillas and Serbian security forces.
Now they must live with another danger--the NATO bombs that fall ever closer to Svetlje as the alliance intensifies its attacks on Yugoslav forces across Kosovo.
Last week, a bomb exploded just 200 yards from the five-room school that houses about 60 refugees. The explosion killed an ethnic Albanian man named Bashota, who was about 22 years old and from nearby Lapastica, Velia said.
When the foreign visitor asked Velia whether he thought NATO’s bombing was helping or hurting, he shifted at the wooden desk where he was sitting in one of the school’s classrooms.
“My blood is the same as yours,” he said. “I just want the situation stabilized. People are not very interested in what is going on with big [political] discussions here and there. They are just interested in going home.”
Despite the mass exodus of Kosovo Albanians during the NATO bombing, several hundred thousand remain in the province, many of them still hiding without proper food, medicine and shelter.
After waves of looting, arson, killings and other attacks turned many of Kosovo’s cities into virtual ghost towns, the government took steps to restore order, and ethnic Albanians began to move back, often under police protection.
Of an estimated 100,000 people living in Pristina, roughly 80,000 are ethnic Albanians and a quarter of those are displaced people from the Podujevo area living with relatives, friends or in abandoned homes, Seholi said.
An additional 32,000 ethnic Albanians are living in and around Podujevo itself, he added.
A total of 120,000 ethnic Albanians are waiting to return to their homes in four areas--near Podujevo, Pristina, Stimlje and Prizren--while 350,000 more have proper homes, Seholi estimated.
Home for Zajda Hasani, 76, and 10 others in her family is a classroom and an adjoining storage room, where the shelves are stacked with books by writers such as Twain and Tolstoy.
“I have no problems at all,” Hasani said between long draws on a cigarette. “I’m relaxed.”
In Svetlje, the biggest problem is getting enough to eat. None of the foreign relief agencies delivering food to refugees outside Kosovo has been able to come to feed those ethnic Albanians left behind.
Agencies such as the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees are negotiating with Yugoslav authorities about security guarantees and other matters as a prelude to resuming work in Kosovo.
On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent a four-truck convoy carrying medicine, food and other relief, the first shipment since NATO launched the air war March 24.
It wasn’t nearly enough to feed the tens of thousands who are going hungry. The last aid Velia’s family received was from the Yugoslav Red Cross, which gave them 4 1/2 pounds of flour and some yeast a month ago.
Like many of the children in Svetlje, Velia’s 7-month-old daughter, Erinisa, is sick. The baby has received four injections but needs six more.
Her mother has to line up with other refugees at the edge of Podujevo for police permission to enter the town and visit the hospital.
The refugees have started a small, roadside market in Svetlje that sells pasta, coffee, onions, rubber sandals, cigarettes and a few other assorted items. But in the absence of any jobs, few people can afford to buy much.
“The entire day, we just sit here or walk and wander around,” Velia said. Although no one in Svetlje has been forced to work for the police or military, “Who knows what may happen tomorrow?” he added.
Just a few minutes’ walk away, there was a horrible reminder of just how uncertain the future is.
It was a human skull, partly charred by fire. It lay in the grass outside a one-story building where refugees once were sheltered in about half a dozen rooms that were previously municipal offices.
The floors were covered with hay, where families slept, and the clothes and other belongings they left behind were scattered everywhere.
A single, burned corpse lay in the middle of one room, not proof of genocide, but a hint of the dark mystery that is Kosovo.
All of Paul Watson’s dispatches from Kosovo are available on The Times’ Web site at https://www.latimes.com/dispatch.
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