Long memories

International | Six months after being driven from their home and seeing their people slaughtered, leaving revenge behind is a tall order for Kosovo Albanian refugees

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

in Warsaw - Fourteen Serb farmers were gunned down while harvesting their crops last month, perhaps by ethnic Albanians. Last week, gunmen fired on a group of Serbs returning to their homes in the American sector of Kosovo near Ranilug, killing one and wounding others. The hope of peacekeepers was that other Albanians would condemn the killings. That is not happening, according to interviews conducted by WORLD at refugee sites in Albania and Poland. "Not every Serb is bad. But war is war," said Ismet, a 37-year-old artist and art teacher from Pristina. Isn't this war over? "Yes, I know. Wars end, but memories go on," he said. Ethnic Albanians may be pleased that NATO paved a way for them to return, but that does not erase the quest for revenge. "If a man survives alone after his entire family has been killed, you cannot say to that man, 'Do not kill any Serbs,'" he said. "There will be more cases like this." A Kosovar refugee in Kruje, Albania, said, "I would tell the remaining Serbs to leave as soon as possible. They don't deserve to live with us. I don't feel comfortable having a Serb neighbor. I don't support killing and burning, but I want to remind you that we shed our blood for our country. The revenge will last as long as there will be one Serb in our land. Kosovo is our home." Even as Kosovar refugees defend the retribution, they are not convinced that ethnic Albanians perpetrated it, particularly the massacre of the Serb farmers. Haxhi Dulla, 39, is a Kosovo Albanian who first escaped the Milosevic regime during a crackdown against political dissidents six years ago. He points out that most ethnic Albanians distrust Mr. Milosevic from first-hand experience. He believes Mr. Milosevic's forces set up the killing of Serbs for propaganda purposes. Antigona, a first-year university student in Warsaw from Pristina, says, "If they did nothing, the remaining Serbs can stay. But how can we live with them if they committed horrible crimes? During this war so many horrible things happened to Albanians that it is frustrating to see so much publicity about these 14 Serb deaths." For the rest of the world, ethnic cleansing and the war sprang out of nowhere. But to the 1.8 million ethnic Albanians who make up over 90 percent of Kosovo's population, it was the predictable result of 10 years of intensifying repression by the Milosevic regime. As one result, ethnicity appears to guide the Kosovar refugees more than Muslim beliefs. These refugees say they have read both the Bible and Koran without professing a preference for either. Ismet was forced to leave Kosovo last March when masked Serbs burst through his door while he was eating with his family. He tried to resist. The Serbs were about to shoot him when his mother's shout stopped them. Ismet's family was marched to the train station and taken to the Macedonian border. Macedonia refused to let them in. They spent seven days sleeping on the ground in cold rain. After two days with no food or water, ethnic Albanians living in Macedonia came to his family's rescue with supplies and food. Eventually, Ismet and his family were flown to Poland and allowed to watch the war on the nightly news. When NATO bombs began to drop, Ismet thought Mr. Milosevic would surrender rather than see Serbia destroyed. Unable to handle the unfolding nightmare for Kosovo Albanians, he resumed chain smoking after nine years without a cigarette. Now, the prospect of chain killing remains.

-John Haskins is a freelance writer based in Warsaw; additional reporting by Lida Hasani in Kruje, Albania

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