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Peace in Balkans Ignites Passions Of the Neglected


By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 1996


The medieval frescoes that decorate the most sacred shrine of the Serbian Orthodox Church point to a belligerent history: The saints here are ready for war.

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Bedecked with armor, they stare down from aged walls, fingering swords, maces, and spears. This was the seat of the Serb patriarch at Pec, in a troubled province called Kosovo.

Today Serbs still consider Kosovo their Holy Land, and Pec their Jerusalem. And the ethos of the militant frescoes is being tested again.

Conflict between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs in Kosovo has fluctuated for decades. Now a spate of explosions and murders has made tensions soar. The US has about 500 troops nearby in Macedonia - pointing up the area's importance: Any conflict could envelop Kosovo and spread war again throughout the Balkans.

Albanians and Serbs alike describe the emergence of a "third force" of young, educated Albanians who chafe under repressive Serb rule and who are impatient with their leaders' policy of "peaceful resistance."

Ethnic Albanians - who make up more than 90 percent of the population - want self-rule and their own state. But Serb leaders in Belgrade - led by President Slobodan Milosevic, who used the myths of Serbia's saint warriors and historic battles to engineer his rise to power in the late 1980s - refuse to consider ceding any part of this "cradle" of their civilization.

Serbs have maintained their grip with a strong and brutal police presence. According to figures used in a United States State Department human rights report, 16 Albanians were killed by Serb authorities last year, and 4,000 people were beaten by police in 1994.

But as Serb numbers dwindle to just 7.5 percent of the population of 2.1 million - with more leaving Kosovo each day - some former Serb hard-liners are calling for peaceful coexistence.

"Frustration is growing, because people see a solution coming to Bosnia. The Albanians feel that Kosovo has been forgotten by the Dayton peace agreement, and they don't want the world to walk away and leave them in the clutches of the Serbs," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade.

Since President Milosevic revoked Kosovo's semiautonomous status in 1989, extending Serb authority, a group of ethnic Albanians have set up a "shadow" government and declared Kosovo independent. They built parallel systems of education, health, taxes, and even bus lines to those of the Serbs. No government has recognized them, and the result has been further alienation.

"A lot of Albanians have been brought up in a separate environment that encourages extremism," the diplomat says.

The recent violence in Kosovo began three months ago, when an Albanian was reportedly killed by Serbs. Two days later, five explosions harmlessly rocked Serb refugee camps in the province. A previously unknown group, the Albanian Liberation Army, claimed responsibility and said the blasts were a "warning."

When a Serb policeman shot dead an Albanian student in April, in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, the stakes rose. The next day a handful of separate, simultaneous attacks - all within one hour - left two Serb policemen, a prisoner, and two Serb refugees dead.

The Albanian Liberation Army again claimed responsibility in a faxed message to an Albanian-language newspaper in Switzerland.

The unprecedented severity and professionalism of the attacks has caused terror among Serbs, even though the Serb press - usually thick with anti-Albanian diatribes - has played down the attacks. Albanian leaders have also tried to calm tensions.

"Everyone who chooses terror and violence now, they have chosen the right moment: after the Dayton peace accord, after the war [in Bosnia], when people are tired," says Ylber Hysa, the political editor of the Kosovo Albanian magazine Koha. "Two years ago these killings would have provoked a war. But the Serb regime does not want to show the world there is a problem in the south that is open and unsolved."