Where Kosovo Crisis Hits Home

Strife divides a village of Serbs and Albanians. NATO head due in province today.

If war comes to Kosovo, Ranko Stanisic will be ready.

Standing on the back porch of his small, whitewashed house, Mr. Stanisic, a Serb, takes imaginary aim with a Kalashnikov rifle.

"I'm not afraid to use this," he says, sweeping the gun along the mountain range separating Yugoslavia and Albania.

Vitomirica, where generations of Stanisics have been born, is in many ways typical of the hundreds of villages whose residents make up most of Kosovo's 2 million people. There were no deadly police crackdowns here, no sightings of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

But Vitomirica is also unique. Serbs and ethnic Albanians live close enough that trips to the store are quickened by fear, as old friends pass on the streets and shield their faces.

It was not always this way. Just this summer the two groups lived together in relative calm, visiting each other, even working the rocky land together. Both were poor, both had more important worries than politics.

Everything has changed, however, in the past days of armed strikes by Serbs and KLA reprisals. This southernmost region of Serbia, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1, has been suspended on the brink of war.

Yesterday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said it was too early for military intervention, but that he would head to Kosovo today. In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it would step up monitoring along Kosovo's borders with Albania and Macedonia to prevent any spread of violence.

But in villages like this one, the conflict is deepening.

The Serbs says the Albanians are terrorists; the Albanians, who are seeking independence, shudder in fear at the mere mention of Serb police.

A third group in Vitomirica, Serbs who practice the Muslim religion, have almost all nailed their doors shut and fled the area, many to the relative peace of neighboring Montenegro.

But the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians have centuries-old claims here, and both say they will die before they leave.

The Serbs, who consider Kosovo the cradle of their culture, follow the words of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who told them in 1987 that "no one should dare beat you."

The ethnic Albanians in Vitomirica support the nonviolent path of their de facto leader, Ibrahim Rugova, who has declared he will settle for nothing less than independence.

Although they are in a tense standoff with Serbs, Kosovars say armed resistance would be futile against the powerful Serbian military.

"I am an [ethnic] Albanian and this is my land," says Os Osaj as his mother looks on and three young girls play at his feet. "I am afraid ... every day, every night. I can't think about fighting."

Mr. Osaj, a student, says he does not believe that the KLA is a terrorist group, as it has been called by the Serbs and the international community. To him KLA members are ethnic Albanians who happen to have guns and are "trying to protect their families."

Osaj says he is most afraid of single Serbian men who live in the village with no family to worry about, with nothing to lose. Osaj rarely leaves his house.

"These Serbs are not welcome in my house anymore," he says, "and I would not visit them."

Just down the street, in a cafe where traditional Serbian music blares from an old stereo, a group of Serbs sit around a table, carrying on with a nonchalance that cannot be found among the Albanians.

Vukota Popovic says the Serbian police are doing a good job and should continue to "kill all the terrorists just like they do in the rest of the word."

In 11 days of Serbian crackdowns, in which several villages were effectively "liquidated," police killed at least 80 people, women and children included.

In Drenica, which is still under police seal, dozens of ethnic Albanians died and others have fled to the woods. Relatives of Osaj are among those who still have not been accounted for.

"[The ethnic Albanians] only have money and bombs and drugs from Albania," says Mr. Popovic about his neighbors, as a group of his friends looks on, saying words like "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists" in broken English.

If the Serbs appear to be more confident in their safety, it is because many are heavily armed and, having served their required one year in the Army, know how to fight. Some have experience from wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

No one is sure how well armed the ethnic Albanians are. But there is widespread speculation that thousands of weapons have filtered through the border with Albania, where civil unrest last year led to the pillaging of police arms stocks.

The Serbs are also backed by the police and military, who seem to have a presence everywhere in the region. There are checkpoints about every 20 miles on the road from Pristina to Vitomirica, where police wearing bomb vests and carrying machine guns twice stopped a visitor and put a gun to his head.

According to a Serbian government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the Yugoslav Army could level the entire region in two days. It's a claim that's not questioned by ethnic Albanians.

Hamz Halitaj, an ethnic Albanian from Vitomirica, says he and his five brothers stay awake during the night in shifts, in case the police come.

Mr. Halitaj returned to Vitomirica two weeks ago, after his request for asylum was denied by the German government. Since that time, he says, the police have been searching for him and saying he is a member of the KLA.

When he went to a demonstration earlier this week in the nearby city of Pec, he ran into a friend of 20 years, a Serb who now is a policeman.

"I put my hands over my face and ran," he says.

When asked what he would do if the police came to his house and found him, Halitaj said it would be suicidal to fight.

"I would take my family and hide in the woods," he says.

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