Once insignificant, now guarded by NATO

At one checkpoint, Serbs and ethnic Albanians cross to meet

Two United States marines peer into Ramadan Zubaku's blue Peugeot, then wave him on. Mr. Zubaku swerves around a parked armored personnel carrier and passes the checkpoint.

Zubaku, an ethnic Albanian shopkeeper from the eastern Kosovar village of Topanic, has just crossed the newest NATO-guarded border in the Balkans: the provincial boundary between Kosovo and Serbia proper.

Legally, Kosovo is still a province of the Republic of Serbia, which with Montenegro makes up rump Yugoslavia. But since the withdrawal of the last Serbian forces from the embattled province over the weekend - and the simultaneous deployment of the NATO-led Kosovo implementation force (KFOR) - the province is de facto no longer under Serbian control.

Half a dozen main roads lead out of Kosovo to Serbia, crossing a border that on Yugoslav maps is marked with a thin dotted line, once as inconsequential to travelers as boundaries between US states. Now the border denotes security or insecurity, depending on ethnicity.

"It's not safe to go there," says Zubaku, pointing down the road where it takes a bend, away from the last US checkpoint and toward Serbia. While the actual border is still three miles away - and the first Serbian checkpoint another three miles into Serbia - there is no safety guarantee within those six miles of no man's land.

Only a week ago, Serbian military vehicles and refugees still rattled over the rutted road to Serbia. Now there is very little traffic here, and the marines camped out at this lonely intersection merely check incoming vehicles for weapons. "We're not at all assuming border patrol functions," says 1st Lt. J.R. DePinto, commander of the checkpoint.

On Monday night, marines say, several Serbian tanks were spotted on a hilltop only a few miles away.

Zubaku took the risk to cross the border because he has relatives who live in a village just inside Serbia. He says he spent the last three months in the woods, hiding from rampaging Serbian forces. His relatives in Serbia, meanwhile, fled to Turkey. When Zubaku heard they had returned, he made the perilous drive across the border.

"I took a side road to get there," he says. "Of course I was afraid, but I had to see my relatives." Because their home in Kosovo was looted and destroyed, Zubaku left his wife with the relatives in Serbia for the time being.

Another man traveling the same road tells a similar tale of a family split between borders - only when he crosses into Kosovo, his anxiety increases. Momir, as the lawyer calls himself, is a Serb.

Although he is from Gnjilane, the center of US peacekeeping activity in Kosovo, Momir says he doesn't yet feel that it is safe enough to bring his wife and son back from nearby Bujanovac in Serbia.

"Albanian and Serbian people used to live together. We didn't have a bad life," says Momir. Then, he says, came the paramilitaries from Serbia proper, who did a lot of "bad things" to ethnic Albanians.

"Those Serbs are back in Serbia now, and I'm suffering for what they did," he says bitterly.

While some old ethnic Albanian friends still call him to ask how he's doing, Momir now has to fret for his security just because he's a Serb, he says. He places the blame for the situation squarely on the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"I'd be happy if Milosevic were kicked out. It's the most important thing," Momir says. "If he stays in power, there won't be a life for either Albanians or Serbs."

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