When two peoples fight over the same piece of land, tragedy too often results. Everyone knows about the disputes wracking Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Israel. A new name should now be added to the unfortunate list - the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo. In Kosovo's case, the belligerents are Serbs and Albanians. The Albanians are Muslim and proud of their Illyrian ancestry. The Serbs are Orthodox Christians and Slavs. A few months ago, tensions between the two groups boiled over, forcing Belgrade to dispatch 380 special militia to Kosovo.
For Albanians, who used to be a minority but now are a growing majority in Kosovo, the issue is self-determination. As an autonomous province within the republic of Serbia, Kosovo now enjoys considerable local self-rule. But many Albanians want their own republic, and the noisiest want to unite with Albania. For Serbs, Kosovo is their sacred heartland. Here are located their loveliest medieval monasteries and the sites of their struggles against the Turks. Serbs, the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, also fear that Kosovo's secession would lead to similar demands by other Yugoslav nationalities.
``If Yugoslavia is going to disintegrate into different national states, the process will start in Kosovo,'' worries Milovan Djilas, the country's most celebrated dissident.
Kosovo's conflict so far has avoided widespread bloodshed. Albanians rioted in 1981, but since then the struggle has largely been fought with intimidation and verbal violence, not guns. Angry Serbs complain that Albanians are forcing them to leave Kosovo by destroying their cemeteries, vandalizing their fields, killing their animals, pouring disinfectant down their wells, even raping their daughters.
The tactics have had a powerful impact. In the last two decades, thousands of Serbs have moved out of Kosovo. Those who remain feel increasingly besieged.
``Kosovo's Serbs are the Palestinians of Yugoslavia,'' says Slavko Djumic, a Serb nationalist. ``We're being forced from our land.''
Albanians also feel oppressed. In prewar Yugoslavia, the Albanians were kept out of influential positions in Kosovo. Albanians still complain that they must do too much to accommodate the non-Albania speaking Serbian majority.
``This is our homeland,'' says Haki, a hotel clerk, ``but if there are eight Albanians working here and one Serb, we all have to speak Serb.''
Tensions are aggravated by a high Albanian birthrate. Jobs, or rather the lack of them, add to the population problem. Kosovo is Yugoslavia's poorest province. Hajrula Zahiti, Kosovo's economics minister, reports that of the Province's 2 million or so inhabitants, only 200,000 are employed.
Large Albanian families live in miserable conditions. The Komoni family from the village of Brezanik numbers six sons and two daughters. All crowd into a small two-room shack. Only one, 30-year old Gani, has a job - in the local shoe factory. The rest mind the family's meager three hectares (7 acres) of land.
``I don't care much about politics,'' says the father. ``But look, I have no job, no hope for my children.''
Kosovo Serbs suffer similar poverty. Miso Dugandzi, from the village of Gorazdevac, is unemployed. So are his two sons, who live with him in a small stove-heated shack. ``Only a strong Serbia can save us,'' he says.
In an effort to stem Serb emigration and calm these explosive feelings, Belgrade recently announced a program to construct new factories in Kosovo. Serbs are to receive preference for jobs.
Money to pay for the plan is to come from taxes on the richer northern provinces. But in the past, northern Slovenes and Croats complained that their donations were invested in showy projects such as luxury hotels instead of productive factories. Perhaps even more, northerners fear strengthening feelings for a Greater Serbia would let the Serbs try, as in the past, to dominate them.
Albanians aren't happy about plans to favor Serbs, either. Hazer Susri of the Kosovo Central Committee admits that 1,200 people in Kosovo have been arrested for political offenses since 1981, mostly Albanians on charges of inciting illegal nationalism.
``Nationalist actions no longer take the form of demonstrations,'' Mr. Susri says. ``There are just pamphlets, graffiti.''
But beneath this surface calm, fear reigns. Albanians stay in their own neighborhoods and restaurants, Serbs in their own enclaves. The two nationalities trade few words. They only exchange angry glances. There are worries that glances could turn into full-fledged violence.