Once Pawns of Ethnic Engineering,These Refugees Are Now Forgotten

Shunted off to Kosovo, Krajina Serbs make do in a gym basement

The Serbian government once promoted this southern region to fleeing refugees, saying it is nearly as great as the Promised Land. But as those sent here discovered, it is far from that.

In the sports center that dominates the skyline here, local children play basketball in the courts, and thick-muscled men work out in the weight rooms.

But deep in its labyrinthine basement, several hundred hungry Serb refugees have set up their "homes" on crowded gym mats. They line up for a meager daily ration of boiled potatoes and bread at a towel counter.

These Serbs, originally from the far away Krajina region of Croatia, have lived here since last August. It was then that their drive for self-rule - supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his dream of "Greater Serbia" - was squelched by the Croatian Army. Mr. Milosevic had backed their uprising. And when it failed, they fled to Serbia, assuming he would provide refuge.

But he didn't come through. This betrayal has left them homeless and embittered. And with a poor economy and scarce jobs in Serbia, most Krajina Serbs are treated as as unwelcome guests. Of the 170,000 who left Krajina, the 19,000 that were shipped here are the worst off, observers say.

"This war shows that there will be no Greater Serbia," says refugee Mladen Petrovic, a bearded history professor who lives in the basement of the sports center in Pristina.

He and the others became pawns in Milosevic's attempt at ethnic engineering. Ever since Milosevic launched his nationalist Serb agenda from Kosovo in 1987, he had promised to send up to half-a-million Serbs to the region to counterbalance the nearly 2 million ethnic Albanian residents. Also critical: reinforcing the historic Serb claims to a region they consider the "cradle" of their civilization.

But such social engineering to "improve" the ethnic mix never occurred before last August, when hapless Serb refugees began flooding into Serbia.

To induce the refugees to go to Kosovo, they were promised housing and jobs. But they arrived to find tensions between the majority ethnic Albanian population and minority Serbs at a flash point.

"It began with the government's fairy tales," says Mr. Petrovic, his worn tennis shoes and stained green T-shirt bespeaking 10 months of a precarious existence as a refugee.

He like the others has received little help or encouragement from their fellow Serbs.

"Now we are here on the edge of Albania and there is nothing - nothing good will ever happen here. Milosevic's propaganda said that all men in Kosovo would be given a house, and surely it was true. Look at this big house, with a yard," he says ironically, sweeping his hand toward the sports center and the line of rusting flag poles in front.

"They have put us in the situation of gypsies, of nomads," he says. "We are the people who don't exist anymore ... and now we have nowhere else to go. We were hostage to Milosevic's policy for five years, and we are still hostage to his policy."

Relief agencies say that conditions for the Kosovo refugees are worse than those for any of the 650,000 refugees who fled to the rump

Yugoslavia - dominated by Serbia - during the four-year war in Bosnia and Croatia. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade (UNHCR), most have been "absorbed" by local families. Only in Kosovo do 90 percent of the refugees still live in overcrowded collective centers, awaiting a solution they can't yet foresee.

And their anger is growing. The government in Belgrade "tried to get large numbers of refugees to go to Kosovo, but the offers [of support] never materialized so people are angry," says Marwan Elkhoury of the UNHCR.

No more than 20 percent of the refugees will return to their homes, he adds, so a long-term solution is imperative. "We have to close these collective centers down, and allow people to find houses and jobs," he says.

Some refugees have found work in Pristina, but say that they are often the victims of Serb-Albanian tension.

Mirko, a former Serb policeman in Krajina who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by Croatia for "rebellion" - not hanging the Croatian flag outside his police station - lives in the sports center.

"People were forced to come here," he says. "We arrived in central Serbia by train, and were told that we would go no further, but when we stopped we were forced onto cargo trains. Policemen lined both sides of the track, so there was no escape."

Young men were taken away to "fight NATO in Bosnia," and everyone else was sent to Kosovo, Mirko recalls. Police were posted at all intersections along the main north-south highway to prevent bus loads of refugees from turning off before reaching Kosovo.

Mirko now works for Albanians who trained him as a locksmith. His oil-stained fingers are quiet when he tells the story about his Promised Land. He is pleased, at least, that he has a job.

"The Albanians treat me better than the Serbs have," he says. "You find yourself in a situation where you can't do anything, you are helpless. This is the end of the world, you know. Maybe the only worse place is Albania."

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