Romeo and Juliet in Kosovo

It was the summer of 1995 when Drita met Zoran, and war was beginning to look inevitable in Kosovo.

Zoran, a Serb, was a lifeguard at the city swimming pool. Drita, an ethnic Albanian woman, liked to spend the hot summer afternoons by the water. Somehow, despite a rebel insurgency that was surfacing in the countryside, despite decades of ethnic hatred, the two fell in love.

Serbs and Albanians rarely interact in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. They go to different stores and cafes, watch different television channels, speak different languages, and practice different religions. In the countryside, the separation is even greater. The two ethnic groups rarely live in the same villages.

"I don't think I have to tell you that this is unusual," says Drita, a petite blonde, who, like her boyfriend, changed her name for this article to protect her safety. "I think maybe we are the only mixed couple in Kosovo."

As Zoran and Drita have grown closer over the years - on a recent evening they cuddled at the corner table of a cafe and spoke of marriage - their people have only drifted further apart. Their story, they say, is not one of hope. Rather, it is a tale of desperation and fear, marked by violence, threats, and, in the end, a desire to flee the country.

"If there were any signs of progress here, I would stay and suffer," says Zoran.

Zoran, who has chiseled Slavic features, is as cool as Drita is nervous. "People here are narrow-minded, so we can't wait 100 years for them to get clever," he says.

Ethnic Albanians, who are 90 percent of the population in Kosovo and are mostly Muslim, are seeking independence in a land that they say is rightfully theirs. Serbs, Orthodox Christians who rule Kosovo largely by police force, refuse to loosen their grip on the territory, which they call the historical basket of their culture.

While animosity has simmered for years, war broke out in March. As many as to 1,000 Kosovars died and some 300,000 were driven from their homes. Most of the victims have been ethnic Albanians.

The fighting did not stop until the threat of NATO airstrikes in October halted a sweeping Serbian offensive and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic promised to grant the ethnic Albanians greater self-rule.

But, despite the presence of hundreds of international observers, sporadic violence has continued, and neither side has been willing to give up ground in peace negotiations. During the Kosovo conflict, ethnic tensions have threatened to worsen, both up north in the Serb province of Vojvodina and to the south in Macedonia. More than 50 nations are deploying unarmed observers to Kosovo.

Both sides at fault in war

For Zoran and Drita, it has been a war in which both sides are guilty, and both sides mask the truth with propaganda. Neither has been accepted in the house of the other; both have lost friends.

"All my friends told me to stay away from him," explains Drita, who says her parents beat her twice for having a Serbian boyfriend. "I tried to lie to cover the relationship, but they found out. Now we avoid the subject."

When Drita visits Zoran's house, she comes late at night, "like Casper the Ghost," and has a secret knock to enter. When they are on the street, she walks 20 yards behind him. Both receive frequent death threats by telephone.

"Everybody's afraid of one another," says Zoran. "People think we can be nothing but enemies. I don't care what people think of us, but it would simply be too dangerous for us to be seen together."

Drita has drifted toward the Serbian side, largely, she says, because both societies are patriarchal and it is easier for a woman to cross the ethnic threshold. Also, in both cultures a child takes the name and religion of its father.

When they go out at night, they usually go to Serbian cafes and speak in the Serbian language - although unlike most Serbs, Zoran speaks Albanian.

Once, Drita's mother found a hidden photo of Zoran and, because of her poor eyesight, mistook him for a cousin. She put the photo in the family album and exclaimed, "My what a handsome young man."

Family politics

She promptly removed it when she realized who it was. Since then, she has been calling Zoran on the telephone and telling him to leave her daughter alone.

Zoran's mother knows about the relationship but pretends that Drita does not exist. The father still does not know.

Although the two try not to discuss politics, they pin the blame on the respective leaders: Slobodan Milosevic for the Serbs, Ibrahim Rugova for the Albanians.

"Milosevic would sacrifice 10 million Serbs and Rugova would sacrifice 2 million Albanians to stay in power," says Zoran, referring to the population figures of each group in Yugoslavia. "If they really wanted peace, it wouldn't be too hard."

But neither Zoran nor Drita is optimistic. Drita plans to go to a Western capital before the end of the month. Zoran is working two jobs to get enough money to join her a few months later.

"The worst thing is false hope," says Zoran. "The truth is that there cannot be mixed couples here. They simply will not survive."

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