A Serb and the Kosovo he once knew

The reporter covers the Kosovo conflict for the Monitor.

The other day i went to visit an old friend, to talk with him about Kosovo, and whether the Serbs should sign the peace deal.

Boban doesn't have any university degrees or real knowledge of Balkan politics, but he's a Serb, with inherited land in Kosovo, and he doesn't lie to me.

It was with Boban that I first went to Kosovo, in August 1996, to a village near the border with Albania called Vitomirica. For a month I lived in his summer house, a two-bedroom cottage without running water or a telephone. In one of the rooms was an old black-and-white photograph of his grandfather, a handsome man with a thick black mustache who was given the land by the Yugoslav government in 1926.

That summer Boban showed me his Kosovo. It was a place where ethnic Albanians and Serbs helped each other cut the tall grass for harvest, where there were no fences and farm animals could wander from one plot of land to another. "Do you see?" Boban said, "Serbs and Albanians are good with each other."

In the evenings, we went to the house of Spasa, an old Serbian woman who was proud to have a foreigner as a guest.

Haxhi and Os, two ethnic Albanian brothers from across the street, occasionally dropped by Spasa's for a visit. Sometimes they brought a chessboard and made Boban and me look like fools. We spoke in three languages: The Albanians wanted to practice English, I wanted to practice Serbian, and Boban wanted to practice Albanian.

Everything started changing when I began to work on a magazine article about Kosovo. I started waking up at 5 in the morning, taking the 6 o'clock bus to Pec, the nearest city, and then catching another bus to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

In Pristina I met lots of politicians and important people, and what they told me was not good. I met a photographer who took pictures of ethnic Albanians who had died from police beatings. I visited a Serbian cafe in the city of Decani, where three days earlier masked gunmen had opened fire with a machine gun, killing four.

Boban wasn't interested in those kinds of stories - or maybe he didn't want to think about them. Instead he took me to a famous monastery to meet a monk who spoke excellent English and who had a good perspective on history. The monk told us how ethnic Albanians sometimes came to the monastery to try to heal sick children. He also told us that Slobodan Milosevic, then the Serbian president, needed to be stopped before something worse happened.

I wrote my story on a laptop computer out on Boban's porch, with summer flies buzzing around my head. Boban asked if he could see the story and I said yes, but it wasn't something I normally did.

He didn't say much afterward, but I knew he was mad. He started going to visit neighbors without me, and he stopped speaking English to me when we were in a group. He thought I was wrong, that Kosovo wouldn't explode as everyone said, and that neighbors would never turn on one an other as they did in Bosnia.

I left Kosovo a few days later, and by that time Boban and I had pretty much stopped talking. I went back to America; he and his mother went back north to Novi Sad, where they spent the winter. There were a few phone calls - most of them unreturned - but by and large we lost touch.

Some two years later I was back in Serbia, and I went to Novi Sad to try to find Boban. It wasn't hard. He was sitting in a cafe near his apartment, and when I walked in the door he ran to me, gave me a bearhug, then three kisses on the cheek.

Boban had sold some of his land in Kosovo for a price that was too low. He hadn't been there in almost two years, but Spasa had gotten a telephone and he sometimes called her for updates. A friend was killed when a bomb exploded in a Pec cafe. The Albanian girl who worked at the local shop had been been jailed and accused of helping the Kosovo Liberation Army.

As we spoke we became close again.

Boban asked me what was happening in Kosovo, because he couldn't believe what he heard in Novi Sad. I told him it was worse than he could imagine, and that he might not be able to go back for a while.

I told him about the peace plan they were talking about in France - that it would give the Albanians control of Kosovo, and that more than 20,000 NATO troops would enter the region.

He asked me if Serbs could keep living in Kosovo, and I said, "Maybe."

He asked me if the agreement would bring peace, and I said, "Probably, for a while."

"Then we should sign it," he said.

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