Tables turn on Serbs in Kosovo

Peacekeepers aim to make province safe, but Serbs flee region following

After taking refuge in the Kosovar capital of Pristina for a few days, three frightened Serbian Orthodox nuns steered their four-wheel drive up a steep gravel path to their isolated hilltop monastery on Tuesday. The sight that confronted them brought tears to their eyes.

Thick smoke billowed from the church door, and only four chimneys of the main building remained standing. A fire still raged in one part of the complex.

Under the peace agreement, Serbian police and military vacated the area around Prizren, in southern Kosovo, a few days ago. But at the same time that the KFOR peacekeeping force secured the region, ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) descended onto it.

The sacking of Sveta Trojica Monastery, one of hundreds of holy Serbian sites in Kosovo, is retribution for the Serbs' trail of destruction through neighboring ethnic Albanian villages.

Terrified of the armed KLA fighters who loiter on potholed streets among stray pigs and cows, the nuns from Sveta Trojica Monastery requested a KFOR escort to accompany them back to Pristina. Dressed in black, they would have made easy targets without the two British Army vehicles that received cheers from ethnic Albanians by the roadside.

Of the 9,000 Serbs who once lived in Prizren, only 200 had not yet fled by Tuesday.

"The United Nations resolution calls for a multiethnic Kosovo. If all the Serbs have to leave Kosovo, that would be the biggest failure of the international community," says Bishop Artemije of Prizren, a pillar of Serbian presence in the province.

From the start of violence in Kosovo, Artemije has called for reconciliation between Serbs and ethnic Albanians and harshly criticized the policies of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Now he too is fleeing Prizren for Pristina, according to a news-wire report, as raw fear has overtaken his appeals for local Serbs to stay.

The streets of Prizren were jammed Tuesday with cheering, dancing ethnic Albanians, who surrounded KFOR armored vehicles with cries of "NATO, NATO" and "thank you." An Albanian flag flew from the minaret of the central mosque, less than a quarter of a mile from Artemije's church.

In the past months there was heavy fighting in the region, as Serbian forces tried to break the KLA's supply lines from the Albanian border, only 12 miles from Prizren.

On Tuesday German reporters witnessed the kidnapping of a Serbian monk by KLA soldiers in the center of Prizren. The same evening panicked monks at the Sveti Archangel Monastery near Prizren packed up the religious relics from the ancient site and nervously joined the KFOR escort that took the three nuns back to Pristina.

Dismayed by the flight of Serbs the Serbian Orthodox Church called Tuesday for Mr. Milosevic to step down.

"I know that many bad things were done to the Albanians, and I was against it the whole time," says Artemije. "What a pity that nobody asked us; that's why we have this situation. We waited impatiently for KFOR to come, because we hoped that it would help us make peace."

To many Kosovar Serbs, these hopes have been dashed already.

"I have no problem with KFOR," says one Serb fleeing with his mother on a road west of Pristina. "I just don't trust the KLA."

His car and trailer crammed with furniture and personal belongings, the office worker from Pristina says he doesn't even know where he is heading. "My family has lived here for centuries," he says, panic creeping into his voice. "But I think it will be difficult to return."

Black-rimmed death notices are typically posted on trees and shop windows here - only now the ages of the dead have plummeted. One reads that Ilija Sakic, a thirtysomething Serbian journalist for Radio Pristina, was found in front of his apartment building with a slit throat on Monday. Another one announces the death of a Serbian soldier in his early 20s.

Although stories of killings and kidnappings have caused many Serbs in Pristina to leave, others refuse to consider the idea.

"I'm staying here until the bitter end," says Dejan Petkovic, a high school physical-education teacher in the ethnic Serbian village of Gracanica, the site of a 14th-century Serbian Orthodox monastery three miles outside Pristina. As he sits with friends in a cafe across from the ancient monastery walls, he says that he is not angry with the Western-led KFOR, even though he served as a Yugoslav Army reservist during NATO airstrikes.

"It's important that the bombing stopped," he says, "but it doesn't matter who comes in now."

Mr. Petkovic does not deny that atrocities occurred and expresses a certain hopelessness at political decisions beyond his control. "The people would never have started this war, only the politicians," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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