Serbs, Albanians try rearming - with goggles, poles

Far from the competitive Olympic slopes of Utah - and even Sarajevo - a ski resort struggles to rise from the ashes of ethnic conflict.

From the mountain road leading to the ski resort of Brezovica, you can see the charred timbers of burned-out chalets rising from the snow. They are reminders of the ethnic conflicts here, marring an otherwise idyllic winter scene.

Once one of Yugoslavia's most popular ski resorts, Brezovica has been dormant since the 1999 conflict that pitted ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's forces against ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo province.

This winter, for the first time in three years, the resort is beginning to stir, lifting hopes that the area will once again become a lively playground free of ethnic strife. The lifts and mountain-top hotel have reopened.

Though so far most of the skiers are foreign peacekeeping soldiers and UN workers, a handful of Albanians have ventured back to the ski resort, which lies in the heart of a Serb enclave.

"I was worried about coming here, but excited at the same time," says 25-year-old ethnic Albanian Xeni Deshishku. "There's this fear about being up here. None of my friends have been here. It's like breaking the ice. But I love this mountain, and it's good to be back."

Both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs have a deep emotional attachment to the mountain, where once, side by side, skiers of all regional ethnicities negotiated its steep runs while taking in the spectacular views of the Sharr Mountains forming Kosovo's southern border with Macedonia.

But since 1999, Kosovo has been a divided land. Where once Serbs and Albanians built vacation chalets next to one other, now most houses belonging to ethnic Albanians have been destroyed - some by the Serb Army, some, it is said, by their Serb neighbors.

With the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the displacement of Kosovo's Serbs, Brezovica will undoubtedly need the patronage of Kosovo's Albanians to survive. Few of the largely impoverished Serbs in the area can afford the $5 day lift pass. Serbs from Belgrade, who once flocked to the resort, are afraid to cross Kosovo to reach Brezovica. Only a year ago, a bus convoy, escorted by the NATO-led peacekeepers and carrying Serbs returning to Kosovo from Serbia, was blown up, killing 14 people, including a baby.

With the war so recent, "we need more time to see if we can live together," says Serb businessman Sasa Ilich, who, banking on the peacekeeping soldiers' desire to ski, was able to borrow $100,000 to buy top-of-the-line skis and snowboards for his rental shop. "But step by step, I think we'll work through the situation," he says. "We have to leave the politicians to their mess and let our sportsmen and businessmen get back to normal life." he adds.

But in Kosovo, politics has a way of disrupting normal life. Just as everyone was beginning to think a little fun had come back to wintertime, Brezovica's renaissance was dealt a blow late last month.

Serb demonstrators lobbed bricks, hammers, and snowballs at members of the Brezovica area's ethnic-Albanian assembly when it tried to meet outside the town hall. (The assembly won office in an election that was boycotted by Serbs.) Peacekeeping troops were called in to escort the Albanians to safety.

The incident led US peacekeepers to declare the ski area unsafe, which has emptied the slopes for nearly two weeks.

Theories abound as to who tried to pull the rug out from Brezovica's comeback. Some say it was Albanians jealous of the Serbs making money. Others say it was the enclave's hard-liners, who are ready to sacrifice everything to preserve the status quo and keep the Albanians out. Still others claim that it is the fault of the international community for trying to bring Serbs and Albanians together.

UN international police officer Barry Fletcher has his own ideas. "Every time there is some progress here, there are always politicians or other elements of society who look to sow chaos because they are afraid of losing their power."

Victor, a Serb ski instructor, says he will now probably return to his job as a waiter in Belgrade. "I'm sad," he says. "The mountain is so empty now."

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