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Friday, August 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Peace Hopes Dim In Serb-Battered Kosovo

Special To The Times

THE government of Serbia has killed hundreds of Albanians in Kosovo this year, displaced at least 200,000, and at last report destroyed around 300 villages. After a sudden and brutal massacre in Drenica in late February, Serbian police expanded their attacks throughout Kosovo, especially along the western border with Albania.

I traveled from Bosnia to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in March. There, I met up with colleagues from the organization Peaceworkers, who had come to observe student-led demonstrations against the Serbian government, and to learn first-hand how the people of Kosovo were responding to the government's attacks on Albanians. I wanted to see if the situation in Kosovo was as bad as it sounded, and whether there was any hope for avoiding another Bosnia.

We spent a fruitful week with our new-found Albanian friends, observing demonstrations and speaking with activists. We interviewed both Serbs and Albanians affected by the heightened tension in the 90 percent Albanian province of southern Serbia. What I learned then gave me hope, but subsequent events have been discouraging.

Perhaps the best memory of my visit is the two young sisters, Evira and Lora, who guided us around Pristina, translating and explaining as much as possible about their lives and hopes. As with almost all of the folks we met, Lora and Evira were opposed to a violent solution to the conflict with the Serbian government, which they see as an occupying force. They remember the time when they were able to be friends with their Serbian neighbors, and they do not blame the current situation on the Serbs of Kosovo.

However, Evira's and Lora's ability to live a normal teenage life has been curtailed, since discos, pools and theaters are now open only to Serbs. It is dangerous for Albanians to walk out on the street after dark.

"I have no possibility of having a normal social life," said Evira. "Most of my friends are gone, to Germany, Holland, or somewhere else far away."

In addition to meeting with journalists, human-rights workers and medical workers, I spoke with ordinary people on the street. A grocer told me and my colleagues that, while he and his friends regarded the Serbs as humans, they were "unable to love them" now. We attended an underground university English class, held in a storefront because the university buildings have been closed to the Albanians for eight years. The students expressed the desire to solve the conflict peacefully, but were not entirely hopeful.

Since my visit to Kosovo, Serbian assaults on Albanian villages have spread throughout the province, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands made homeless. Fighting between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has put an end to hopes for a nonviolent settlement.

Serbian forces have surrounded and bombarded hundreds of villages. Roads have been blocked and checkpoints thrown up, where any Albanian traveling between towns and villages is subject to harassment, beating and sometimes murder. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the province.

The KLA and the Serbian military and security forces are locked into opposing positions. The KLA will not settle for a return to the autonomy under Serbia that Kosovo had until 10 years ago. Independence is their goal. At the same time, the Yugoslav government is not about to retreat.

The international community's response to this stalemate has been anything but decisive. While Western diplomats agree that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic should stop his attacks, they are at a loss to influence the situation effectively. The existence of the KLA is a response to 10 years of Serbian repression. But the Kosova Albanians' perception is that no help is forthcoming from the West, and this perception has contributed to the rapid growth of the KLA since Drenica.

Requests by diplomats such as Richard Holbrooke for restraint by both sides are useless. The West has retreated from its demand that Serbia withdraw its forces from Kosovo. The call for a cease-fire and negotiations is meaningless to Milosevic who, after all, prosecuted the Bosnian war for four years in the face of just such demands.

Is there a nostalgia for Bosnia? The present "diplomatic observer mission," able to inspect destroyed villages but not prevent their destruction, is reminiscent of UNPROFOR, the "U.N. Protective Force" in Bosnia that observed the Serb takeover of Srebrenica three years ago but was not able to prevent the massacres there.

Sooner or later, the international community will have to decide how to stop the bloodshed. It is clear that preventing a spillover into Albania and Macedonia is much more important to Europe's governments than is stopping the carnage in Kosovo itself. But the war in Kosovo will inexorably expand. The West cannot expect to contain it without forthright action.

While in Pristina, I met with a Serbian restaurant owner and his close friend, an Albanian former professor. Both lost their jobs early in the 1990s because of their opposition to Milosevic's policies. The Serbian man told us he believed that Kosovo should become an independent state with open borders, and that that would reduce the tension between ethnicities. His Albanian friend disagreed, saying that it would be sufficient to establish Kosovo as a third republic within a democratic Yugoslavia.

If negotiations on the fate of Kosovo could be held at this level, among such rational, democratically minded citizens (and there are many more), the province could look forward to an early resolution. But as long as diplomats continue to treat Milosevic as a statesman, and as long as there is no democracy in Serbia, the reasonable people of Kosovo will remain marginalized and there will be no hope of a peaceful outcome.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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