Kosovo Serbs work up a deadly self-pity

Raymond Whitaker meets villagers in Gorazdevac who say they are prepared to embroil the US in a new Vietnam
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The Independent Online
THE POLICEMAN entered the village shop and slumped on to a soft- drink crate with his head bowed, muttering obscenities to himself. Everyone watched uneasily as he communed with the automatic rifle across his knees before raising his grief-twisted face to announce: "We will be crying in the graveyard today, and it's all because of America."

In the early hours of the day before, his 19-year-old colleague, Milan Stevanovic, had been shot dead in the centre of Djakovica, in the south- west of Kosovo, near the border with Albania. He was presumably killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Now Milan's body had been brought home, and everyone in Gorazdevac, a staunchly Serbian village south of the nearby city of Pec, was in the same state of high feeling as this policeman.

There are at the most 200,000 Serbs in Kosovo's population of two million, yet they and the government in Serbia proper cling to the province as the cradle of their nationhood. The battle of Kosovo Polje, the 14th-century defeat at the hands of the Muslim Ottomans, is invested with enormous significance by Serbs as the defining moment in their national history. The monastery at Pec is the most important in the Serbian Orthodox church and the official seat of the church's Patriarch. This history was heavy in the minds of those outside Milan's house, from which unearthly wailing issued.

"We have been here 600 years, and nobody is going to make us leave," said a relative. "The heart of Serbia is here in Gorazdevac, but we have always lived in friendship with the Albanians - at least the law-abiding ones. Now we have these cowardly terrorists who killed a young boy, only three months out of secondary school. They haven't done these things since 1945, but now that they feel the Americans are on their side, they do them."

His comments, and those of the policeman, reflected all the dangerous self-pity felt by Serbs in Kosovo, a mood which has led to reprisal killings such as those of 45 ethnic Albanians in the village of Racak last month after the deaths of three policemen, and 25 more in Rogovo a couple of weeks later, after one policeman was shot. In both cases only a handful of the dead Albanians could plausibly be connected to the KLA.

The policeman added to the disproportionate sense of grievance. "Everybody writes about what happened at Racak," he complained, "but what about this robbery at Devic monastery, where they took all the stores and agricultural equipment?" The only injury in the latter incident, it should be noted, was to the car of the abbess of Devic, which was rammed by the KLA as she went to the police to report the theft.

Kosovo's Serbs are encouraged in their anger by the government in Belgrade, which uses the war to maintain sovereignty over Kosovo, and the international response to foster the sense that the world, and especially America, are against Serbia. Although many Serbs in Kosovo know they are being manipulated by President Slobodan Milosevic and his circle, they see nowhere else to turn. "I am amazed at the Contact Group," said the relative, referring to the six-nation group organising peace talks on Kosovo's future. "They are all supposed to be our friends, apart from Germany, yet they want to send troops here to beat us up." If this bodes ill for the peace talks supposed to start yesterday in France, though delayed by Serbia's refusal to allow KLA members of the Albanian delegation to leave Pristina airport, the policeman's words make chilling reading for any member of a future Nato peace-keeping force. "If America wants another Vietnam, they'll get one," he said. "We are strong, and we will fight."

The emotion reached a crescendo as Milan's body, towed on a gun carriage behind a police Land Rover, made the short journey to the graveyard. His recent school contemporaries walked in twos, carrying his portrait. Black- clad women sobbed and moaned, and a police band played mournful airs. The sun shone indifferently on the snowy mountains as the young policeman was interred under Orthodox rites.

"We are brave but insecure," his relative had said earlier. That is a combination which could not only wreck the negotiations at Rambouillet before they begin, but ensure a great deal more bloodshed in Kosovo. Milan Stevanovic is unlikely to be the last Serb to die in defence of a carefully edited version of history.