Liberation Of Kosovo: Milosevic's Victims - Dispossessed prepare to uproot again

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The Independent Online
"HERE," SAID Danica Polovina. "This is where we sleep." On the door was the international symbol for table tennis, but inside the dim hall in the basement of Pristina's Youth Palace there were no tables or trestles, no nets or ping-pong balls. Instead iron beds with grey military blankets lined the bare walls. The only light came through glass bricks near the high ceilings.

"Most of these beds are empty now," said Mrs Polovina, 45. "Nearly everyone has gone." It was the same in the adjoining boxing and wrestling halls, and in the judo hall upstairs, where a rough wooden partition divided the floor diagonally to give the occupants some privacy. A noisome and ever- growing mound of waste had accumulated at the bottom of the stairwell.

The handful of people wandering the cavernous spaces of the sports complex are among the most hapless victims of Slobodan Milosevic. In the summer of 1995 more than 250,000 Serbs were driven out of the Krajina region of Croatia. The Belgrade regime shipped thousands of them to Kosovo in an attempt to alter or at best maintain the ethnic balance in what was considered the heartland of the Serbian nation, even though nine out of ten inhabitants were Albanian.

Once there were more than 1,300 Serb refugees in the Youth Palace, a vast Communist-era relic in the centre of Pristina; now 35 are left. "We want to go to Serbia as fast as possible - all of us," said Glusica Dejas, 63. "We are compiling a list and have asked Nato for protection, and they have promised to give it."

The Krajina refugees, said Mrs Dejes, arrived "in great fear and worry" in August 1995. "We didn't know where they were taking us." But it got better, according to Mrs Polovina, widowed by the Croatian offensive, who found herself in Pristina, with her son, daughter and son-in-law. "They found us jobs - I worked as a furniture restorer - and the pay was better than in Serbia. It was our choice to stay."

Albanians complain that unqualified Serbs were brought in to replace them after the mass sackings of the early 1990s, but Mrs Polovina said she had no quarrel with them. "I have Albanian friends. They know we are poor, and so are they. We were not, repeat not, living in fear of them."

Gradually, however, the number of Serbs living in the sports centre began to dwindle as they received permission to settle in the United States and other Western countries. Others returned to Serbia. The start of last year's Serbian offensive against the Kosovo Liberation Army accelerated the outflow, and by the start of the Nato air campaign in March, only 200 were left.

"We were safe during the bombing as long as we stayed in the basement," said Mrs Polovina, "but we know it is finished here. We understand what has been happening. This fight is not for us and it is not about us. We have been suffering for four years in someone else's war."

Their jobs gone, the Krajina refugees hover listlessly about the Youth Palace, waiting for evacuation. They are wary of going out. Although no sport has been played at the centre for years, the front desk is now manned by Albanians who have returned to their former workplace.

"We have no problem with the Serbs who were here before 1990," said one, "but the ones who replaced us have to go."

"My daughter left with her husband and child three days ago for Serbia, and I plan to join them. My son left long ago," said Mrs Polovina as she escorted us down the long passageways back to the entrance hall. "I'm just waiting to hear when we can go. We used to get humanitarian aid, but now we don't even have enough food."

There was one more question: what did she think of President Milosevic? "He destroyed us in Krajina," said the widow, "and he's done the same here." At this her face crumpled, and she began to cry.

The UN human rights high commissioner, Mary Robinson, on a visit to Kosovo yesterday, expressed alarm at the fate of gypsies and Serbs persecuted by angry ethnic Albanians in the province. Gypsies told her they had been forced to flee for their lives and spoke of beatings and looting by Albanians. She said Serbs were also under pressure.

"I'm really very worried about the situation of minorities. I'm more worried now, having come here, than I was before I came," Mrs Robinson said.