War in the Balkans: The cafe society of Kosovo meets to dream of Utopia At a cafe, builders of a new Utopia meet to dream

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The Independent Online
ARBI'S CAFE serves the best coffee in Tetovo, a neat little town of red-roofed houses and tree-lined boulevards amid lush farmland in the far north-west of Macedonia, just a few miles from the border with Kosovo.

It's the kind of acrid brew beloved by people all over the Balkans, so thick and grainy that you eat rather than drink it. Two cups and your heart starts hammering. A full pot, laced with nicotine from the powerful Turkish cigarettes they smoke continuously, and you are so wired up you could fight the world.

But Arbi's crowd are not fighters. They never were. They are dreamers. And dreamers who are also brave are perhaps the most dangerous people of all. Not only to themselves, but to everybody around them.

A cynic could argue that in many ways this crowd of charming, chattering, multilingual and immaculately dressed men and women who were yesterday networking, as they have been for weeks now, at the polished tables under the cafe's red awning may have played a big part in bringing about the final act in the Kosovan tragedy that has unfolded before our eyes for seven weeks.

For several exhilarating years they thought they could defy and even outsmart a man who regards them as little better than vermin. And in the end they were foolish enough to poke a stick into the eye of a brooding monster who was waiting only for the right moment to show them the kind of large-scale military violence they had never expected in their darkest nightmares.

This stylish, attractive and often volatile group are proud to call themselves the Kosovo intelligentsia. It is a pretty word from a far-off, more romantic political era to describe a few thousand artists, university lecturers, professors, writers, poets, journalists and political activists who until two months ago flourished in the regional capital of Pristina, at the heart of - but essentially remote from - a largely illiterate ethnic Albanian peasantry of nearly 1.8 million. In a hard, impoverished land they had panache, prestige and a kind of Western lifestyle. They had the best of the little there was.

But when the tidal wave came they were swept away just like everybody else. Today these Kosovo Albanian thinkers and leaders are are just another kind of refugee group, as homeless, broke and terrified as the 150,000 people sweltering and despairing in the seven big camps stretched out along the border. They were just luckier or more guileful than the rural folk. Using their tongues, their connections and sometimes their money for bribes, hundreds of them managed to make their way across the border and find refuge with friends, family and contacts among the ethnic Albanian community in western Macedonia.

Most are now technically derelict and penniless, despite their carefully pressed suits, designer dresses and expensive jewellery and wristwatches. Even professors at Pristina's illegal university earned only about pounds 150 a month, and foreign bank accounts are unknown. They are also hated and feared by the Macedonian population of Tetovo, and a few of them have been assaulted after dark just outside Arbi's. Almost all of them have friends, family and lovers still hiding out - or dead - somewhere in Pristina's silent, dark streets.

They are attractive people. Polite and charming and endlessly patient to those Western journalists who find their politics and complex history bewildering and chaotic. Many of them - especially the young journalists - have risked their lives through more than a decade of Serbian brutalism to speak openly in Kosovo, and to the outside world, of crimes that range from social humiliation and economic repression to cold-blooded murder.

They are not violent people. The rise of the KLA frightened them, and they all want to see it disarmed if a peace-keeping force goes in. And that is the question they endlessly ask each other. Will it happen soon? Or will we have to wait months and years? Will the West eventually weary of us after the pictures of the weeping children in the camps get boring?

They come to Arbi's to plug into the rumour mill and to hope that word will come that a relative, friend, colleague or lover has turned up safe. Some, they know, are certainly dead.

In the mornings, when the spring sunshine makes the wine glasses sparkle, they are upbeat. There is even some laughter because they are grateful to be alive when so many are dead.

Men such as Nazim Llesta, a writer and film-maker, chats to Shkelzen Maliqi, an economic expert who was part of George Soros's Open Society Institute. The talk is of the vision they shared - the creation of a kind of pastoral Utopia in the great open valley ringed by high mountains that is Kosovo.

Alsa Maliqi, an elegant woman who once ran an art gallery in Pristina, thinks they will all one day go home, but it may take up to a year. She is already planning to open a small gallery-in-exile where her artists can bring their work. "We have the same crowd here that we had in Pristina," she said. "And we can work, if we are allowed to."

Leke Gashi, a professor at Pristina University and the vice-president of the Kosovo Liberal Party, is convinced that if the West "keeps its nerve" the marauders in his country will go home. And he is one of the few people who still believes passionately in the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova, now wandering aimlessly around Europe, broken and barely able to string two coherent sentences together.

"He is a great man," said Professor Gashi, "and I believe that he still has the support and love of the vast majority of our people. We do not know what his ordeal was like in the hands of Milosevic. But he is alive and we are grateful for that."

But are the mass of the people grateful? Mr Rugova was held in almost mystical reverence by the bulk of the peasant population. Now, in the camps, some spit when they are asked about him.

Mr Gashi's daughter, Veneranda, 24, honours and adores her father. She believes him, and she believed his friend Mr Rugova when they said that the will of so many people must eventually prevail, and that the power of the West would protect them. But like many young, educated Kosovars she has been traumatised by the weeks of running, and of the months beforehand when she barely left the house for fear of the Serbian police smashing windows and threatening them with murder. She has lived with fear for so long now, that she feels her life has been destroyed.

She simply wants to know where her boyfriend is. She last saw him five weeks ago. And she desperately wants to go home to find her grandparents, farmers who are still living in the family home. She is tired of politics and she is cynical about the political dreamers of the cafe.

"My city and my home has been left to hungry dogs," she said. "And hundreds of gypsies are helping themselves to any scraps that are left. We should have been more careful. Maybe we should have been smarter. Maybe we should have tried to do it another way." Looking into her eyes, you get the impression that Veneranda feels she may never go home.

Across the street from the cafe, a different kind of activity is going on. Another kind of Kosovo intelligentsia - the young firebrand journalists - are hard at work on the next edition of the tabloid news-sheet Koha Ditore, now being published in exile.

The second-floor single-room office is as hot as a furnace, with 15 young reporters banging at the keys of their terminals. In the middle of this melee stands the big, bearded figure of Baton Haxhiu, perhaps the number one target for Serbian death squads. They missed him by minutes and he only escaped the country by shaving off his beard and joining a young mother and her baby, posing as her husband, and entering Macedonia with the great stream of refugees.

There was no point interviewing him. He has already spoken to every newspaper and television station in the civilised world. His mobile phone spends more time against his ear than in his pocket. He is undoubtedly brave, and the armchair revolutionaries in Western capitals who encouraged him over the years have turned him into their superstar since Mr Rugova was seen having talks with the enemy.

But to many he was the loose cannon whose taunting headlines and personal attacks on President Milosevic, before, during and after the final peace talks in France, may have played some part in bringing the roof crashing in on Kosovo. Hero or fool? Who knows?

Of more interest is his boss, a man who someday, if the Kosovan dream is ever to become reality, could emerge as the real leader of a free state. He is Veton Surroi, a 45-year-old political wheeler-dealer and publisher who has not been heard of for nearly seven weeks. He may be unable to break cover and run for the border, or he may have made the decision to stay. Or, like his friend Fehmi Agani, he may be lying on a mortuary slab in a Serb police station.

For years, Mr Surroi was the man who held the whole, chaotic Kosovo Albanian political morass together. You hear his name everywhere you go, and people become misty-eyed when they talk of him. Even today he remains popular with both the KLA hotheads and the gentle, Gandhi-style academics of the political parties. The only man he did not seem able to control was his own editor.

His political instincts were sharper than the others' - even before the storm broke he knew the game was up and something evil would soon be coming down the road from Belgrade. His children were already in Switzerland and he sent his wife to Macedonia before the refugees turned the roads into chaos. But for some reason, he stayed on. If he is alive, he is still there. Such courage and defiance will raise his status even more, and with Mr Agani dead and Mr Rugova discredited, the dreamers will elevate him to national hero.

"We think, and hope, he is holed up somewhere," Naser Miftari, a journalist on Koha Ditore, said. "But he may be dead. He is certainly high on the list of the Serb murder squads. When we can go home, he may emerge as the leader of a new state."

His words began another three hours of debate in Arbi's. A new state? With their country in flames and close to a million of its citizens scat- tered in a great diaspora, they keep on dreaming.

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