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Gurkhas trapped in village of hate

IN THE village of Robovce, near Lipljan, south of Pristina, a unique and tense encounter is taking place. The village's Albanian headman, Tefik Bajqinca, 48 is sharing the same space and breathing the same air as the local Serb leader Zoran Spasac, 29. But in a tiny little room, watched by officers of the Gurkha regiment, who have lured them together, the men exchange not a single word, or glance. Mr Bajqinca fixes his gaze on the wall, his back turned against his Serb counterpart. If it was not so tragic it would be funny.

As Mr Spasac, whose family, like Mr Bajqinca's, have lived in Robovce for generations, insists that relations between Serbs and Albanians were excellent before the Nato bombs, Mr Bajqinca remains silent. It takes restraint, for he is seething inside. "He is a liar," Mr Bajqinca says later. "Only three of the 54 Albanian families in this village spoke to the Serbs. And they did so through fear, not friendship."

It is almost impossible to comprehend the depth of ethnic division. Set amid rolling fields, carpeted with wild flowers, Robovce, complete with village green and waddling geese, appears to be a sort ofparadise. Serbs and Albanians have lived together here for years but in parallel universes.

Neighbours do not talk and adult hate has been passed on to the children. The walls of the village school are painted two colours - the yellow end for little Serbs, white for little Kosovo Albanians.

This hardly seems fertile soil for the seeds of postwar reconciliation. But believe it or not, Robovce - 1,000-strong, 60 per cent Albanian and 40 per cent Serbian - has the reconciliation hopes of an entire Gurkha unit riding on it. For this is the only mixed village left in the area. And the miracle is that it came through the war without a single killing.

The Gurkhas can only speculate as to why this village, unlike others, is not swimming in blood. Mr Bajqinca insists that torture and intimidation did take place, and that the Serbs stopped short of murder only because everyone here knew one another, and war criminals would be easily fingered.

The rumour is that peace reigns only because Albanians believe their Serb neighbours are armed, leading to concerns about blood letting when Nato confiscates villagers' guns.

Whatever the reasons, Major Ian Thomas, a Gurkha officer, is nursing Robovce like a sickly only child. Not that he underestimates the odds against its survival. He need only watch the Serb and Albanian children who take turns to visit the Gurkha camp sentry post in ethnically pure packs. Or he can listen to the headmen.

"We want to co-operate and live together," insists Mr Spasac. "It is only Albanians who refuse." Only when the Serb has left the room does Mr Bajqinca spit out his contempt for oppressors suddenly turned friends. "For 10 years I was a shadow in this village, not a human being," he says, recalling how he and all his Albanian neighbours were thrown out of their jobs for refusing to accept Belgrade's removal of political autonomy for Kosovo. "I had no rights. There was a time when Serbs stood on the heads of nine Albanians to get where they wanted to be. Now every Serb must listen to what nine Albanians have to say."

Major Thomas, 36, is exhausted by endless meetings with Serb and Albanian leaders from surrounding villages. "I am harangued in the morning by Serbs and harangued in the afternoon by Albanians," he says. Today's icing on the cake was a "chiding" by Croats negotiating a Nato escort to the Macedonian border. They are terrified their shared language with the Serbs will make them targets for Albanians.

Every day weeping Serb mothers visit him for news of sons they claim have been kidnapped by the KLA. So desperate are they that they offer to give their houses to the KLA in return for their boys.

There are also meetings with the Albanians of Slovinje, a village in which 45 Albanians are believed to have been massacred by Serbs in April. Families want to dig up the victims from a mass grave before they become impossible to identify. But doing that, before UN investigators visit the site, might ruin evidence that could eventually nail the killers. "I don't want them digging up this site," says Major Thomas. "But ultimately it is their choice."

Around Lipljan, armed Gurkhas protect the Serb harvest. Last month at nearby Gracko 14 Serb farmers were murdered in their fields. In a trailer a few miles from Gracko, Lazar Milkic, 60, harvesting wheat, muses on the pointlessness of his labour. "Albanians won't speak to Serbs, never mind buy their wheat," he says. His friend Milenkovic Nikola, 60, says that Nato cannot protect every Serb. Soon he says these farmers will join the flood north. "The Albanians want a pure nation," he says. "It is the end for Serbs."

In Bosnia there was at least a golden multi-ethnic age to aspire to. In Kosovo, Robovce is about the best on offer, the only whiff of possibility for the UN's insistence on a multi-ethnic Kosovo.

In this last mixed village Gurkha soldiers are running English classes for children. But Serbs and Albanians are taught separately after the realisation that a Unicef call for immediate integrated education was wildly optimistic. A few Serb children attend aerobics classes with Albanians, but only the very young. Undaunted, the Gurkhas have invited the whole village to a mixed sports day next week.

There are occasional chinks of hope. Mr Bajqinca says the children should mix. A Gurkha survey reveals that every Serb family concurs, as do half the Albanian parents.

Major Thomas says he be-lieves in the UN's multi-ethnic mandate. "But it is a long-term aspiration not a short-term quick fix," he says. Even as he speaks smoke is billowing from another home in Lipljan, and another Serb family is heading north to Serbia.