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Serbian-Americans torn between two homelands

Worried about relatives and bound by a common past, they largelycondemn NATO attacks

Verka Ladasvasc, who left Serbia 10 years ago for Chicago, covers her mouth with a worried hand as a map of Kosovo flashes on a TV news program, pinpointing the sites where NATO planes dropped bombs Wednesday.

Ms. Ladasvasc's son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old grandson live very close to Belgrade, and she has tried all day to get a call through to them without success.

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"I was there with them, last month," she says quietly in halting English, her eyes glued to the TV set at the Simplon Orient Express, one of a handful of Serbian restaurants in the Chicago area.

Indeed, every time news programs show US jets taking off on bombing runs over Belgrade, Serbian-Americans are worried and angry. Although the 1.2 million Serb immigrants have melded into America like many other ethnic groups, they have also not forgotten their roots.

They have their own newspapers, radio stations, and fraternal orders. Serbian-American parents send their children to Serb summer camps so they can learn about the Orthodox faith and their history. In short, they share a long and important heritage with the people now undergoing the stress of war.

"We have a powerful attachment to our past, but we live in a society that does not value this. It makes us an anomaly within American culture," explains Marco Trbovich, a resident of Pittsburgh and the assistant to the president of the United Steel Workers. "It is something enduring in a changing world."

That enduring spirit helped the Serbs survive 500 years under harsh Ottoman rule. Despite the oppression, Serbs maintained their allegiance to the Orthodox faith and to the cultural heritage.

That's why Serbian-Americans, many of whom do not support Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, are upset over the NATO bombings. The US-led attack that began Wednesday is the first time NATO has attacked a sovereign country in its 50-year history. It came after months of diplomacy failed to put an end to the fighting that killed 2,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless in the separatist Yugoslav province of Kosovo.

MANY of Serbians' sacred sites are in Kosovo, which is populated primarily by ethnic Albanians. "Kosovo is our Holy Land. We have over 1,300 churches and monasteries there," says Slavko Panovic, president of the Serbian National Defense Council in Chicago.

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Although Serbs have protested outside the White House, they still don't feel their side of the story is being told. Back in the Orient Express, in between dishing up chicken soup and muckalica (spicy pork tenderloin), Bilja Nacic says, "Every news [story] just reports how many Albanians were killed. Do you ever hear about how many Serbians were killed?"

The Serbs are also stunned because they were the only Balkan group to support the Allies during World War II. More than 500 US pilots were rescued by the Serbs after they were shot down coming back from bombing runs over Romania. Mr. Panovic still remembers sitting on his grandmother's lap when Nazi soldiers came looking for his grandfather, a guerrilla fighter. "When she wouldn't tell them where he was, they shot her," he recalls.

The wars that have engulfed the Central European region since World War I are one of the reasons there have been waves of Serbian immigrants. Many have ended up in the industrial cities, working in steel mills or auto plants. "They were uneducated but strong and willing workers," says Mr. Trbovich, whose father and grandfather both worked in the steel mills.

The sons and daughters of the steel workers, however, went to college. They also moved out of the inner city areas to the suburbs. With education, came prosperity. Today, Serbian-Americans run large corporations. In the US Senate, George Voinovich (R) of Ohio has Serbian roots, as does Rep. Rod Blagojevich, a democrat from Chicago. This week, Senator Voinovich joined 40 other senators in opposing US involvement in the NATO campaign.

Now, many Serbian-Americans feel powerless. Danielle Sremac, who is involved in Serbian causes, says she has been busy fielding phone calls. "This is all very confusing to them," she says. "Our views seem completely irrelevant to anyone in the US."

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