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Refugees say no to coexistence

As latest peace pact may allow a return home soon, they say goodwill

Ibrahim Latifi is old enough to remember when the Serbs and ethnic Albanians in his Kosovo village lived together, if not in perfect harmony, then with tolerance and goodwill. They played soccer together, gathered in the same cafes, and discussed as a group common problems like clean drinking water and sanitation.

But the possibility of Mr. Latifi and other refugees returning to Kosovo - which became more imminent after Western and Russian foreign ministers reached agreement June 8 on a draft United Nations resolution - holds little chance of ethnic Albanians and Serbs amicably coexisting. Most refugees say they can't envision living side by side with Serbs again.

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For Latifi, a jeweler, the days of goodwill ended early one morning at the end of March, when he says Serbian police and paramilitary soldiers in black masks woke the village with gunshots. Coexistence vanished, in his mind, with his family's flight over the border, the burning of his house, and the loss of everything he had.

"I never could imagine that the Serbs would do such things, like animals," says Latifi, who is now living with a family in Macedonia. "They could speak to you very nicely but behind your back do very bad things to you. If I knew that Serbs would stay in my village, I would never go back. I would go to Bangladesh or somewhere else. There is no chance to live together again."

"It's not going to be possible to live together again with Serbs," says Skender Hoxha, a student in the city of Prizren who is now at the Stankovic 1 refugee camp in Macedonia. "I know it. They hate us. If they know you are Albanian, they want to do something bad to you. Some Serbian people are not like the others. But they are a small number, just a few."

Feelings like these loom as a huge obstacle to real peace in Kosovo. "If there is to be lasting peace in the area, there must be reconciliation between the different ethnic groups, a formidable task given recent history and the devastating effects of the expulsion of the majority of the population," says a UN report on the return of refugees.

Of the 2 million people who lived in Kosovo before NATO airstrikes, a province of Serbia, only 10 percent, or about 200,000, were Serbs. The rest were mostly ethnic Albanians. Since bombing began on March 24, Serbian police and Army units have driven out more than 860,000 Albanians, pillaging, burning houses, and killing thousands of people, according to Western sources.

Many Serbs also have fled the province. If most Serbs leave Kosovo, as seems likely if and when Yugoslav military forces yield to an international force, the possibility arises that an end to the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians could accomplish the ethnic cleansing of Serbs.

The anger that is simmering among the refugees was vividly illustrated the night of June 5. A mob of ethnic Albanians in one of the refugee camps attacked a Gypsy man after another refugee accused him of having helped the Serbs drive Albanians out of his village. US Ambassador Christopher Hill went to the camp to quell the riot, but not before the man and two other members of his family were beaten.

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Many Kosovar Albanians have had little or no contact with ordinary Serbs in recent years, as relations between Albanians and the Serbian regime grew worse. Many Kosovar Albanians come from villages that were completely Albanian. Even Lavdim Halimi, a student in Pristina, where many Serbs lived, had contact with them "only when I had to." Usually that was with the police.

Not everyone believes that coexistence is impossible. Agim Kastrati, a schoolteacher, is one who holds out hope, even though he says he was beaten twice with the butt end of an AK-47 rifle by Serbian police who accused him of being a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army. They stole his 1990 Yugo by sticking an automatic rifle in his stomach, he says, and demanding the keys.

"I'm not a radical," he says in the Stankovic refugee camp. "I believe there must be an era of democratization in Kosovo, so people can be free to go to school, to be educated, to learn in their native language. Even though the Serbs have pushed us out of Kosovo and done other bad things, we don't want to make revenge on them. If they didn't do anything, they will be able to stay."

Blerim Shala, the editor of the Kosovo weekly magazine Zeri, was an ethnic Albanian representative at the Rambouillet peace talks in France. He, too, believes that coexistence is still possible.

"We must do that," says Mr. Shala, who is now living in Debar, Macedonia. "The bridges have been burned between the two sides, but I'm sure that with a international civilian and military presence, we can bridge the gap."

Like others, however, Shala suggested that reconciliation may be impossible without the arrest of those most responsible for crimes against civilians in Kosovo, including Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted by the international war-crimes tribunal last month. The possibility of such an arrest seems remote, but without it, Shala warns, "We will have permanent tension."

Years ago, recalls Latifi, the jeweler, his father had been a leader in his village. During World War II, he and his mother took in some Serbian neighbors to protect them from the German Army.

"I'm glad they are dead, so they can't see what's happening now with the same Serbs they were friends with," he says.

Tallies for refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 860,000 people, by far most of them ethnic Albanians, have left Kosovo since NATO began airstrikes March 24.

Whereabouts and numbers of the refugees, according to UNHCR:

Albania 444,000

Macedonia 247,000

Montenegro 69,600

Bosnia-Herzegovina 21,700

Whereabouts of refugees evacuated from Macedonia, according to UNHCR:

Germany 13,894

Turkey 7,581

Norway 6,070

Italy 5,829

United States 5,658

France 5,175

Canada 5,154

Austria 5,063

Netherlands 3,943

Sweden 3,089

United Kingdom 2,952

Australia 2,486

Denmark 2,335

Switzerland 1,350

Spain 1,240

Belgium 1,223

Portugal 1,112

Poland 1,049

Finland 958

Czech Republic 824

Ireland 749

Slovenia 483

Croatia 284

Israel 206

Malta 105

Slovakia 90

Iceland 70

Romania 41

Countries that have offered to take in refugees on a temporary basis, according to governments:

Turkey 20,000

United States 20,000

Germany 15,000

Finland 10,000

Italy 10,000

Norway 6,000

Austria 5,000

Canada 5,000

Croatia 5,000

Sweden 5,000

Australia 4,000

Britain as many as

1,000 per week

Switzerland 2,500

Netherlands 2,000

Denmark 1,500

Romania 1,500

Poland 1,000

Portugal 500

Iceland 100

Malta 100

- Associated Press

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