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Grand Hotel Pristina: where guests tote guns, cameras

Order has returned to the Grand Hotel Pristina, the once five-star hotel in Kosovo that just a few days ago more closely resembled Barnum & Bailey's three rings.

As NATO moved in and Serb soldiers departed, the resulting chaos spilled from the street into the hotel lobby. Shifty-eyed plainclothes policemen, the rear guard of the Serbian retreat, eavesdropped on foreign correspondents who had turned the Grand into a huge newsroom. Street urchins blocked the only functioning elevator for hours, while a boy maneuvered a mountain bike through the crowded snack bar.

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When members of the "Atlantic Brigade," an Albanian-American unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), threw a victory party in the Grand on Sunday night, British paratroopers from the NATO-led troops intervened, kicking them out.

If any single place here encapsulates Kosovo's change of fortune, it is the Grand Hotel, a misnamed, 13-story block of concrete in downtown Pristina. In peace, it was the hub of the Kosovar capital's busy social life. But when the Serbian war on the KLA broke out in earnest, the hotel turned into a beehive of journalists and soldiers.

"The Grand was the center for the media and army," says Serif Turgut, a Turkish reporter and the longest-staying guest of the hotel. "There are no normal guests here; they're either guys with cameras or with guns."

When the Grand opened in 1978, it at least had the pretenses befitting its name. The hotel boasted 350 rooms, four restaurants, a disco, a bowling alley, and several cafes. Today the last trace of grandeur has vanished. The dilapidated socialist-era structure stands as a hulking monument to a decade of neglect.

"The Grand was the center of our world," says Nesko Lakic, a Pristina native, wistfully recalling the days when Kosovo's ethnic groups mingled in the hotel's cafes. "If you were not in the Grand for one evening, you missed everything."

Easygoing cafe culture, an integral part of Balkan social life, disappeared from the Grand when Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia, lifted Kosovo's autonomy in 1989. Ethnic Albanian workers at state institutions were kicked out of their jobs. Paramilitaries associated with Zeljko Raznatovic, the suspected Serbian war criminal known as Arkan, began frequenting the hotel in the early 1990s.

The Grand slid into a period of decline, aggravated by Serbia's chronic economic crisis and a United Nations embargo.

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"There was a big problem with the breakdown in infrastructure - the plumbing, the elevator service - everything a hotel needs," says Veselin Milojkovic, the former Serb director of the hotel.

Beginning in March 1998, when Serbian special police launched a bloody campaign against the KLA, the Grand experienced a revival of sorts, as journalists and Serbian fighters streamed into the hotel. Ms. Turgut, the reporter from the private Turkish television station ATV, was among the first foreign correspondents to check in.

"I was scared because there were 20 Serbian paramilitaries following me around - even in the restaurant," Turgut remembers.

As a woman and a Turk - historical foes of Serbs - Turgut was at risk in a building full of violent men. But the petite, tough woman won the respect of the staff as one of the only foreigners to stay in the hotel during the most dangerous days. "The receptionists and waiters were angels, they saved my life several times," she says.

Once she was attacked by a mob of Serb demonstrators in front of the hotel. A receptionist came out to rescue her, joking, "We can give up Serbia but not our guests."

On the first night of NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian paramilitaries bashed in doors with their rifle butts, terrorizing foreign correspondents staying at the Grand. Turgut spent the night in the Serb-run Media Center.

"I didn't sleep for days," says Turgut. "I didn't even take off my shoes and dozed with my satellite phone as a pillow."

Although Turgut once saw a cruise missile fly by her window and was often too afraid to venture into the lobby, she had no choice but to stay at the Grand, as renting a private room during the state of war was out of the question. She was especially nervous because the Yugoslav Army had established a base in the hotel basement, making the Grand a potential NATO target.

Armed Serbian military personnel still lounged in the brown faux leather seats in the lobby and devoured platters of fried meat in the restaurant when the first NATO units arrived in Pristina on June 12. A wave of journalists followed in KFOR's wake, spending the first nights camped out on the floor outside the hotel's Media Center.

As Serbs began fleeing Pristina in fear of reprisals by returning ethnic Albanians, the Grand maintained a sense of grim normalcy with its virtually all-Serb staff. Then the restaurant suddenly stopped serving food on Friday night. The next day the doors of the Media Center were locked, and panicked journalists lined up to file stories from the hotel's only outside phone line at the reception desk.

On Sunday evening the snack bar reopened with former KLA fighters playing the role of waiters - and customers. When their party got out of hand, British troops expelled the dancing revelers and established strict security.

An interim management consisting of one Serb, three ethnic Albanians, and one KFOR representative has since been established. On Wednesday virtually all the staff faces changed, and Albanian replaced Serbian as the hotel's operational language.

"Those employees before 1990 have first call on the jobs," says British Army Maj. Richard Bennett, the KFOR officer now serving as hotel manager. According to Bennett, some 50 Serb employees have decided to stay, while 130 ethnic Albanians have shown up to reclaim lost jobs.

Turgut, the Grand's most dedicated guest, complains that many Serb employees are now feeling pressured to leave. And she is unhappy that armed men - albeit British paratroopers - still occupy the lobby.

"First it was Serbs, then the KLA, and now KFOR," Turgut says. "From the first day I haven't seen this hotel without guys with guns."

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