Happy Throng Assails Lingering Serbs |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 14, 1999; Page A1
PRIZREN, Yugoslavia, June 13 – It did not take long for liberation day here to turn ugly.
First there was celebrating. Early in the afternoon, thousands of residents of this once-besieged city in the heartland of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian culture rushed to embrace German troops streaming in from Albania. They threw flowers, wept, and shouted, "God bless you! God bless NATO!"
But soon came the venom. Some in the crowd began pelting Yugoslav army and Serbian civilian vehicles with stones, smashing windshields and menacing the occupants with clubs. Armed Yugoslav soldiers turned on the crowd, causing a panicked stampede. A man who defied the soldiers was smashed twice in the head with a rifle butt and kicked when he fell. A line of German soldiers raced between the Serbs and ethnic Albanian civilians in a standoff that ended when a German major carrying only a holstered side arm angrily approached the Serbs and batted aside the muzzles of their guns.
Finally came the shooting. At dusk, two Serbs in civilian clothes opened fire from a passing car on German troops near the city center. As bystanders scattered, the NATO soldiers returned fire, killing the driver of the car and seriously wounding the other assailant. A German soldier was reportedly wounded, the first NATO casualty of the peacekeeping operation.
By midnight, withdrawing Yugoslav forces were reportedly looting and burning buildings on Prizren's outskirts as they began their retreat.
"An army is being forced out and another army is coming in, and of course there are emotions like hatred in this kind of period," said Brig. Gen. Helmut Gharff, chief of operations for the German contingent.
The NATO occupation of Prizren began shortly after midnight Sunday, when about 100 German soldiers arrived from Macedonia to secure the city for the arrival of another 600 troops that entered this afternoon from Albania, 10 miles west of here. Early in the afternoon, after about 60 Yugoslav soldiers withdrew from the Vrbnica border crossing, an angry and exuberant crowd of ethnic Albanians ransacked the post, breaking windows, stealing furniture, and setting fire to guards' uniforms outside.
About 500 more German troops are expected to arrive here Monday, military officials said. In all, there will be about 5,000 German troops stationed in the area of Prizren, a hillside town of brick buildings with red tile roofs, stone bridges and mosques that is considered one of the most beautiful communities in Yugoslavia. Under the terms of the peace accord, the roughly 3,000 Yugoslav troops in the area are to finish their withdrawal by Tuesday.
For ethnic Albanians residents, who said they had been hiding in basements and attics for months and had rarely ventured outside, the rapid arrival of NATO forces seemed like salvation. Thousands jammed the streets, hugging and kissing German soldiers, posing with them for pictures and putting flowers in their flak jackets. The people burst into a popular song: "I will give you a promise; I will give my life for Kosovo."
"Oh, God, you have saved us!" wept Hajrie Morina, 43. "Every night I have waited at the window for the Serbs, but tonight I can sleep because I'm free."
"I have been hiding inside for 78 days in fear," said Mentor Gollpani, 24. "Today, I feel like a survivor of the Titanic."
Drita Alliqi, 23, said that just after midnight Sunday, her family heard the rumble of tanks – a sound they had become familiar with in the last 11 weeks as they hid in their homes, emerging only between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day to queue for food.
"The children started shouting, 'The Serbs are coming,' " she said. "But then we saw them, and we all screamed, 'Oh my God, NATO is here.' I fainted right on the street. This was a miracle."
But locals were quick to vent their anger against Serbs, screaming obscenities, kicking and hitting cars of Serbs that drove by and throwing stones bus loads of Yugoslav soldiers.
When a Yugoslav soldier in a passing truck waved an AK-47 menacingly at jeering crowds lining the sidewalks and fired two shots in the air, he was answered – and silenced – by a warning burst from a KP-7 machine gun atop a German fighting vehicle. The retort met with chants of "NA-TO! NA-TO!"
At the edge of town, Serbian civilians carrying automatic weapons set up a makeshift road block this afternoon. German tanks, fighting vehicles and jeeps passed through repeatedly, but did not directly confront the angry civilians, some of whom spat at them as they passed.
In violation of NATO's military agreement with the Yugoslavs, hostile army and Interior Ministry troops also manned roadblocks within sight of German forces. Hundreds of Yugoslav troops moved along cratered roads outside Prizren and they gave the three-fingered Serb salute as they moved past German positions. They were often followed by Serbian civilians in private cars, their belongings stacked on the roofs.
Only a few of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from from Kosovo in Albania ventured across the border back into the Serbian province today, hitching rides from some journalists. One refugee, Shefki Batalli, 28, said he wanted to look at his family home in the southern Kosovo town of Zhur to see if his parents and siblings could return.
"I don't have words to express how happy I am," he said upon entering Kosovo. He was quickly dejected, however, and visibly rattled by the sight of so many Serb soldiers. And he soon began asking reporters for a ride back to Kukes.
"This is too frightening," he said.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company