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  • Balkans Special Report

  • For One Serb, a Wilted Welcome

    By David Finkel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, June 14, 1999; Page A15

    BRASALJCE, Yugoslavia, June 13 As people in eastern Kosovo stood along roads with bouquets of flowers today, awaiting the arrival of NATO soldiers, a 19-year-old Serbian soldier named Bane stood by himself awaiting the arrival of a bus.

    He was in a sparsely populated part of Kosovo, in front of a burned-out restaurant surrounded by vast fields of wildflowers and weeds. Dressed in camouflage, he was heading to Gnjilane, 10 miles away, to see his mother, who had no idea he was coming.

    "You have ruined the power supplies. You have ruined the bridges. You have ruined the post office," said Bane (pronounced Bah-NAY). "How can I call my mother when you have ruined everything?"

    A hero's welcome. That's what Bane was hoping for when he got to Gnjilane. "We should not be ashamed of anything," he said of what the Serb-led Yugoslav army has done these past months.

    And yet as Bane looked in one direction along the road for his bus, in the other direction, just around a curve, was the village of Brasaljce, where people were emerging for the first time in months because soldiers like Bane had at last decided to leave them be.

    It was unclear whether Bane himself was in Brasaljce; he wouldn't say where he had been before showing up for the bus. What was clear was that here he was, standing by the side of a desolate road, just a few hours after Yugoslav soldiers abandoned a place where they had used a backhoe to dig out a hillside for artillery, burned the mosque, burned and looted many of the village's 580 houses and, in a final act this morning, set the backhoe on fire.

    While Bane waited for the bus and the sounds of gunfire came from a village on the other side of the road, a man named Bajram Abazi peered around the corner of the house closest to the road, looking for NATO forces. He quickly ducked behind the house, then looked again. Then he emerged into plain view. Then came a second man, and then out of fields of flowers and junked cars came a half-dozen more, all talking at once about the destruction of their village.

    "Follow me," Abazi said, leading the way up a narrow road, part dirt, part asphalt, that wound past the place where he said the antiaircraft gun was parked, and the place where the artillery pieces were located, and the field where soldiers fired at two brothers, running away, wounding them in the back.

    "That's their father," Abazi said of a man in front of a house who, at the sound of a reporter's car, hurried behind a wall.

    "That house is burned," Abazi said, of the next house along the road.

    "That house is burned," he said of the next one.

    "That house is burned.

    "That house is burned."

    And then: "Look at our mosque."

    Burned, too.

    All along, the few people outside hurried behind walls. But then, gradually, they reemerged, and then came more, and soon, what a few minutes before had seemed like an abandoned village had become a village of hundreds of people, all of them looking at the single car as the beginning of the arrival of NATO.

    "NATO! NATO!" they sang out. Dozens of people extended hands filled with flowers, and one girl ran up to the car and threw them so hard they exploded, covering the back seat with pink rose petals.

    Which caused Bane, the soldier, to say when he saw them: "Were these flowers thrown by the Serbs?"

    His bus never arrived.

    Consequently, he was in the back seat, heading at last toward his mother in Gnjilane, sitting on the flower petals and saying that it was Albanians who burned the restaurant he was standing in front of, and that it was Albanians who burned the houses he was looking at outside the car window, and that it was the Yugoslav army, not NATO, that was capable of making Kosovo safe.

    "It's an honor," he said of the past eight months of his life as a soldier.

    "There are no bad days.

    "All are good.

    "Every day is beautiful."

    To be a Serbian soldier, he said, is "an act of love."

    And up ahead: the proof. Gnjilane.

    The last time he was here, a month before, the streets were deserted. And now look, he said. Because his army persuaded NATO to stop bombing, "The Albanian population has started to come back."

    Sure enough, they were lining the streets, holding flowers.

    Out into their midst he stepped.

    One girl saw him and put her flowers behind her back.

    Others turned away.

    Others simply stared at him as he began walking, by himself, toward his house.

    This day anyway, there were no flowers for Bane.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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