When Ramadani Bejtus returned home in late April with his wife and six children to find their house reduced to a scorched heap, his first reaction was fury at the Serbs who had torched it.
"I was so angry I shook. It was impossible for me to not hate the people who did it and wish the Serbs would die," recalled Bejtus, an ethnic Albanian schoolteacher.
Then his two elderly Serbian neighbors appeared, with the Bejtus family's cow. They had rescued the animal and cared for it for a month, after trying but failing to save the Bejtus house from the flames.
"They said, `We're glad you're safe. We knew you would come home,' " said Bejtus. "Except for the clothes on our backs, the cow was all we had."
The story of how Bejtus was helped by his next-door neighbors, Serbs Goran Cap and Milan Jovic, stands in blunt contrast to the last 2 1/2 months of shootings, looting and humiliation in Kosovo. It is a precious and rare example of how some people in the province have overcome the ethnic hatred that has caused so much grief in the Balkans.
Now that NATO's entry is changing the balance of power in Kosovo, Serbs are fearful of ethnic Albanians and are leaving Kosovo by the thousands. Many of the returning ethnic Albanians are threatening to take revenge on any Serbs who dare to stay.
"My friends will stay," he said matter-of-factly, as the three sat on a bench under grape vines in the two Serbs' garden. He tapped Jovic on the shoulder lightly, and his voice got louder, as if he were addressing a crowd. "I guarantee that no one will touch a tile on the roof of this house, or a hair on their heads," Bejtus said.
Cap, a retired construction worker, and Jovic, a retired land survey company employee, were themselves victims of ethnic violence before they ever met Bejtus. They were among 250,000 Serbs who fled Croatia in 1995 at the end of a civil war there.
They eventually landed in Podujevo, a nondescript town in northeast Kosovo about five miles from the border of Serbia proper. It shares the marks of terror seen in every ethnic Albanian city, village or neighborhood in the province: shattered storefronts, blackened houses, emptied larders, deserted gardens and fields.
On March 24, NATO jets began bombing Yugoslavia with the aim of getting the Belgrade government to sign a peace agreement for Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. Quickly, Serbian paramilitary marauders began to go house to house throughout the province to expel ethnic Albanians. Tensions are long-standing between Serbs and Albanians, who are of different religions and speak different languages.
The paramilitaries got to Bejtus's one-story place at 7:30 p.m. They shouted at him and his family to flee. Cap and Jovic protested, but the paramilitaries ignored them. Cap said the attackers were not from Podujevo.
On the first night, Bejtus's house was spared. Flames from a neighboring house licked at the barn, but Cap and Jovic doused the fire with water from a hose. All around, there was shooting and screaming. Albanians were fleeing every direction on foot and by tractor.
"We just wanted to save the house. It was all we could do," Cap said.
The victory was temporary. The next day, someone came and threw gasoline into the house and lit it. It burned to ashes and mortar. Cap and Jovic rescued the cow from the courtyard.
"We were afraid for Ramadani [Bejtus], but believed he would come back," said Cap, who wears an abundant beard the color and texture of straw.
When asked to explain the effort, the two old Serbs related the lesson of their own harsh experience. In August 1995, both were driven out of Krajina, a region of Croatia, at the close of the conflict there. Croatians were then engaged in "ethnic cleansing" or forced deportations of Serbs, just as Serbs did to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
"I've read this screenplay before," said Jovic, sweeping the few remaining strands of gray hair over his crown. "This time, the players are different, but the ending is always the same."
"I knew ahead of time this would happen," said Cap.
The men joined a tractor and car convoy from Croatia to Bosnia, and then to Serbia. There, Jovic and Cap, both bachelors, spent several weeks in camps. Finally, authorities ordered them and hundreds of others to settle in Pristina, the Kosovo provincial capital.
Cap and others protested. To escape, he volunteered to do paramilitary duty in Vukovar, Croatia, where fighting continued. Jovic submitted and traveled to Pristina. "The officials told those who didn't know where Pristina was that is was located in Dalmatia," he said, referring to a lovely Adriatic coastal region.
Meanwhile, Cap avoided Vukovar by claiming illness. He too turned up in Pristina. Both were then resettled in Podujevo, and lived for two years in a schoolhouse converted into a refuge. A Montenegrin homeowner who traveled a lot invited them to live at his house. "It hasn't been very easy, but every so often, people helped us. So we knew what to do when all this happened" -- he gestured at the rows of burned houses on his street. "Unfortunately, saving the cow was all" that was possible, Cap said.
It was enough for Bejtus. He and his family fled to wooded hills where for a month they subsisted on flour, cooking oil and water. Now he explains to his children that he wants their neighbors to stay. He tells them not everyone is bad, that what is important is they are alive and have friends like Jovic and Cap.
The war is over, and NATO peacekeepers will soon arrive in Podujevo. The ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, whose tactics include terrorizing Serbian civilians, will also be back. KLA units still shoot up the hills along a valley north of Podujevo. The black and red patches on their uniforms are dreaded by Serbs.
Police and soldiers are telling Serbs no one can guarantee their security. The mayor has fled. "We are staying," said Jovic. "What would be the point of fleeing? We know what it's like."
Cap said: "We didn't do anyone any harm, so we don't think we have reason to leave."
A few doors down, a Serbian family loaded a trailer chained to a big, blue tractor. They angrily declined to say why they were leaving. Today, near Pristina, gunmen wearing black and red arm bands pulled three Serbian males off a similar tractor and shot them dead.