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Kosovo Serbs Turn Against Milosevic

July 7, 1999

KRALJEVO, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Stranded far from their homeland in Serbia’s back country, Kosovo Serbs who once were Slobodan Milosevic’s biggest allies have turned angrily against their former patron.

Bitter and despairing, they blame the Yugoslav president for their panicky flight from home.

``If I could, I’d skin Milosevic alive, slowly,″ says Zivko Lalic, a refugee from the Kosovo village of Stupelj. ``He doesn’t deserve a quick death. He sold us out _ everything that happened is his fault.″

Kosovo Serbs were Milosevic’s biggest supporters when he rose to power in 1987, using the plight of minority Serbs in the province for his nationalist drive which later triggered the breakup of Yugoslavia _ the worst carnage in Europe since World War II.

Tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs have fled the province since NATO began deploying in June 12.

``Milosevic would gladly deport them all back to Kosovo″ and let them be NATO’s headache, opposition Serb leader Zoran Zivkovic says. ``No state media ever showed the sad pictures of what happened to these people.″

Serb authorities have rejected media requests to visit Kosovo Serb refugee centers and frequently turn back camera crews trying to film them.

But the 268 Kosovo Serbs living in a shabby school-turned-refugee center just outside Kraljevo, 110 miles south of Belgrade, were eager to talk to the journalists who reached them.

The western Kosovo towns the refugees left behind _ Pec, Decani, Klina, Istok, Prizren _ all come alive in their tales of flight to escape the revenge of returning ethnic Albanians. They distrust NATO troops, which first bombed them and then failed to protect them. And they despair over what the future holds.

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``I am never going back to Kosovo _ it’s Albanian now,″ says Zvonko Stosic, a former Serb policeman who fled his native village of Belo Polje with his wife and three children minutes ahead of the arrival of ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

``From the road we saw them burning our church and home,″ Stosic says. ``Why should I go back _ so they can murder my children?″

Sitting on the grass in the Ratina schoolyard, in the shade of the tractor he drove for three days to get here, Zivorad Vlajic’s eyes well with tears.

He left behind a thriving farm with 200 sheep, but his biggest worry is his 80-year-old parents who were too weak to leave.

``I don’t know if I’ll find them ... or if I will have to bury them,″ Vlajic says, sorrow washing over him.

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Zorica Cehovic, a schoolteacher in her mid-30s, talks bitterly of the cold reception her family received from fellow Serbs in Kraljevo, where a fifth of the population of 60,000 is unemployed and the economy is a shambles. About 15,000 Kosovo Serbs are now housed in the area.

``To them, we are like the plague,″ she sighs. ``I see the look in their eyes saying ’Go back, we don’t want you here.‴

At times, the pressure to return is less subtle.

A Serbian government minister came to the refugee camp for days, trying to persuade Serbs to return to Kosovo. He said his job was on the line, Cehovic recounts.

``Why should I go back if I can’t go to my own home?″ she asks. ``It’s the same whether I am here or there _ I am still a refugee.″

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Seated at the only table inside a classroom where 30 refugees now sleep, Stanislava Cincarevic, 70, finishes off her single daily meal: a slice of bread, a piece of cheese and an old sausage.

``Everyone let us down _ first the government by telling us we should stay in Kosovo,″ she says.

Her all-Serb village near Klina housed and fed Serb police for a year. When the Serb forces were forced to clear out under the Kosovo peace deal, the troops advised the villagers to go too.

Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas ``kept shooting and shooting at our homes,″ she recalls. Then, one day, NATO peacekeepers came ``and told us we have two hours to leave, they could no longer protect us.″

There was only time to grab a few belongings and bread for the journey. ``We were the last Serb convoy to leave Metohija,″ she says of the fertile plateau in western Kosovo.

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Snezana Bozovic, a refugee from the village of Zupce in central Kosovo, walks into the stuffy, overcrowded office of the local Red Cross. Until her 1-year-old son fell ill, she didn’t think to register since close relatives in nearby Ribnica took them in.

``So, why don’t you go back to Kosovo?″ asks a sturdy volunteer named Ruza, herself a refugee from Pec. ``At least there are some Serbs left in your village.″

``Are you crazy?″ Bozovic answers. ``How can I go back? It’s now all KLA-controlled.″

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