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Serbs Set Up Polling Stations

September 23, 2000

LIPLJAN, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Socialist party workers arranged the ballot boxes in the back of what seemed to have been Nikosava Trific’s dining room Saturday, taped up a paper Serb flag and _ voila _ created a polling station for Yugoslav federal elections.

Trific’s house was one of 34 private homes around this eastern Kosovo city being converted to civic duty a day before the vote, skirting U.N. orders that public buildings could not be used for the balloting.

Private homes are increasingly being pressed into service these days as schools, meeting places and clinics are converted by Serbs who say they are ever more isolated. Unwilling to trust NATO-led peacekeepers with guaranteeing their security, Serbs here remain wary about walking a few feet away from their homes, never mind going downtown.

``Even after all that, we’re going to come out and vote,″ said Slavisa Stolic, a local Serb who watched with pride and satisfaction as workers taped up a Serbian emblem on the yellowing wall. ``Because this is Serbia. This is Yugoslavia. ...This is the land of our fathers.″

Serbs lost control of Kosovo last year after NATO launched a 78-day air war to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown on ethnic Albanian militants. The province remains under Yugoslav sovereignty, and U.N. officials had little choice but to permit a vote rather than alienate the 100,000 Serbs who still live here.

Milosevic’s defeat in this region, considered the cradle of Serb culture, is considered to be one of the primary reasons the Yugoslav strongman is trailing opposition challenger Vojislav Kostunica in polls ahead of Sunday’s ballot.

Still, many Serbs in this battered province admire Milosevic for putting up a fight, for standing up to the West and facing NATO bombers with resolve. That admiration comes even as the living standards spiral ever downward and attacks by the ethnic Albanian militants become ever more bold.

For Serbs here, the vote itself seems almost a celebration of their identity, a happy occasion in a place where there is little joy.

On Saturday, workers carried the white particle board ballot boxes past Trific’s ripening tomatoes and cabbage patch as if they were getting ready for a party. Smiling and telling stories, they carefully arranged the yellow, green and white Xeroxed ballots in little stacks.

Ballots were printed in both Serbian and Albanian _ even though the province’s ethnic Albanians have long boycotted any votes in Yugoslavia in a bid to distance themselves from the regime.

Outside analysts fear that Milosevic will attempt to manipulate votes from Kosovo, inflating the numbers of voters to bolster his totals.

Serbs here dismiss questions about vote manipulation, and declare they will adapt to changing circumstances. After all, they have been managing to create separate lives, transplanting their institutions from downtown to the edges of the city.

Even before the election, Trific’s house in Lipljan had already been pressed into service as an impromptu school. She was in the hospital in Serbia proper Saturday, though officials insist she gave approval for the polling place.

Locals here describe her decision to permit the balloting as a sacrifice _ one shared by many who have opened their homes to civic tasks.

``Those on the periphery are trying to organize their lives,″ said Bosko Djoric, 60, a cafe owner. ``Soon everything will take place in private houses.″