Sekiraca, Yugoslavia, 28 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Albanians in the northern Kosovo village of Sekiraca say their Serbian neighbor, Srbislav Dukic, saved the community from destruction by Yugoslav forces during the last three months. Now they are vowing to protect the 80-year-old Dukic and his wife, Svetlana, from attacks by ethnic Albanians from outside their village.
Like the rest of Kosovo, the houses and buildings of Sekiraca were looted by Yugoslav troops and police during the war in the province. Some of the 100 ethnic Albanian families in the village also fled after hearing rumors of mass killings nearby. But unlike all of the other villages near Podujevo, none of the homes in Sekiraca have been destroyed.
Local ethnic Albanians credit Dukic for that, saying he risked his life by begging Serbian troops not to burn down the local flour mill or his neighbors' homes after NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia in March.
Dukic told RFE/RL that he ran across a field to reach Yugoslav soldiers in late March after he saw them burn down a flour mill owned by an ethnic Albanian in the next village. He said he knew from that act of destruction that the soldiers and police planned to destroy the Vllazrimi flour mill in Sekiraca, about a half a kilometer from his tiny, two-room farm house.
Dukic said he pleaded with the troops to spare the mill. He told them there were no Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) fighters in his village, and he argued that torching the mill would make life impossible for him in the house where he had lived all his life.
The owner of the mill, 28-year old ethnic Albanian Mustafa Ejupi, confirmed Dukic's story:
"Three months ago, Srbislav came from his house when (Yugoslav army and interior ministry police) broke down the doors of the mill with hammers for the first time. I didn't even ask him to do it, but Srbislav saved my mill. He asked them not to destroy it. In fact, they didn't touch the mill at all until the end. But in the days during the withdrawal, he had no influence on them. They didn't care about what position they would leave Srbislav in here."
Ejupi estimates that the mill sustained at least $25,000 worth of damage in those final days of the war. He said Serbian soldiers hauled away the engines that drive his six flour grinders. The glass parts of each grinder were smashed and electrical components that help power the machinery were pulled out of a massive fuse box on the wall -- its metal door ripped from the hinges. Ejupi also showed RFE/RL's correspondent a scorched wall where he says Serbian soldiers and police tried to burn down the mill on the evening before NATO troops arrived.
"They came during the last night and started to burn the mill. We were watching the burning from our house, but the fire stopped. Then they came again and tried again to burn it, but God saved it. And the next morning, NATO troops came here. We were saved."
As he showed the evidence of how narrowly his property had escaped total devastation, Ejupi smiled at Dukic and patted his Serbian neighbor on the shoulder. Dukic returned the smile. Dukic and his wife say they are not afraid as long as they stay within their village. But Svetlana admits she has been intimidated by ethnic Albanians from other towns during the past week while waiting for a bus on the main highway between Pristina and Podujevo. Dukic blames the ethnic tensions on the political leadership of both Serbs and Albanians.
"I don't know how (Serbs and ethnic Albanians can live together in the future), but our leadership is guilty. The leadership has created this environment. And we poor people, workers who have been working all our lives, we've never had problems. Here in my village of Sekiraca, mine is the only Serb family. We are going to see our neighbors, and they are coming to see us."
It is clear from speaking with the elderly couple that they are unaware of how badly ethnic relations have deteriorated across the province. Dukic says there has been no electricity in his village since January. They have not heard a radio broadcast since then, and they've seen no newspapers for months.
The couple seemed perplexed about why a foreign journalist would want to interview them. They were genuinely shocked when told by RFE/RL's correspondent about the mass graves now being unearthed across Kosovo by international war crimes investigators.
Dukic's wife found it difficult to believe that nearly a million ethnic Albanians had been forced out of Kosovo since her husband saved their neighbor's mill. She was astonished when told of British and U.S. government estimates that at least 10,000 ethnic Albanians have been killed in the last three months by Serbian army troops, police and paramilitaries. But her husband, who is more aware of the stories being told by his ethnic Albanian neighbors, seemed more prepared to accept the fact that horrible crimes have been committed against ethnic Albanians in the name of Serbia. Svetlana: "No. We don't know about that but I don't believe that there are 10,000 victims."
Dukic: "You don't believe? How can you know what has happened in other parts of Kosovo?"
Svetlana: "Do you know how big the number 10,000 is? Killings happen on both sides. It was war, but here nothing happened so we don't know about mass graves and other things. If now we have this, we don't know why."
As RFE/RL's correspondent prepared to leave the village, Dukic said he now understood why the story of Sekiraca is unique in Kosovo, and why it is dangerous for him and his wife to walk on the nearby highway which is filled with ethnic Albanians returning from refugee camps in Macedonia. As he left the mill to return to his home, Dukic decided to walk through the fields rather than walking along the highway.