WASHINGTON – The phone call came at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Baltimore resident Arsin Cejku’s cousin, calling from Sweden, gave him the latest news from his native Kosovo: “They’ve started to bomb.”
Cejku, an ethnic Albanian, was not surprised, but he was worried. His sister Lulijeta, who is five months pregnant, was staying in his hometown in Kosovo.
It would take 57 hours and “a million” phone calls for Cejku to finally confirm that she was unharmed. For now.
“I’m still worried,” said Cejku, a medical technologist at Good Samaritan Hospital. “You can’t guess where they (Serbs) are going to go next.”
The explosions rocking faraway Kosovo have ignited passionate feelings in Maryland’s small Albanian and Serbian communities, which numbered a little more than 1,600 combined in the 1990 census.
“Why Kosovo? Why now?” asked Ray Velencia, a Serbian-American priest at the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew in Columbia. He said NATO has no business meddling in an internal Yugoslavian struggle over the province of Kosovo.
“Do you think Texas would give the Alamo back to the Mexicans?” he asked.
NATO forces, including the United States, began bombing Yugoslavian Army targets Tuesday in response to alleged atrocities by the majority-Serb army against ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province of Kosovo. NATO has said the bombing is aimed at forcing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept a peace plan for the region.
Serbian-Americans in Maryland said Friday that, while they do not advocate Serbian violence toward ethnic Albanians, they are outraged that NATO is interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
“No one has explained to me what national security of America is at stake,” said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Serbian-American who lives in Lutherville.
Bentley said it is a “grave mistake” to punish all of Kosovo for the transgressions of a few. “Everybody over there has suffered. Everybody,” Bentley said.
“The best solution to peace in that part of the world is a dozen high- priced funerals,” she said, referring to the leaders she said are responsible for the region’s troubles.
Bowie resident Alex Dragnich, a Serbian-American who has written extensively about Serbia, called NATO’s action “illegal” because it was “committing aggressive acts against a sovereign country that has not done anything to us or any of our allies.
“Saying Milosevic started it is like saying Lincoln started the Civil War by trying to keep Southern states from seceding,” said Dragnich, 87, a retired Vanderbilt University professor.
Bentley and Dragnich said the United States should not set a precedent where powerful countries meddle with smaller nations.
But Elda Grabocka, 19, an Albanian currently studying at Washington College in Chestertown, said “NATO made the right decision.”
“It’s sad that force had to be used, but I don’t think that there were many options left,” said Grabocka, a sophomore. Cejku said NATO force is the best solution to Kosovo’s problems. He said America’s greatest mistake was waiting to intervene.
“The international community has the duty to intervene,” Cejku said. The violence “will not go away until you punish the perpetrators,” he added.
But others maintained that outside intervention will only strengthen Milosevic’s standing in his country, while harming both Serbian and Albanian citizens.
“Milosevic is a tyrant. He is a communist,” Bentley said. “We’ve also made him a big hero over there.”
Bentley, who traveled to Kosovo in 1992, said Americans do not understand that long-standing conflicts in Kosovo cannot be healed overnight.
Velencia also pointed to the region’s history as evidence that the violence will not end any time soon: He said Kosovo is sacred to Serbs because of the death of Prince Lazar there at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1389.
“These are not people who are going to lay down their arms at the sight of foreign armies. They do not care about shedding blood for what they believe in,” said Velencia.
Grabocka agreed that the problem has deeper roots than many in the West understand.
“I hope it solves the problems there, although I have doubts that it will,” she said. “The situation with Kosovo and with the rest of the Balkans has been going on for decades and the conflict has always remained.”
Despite their differences of opinion, both Serbs and Albanians in Maryland grimly predicted that NATO would eventually have to deploy ground forces to prevail over Milosevic.
“I feel they (NATO) will push up to the end,” said Cejku. “If they don’t, it will be worse.”