LATimes, Sunday, May 30, 1999
DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO
Ethnic Albanians, Serbs Work Together in Power Struggle
Infrastructure: Linemen battle damage caused by NATO bombs. To many Kosovars, they are heroes.
By PAUL WATSON, Times Staff Writer
UROSEVAC, Yugoslavia--Wars aren't fought with guns and bombs alone, and in Kosovo, teams
of Serbs and ethnic Albanians are defending the province against NATO
with ratchet wrenches and lengths of cable.
They are linemen working for the state electric utility,
Elektrokosmet, and each day they wage their own battles against the
damage that allied pilots, with their relentless bombing, are doing to
this country's power grid, trying to make it collapse.
It's a crime under the laws of war to attack civilian infrastructure
such as bridges, water pumping plants, fuel storage sites and power
supplies beyond what is necessary to cripple a country's armed forces.
And NATO insists that its continuing airstrikes against Yugoslavia's
infrastructure are aimed only at the military.
But after 67 days of airstrikes, just flipping a switch and seeing a
light go on can be cause for celebration.
The Kosovo Albanians and Serbs working together to repair severed
cables, often under bombardment, aren't likely to get medals. To the
doctors, bakers and everyone else depending on them here, however, they
are heroes just the same.
"Each time we repair a problem, it's a victory that boosts our
morale," Serbian lineman Nenad Milosevic, 31, said Saturday in this
Kosovo city about 30 miles south of the provincial capital, Pristina.
Linemen who work on the high towers that form the backbone of
Yugoslavia's crippled power grid are under orders to tie themselves to
the damaged structures in case NATO warplanes return for another strike.
"That way, if there's an explosion and the shrapnel wounds them, they
won't fall off and get killed," said Bozidar Kovacevic, Elektrokosmet's
director of power grid maintenance.
Kovacevic believes he is alive today only because he was an hour late
for a job Tuesday.
He and his eight crew members were supposed to repair a section of the
grid on a hill between the towns of Decani and Djakovica, near Kosovo's
western border with Albania, at 11 a.m. They didn't get there until noon.
"At 11 a.m., NATO bombed the particular tower which we were supposed
to fix," Kovacevic said. "After that event, we went straight to the Pec
patriarchy to light a candle [in prayer]."
Of about 60 linemen working for Elektrokosmet in Urosevac, roughly
half are Serbs and the other half ethnic Albanians, according to Slobodan
Miletic, the firm's local financial director.
"Everybody works, of course, because Albanians need electricity too,"
Dalib Recica is among several thousand ethnic Albanians who stayed in
Urosevac after most left to escape Serbian attacks, NATO bombardment and
a renewed civil war between security forces and separatist guerrillas.
On a rainy day recently, Recica struggled with about a dozen other
ethnic Albanian and Serbian linemen to piece together a downed cable that
was blown apart in a NATO cluster bomb attack.
The cluster bomb apparently was aimed at the pipe factory across the
street. When it opened in midair, about 200 smaller bombs dropped out and
hit the road and a dozen ethnic Albanian houses.
Recica and the rest of the crew had the power cable back up in less
than an hour, which was somewhat of a shock to spectators in a country
where people aren't used to seeing state employees work so hard.
"Of course Serbs and Albanians are working together to fix things,"
Recica said Saturday from behind an Elektrokosmet bill payment counter,
where he doubles as a clerk. "It's for the good of all of us."
That may sound like a line from a war propaganda poster, but there
wasn't a police officer or soldier anywhere nearby, or anything else to
suggest that Recica was being forced to work in some kind of chain gang.
Recica was reluctant to say much because, like many ethnic Albanians
still working for the state in Kosovo, he fears being branded a
collaborator and punished by separatist Kosovo Liberation Army
An estimated 600,000 ethnic Albanians are still living in Kosovo, but
the number drops almost by the hour as refugees continue to flee into
neighboring Albania and Macedonia.
While some ethnic Albanians reportedly are hiding in forests and
mountains without food or shelter, Serbian police are allowing many
others to return to towns and cities.
Yet NATO's airstrikes, which are intended to give lasting peace and
security to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, are making life difficult
for those still trying to survive here.
NATO warplanes almost flattened the main water filtration plant that
feeds Pristina, but repair crews managed to get the supply flowing again
after a couple of days.
But when NATO bombs knock out the power supply again, as they do
almost every day, the pumps go down again and people wait to see how long
it takes the emergency crews to work yet another miracle.
Pristina's hospital, which treats war casualties from all of Kosovo's
ethnic groups, routinely loses normal power for three and four hours at a
stretch--even 10 hours on the worst day, director Dr. Rade Grbic said
The hospital has four large generators that suck up about a ton of
fuel in five hours, Grbic said.
Since NATO has destroyed most of Yugoslavia's fuel depots and
refineries, and the generators also need frequent maintenance and fresh
parts, it's getting harder to count on emergency power, the surgeon
"As a result, we might come to a point when the generators will not
work and the lives of the patients on life-support machines, the lives of
babies in incubators and the lives of those patients who need operations
will all be endangered," Grbic said.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
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