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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK

Unease in Montenegro

Refugees from Kosovo at the Montenegrin border

By Brian Barron

You can tell a lot about a town by its coffee. Here in the spring sunshine of Podgorica waiters saunter among the pavement café tables dispensing a rich variety of caffeine.

Kosovo: Special Report
An ancient army general, once one of Tito's hatchet men, orders Turkish coffee, semi-sweet, a reminder that for five hundred years Montenegro survived at the very drawbridge of the Ottoman Empire, while neighbouring states succumbed to Turkish rule.

Balkan yuppies and media mongrels

A glamorous blonde with improbably long legs and leather mini-skirt sips a café Deutsch, a milky coffee in a tall glass, fashionable among Balkan yuppies who have worked in Germany. The rest of us, the familiar company of media mongrels, opt for espresso or cappuccino, while dreaming of the real thing across the Adriatic in Ancona.

[ image: Brian Barron]
Brian Barron
An air raid siren wails across the capital; life goes on. The media gallops to the roof. The locals sit serene.

As night falls, our hotel fills with a Balkan cast that would give Tales of Hoffman a run for its money. In the dining room, the intrigue hangs as sickly as a cigarette smoke.

War veterans, politicians and bodyguards

A police colonel and his colleagues, huge men in camouflage uniforms, whisper urgently into mobile phones. The colonel is a flinty veteran of the ethnic cleansing wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 90s.

Now, older, wiser, certainly sadder, this enlightened Serb officer is trying to maintain stability here in Montenegro and to keep at bay the poison in Kosovo which could tear apart this very mixed society.

In another corner of the room, a senior government official is flanked by his own SWAT team. Four bodyguards, mean-looking men in black zipper suits, bulging with armaments.

[ image: Refugees from Kosovo travelling to Rozaje]
Refugees from Kosovo travelling to Rozaje
Two floors up, just along from my room, two uniformed policemen nurse their machine guns outside the door of the deputy Prime Minister. He stays here with his protective escort to escape being drafted into the Yugoslav army under Mr. Milosevic's mobilisation.

A mile away, the President of Montenegro sits in his office wondering if he'll wake up tomorrow and find tanks in the streets and a military coup in progress.

The status of Montenegro today seems strangely semi-detached, despite being in the Yugoslav Federation, its elected moderate government has managed to keep the republic out of the war apart from occasional NATO air strikes against Yugoslav military targets here.

The sacrifices of the past

Many of the more than twenty thousand Yugoslav troops based in Montenegro remain hidden in forests and canyons so they don't attract NATO's attention. If there's growing unease it's because the ethnic horrors of Yugoslavia's disintegration are familiar to all.

Montenegrins are also aware of the sacrifice of their parents' generation. Dotted along the pot-holed mountain roads that stretch towards Kosovo are black marble plinths, commemorating partisans killed at each place, fighting Hitler's and Mussolini's armies of occupation.

Memories of Tito

Outside one village in the log cabin he was born in seventy years ago, an old communist puffs on a cigarette and says, "it's hard to believe it's happening. All those years of enforced harmony under Tito and now this mess."

But, one points out, this was a police state under Tito, albeit benign compared to the Soviet nightmare. "Yes, that's true," says the veteran Serb Marxist. "But Tito was a God, he understood people had to live together and was shrewd enough to give the regions a large degree of autonomy. Those who succeeded him didn't understand that."

[ image: President Djukanovic fears military coup]
President Djukanovic fears military coup
Heading northeast, towards Kosovo, we're behind a Yugoslav military convoy as it nears the Montenegrin border town of Rozaje. At the roadside are groups of Albanian refugees. A soldier in the turret of an armoured vehicle draws his forefinger across his throat as he passes them and then brandishes a knife.

In Rozaje, the refugees are crowded into empty factories. Until a few years ago, these plants employed thousands of locals, producing china, ceramics and textiles. But Mr Milosevic's doomed crusade for ethnic supremacy in Kosovo has spilled over the border destroying industry here.

Outside the factories, newly-arrived refugee families huddle together in the chill air. On their faces, shock. They were forced out of their homes less than a day ago. Now those houses are burned. They've come with nothing.

The cold inhumanity of it is breathtaking, as harrowing a scene as I've witnessed. When the conflict part of this crisis is over, within a few months, Montenegro should be able to breathe a little easier for Kosovo seems certain to be an international protectorate.

By then, the genie of Serb ultra-nationalism might have been forced back into an armour-plated bottle as NATO enforces that old Maoist dictum - "power grows from the barrel of a gun" - about the only message the hard men in Belgrade understand.

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