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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Serbs Return to Kosovo for Dead

PEC, Serbia -- Dragica Besovic and her sister-in-law were back in Kosovo last week on a sad and macabre mission: to dig up their dead relatives and rebury them by her new home in Serbia.

Besovic had fled Kosovo in 1999. Fear drove the 77-year-old Serb away, but it also drew her back, fear that if the mostly ethnic Albanian province gains independence as expected later this year, Serb-haters will unearth her relatives' remains and scatter the bones.

Dozens of Serbian families are exhuming their dead, reflecting the deep mistrust and unhealed scars of war that bedevil Western efforts to forge a multiethnic society in Kosovo.

"I came into the world here, and this is where I aged," Besovic said, choking back tears as gravediggers in white overalls dug up her husband, Milivoje, who died nine years ago.

"What else am I supposed to do?" she asked.

The question takes on added urgency Tuesday, when the United Nations Security Council is expected to review a proposal to grant Kosovo internationally supervised independence, a plan bitterly opposed by Serbia, which regards the province as the cradle of its nationhood.

Most of Kosovo's Serbs fled after NATO bombing stopped Slobodan Milosevic's brutal 1998-99 crackdown on separatists. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed, more than 1 million lost their homes, and 2,000 are still missing.

When the war ended, some Albanians sought to avenge their dead by targeting Serbs. About 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled, and only about 100,000 remain, most in small enclaves.

Besovic's sister-in-law is Dusanka Ivanovic, 60. She was here to exhume her brother -- Besovic's husband -- along with her father and uncle. The two women watched as the remains were stuffed into white plastic bags, sealed into coffins and loaded into a van for the 140-mile journey to Kraljevo, in Serbia.

Uniformed Kosovo police officers and municipal officials stood at a respectful distance.

Although the Security Council is divided over the Kosovo blueprint, backed by the United States and the European Union but opposed by Russia, many Serbs appear resigned to the province becoming independent.

In the western Kosovo town of Pec, the Serbs are gone and the rundown Serbian Orthodox cemetery reflects the contempt ethnic Albanians feel toward their former rulers.

Some Serbian graves have been desecrated. Jagged chunks of tombstone marble and blobs of old candle wax lie among the pine needles.

But despite rumors in Serbia that brought the two women back to the graveyard, there is no sign of large-scale desecration. Similar rumors sparked a brief rush to exhume Serbian bodies in Bosnia after its war ended in 1995, and it was not uncommon to see refugees transporting coffins in ragtag convoys.

Ivanovic left Kosovo 35 years ago, and the newly emptied graves sever her last family link with the province.

But Besovic's link to Kosovo will survive. Her father and mother remain in the cemetery, because her brother did not agree to their exhumation.