But the postwar reality fell short of peace. The majority Albanians were now on top, with the minority Serbs shoved to the bottom. Killings of civilians continued. And a new stream of refugees, Serbian this time, flowed from mountainous Kosovo, a region of endemic ethnic strife and economic stagnation smaller than metro Los Angeles.
On the day of the brawl in Velika Hoca, where a few hundred Serbs hunkered down in a valley between rocky hills, a local politician and former soldier named Bojan Nakalamic—stocky, swaggering, not yet 30 years old—struck a blow for Serbian pride. There's little enough of it left in this land Serbs call their ancient heartland.
As the story goes, several Albanian youths entered the village and began paying too much attention to some local girls. The day ended with the Albanians properly humbled and ejected from the Serbian redoubt, and it was Bojan Nakalamic who led the beating. To the people of Velika Hoca, it proved Serbs could still produce a champion, a man to fear. To me, each retelling made Nakalamic sound more like a nationalistic thug.
So it was a surprise when I finally met him to learn—in a classic, mind-bending Balkan reversal—that this tough guy who bashed Albanians for crossing cultural lines has sided with them politically, joining their new government and defying Serbia's in the process. Supporting Albanian nationalism is not Nakalamic's aim. As a member of a beaten people in a hostile land, though, he has concluded that withdrawing inside a Serbian ghetto spells doom. He told me in careful English, "If we want to survive in Kosovo, we have to participate."
The flag of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a guardian of Serbian singularity throughout centuries of struggle, carries the motto "Only Unity Will Save the Serbs." It flies over a people as deeply marked by the past as any can be. Wars and the whims of conquering empires have dispersed the Serbs, who number over ten million, southward to pockets in Kosovo (where 125,000 remain) and Montenegro; throughout central Serbia, where most live today; north to Hungary; and west across Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. (Many others have dispersed to Western Europe and North America.) For centuries they have striven with epic fervor to unite their scattered people, define their lands, preserve their unique identity.