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Kosovo's Rugova Mourned in Pristina


Today Kosovo buried its late President, Ibrahim Rugova. Rugova, who died from lung cancer last Saturday, led the campaign for an independent Kosovo. His death brings a sense of uncertainty ahead of talks and the final status of a disputed province. It's still sharply divided along ethnic lines between the majority Albanian and minority Serb communities. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Pristina.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians lined the icy but sunny streets of the provincial capital to bid farewell to their President. Rugova's funeral procession followed the gun carriage bearing his flag-draped coffin as it snaked its way through the city. As the cortege passed, people threw flowers and held up portraits of the man they considered the father of their nation and the embodiment of their hopes of independence from Serbia. Fifty year old Zechir Reya (ph) who traveled from the town of Prizrin, wrote a special poem for the day.

ZECHIR REYA: (through translator) Tears run down my cheeks when I think of the father of Albanians, he said. The Gandhi of Kosovo who led his people to freedom.

BEARDSLEY: All week, Kosovo Albanians have braved subzero temperatures to wait in line for hours to view Rugova's body lying in state. Many collapsed from fatigue and the cold. The reserved and bespectacled Rugova was a writer and processor before being thrust upon the political scene in 1989. When Kosovo Albanians were dismissed from their jobs en masse, Rugova helped create a parallel state with its own underground schools, hospitals and government. In the ten years that followed, Rugova led the Albanian people in non-violent resistance to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. 75 year old Idris Buyaku (ph) says he will always remember Rugova's stoicism.

IDRIS BUYAKU: He suffered to look in 16 years for all of us. During the war we almost all left Kosovo but he still remained in Kosovo. I came from very rocky mountains, from a village away from here and I'm sick. But for his soul, it was not difficult for me to come and I will wait.

BEARDSLEY: But by the late 1990s, many Albanians were at odds with Rugova's policy of passive resistance. A guerilla force, the Kosovo Liberation Army, rose up to fight the Serbs. That armed resistance led to the repression and forced expulsion of Albanians by Serb forces and NATO's bombing campaign, which drove out Milosevic's forces from Kosovo in 1999. Despite his differences with the KLA, Rugova remained the most popular leader of the Albanian majority says Agron Bajrami editor of Kosovo's main daily newspaper Koha Ditore.

AGRON BAJRAMI: He has been the symbol of peaceful resistance, he has been the symbol for the struggle for independence in the last fifteen years. He has been viewed as the tolerant leader of Kosovo. The way he looks, the image that he portrays was very different from what you usually see in the Balkans and people were somehow very happy to have somebody like him represent us towards the world.

BEARDSLEY: But Rugova's passing leaves a void in Kosovo's leadership at a crucial time. Talks with Serbia and the international community to decide the final status of the province have now been postponed. Belgrade says the Serbian minority are not safe in an Albanian dominated Kosovo. The West has warned Albanians that the Serbian minority must be protected. Soren Jessen-Petersen, the U.N.'s top administrator in Kosovo, spoke at Rugova's funeral today.

SOREN JESSEN: He laid a path for Kosovo and he followed it unwaveringly. His path lead and still leads towards a Kosovo that is democratic, multi-ethnic and free.

BEARDSLEY: But questions of who will succeed Rugova will be dealt with tomorrow. Today, Albanians in Kosovo mourned the passing of a man who dedicated his life to bringing independence to the province. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Pristina, Kosovo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.