Albanian Violence Stalls Serb Repatriation

Recent Albanian violence in Kosovo has cast a shadow over KFOR's efforts to repatriate Serb refugees.

Albanian Violence Stalls Serb Repatriation

Recent Albanian violence in Kosovo has cast a shadow over KFOR's efforts to repatriate Serb refugees.

Sheltered in the mountains 30 miles east of Pristina, Slivovo appears empty and desolate. A KFOR military encampment sits atop a plateau overlooking the village. Alliance helicopters circle the area continuously

Slivovo is one of a cluster of villages in central Kosovo abandoned by most of their Serb residents in June 1999 following the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from the province. KFOR is now attempting to encourage the refugees to return by securing the area.

But within the last two weeks Operation Trojan has been jeopardised by a spate of ethnic violence across Kosovo, which has left eight Serbs dead and a dozen injured. In the ethnically-mixed village of Cernica in south-east Kosovo, for example, three people died, including a four-year-old boy, in a drive by shooting on June 4.

The upsurge in violence has undermined Serbian confidence in the international forces' ability to protect them. Most of the unrest has occurred outside central Kosovo, but the area has not escaped the troubles.

Major Mathew McDonald, the Canadian officer in charge of planning for Operation Trojan, had already indicated the need to relocate the Gracanica market, where on June 6 unknown assailants lobbed a hand grenade into a group of Serbs, injuring three people.

During a subsequent protest by local Serbs, KFOR troops guarding the zone commander, General Richard Shireff, shot and wounded a demonstrator.

Shireff, who has been praised by some Serb community leaders for his efforts to improve safety in central Kosovo, said of the attacks, "I have no difficulties in describing what I have seen in the last two days as terrorism."

"We are engaged in solving problems such as freedom of movement, communications, health services, education and trade," Shireff said. "[Operation] Trojan is supposed to increase the security level and quality of life for Serbs in the zone of our responsibility."

Prior to the latest wave of violence, Father Sava, one of the leaders of the Serbian National Council of Kosovo and Metohija, said the association fully supported Operation Trojan. After the Gracanica events, the SNC suspended co-operation with the international administration. Council president, Bishop Artimje, said many in the Serb community were boycotting his colleagues "almost as if we were guilty of the victims."

McDonald insisted, however, that Operation Trojan had brought considerable improvements for the Serb community. "We noticed at checkpoints that the roads were only being used by Albanians," McDonald said. "Serbs from Kosovo Polje were using strange roundabout routes to get to Gracanica. So we decided to work out where Serbs wanted to go to and when, not only to provide an escort, but to repair the roads."

As a result, KFOR has built around 20 km of roads between the various Serb communities and is also working on a rail link from Lipljan to Kosovo Polje and onto Zvecan, McDonald said.

In the last two weeks, bus routes had been re-established to Gracanica and Mitrovica, two larger Serb enclaves. Phone lines now work between Caglavica, Laplje Selo and Gracanica, and via radio relay with Kosovo Polje and Pristina.

One Slivovo resident, Stana Simic, welcomed the new bus routes. "I went to Gracanica yesterday to phone my children. I hope they will return to live here like before. I told them it is safe here and that we have no problems," Stana said. "We get along well with the army."

In addition to providing escorts for farmers out in their fields, McDonald said KFOR has introduced a radar system called Coyote to monitor the area at night. Any suspicious signals are investigated by helicopter patrols. "We recently discovered a group of people trying to bury automatic rifles and mortars," McDonald said.

Captian Tom Bateman of the Scottish Dragoons leads a joint British-Swedish force, of just over a hundred men, which patrols the wider forested area between the Gracanica and Pristina municipalities. There are six Serbian villages in the area, including Slivovo, surrounded by Albanian communities.

"Our initial aim is to return 15 Serbian families to Slivovo from Gracanica where they are now," Bateman said. "Also a dozen men come every day to Perovici village, under our protection, to prepare houses for their own return."

Bateman said he was sure the KFOR troops in his area had the security situation under control.

Stojna Marinkovic from Slivovo said it seems the villagers are free to go where they want nowadays. But she added, "I still keep close [to home] unless my husband goes with me."

Marinkovic fled Slivovo on June 19 last year along with virtually all the other villagers. Her son Goran, 19, disappeared the same day in the near-by village of Labljani. She returned three weeks later, escorted by Swedish K-for soldiers.

"Perhaps there are Serbs with blood on their hands and they are afraid to come back. My son was not guilty. He was a victim. If he had been guilty he would have escaped immediately. He wouldn't have stayed," Marinkovic said.

Danijela Pavic, 18, returned to Slivovo this February. Danijela, like many who fled Slivovo, ended up in Smederovo in Serbia, where she lived for 10 months. "We didn't have our own houses there so we came back," she said. "We feel safe here now."

Bateman hopes that word will get back to others in Smederovo and that people will start thinking about returning home. He said a medical surgery, school and distribution centre were soon to be opened in a house near the KFOR military camp.

Shireff believes the priority at the moment is for people who want to return, to come back and see for themselves whether they think the situation is secure.

Radosa Milutinovic is an IWPR contributor.

Serbia, Kosovo
Support our journalists