Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Beleaguered Kosovo Serbs

Life gets harder and harder for those few Serbs remaining in Kosovo
By Dragutin Hedl

"And now," cried the singer, "let's have a song for the Macedonian


army!" His small orchestra struck up a tune, the Serbian audience sprang


to its feet and belted out the song with wild enthusiasm.


It was about midnight in the Obala restaurant at Gracanica, one of the


last Serb enclaves left in Kosovo. The singers were rejoicing at the


offensive then being waged by Macedonian troops against Albanian


guerrillas around Tetovo, some 60 kilometres to the south.


The Kosovan Serbs had little direct interest in the neighbouring conflict, but they celebrated nonetheless, in keeping with the time-honoured principle of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".


It was a moment of rare merrymaking for the Gracanica Serbs who live


surrounded on all sides with towns and villages populated by hostile


Kosovo Albanians. At the centre of Gracanica stands a medieval


monastery greatly revered in Serbian culture but the beleaguered


local Serbs take little comfort from it.


Every day, more and more people flee Gracanica, tired of paying the


price for the policy of Serb supremacy conducted by Slobodan Milosevic


over the past decade. They find scant comfort in the presence of Swedish


soldiers from K-For who guard access roads and thoroughly check those entering the village. The


villagers know that Albanians hold them responsible for everything they


suffered in the days when a Serbian minority dominated Kosovo under the


protection of Milosevic's troops and police.


The Albanians have many ways of showing hostility. The Serbs know it's


no accident that their power is cut several times a day and their


telephone lines disrupted. As one Gracanica resident put it, "If the


lights are on at night in surrounding Albanian villages and we have


no electricity, it's perfectly clear what's going on."


To enter Gracanica you go through barbed wire and sandbags at the


checkpoint guarded by Swedish soldiers. Many houses in the village flaunt inscriptions in Cyrillic script proclaiming, "This is Serbia".


Small shops along the main street display goods from Serbia, items you


will find nowhere else in Kosovo. They provide everything needed for


daily existence but because of transport costs the prices are beyond the


reach of many poor villagers.


The cheapest can of beer costs three German marks, fresh salads in the


Obala restaurant cost seven marks and a modest dinner for six people


comes to 350 marks, more than you would pay at one of the best


restaurants in Zagreb. All this is way above the general price levels


seen in Kosovo.


Gracanica Serbs stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the reality of their


plight. On their decrepit cars, they sport licence plates marked with a


PR (for Pristina) accompanied by a small Serbian tricolour. This makes


them virtually prisoners in their own enclave. Outside it the plates


would instantly label them as Serbs and therefore targets for unwelcome


Albanian attention.


The normal licence plates for Kosovo, as prescribed by international


authorities, are marked with a KS. Asked why he would not accept such a


plate, a Gracanica villager replied bitterly, "No one will take offence to the letters PR in the places we will travel to". He meant Serbs will not stay in Gracanica for long and that their only


destination will be Serbia.


Nearly every morning, cars loaded with all they can carry set out for Serbia, escorted by K-For vehicles, never to return. No one


could say for sure how many Serbs remain in Gracanica but their numbers


dwindle all the time.


"I don't know myself what I'm actually waiting for, " said one villager. " I don't know whether


I can put up with this much longer. I feel as if I were kept in a cage.


How on earth can I explain to my children that I can't go anywhere from


here."


He was a Serb who came here from Croatia after being driven out in 1995


by the Croatian army's "Operation Storm" offensive. After two years of


moving from one refugee camp to another, he came to Kosovo where the


Milosevic regime had promised he would be generously treated. Now he


feels like a hostage.


Unlike the man from Croatia, most Gracanica Serbs were born here and


consider Kosovo to be their fatherland. The legend that Kosovo was the


cradle of Serbian nationhood is so deeply imbued in them that they feel


departing Gracanica would be not only a personal tragedy but an act


of national treason.


"I have never done wrong to anyone and I don't know why I should leave


this place," said an old man wearing a traditional Serbian cap. "And yet,


there is no life for me here. This has become Albanian land and


there's no place for Serbs in it."


Next day in the heart of Pristina, on the porch of a cafe patronised


mostly by the international community, I met a young Italian who found


out I was a journalist from Croatia. In an urgent whisper, he warned me


not to utter a word in Croatian because it sounded too much like


Serbian. "Anything resembling the Serbian language may be very dangerous


here," he said. "A Bulgarian was murdered here some time ago because his


language was mistaken for Serbian."


I had heard such warnings in Croatia as well, before I flew to Pristina. Nonetheless, as soon as the receptionist saw my passport in the lobby of the Grand hotel,


he spoke to me in a mixture of Serbian and Croatian.


I had felt sorry for a taxi driver whom I tortured with my English on


the way from the airport to the Pristina hotel. Had I addressed him in


Croatian I would no doubt have paid less than the 40 marks which was his


extravagant price for driving English speakers on the 20-minute ride in


his old, rust-eaten Mercedes.


It is not difficult to imagine the feelings of the few hundred Serbs


remaining in Pristina. They don't dare speak Serbian on the street and


most of them don't know the Albanian language. No wonder they find life


unbearable.


Dragutin Hedl is IWPR's project editor in Croatia