Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Beleaguered Kosovo Serbs
"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
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
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
Dragutin Hedl is IWPR's project editor in Croatia
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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