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'Humane Exchanges' In Southern Serbia Cement Ethnic Divide

While Serbs flee Albanian persecution in Kosovo and move to Serbia proper, Albanians living in southern Serbia are intimidated into making the opposite journey.
By Srdjan Staletovic

In the past two months, more than 400 Albanian families have left their homes in southern Serbia and moved to Kosovo. Although the Serbian authorities say they are leaving of their own free will, an IWPR investigation indicates systematic intimidation.


The Albanians have been leaving the municipalities of Medvedja, Bujanovac and Presevo on Serbia's border with Kosovo, all of which have an Albanian majority. Since the withdrawal of the Serbian police from Kosovo in mid-June, the headquarters of most of the former Kosovo police stations have been relocated into these three municipalities.


According to a summer decision to the Serbian Interior Ministry, the entire police "surplus" was to be located along the administrative border with Kosovo, although individuals who had been decorated for their service during the NATO air campaign were mostly transferred to other parts of the country together with their families.


The presence of the police in these three municipalities is extremely conspicuous with about 70 per cent of people on the streets in uniform. "You can find at least a member of a family of a policeman from Kosovo, or some equipment, in nearly every house in the town," says R.M., a craftsman from Medvedja.


Local sources say that angry Serb civilians who have fled their own homes in Kosovo are intimidating Albanians into leaving. They fear that the pressure will only increase.


An Albanian farmer from a village near Presevo says that the Serbian police turn a blind eye to the intimidation.


"The Kosovo Serbs come and threaten you, then they offer you money, and then they return with their relatives and friends in the police to make a final agreement forcing you to give up your house and land for next to nothing", he explains. "The local police call this a 'humane exchange' and in some cases assist the moves."


A Serb from Gnjilane, Z.A., says that he "bought" an Albanian's house in the centre of Medvedja with the help of the local police for a third of its value and that he arranged safe passage for the former owner to leave Serbia for Kosovo.


"I paid the police to give him three vans and five policemen. We arrived in front of the house and the owner immediately agreed to sell it at the price that I had offered", Z.A. says, convinced that he had acted honourably, adding "He is now with his own, and I am now with mine. Everything is fair."


Two officials in the local administration in the southern-most Serbian municipality of Medvedja confirmed by telephone to IWPR, that several Albanian families from the two villages in that municipality have left for Kosovo during the past week.


The Mayor of Medvedja, Zivojin Pavlovic, says that local Albanians are leaving his municipality "because they expect that they will be able to find a better house in Kosovo that the Serbs had left behind." He rejected any possibility that these Albanians have been intimidated into leaving, adding that: "They themselves can see Albanians getting into Serbian houses in Pristina and Kosovo Polje."


Albanian political parties in Kosovo have pointed to the "quiet ethnic cleansing" of Albanians from southern Serbia for a long time, but the wave of Serb emigration from Kosovo has speeded the process and incidents with Serbian police may increase the pressure to leave.


During the last two weeks of November, two policemen were killed and eight wounded, in two incidents along the administrative border between Serbia and Kosovo. Belgrade's state media have blamed the deaths on "Albanian terrorists", even though in both cases the police patrols ran over anti-tank mines.


Under the terms of KFOR's entry into Kosovo a buffer zone was established within Serbian along the border with Kosovo to which neither the Yugoslav Army nor KFOR troops are allowed to enter. Serbian police are responsible for security in this zone and local sources say that it is here that Albanians are being expelled.


At the end of November, Serbian Police Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic met in Kursumlija with the heads of Kosovo police units which have been stationed in southern Serbia since their withdrawal from the province to examine "the security situation in Kosovo and in the security zone", even though no Serb police are currently in the province.


According to a statement issued by Stojiljkovic's cabinet after the meeting, the Serbian police "is successfully preventing the growing crime (rate) that has particularly increased after the arrival of KFOR to Kosovo from being transferred outside the zone under the UN auspices, to other parts of Serbia."


However, the Commander of the Third Army, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic has gone on record saying, "There is a danger of spreading of incidents to the demarcation zone where only the police has the right to enter."


According to Pavkovic, the aim of the incidents along the administrative border with Kosovo is "to provoke the impression that the Serbian police is not capable of controlling the situation in that region so that in this way the KFOR troops will be called upon to take over."


The Yugoslav Army has therefore responded to the police deaths with manoeuvres on the very line that separates Serbia from Kosovo. Several Third Army units have been involved in exercises around Kursumlija, Presevo and the villages between these municipalities during the past ten days.


Political parties representing Serbian Albanians have participated in Serbian politics and contested elections, in contrast to their ethnic kin in Kosovo. In the most recent poll, as part of the Democratic Coalition Presevo-Bujanovac, they won one parliamentary seat.


The ethnic Albanian Party of the Democratic Prosperity (PDP), which has branches in Presevo and Bujanovac, staged a protest in the centre of Pristina in mid-November attended by about 1,000 demonstrators to protest the expulsion of their co-nationals from southern Serbia, or eastern Kosovo, as they call it.


The Pristina protesters demanded Albanian-language education and media in the municipalities of Medvedja, Bujanovac and Presevo and the deployment of international forces.


Srdjan Staletovic is an IWPR correspondent from Belgrade.


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