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

Leaving In Flames And Tears

Serbs in Kosovo are facing the hardest choice. With a final blaze, many are deciding to pack up and head "home" to Serbia.
By an IWPR

The flames flickered high last night in Kosovo Polje.


A few kilometres outside of Pristina, this is the heart of the heartland, almost totally Serb inhabited. It is also the scene of the infamous 1389 battle in which - according to national mythology - Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans. Ten years ago, it was the rallying point for the launch of the Greater Serbia project of Slobodan Milosevic, who addressed a gathering there of one million Serbs on the 600 anniversary of the battle.


But the fire now was hardly celebration. A huge Serb-owned house was burning away, watched by a small crowd of locals. This, they explained, was "revenge". "We have decided not to leave, at least for now," one Serb man said. "But for those who have decided to go, they are burning their own houses as revenge against the Albanians."


Residents explained that local Serbs are trying to organise some unarmed self-defence. Frightened that NATO will try to bring Albanians into their town, they are setting up what seems to be a "neighbourhood watch" scheme, positioning people on street corners as monitors.


In other areas, where Albanians and Serbs lived together, Serbs are taking a more direct response. In Pristina, apartments are being set on fire during the day. Yesterday afternoon, one large house with four apartments was set ablaze, reportedly by Serbian police.


According to neighbours, the reason is that two of the dwellings were Serb, but two were Albanian. Since the Serbs were leaving, they did not want the Albanians to be able to take them. And the best way to ensure this was to burn the entire building.


Nothing could better illustrate the sense of confusion and loss among Kosovo Serbs than the scene of Serbs destroying their own property as a final attack against their ethnic rivals. With the policy of Belgrade in shambles, NATO troops pouring into the province, and even Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) soldiers discretely appearing in various locations, the Kosovo Serbs feel that no one can help them, so they have turned to simple destruction, even self-destruction.


Serbs in Kosovo are themselves victims of the Yugoslav regime media, which has drummed into them for years the dangers of the Albanian "terrorists" and, for the past several months of bombing, the horrors of the "NATO fascist aggressor rapist killers". They are truly scared of the international troops arriving, and of the Albanians returning. As with Serbs who fled Croatian Krajina in 1995 and Sarajevo in 1996, it seems that - along with legitimate security concerns - their own propaganda is contributing to their flight.


In the southern part of the province, families have loaded up cars and fled. They have packed their vehicles with not only clothes and personal effects but dishwashers, kitchenware and children's bicycles - suggesting that they expect an extended leave. They say that they plan to go to Serbia for a while, and then will decide what to do. But especially in such areas, in the south and southeast, which are heavily Albanian, it seems unlikely that they will ever return.


A convoy of Serbs in private cars assembled in Stemlje, a large village near Prizren, to journey via Pristina to Serbia. En route, passing through an area held by the KLA, fire was exchanged a few times. Reports from Serb eye-witnesses suggest that members of the convoy may have fired first. But one child was reportedly killed, and several people injured.


Within Pristina, Serbs have witnessed first hand the firm approach of the NATO soldiers. NATO tanks roll through the streets, and British troops patrol with their machine guns in hand, and the implication is clear.


In the centre, 300 metres from the Grand Hotel, Veselin Jovovic, a reserve Serbian police officer was shot and killed by KFOR. NATO claimed that he was drunk and armed, and refused to lower his weapon. Also in Pristina, a group of uniformed Serbs engaged British soldiers in a scuffle and were promptly - and quite roughly - subdued and arrested.


Other violent incidents, between Serbs and NATO forces and between Serbs and Albanians, have been reported elsewhere throughout the province - including the shooting Sunday of a Serb policeman, two soldiers and a civilian near Vranovac, according to Yugoslav officials. No one has been arrested in connection with the shooting. But noting that international forces disarmed around 70 KLA soldiers, NATO spokespersons have stressed the neutrality of their mission.


Yet even if true, it would be hard for Serbs to believe this, or to see the NATO show of force as anything but a clear signal, if not an outright threat, to them. "Those killers and violators," spat one old Serb man in the outskirts of Pristina, referring to the incoming NATO troops. "What are they doing here?"


Some Serbs, especially in Pristina, realise that for the time being, if they are going to stay around, they might as well cash in. Short-term rents on apartments for the internationals, especially journalists, are commanding astronomical sums - up to 3,000 German Marks ($1,615) per week for a modest flat. With water short, some lucky individuals in areas where it is running have even charged for use of their showers and bathrooms. In this, too, however, many Albanians suddenly also have an upper hand, occupying larger houses for their extended families, and therefore commanding even higher sums.


The biggest problem facing Serbs, however, is how to live with their neighbours. Only those Serbs who are quite sure that they did not support the regime believe that - despite the risks - they can live together again with the returning Albanians. Others will be concerned that they are marked by Albanians for retribution. Such are the difficult calculations Serbs must make in these chaotic days.


But the predominant feeling for the moment, at least among Serbs, is confusion. Serbs in administration and the public sector have not received any instructions about whether to stay and try to restore some semblance of normality - or to drop everything and flee. In response to questions from journalists about the situation, they reply with a question themselves: "Should we stay or should we go?"


Soldiers from the Yugoslav forces, meantime, face no such dilemma. Many of them had their tours of duty extended because of the NATO campaign, forcing them to endure the brunt of the NATO offensive in Kosovo. The pull-out seems, so far, to be under way, with a precise timetable for an organised withdrawal.


But for some soldiers, even that is not enough. The territory they had pledged to defend to the death, they now wish to leave immediately.


"I could change my clothes and get on a bus and leave right now," says one soldier from Belgrade. "But I will not go without my friends." He and four other soldiers formed close bonds as a result of the experiences they endured under the bombing, and have pledged to return home together according to the agreed timetable.


Another soldier, from Cacak, in Serbia, asked to borrow a mobile telephone from a journalist so that he could call home. Reaching his mother and wife, he was overhead promising to be back within three or four days. "Mother, I will be home soon," he said, his eyes welling up with tears. "This situation makes me sick."


The author is an IWPR Belgrade correspondent in Pristina, whose name has been withheld.