Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mitrovica Serbs Dig In
Ana takes a stroll with some girlfriends. They walk to the bridge across the Ibar that divides Mitrovica. Ana is celebrating her 18th birthday. She wishes she could spend it in the southern Albanian-controlled half of the town. "My flat and everything I have is there, over the bridge," she says.
After Serb forces withdrew from Mitrovica last June, Ana says Albanians turned up in her neighbourhood and told her family they had five minutes to move out, " We crossed the bridge and now we live in a flat the Albanians deserted."
The majority of Kosovo Serbs fled to Serbia to escape revenge attacks by Albanians after the withdrawal of Serbian troops. Those who remain regrouped in enclaves across the province, the largest of which is northern Mitrovica. Around 16,000 Serbs now live there, including 6,000 or 7,000 recent arrivals from the south of the town, Vucitrna, Pristina and Pec.
Around 20,000 Albanians live on the other side of the Ibar. Many of them are also recent arrivals, refugees from northern Mitrovica and villages destroyed before and during the NATO bombardment.
A petite, old Serbian woman protests that she has tried three times to visit her old flat in the south of the town under KFOR escort. But on each occasion the new Albanian occupants have refused to open the door. Meanwhile, she receives threatening calls from the former owners of her flat. " I am not moving from here, not even if they kill me. Either I go back to my flat, or I am going nowhere," she says.
Northern Mitrovica is the only town in Kosovo where the Serbian population is actually increasing, thanks to the constant influx of refugees from other parts of Kosovo. And many of those who originally fled to Serbia are now returning, driven back to the province by job shortages and decent accommodation.
Officials from the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, insist the two communities in Mitrovica must learn to live together.
UNMIK and KFOR say those Albanians expelled from northern Mitrovica must be allowed to go back to their homes. But a pontoon bridge constructed by KFOR to facilitate the return of Albanians to nearby apartment blocks in the north of the town has already proved something of a failure. On Thursday, March 2, Serb protestors threw stones at the first group trying to cross the bridge, forcing them to retreat. Later in the day, KFOR troops began dismantling the bridge blaming "rising water levels".
Serbs fear the pattern of systematic threats, burnings and killings that forced Serbs out of their homes in other areas of Kosovo will start in northern Mitrovica if the Albanians return.
They have deployed observers on the KFOR controlled Ibar bridge to raise the alarm in the event of them trying to come back.
Most Serbs in Mitrovica do not blame Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, or even the Albanians, for their current woes. NATO is the main whipping-boy.
The common perception is that Serb security has been threatened since the arrival of KFOR, and there is an inability or unwillingness to see beyond that. Since KFOR proclaimed that it would guaranteed their safety, Serbs estimates that 700 of them have been kidnapped and scores killed and abused. One woman shouted,"My only son died in Kosovo fighting against the Albanian terrorists. But the Albanians are not the chief culprits. NATO is to blame for everything."
Anti-NATO feelings have been smouldering ever since the alliance's bombing campaign. So much so that even postcards on sale outside a brasserie in the centre of the town carry critical slogans. KFOR's recent search for weapons in the north of the town has intensified the hostile mood.
KFOR dropped leaflets saying, "Surrender your weapons when you are asked by KFOR soldiers. They will treat you with dignity and respect." But Serbs claim the soldiers were rough and heavy-handed. They have been accused of smashing in doors and pointing guns at children. Indeed US troops were withdrawn from the town after being stoned by angry crowds. "We won't allow ourselves to be disarmed because this is our last sanctuary," said one man.
Local Serbian leaders, however deny that their community is armed. President of the Serbian National Council in Mitorvica, Oliver Ivanovic, says the observers on the bridge only have "Motorola" mobiles, which is why NATO tolerates them.
"Some are observing the situation from the roof, while other guard the bridge, " Ivanovic said."If they see any movement in the southern part of the town, the rest of the community is informed, all work stops and the shops are closed."
Slobodan Milosevic has quickly come to the aid of the beleaguered Mitrovica Serbs to bolster his standing at home.
Medical staff, teachers and civil servants in the town halls receive salaries from Belgrade double those of their colleagues in Serbia. A delegation from the Yugoslav United Left (JUL), the coalition party run by Milosevic's wife, recently visited the local hospital bearing bed sheets and new hygiene equipment. Serb residents do not pay electricity, water or phone bills. And even the most profitable of black-market products - cigarettes - are widely available.
Ivanovic denies that he has ties with the Belgrade regime, claiming that Milosevic and the head of UNMIK, Bernard Koucher, "are playing games with the Kosovo Serbs."
Most Serbs believe the town must remain divided for the time being. One young man said, " I know there are more Albanians than Serbs and that KFOR is on their side, but I also know that if I give up my weapons, they will come and kill both me and my family.
"So we have to be prepared to fight if necessary. It would be best if KFOR separates us and we don't mix until this tragedy is over."
Svetlana Djurdjevic Lukic is an editor of Nin, and recently visited Mitrovica.
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