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Murder Reignites Fears of Kosovo Serbs

Increase in attacks against Serbs could hit plans to return Kosovo refugees.
By Tanja Matic

The brutal murder of three Serbs in Obilic, central Kosovo, last week has put security concerns high on the international community’s agenda again.


Slobodan and Radmila Stolic, both 80, and their 50-year-old son Ljubinko were found dead in the early hours of June 4 amidst the burnt-out remains of their home in Obilic, 10 kilometres from Kosovo’s administrative centre, Pristina, after the local fire brigade were called to the scene. An investigation is underway.


The three are thought to have been axed to death before their home was set ablaze. So far there are no indications who was responsible for the attack.


The murders prompted a reported 23 families to leave the town and go to Serbia, saying they planned to stay there until they felt safe enough to return. But after meeting Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic on June 9, they agreed not to move out of Obilic. Covic, who is in charge of Serbia’s Kosovo Coordination Centre, promised to visit the province more often.


He said that if Serb families fled from the town, they would be playing into the hands of Albanian extremists. What they needed was community action, not political campaigning, he said.


The murders rapidly moved up the international agenda. Late on June 6, UN Security Council chairman Russian ambassador Sergey Lavrov said in New York that the killers’ aim was to thwart attempts to build a multi-ethnic society where everyone would enjoy equal security and where refugees and internally displaced persons could return safely.


UNMIK head Michael Steiner was prevented from visiting the site of the murders last week by an angry crowd of Serbs protesting at what they see as a lack of protection for them in Kosovo. He announced a 50,000 euro reward for anyone providing information leading to the arrest of those involved in the killings.


The incident also figured heavily when Steiner met EU representative for foreign policy and security Javier Solana in Pristina on June 5 ahead of next month’s EU-Balkans summit in Thessalonica. Solana opened a joint press conference by condemning the murders.


The attacks come at a time when the situation was thought to have been stabilising. 2003 was supposed to be the international community’s declared “year of return” for minorities forced out of Kosovo during the war.


But the recent upturn in violence has left many feeling it is still unsafe to come back. Of the 12,000 Serbs thought to have lived in Obilic when Belgrade was last in control, it is estimated that 3,000 have fled.


Along with the Stolic murders, an investigation is ongoing into the discovery in May of the body of Kosovo Serb Zoran Mirkovic, a 41-year-old-teacher, found in a field near Vitina, eastern Kosovo. In April, the clandestine Albanian National Army said it was responsible for blowing up a bridge in the north of the protectorate, on the only railway linking it with Belgrade.


In response to the increasing violence, Kosovo Serb politicians have called for boycott of all local institutions. In a letter to Michael Steiner last week, Goran Bogdanovic, the only Serb minister in the provincial government, announced he might resign if steps were not taken to improve security.


Members of the Povratak coalition in the Kosovo assembly joined in the protests, walking out of a June 5 session saying that few cases of attacks against Serbs have been solved.


Povratak leader Dragisa Krstovic said the Kosovo government must take some of the responsibility for the recent killings, “After all these things, it would be normal for someone from government to hand in their resignation.”


Nenad Radosavljevic, advisor on minority returns in the office of the Special Representative for the UN Secretary General in Kosovo, told IWPR last week that the Stolic murders are part of a “planned action directed against the return” – but he believes that this will not succeed.


“I’m sure that after this case the wish to return will decrease, but I hope not to a great extent, and only for a short time. Unfortunately, many displaced persons are still living in terrible conditions in Serbia, but Obilic aside, there are some other places in Kosovo where security has seriously improved,” he said.


An internal report from one international organisation, seen by IWPR, says that there are 20 displaced families from Obilic who have expressed willingness to come back, but the triple murder “could adversely affect their will to do so”.


One of the possible returnees, a 55-year-old woman from Obilic currently living in Belgrade, told IWPR that recent events have damaged her confidence that UNMIK and the Kosovo police can protect the Serbs.


“All my property is in Obilic and I still want to return, but only if Serbian forces are back,” she said.


Since the summer of 1999, when the UN established its protectorate in Kosovo, non-Albanians, especially Serbs, have been subjected to constant threats and violence. The situation improved after the beginning of 2000, as the number of attacks slowly decreased with increased security measures.


Reports from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN High Commission for Refugees agreed that 2002 saw a continued fall in ethnically motivated crime. Since May last year, KFOR has begun scaling down its presence in minority areas.


It is hard to say whether the latest attacks are part of a bigger trend, but they


have made Serbs in the protectorate feel more cautious and rethink their


behaviour.


“Recently, I really have been speaking Serbian at more and more places in the town, and I’ve also heard much more Serbian on the streets than before,” said a 27-year-old woman from Pristina.


“But after this murder, I have realised that I may have been too relaxed. I’m sure I won’t be behaving like that for the time being.”


Tanja Matic is IWPR’s coordinating editor in Pristina


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