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

New Kosovo Conflict Brewing

Fears are rising of renewed conflict between Serbs and Albanians along Kosovo's eastern border with Serbia proper.
By Tim Judah

Lurching down a muddy lane, high in the hills of Kosovo's eastern border, comes a Lada Niva stuffed to bursting with 12,500 packets of cigarettes. Cheaper in Kosovo, the cigarette dealers buy here to sell in Serbia proper. Since, technically speaking, the two are still part of the same country, this cannot be smuggling. The US soldiers slitting the cartons open are however not after lost duty - they are hunting for weapons.


At one of their checkpoints, NATO troops say they regularly see former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members, now part of the Kosovo Protection Corps, or TMK, drive across the border. They are in plain clothes, they carry no arms, they show TMK documents for identification and say they are "visiting friends." This, of course, might be true. About 300 Albanians from these regions were KLA members during the war and, according to a recent report in Belgrade's Nin magazine, one of them is now operating up here with a ten-man unit.


While Mitrovica has been hitting the headlines, another conflict is already on the boil. Just over Kosovo's eastern border, inside Serbia proper, lie the predominantly Albanian municipalities of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja. During the war Serbian forces ethnically cleansed several areas. Those who remain fear more conflict is on the way and some are moving to Kosovo for safety.


While the US troops search the Lada, another man drives across the border on his tractor with his niece and nephew. Their trailer is weighed down with their possessions. They come from the village of Vrban. The night before seven Serbian policemen visited the village demanding to know who was coming and going. "There's no safety there," said the man. As part of their agreement with NATO, Yugoslav troops are banned from a 5 kilometre buffer zone along the border, but the police are allowed here.


Captain Eric McFadden, of the US 82 Engineer Battalion, whose 100 troops are supposed to control this area, says that two weeks ago refugees from Vrban told him that Serbian police had specifically threatened people, telling them to leave.


A mile down the road, on the Serbian side of the border is the village of Dobrosin. On 26 January a shoot-out between Serbian police and Albanians left two people dead. Immediately afterwards women and children fled Dobrosin and now it is controlled by between 30 and 50 armed Albanians. As of yet, the Serbian police have not returned to the village. McFadden says, "We've already told the Albanians in Dobrosin that if there is a conflict there we won't allow them to bring it to Kosovo." McFadden says that his "hunch" is that arms are flowing over hidden trails into Serbia.


Over the last few weeks small numbers of Serbs and Albanians have died on both sides of the border. Two men from one of a string of Serbian villages near the Kosovo municipality of Gnjilane were killed recently, execution style, on the road by the border. So called "loyal Albanians", for example members of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, have also been murdered recently inside Serbia.


Shaban Shala, the head of the TMK for Gnjilane, says that a month ago a member of a Serbian "special unit" was shot dead by the Konculj gorge on the Kosovo side of the border. He claims that documents relating to the mining of the border and the blowing up of certain buildings were found on his body.


Since the TMK is supposed to be a civil emergency force helping out in case of earthquakes and recently clearing ice from city streets, Shala's admission that the TMK "were involved" in the Konculj incident is intriguing. For many years Shala worked as a leading human rights activist in Pristina, but, especially in the last few years before the war, this was a cover for his links to the KLA. In fact Shala is a veteran of the armed struggle, having first taken up arms in 1983 and having been a senior commander in Drenica from 1998.


Shala says rather enigmatically that unless the West pressures Belgrade into stopping what he calls "its war policy" in the border regions, then he expects, as if by magic, that "at any moment a force could be born, which could come out and openly protect its people and land."


Bardhyl Mahmuti, vice-president of the Party of Democratic Prosperity of Kosovo, the main post-KLA political party, which is led by Hashim Thaci, goes even further. He says that he wants KFOR's mandate to be extended to cover Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja or "Eastern Kosova" as they are being called in Pristina nowadays.


Although cloaked in secrecy, it is clear that some sort of internal debate is going on at the top of the party, the TMK and the other parts of the post-KLA elite. Some believe that Albanians are being quietly cleansed from the region, that a stand needs to be made and that the West roped into protecting Albanians there.


By contrast, one of Thaci's advisers says that he is counselling caution, "There is no point in starting a conflict you cannot win. We have told them to cool it and not to expect military help from us."


Belgrade too is caught in a dilemma. If it does not clamp down on rebel villages like Dobrosin, then it will rapidly lose control of the buffer zone and beyond. But if it does strike back, the situation could explode, tens of thousands of Albanians will flee and Yugoslav forces could again find themselves in conflict with NATO.


On the face of it, none of this has anything to do with what is happening in Mitrovica. In fact, both conflicts are inextricably linked. Putting aside the question of Mitrovica town and the Trepca mines, most Kosovo Albanians would be happy to exchange Serbian-inhabited northern Kosovo for these three municipalities. The Serbs on the other hand want to keep both - that is, if they ultimately fail to restore their rule over the whole of Kosovo.


On February 21, Lord Robertson, the NATO secretary-general, warned Serbs and Albanians not to start a conflict in the borderlands. "I would warn anybody who seeks to be provocative in that part of the world, on whatever side of the divide they may be, that we will not tolerate action being taken there." This is the same language NATO used in the run up to the war in Kosovo itself.


Tim Judah is the author most recently of "Kosovo: War & Revenge", forthcoming from Yale University Press.