Safe Havens For Serb Security

The UN administrator questions whether ethnic havens are the only way to enable Serbs to remain in Kosovo?

Safe Havens For Serb Security

The UN administrator questions whether ethnic havens are the only way to enable Serbs to remain in Kosovo?

Wednesday, 16 November, 2005
As Serbs who have stayed in Kosovo face on-going intimidation and revenge attacks, the province's UN administrator Bernard Kouchner has suggested creating safe havens to protect them. Though possibly not politically correct, such ethnic segregation may be

the only way to preserve what remains of Kosovo's multi-ethnicity. Leaders of the remaining Serbs have already endorsed the concept. At the session of the Transitional Council August 21, Kosovo's UN-created multi-ethnic consultative body, Momcilo Trajkovic, the Serb representative, argued for the formation of Serb cantons in Kosovo.

It is not multi-culturalism. But this Western concept never stood much chance, since Kosovo was multi-ethnic, but never multi-cultural.

The Albanian majority and the Serb, Turkish, Muslim Slav and Roma minorities never mixed to create a Western-style "salad bowl" of multi-culturalism, in which each ingredient preserves its flavour while simultaneously contributing to an overall taste.

Instead, the majority Albanians and the Serbs, Kosovo's biggest minority, lived parallel existences and both cultures sought to dominate the province at the expense of the other. Indeed, ethnic separation was progressing in Kosovo long before the province plunged into crisis in the late 1980s.

Ethnic homogenisation in Kosovo began in the early 1960s. Two decades later, ethnically mixed settlements were already a rarity, as both Serbs and Albanians sought security among their kin in ethnically pure villages and districts.

Ethnic segregation was institutionalised in the early 1990s after the abolition of the province's autonomy. Serbs expelled Albanians from the province's political, economic, social, educational, cultural and even sporting structures. In response, Albanians built their own separate but unequal society.

This separation initially staved off conflict, but in the longer term it created the conditions for animosity to fester and helped make the eventual war even more savage. The absence of contact between communities contributed to a demonisation of the "other" community, while the total marginalisation of the Albanians fuelled their wish to overthrow the Serb constitutional order.

Each community lived in its own political, cultural and spatial cocoon, and even informal contacts across ethnic lines were rare. Inter-ethnic marriage in 1990s' Kosovo prompted excommunication from the Albanian community.

The few mixed marriages date back to the Tito era before ethnic tensions burst into the open. However, the offspring of such unions often deny the roots of one of the parents, preferring to identify with one people or the other.

Isolated Serb hamlets dotting Kosovo provide an identifiable target for Albanians seeking revenge, much like the Albanian villages that were turned to rubble and its inhabitants killed or forced to flee before Serbian special forces. And Serbs living in close proximity with Albanians have fared little better.

NATO-led peace-keepers in Gnjilane, in eastern Kosovo, have registered Serb houses and flats for distribution of identification stickers to help protect them from Albanian revenge attacks. However, in the absence of a 24-hour guard on each dwelling, this strategy may prove counter-productive.

Meanwhile, after Serbs leaving Kosovo under their own steam were abused and killed by Albanians, the UNHCR has intervened to assist others making the trip to Serbia.

By contrast, Serbs in the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica have taken comfort in their numbers and decided to stay put. It is precisely the division between the predominantly Serb and the predominantly Albanian parts of the town, with the Ibar river marking the demarcation line, that has made Kosovska Mitrovica the place where the largest percentage of Serbs has remained.

For all their good intentions, the peace-keepers have been impotent to halt daily killings of Serbs and the destruction of their houses and flats--and non-Albanians--Serbs, Roma and even Muslim Slavs--continue to leave Kosovo.

In these circumstances, can the establishment of safe havens for Kosovo's Serbs serve not as a prelude to the division of Kosovo but as a way to give remaining Serbs a minimum of dignity? Can they, in short, preserve what remains of the province's multi-ethnicity?

Some kind of ethnic separation may prove beneficial both for Serbs and Albanians. Unlike the separation in the 1990s that stripped Albanians of dignity, this concept is motivated by a desire to restore dignity. For Serbs it could be life-saving; for Albanians it could enable them to maintain international sympathy.

In time, the wounds of war will heal, in which case today's separation may pave the way for future interaction.

Denisa Kostovicova, a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University and co-editor of Kosovo: Myths, Conflict, War (Keele, UK: Keele European Research Centre, 1999), is a long-time collaborator with IWPR.

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