Serb Refugees Rejected By Belgrade

Serb refugees on the move out of Kosovo are being directed away from Belgrade, for fear that their presence might upset the state's preferred image of victory over the 'NATO aggressors'

Serb Refugees Rejected By Belgrade

Serb refugees on the move out of Kosovo are being directed away from Belgrade, for fear that their presence might upset the state's preferred image of victory over the 'NATO aggressors'

Two tractors pulled into the courtyard of Radoslav Otovic, close by the Meridijan fruit processing plant in the Serbian town of Gornji Milanovac which lies two dozen kilometres south of Belgrade. Both vehicles were loaded with pieces of furniture, blankets and clothing - and four Serb families from the Kosovo village of Prekale.


All are tired from the journey. The eldest among them, Bogic Kozic, who is over seventy-five, is crying. Everything he owns is left behind in Kosovo. He has a thirty-five-year old daughter, who is mentally retarded, with him. "I don't know what's happening to us," says Bogic. "What have we done wrong?"


Of his five children, one son lives in Belgrade. The old man is hoping to reach him. Hoping, he says, because it is not so easy to reach Belgrade these days. While some have made it and are staying with families or sleeping rough in the city's parks, most


Kosovo Serb refugees found their road to the capital blocked by the police who ordered them elsewhere. It seems the refugees are not desirable in Belgrade - where they might spoil the celebratory mood of the "victors against the NATO aggressors." The refugees had planned to gather in front of the building of the Yugoslav Parliament to protest what they see as the government's calculated decision to ignore their plight.


In Belgrade today, you can not see or read anything in the official media about the suffering of the Serbs and Montenegrins and others who have left Kosovo - just as previously, we have been unable to read anything about the Albanians forced out of the province earlier.


But a picture of sorts is now being presented to viewers of the Belgrade television station Studio B which is controlled by Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). Zivan Zivkovic from the village of Musotiste, in the Suva Reka municipality of Kosovo complained to viewers how he was ordered by the Yugoslav Army, just like other Serbs from the village, to leave, and that they had only three hours to pack up.


He told the station how he and his family had been travelling north for three days. "When we were coming no one paid attention to us, helped us, or gave food for the children or offered us a roof over our heads. We even had to pay two German Marks per litre for the fuel to bring us here. I don't know where I'm going. My sister lives in Belgrade, but people get fed up with guests quickly. I left a lot of things behind including three houses, property, cows, pigs - all worth over a million German Marks... only four of five Serbs stayed in the village, no one knows what happened to them."


Practically the entire Serbian state structure has been moved out of Kosovo. The municipal functionaries, who by rule are all members of the ruling party, were the first to leave, says Marko Jaksic, the president of the Regional Board of the Democratic Party of Serbia. One president of the municipality was even trying to sell his flat to the municipality at the last minute.


The entire police, judiciary, even prisoners were moved, as well as the municipal registrars and archives, so that one cannot now obtain even the simplest document. There is no record as to whether some factories have been moved, but there are rumours that this may have indeed happened. Ontop of this, many of the cars and vehicles in the columns heading out of Kosovo have been striped of their license plates - a sure indication that they were stolen.


The police in Serbia are conducting detailed searches of the refugees and their vehicles, looking for and confiscating arms. Nearly everybody, women and children included, now have their own guns-a legacy of the war in Kosovo. A middle-aged man in the column complained to the Belgrade weekly Vreme: "When we reached Serbia, some gentlemen ordered that our weapons should be confiscated. I did not give them to the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army), I did not give them to NATO, nor will I give them to these people."


The exact number of Serbs who have fled Kosovo is unknown. The number is growing by the day, and it is estimated to be between 30,000 and 80,000. The majority of them have relatives in Serbia and Montenegro, but many are still out in the open. In some places, like in Kragujevac for example, these people have a problem with food. That is the reason why many are now thinking of returning so long as their security can be guaranteed."


The Serbian authorities have changed their tune in recent days and have begun a somewhat panicky appeal for the refugees to return home. The appeals are aimed at keeping those yet to leave in place as much as they are initiating the return of refugees, who after all do not have much access to television these days.


On the state run channels therefore, one can already see reports from Serb enclaves in Pristina or in Kosovo Polje, in which the interviewed Serbs are filmed saying somewhat unconvincingly: "This is our land, we are staying here, we are safe here..."


Milenko Vasovic is a journalist based in Belgrade.


Serbia, Kosovo
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