Serbs Leaving Presevo Valley

Frustrated by insecurity and poor prospects, Serbs are leaving the Presevo border region and heading for new lives in central Serbia.

Serbs Leaving Presevo Valley

Frustrated by insecurity and poor prospects, Serbs are leaving the Presevo border region and heading for new lives in central Serbia.

Wednesday, 21 November, 2001

Although fighting stopped six months ago in the Presevo valley of southern Serbia's border region, Serb residents are quitting the area to find new homes in the central part of the country.

Poor economic prospects and a fear that peace might not last lie behind their decision to leave. One compensation for those departing is the prospect of making a fat profit on the sale of their homes to local Albanians.

Fighting flared in the area - comprising the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - in 1999 after the forces of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic withdrew from Kosovo and began a campaign of repression against Albanians in the region.

Before 1999, Serbs made up 40 per cent of the 100,000-strong population in the Presevo valley. Strangely enough, when the 18 months of conflict ended earlier this year, and Yugoslav military forces got permission from international community to re-enter the security zone established after Kosovo war, Serb civilians started leaving the area in big numbers. In the past two months around 2000 of them have departed.

In that time, 45 Serbian houses have been sold to Albanians in Presevo and 47 in Bujanovac. In former alone, there are only 1500 Serbs left out of the former population of 3500.

The exodus is led by young Presevo Serbs. "My wife and I have started looking for jobs elsewhere in Serbia," said one. "We both want to leave since we don't see any prospects here. The atmosphere is depressing. No one knows what will happen next."

Many Serbian residents complain they feel insecure. Sporadic exchanges of fire between police and former Albanian fighters across the border with Kosovo create additional tension. A Serb car mechanic in Presevo said, "I personally don't feel threatened, but most Serbs are alarmed".

Western efforts to create a multi-ethnic police force have met with little success. Serbs are not eager to work with Albanians.

During the first training course, there were 34 Serbs, mostly from the Presevo valley, and 63 Albanians. In the second, there was not a single local Serb candidate, although 35 came from towns in central Serbia. Analysts say this reluctance is due to a chronic mistrust of the international community.

Saip Kamberi, president of the Albanian Committee for Human Rights in

Bujanovac and general secretary of the Party for Democratic Action, complained that the reluctance of local Serbs to join the multi-ethnic force jeopardised the whole project.

Although Belgrade has invested more than 25 million German marks in the region, funding is lacking in crucial areas. The government is not offering new employment opportunities for the young, there is no investment in the local economy and no mortgages. Despite the overthrow of Milosevic in October 2000, his supporters continue to hold key positions within the local administration.

Faced with a worsening economy and no job prospects, Serbs are

easily persuaded to sell their property to Albanians for astronomic prices.

They mainly sell former state flats but there is also an increase in the market for old Serbian houses and land.

The Serbs have a good financial incentive. The price per square meter in this area is between 2000-2500 marks - almost double the price obtained in other parts of Serbia. "For the price of an average house or a flat in southern Serbia, one can buy a flat in a Belgrade suburb and open a private business with the money that's left over," said one Presevo Serb.

Restrictive legislation from the Milosevic period regulating the sale of property is still valid. These laws were implemented at the beginning of the Eighties in Kosovo when Albanians spent huge sums buying up Serbian property there. Since then, vendors are legally required to offer their homes for sale to both the local municipality and to the Serbian government before approaching a private buyer.

To get round this, local Serbs are now offering their houses to local authorities at unrealistically high prices. One well-known resident of Bujanovac offered his house to the municipality for 350 000 marks. When officials balked, he sold it to an Albanian for 300 000 marks.

The most frequently used device to bypass the law involves the seller taking a supposed loan from a buyer and offering his property as a security. If the debt is not paid within a proposed deadline, the house will change hands and the debt collector becomes the owner.

A group of Bujanovac residents campaigning to make local Serbs stay put asked at the beginning of November for an urgent meeting with

Nebojsa Covic, president of the coordinating body for Presevo and deputy

president of Serbian government. They demanded emergency measures to prevent further Serbian departures. All they got were vague promises.

Miodrag Miljkovic is freelance journalist from Bujanovac.

Serbia, Kosovo
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