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

Serbs Weigh Up Kosovo Options

Violence leaves the Serbian minority wondering whether they will all have to leave.
By Tanja Matic

Marija, aged three, is running around with her friends in the courtyard of the medieval monastery of Gracanica. She and her mother have spent the last two days there, after fleeing the village of Sljivovo in Kosovo’s latest wave of ethnically-inspired violence.


While Marija spends her time with 30 children from other Serbian settlements at Novo Brdo, Bresje and Kisnica - most evacuated along with their mothers and grandmothers - Marija’s 29-year-old mother Suzana has to decide whether their future lies back in Sljivovo or in Serbia proper.


“When we fled to Serbia in 1999 we didn’t fare very well,” Suzana said. “They called us ‘Shiptars’ (a pejorative expression for Albanians). I don’t want to go through that again, but if we return home [to Kosovo] we’ll be in fear of our lives every day.”


“Our village is poor,” she added. “We have nothing much to sell so I’m afraid we will be forced to stay.”


She breaks off to talk to her husband on the mobile phone. He plans to return to Slivovo on his own by car, as neither KFOR nor the police are willing to provide an escort.


Life in temporary exile in Gracanica is frugal. Suzana and her daughter share a four-bed room with eight other girls and women, lying on shabby mattresses and sharing dirty bathrooms. The other evacuees from Novo Brdo, Bresje, Kisnica share similar rooms.


According to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, three days of violence in the protectorate have left 28 dead and 600 wounded, while 3,226 Serbs and other non-Albanians - mostly Roma - have been forced from their homes.


Of that number, around a thousand are seeking sanctuary in KFOR bases in Kosovo, while the others have fled to Serbia, or larger Serbian enclaves within Kosovo.


Suzana’s temporary roommate, Zivana Velickovic, from Bresje, ten kilometres south of Pristina, is even more confused about her choices. With four daughters, aged four, six, seven and nine, she feels she has no future back home or in Serbia.


Her home village sustained severe damage at the hands of Albanian arsonists. “Only a few Serb houses were left in Bresje,” she said.


“After this, I cannot go back home and our school has also been burned down. I don’t know what we will do, as we cannot stay here for ever.”


The fear for people’s lives, which has dominated Serb minds over the past few days, has left all the remaining Serb villages in Kosovo feeling anxious.


Apart from the people who have been forced to move from their homes, the violence has made many others question the point of remaining in such a troubled region.


Aleksandar, aged 25, from Gracanica, who has been working for an international organisation for more than a year, has already resigned from his post and decided to move to Belgrade, where he owns a house. “I cannot go on like this,” he said. “My decision is almost definite.”


He laughs ironically at the sight of a cigarette lighter bearing the logo of a recent UNMIK promotional campaign. “I am also Kosovo,” it reads in Serbian and Albanian. “They should change that to: `I was also Kosovo’ - at least the Serbian part.”


Aleksandar is exhausted after three sleepless nights. He has not yet told his close friends that he plans to leave. But he believes many them have made a similar decision, even if no one has yet had the courage to bring the issue into the open.


The confusion among both displaced Serbs and those still in their homes has been compounded by the policies of the international community and the local Serbian leadership.


Both are trying publicly to dissuade the remaining Serbs from leaving, while offering no lasting solutions to their worries.


The Serbian politicians and church leaders have strenuously urged remaining Serbs in Kosovo to stay. Bishop Artemije of Prizren said they should not leave unless it was vital.


“Stay where you are, as God is our best ally who will save and help us,” the Bishop said on March 19.


Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader, admits such calls need to be treated cautiously. They are mainly designed “to encourage people”, he told IWPR.


The view from KFOR is slightly different. Their policy is to “protect people rather than property” and they have moved endangered communities to military bases or to safer Serbian areas.


In some KFOR bases, fights have broken out between Serbs over whether they should go back home or leave for Serbia proper.


The international community does not want to appear to condone ethnic cleansing. At the same time, it does not wish to force people to return to insecure communities.


“Law and order will be restored and then we will make an arrangement with relevant organisations and those people over where they want to go,” KFOR spokesperson Peter Appleby told Serbia’s B92 television.


Some displaced Serbs have already gone home voluntarily. In Caglavica, near Pristina, where ten Serbian houses were burned on March 17, most people remained in their village, after sending away the women and children.


But in such a fragile situation, only the smallest incident could trigger the flight of the remaining Kosovo Serbs to Serbia, however uncertain their prospects.


Goroljub Savic has no obvious options ahead of him. The 60-year-old man from Slatina village was hospitalised in northern Mitrovica after a barrage of stones thrown at his house left him with a broken hand and perforated eardrum.


His home was burning before his eyes as French KFOR soldiers led him from the premises. “Where will I return to?” he asked. “To what house?”


Tanja Matic is an IWPR project coordinator in Pristina and Tanja Vujisic is an IWPR contributor.