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

Tensions Simmer in Presevo Valley

The Presevo conflict in southern Serbia will test the new government's democratic credentials
By Dragana Nikolic

Olga, a 39-year old physiotherapist in Belgrade, can't sleep at night for worrying about her younger brother. Her family fled Pec in Kosovo following the outbreak of the war, but finding a new home has not brought an end to their plight.


Dragan, Olga's 24-year-old brother, was a policeman in Kosovo and is now sent on regular tours to the Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac region of southern Serbia, a flash-point in the latest conflict between Albanian separatists and Serbian forces.


"People are losing their lives, it is very dangerous," Olga said. "My brother has no choice, he must go or he will lose his job. We are trying to save him from going by getting hold of a doctor's certificate to say he is ill."


The conflict in the five kilometre wide buffer zone along Serbia's south eastern border with Kosovo has been simmering since the beginning of the year. The Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB, named after the three municipalities of the Presevo valley with a majority Albanian population, was formed in January this year, shortly after two young Albanian men from the village of Dobrasin were killed.


As well as ethnic Albanian recruits from inside Kosovo, the organisation includes former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. (See Llazar Semini's article in BCR 121, 3-Mar-00, Albanian Fighters on the March)


Under the Kumanovo Agreement signed by NATO and the Yugoslav army in June 1999, only lightly armed Serbian police are allowed to patrol the buffer zone.


Albanian guerrillas have taken advantage of the security vacuum created by the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army to set up a series of military style bases within the hilly Serbian territory along the frontier. From there they have carried out increasingly daring attacks on the Serbian police.


A few weeks ago one attack left four Serbian police officers dead.


Had Slobodan Milosevic still been in power the conflict would have been ideal fodder in the run-up to the December 23 Serbian elections. But the new Yugoslav government, wishing to avoid the mistakes of the previous regime, has decided to confront the ongoing violence with peaceful means.


"It's not the time for war but for the wise diplomatic action," was the message from the Yugoslav leadership.


With the NATO-led Kosovo Force, K-For, acting as mediator, an indefinite ceasefire was agreed last Monday. Already, however, the agreement has been violated by sporadic bursts of gunfire with both sides blaming each other for the breaches.


Meanwhile, the Presevo region looks more and more like a military training camp. A massive build-up of Yugoslav army troops and Serbian police is unnerving the 70,000 strong local Albanian population.


According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, around 4,000 Albanians have fled their homes in the area, although 600 returned after the ceasefire was signed.


Nasuh Behljuji, deputy president of the local Party of Democratic Action, said, "Albanians are very scared. They are very afraid of the Yugoslav army reservists who were here following NATO's bombing campaign during the spring of last year."


When Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo in 1999, units from the Serbian police in Kosovo were transferred to the region around Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac. International organisations claim there is evidence some of these officers were terrorising the local population.


Many people agree the UCPMB grew out of Serbian police repression, which intensified in Albanian majority areas inside Serbia after the Kosovo war ended. Where an Albanian life was perceived to be "not worth a penny" the local population welcomed the formation of an army which would offer them protection. (See Miroslav Filipovic's article in BCR 122, 7-Mar-00, Albanians Flee Southern Serbia).


The UCPMB does not hide the fact they aim to annex Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac region to Kosovo. Many Albanians call this area Eastern Kosovo and believe it should be liberated at all costs. (See Tim Judah's article in BCR 119, 25-Feb-00, New Kosovo Conflict Brewing).


Many observers suspect Albanian extremist attacks on Serbian police are aimed at provoking retaliation in the hope of attracting attention. Kosovo's recent local elections saw the moderate politician Ibrahim Rugova score a resounding victory. Kosovo's wartime option has started to fade.


Some analysts believe the Presevo valley conflict represents the Yugoslav government's first democratic test.


Whether the new government can fully restrain the armed forces in southern Serbia remains to be seen. But there are some positive signs.


Several foreign journalists in the area report Serbian police officers saying they have strict orders not to overstep the rules or to shoot indiscriminately.


Zoran Djindjic, one of DOS's leaders and the man tipped to be Serbia's next prime minister, has said the situation in the Presevo area is criticial and warned that a new Balkan war could break out.


DOS says it has launched an urgent diplomatic initiative to get the international community to play a more active role in curbing what it describes as Albanian extremism.


So far Western officials have condemned Albanian forays into Serbian territory, but show no sign of ordering K-FOR troops to intervene.


NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson said, "The wind of change is blowing in Serbia and the international community will not accept extremists' actions."


US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned radical Albanian representatives to "refrain from actions which undermine the efforts of the international community to achieve lasting peace in the region".


Neighbouring Macedonia is also following events closely. Macedonian army units have increased their presence along the northern border with Kosovo and southern Serbia, concerned the UCPMB could try to activate supply channels through Macedonian territory.


The crisis in southern Serbia is most likely to be resolved by political means. As Adem Demaci, a former KLA political representative and human rights activist, said, "the world will not tolerate another Serbian-Albanian conflict" - a fact Serbian and Albanian community leaders are slowly coming to terms with.


Dragana Nikolic and Miroslav Filipovic are IWPR contributors