Uneasy Presevo Peace

Suspicion and fear remain high as Yugoslav forces deploy in the Presevo buffer zone

Uneasy Presevo Peace

Suspicion and fear remain high as Yugoslav forces deploy in the Presevo buffer zone

"I fear we shall never live here normally - we don't like the Serbian army, it has done us a lot of evil," said Moamer Aljim, an Albanian from Rajince in the Presevo valley of southern Serbia.

Rajince was not affected by the recent fighting between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian security forces. There are no bullet marks in the walls or broken windows here.

Its 4,000 inhabitants, all Albanian, have stayed despite NATO's decision late last month to allow Yugoslav troops into the last remaining Albanian-held sector of an internationally-administered buffer zone between Kosovo and Serbia proper.

With the withdrawal of the UCPMB, the ethnic Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - predominantly Albanian-populated municipalities in southern Serbia - an uneasy peace has descended on the region.

Gornja Susaja, a mountain village on the Kosovo-Serbia border, not far from Bujanovac, lies deserted. The buildings are pockmarked with the traces of fighting. It is one of a dozen or so Albanian villages abandoned in the conflict. Some fled the fighting between UCPMB and Serbia police, others because they feared reprisals by incoming Yugoslav troops.

Those who have opted to stay complain about the Milosevic era, but they don't know what to make of the new Serbian government. Most believe the war is not over and that the recent ceasefire between Belgrade and the Albanian rebels will be short-lived.

"We are all farmers, but also soldiers when we are asked to defend the village, women and children. I was thrown out of the army only because I was an Albanian. I would not return to it. They've done a lot of evil here," said one former UCMPB.

The Albanians are not alone in their scepticism. Yugoslav troops stationed on a hill close to Rajince say it will be a long time before they can walk to the local shop without fear.

"Someone would slit my throat round the first corner," said Jovan Spasic, a professional soldier, who's been stationed around Bujanovac since January.

"You never know if you'll be alive in the morning," he said. "When it gets dark, all the locals change into uniforms, and then the war begins. We had hand-to-hand combat. There's a lot of hatred between us."

One of Spasic's comrades doesn't give the ceasefire much of a chance. "They'll attack us again," he said. "This is a truce, not the end of the war."

Yugoslav troops, police, special forces poured into the area on May 24, completing their deployment in the KFOR-administered buffer zone, which had been set up by the UN Security Council in June 1999.

The area rapidly became a stronghold for various Albanian guerrilla groups, each with their own agenda - some sought union of the area with Kosovo, others wanted improved human rights for local Albanians.

Western diplomatic pressure on the guerrilla leaders to disarm and abandon the territory was intense. Protracted negotiations with international and Serbian officials finally resulted in the majority laying down their weapons.

When Yugoslav forces completed their deployment in the area last month, there was just one gun battle, which ended in the death of Rizvan Cazimi, known as Commander Leshi. He was a central figure in the UCPMB.

After Cazimi's death something unique happened. Serbian deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, head of the Serbian negotiating team, expressed sincere regret over his death.

This, however, did not stop over 1300 inhabitants of Veliki Trnovac, where Cazimi's guerrilla headquarters was located, fleeing the town, bringing the total number of Albanians who've left the region for Kosovo to 5,000.

Aside from that one incident, the return of Yugoslav troops to the area has progressed peacefully, under the close supervision of KFOR.

Yugoslav forces have carried out "mopping up" operations in villages to flush out remaining guerrillas.

KFOR has carried out a parallel "check and release" operation on suspected rebels crossing into Kosovo. Only those believed to be responsible for serious crimes are likely to be detained.

So far 500 have given themselves up, among them Captain Hadzija, a founder member of the UCPMB. All were subsequently released.

Serbian officials are promising an improvement in relations with the region's Albanians. The return of Yugoslav troops was preceded by the distribution of propaganda material calling for "reconciliation".

"We shall begin to improve the local infrastructure and economy so that people have a better life," said Covic.

And there are some indications that joint economic interests will bring the two communities together. During the war, official trade between the two may have broken down but black-market business flourished.

Evidence of this is the equipment abandoned by the guerrillas.A pile of khaki t-shirts from the Serbian textile factory Yumco was found alongside cans of pate from the Vojvodina Neoplanta meat factory.

Yugoslav troops refuse to speculate on how the guerrillas came by Serbian products. But Albanian villagers say "trade routes" operated between Albanians and Serbs throughout the fighting.

"We gave them money and they gave us goods - we had to live off something, " said local Albanian Shefkija Ragjipshi.

Some Albanians believe that the conflict could have been avoided if the Serbia had paid more attention to the economic problems in the area.

"If they had installed a decent water supply and telephone network, the war may have never started," said Ragjipshi. " No one took care of us. We were always the least important people in Serbia."

Belgrade certainly has a challenge on its hands. A new administration may be in power in Belgrade, but Albanians in southern Serbia want to see proof that it's any better than its predecessor.

Marina Grihovic is a journalist on Belgrade daily "Blic".

Serbia, Kosovo
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