High on a breathtaking hill in southern Serbia, beyond the reach of foreign troops patrolling nearby Kosovo, the only sound in this ethnic Albanian village is of dried corn stalks rustling in the autumn breeze.
Ethnic Albanians tilled this land for centuries before the Serbs gave up control of the neighboring province to NATO-led peacekeeping troops 5 1/2 months ago. Then a silent exodus began, and all but one of the village’s farmhouses were abandoned in fear that they might be the next targets of the Serbs.
An estimated 85,000 ethnic Albanians still live in this region of southern Serbia, mainly in a 482-square-mile area bordering Kosovo that many Albanian nationalists believe should be part of that province. But thousands have fled since the fate of the region’s people was largely forgotten in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s victory over Yugoslav forces.
A buffer zone created around Kosovo by June’s peace accord with NATO prohibits Serbian police and Yugoslav soldiers from entering only a small part of the region, leaving most of the ethnic Albanians feeling cut off and at risk, said Riza Halimi, president of the municipal assembly in Presevo, a city in southeastern Serbia.
Slayings, robberies and arson carried out by federal and Serbian forces, and years of political repression under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, have forced the continuing exodus, Halimi said in an interview at Presevo’s City Hall.
“This situation is benefiting the Serbian authorities,” he added. “Their deceitful measures are contributing to a silent ‘ethnic cleansing.’ ”
Ethnic Albanians in this region of Serbia received none of the benefits that came from NATO’s bombing campaign but are suffering the consequences, Halimi said, because they aren’t protected by almost 50,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops just across the border in Kosovo--although it too remains a part of Serbia, Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.
In one of the few significant concessions Milosevic won for withstanding 78 days of airstrikes last spring, NATO agreed to shrink the buffer zone along the Kosovo border that Yugoslav troops and Serbian police are not allowed to enter.
The Western demands that Milosevic had rejected at peace talks during the winter called for a “mutual safety zone” 15 miles deep, which would have protected most ethnic Albanians north and east of Kosovo’s border.
But under the accord that ended the air war, the buffer zone was set at 3 miles deep. That left Yugoslav troops and Serbian police freer to harass ethnic Albanians, Halimi said.
And the violence has cut both ways. Two Serbian police officers were seriously wounded last week when gunmen opened fire on the Serbs’ vehicle in this area near the mainly ethnic Albanian village of Konculj, Yugoslavia’s state-run news agency reported.
NATO officials, meanwhile, confirm that the alliance is concerned about occasional skirmishes across the border from Kosovo.
Hajdar Sulja, 63, was too sick to join the exodus from Grbavce that began about Aug. 2, just over a month after the last Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo.
Now Sulja, his wife, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren are the only people left in a village where their ethnic Albanian ancestors lived, worked the hard mountain soil and went to the grave for 500 years.
One Village Has Aspect of Ghost Town
If Sulja hadn’t been out in the yard, working on his knees behind a fence of rough-hewn pickets and tangled sticks, it would have been hard to know one recent day that anyone was left in Grbavce, about three miles from the Kosovo border near the Serbian town of Medvedja.
Serbian police officers pass through the area once in a while, but neither they nor Yugoslav army soldiers have attacked the village, Sulja said.
“The army came nearby, they fired some shots, and people got scared,” so they fled to Kosovo, he added.
Although Sulja insists that he has never had problems with Serbs and was not told to leave, he doesn’t feel safe. He plans to take his family and as much as they can carry and flee as soon as they can.
“What can I do?” asked Sulja. “I can’t live here on my own. The wolves will eat me. . . . Saving your head is most important, but it is not easy to leave centuries-old property.”
Before NATO launched its air war March 24 to drive Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, more than 100,000 ethnic Albanians lived in areas of southern Serbia just outside the province, mainly in Presevo, Bujanovac, Medvedja and the surrounding countryside.
During the war and in the angry peace that followed, as many as 20,000 ethnic Albanians in the region fled to Kosovo or went into exile abroad; 1,200 of them are still living in a refugee camp in Macedonia, Halimi said.
His Party of Democratic Action wants to unite the mainly ethnic Albanian strip of southern Serbia with Kosovo, a demand that he concedes could lead to more violence if Kosovo moves closer to a complete break from Yugoslavia.
“It is a common fact that the Albanian population of this region makes a constitutive whole with the Albanian population living in Kosovo and Macedonia,” Halimi’s party said in a 1992 declaration.
To Serbian nationalists, that translates into the same demand for ethnic Albanian independence that led in 1998 to a vicious civil war in Kosovo--a conflict ended only by the NATO air war.
Senior officers at Serbia’s Interior Ministry police headquarters in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, did not respond to requests for an interview on the situation in the border region.
Just as he did in Kosovo, Milosevic began imposing Serbian rule in this region in 1989 by forcing majority ethnic Albanians from key public jobs and replacing them with Serbs.
Halimi used to be a high school physics teacher in Presevo, where before the war about 42,000 people--more than 90% of the city’s population--were ethnic Albanian. But Serbian authorities fired him and 11 other teachers in a purge of the Albanian-language education system, he said.
Poor Development Plagues Entire Region
This region is so poorly developed that only 500 workers out of an estimated 45,000 have jobs in industry, and they earn only $19 to $25 a month, Halimi said. The Yugoslav army eliminated some of the best remaining jobs by turning a local shoe factory into a military base after the NATO-led force entered Kosovo.
Despite the campaign by Halimi’s party to combine the region with Kosovo, where the overwhelming majority favors independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbian government has allowed him to stay in power in Presevo since 1992.
But Milosevic makes sure that the city assembly that Halimi leads is weak. Its only authority is over sports, cultural activities, child care, garbage collection and street cleaning.
Although Halimi is one of Milosevic’s many political enemies, his efforts to work against the system from within may have helped prevent fighting in Kosovo from spilling into the rest of southern Serbia.
“Before and during the war, our opinion was that there was no reason for people to leave [our region],” Halimi said. “Why? Here, we are taking part in all the institutions of the system. There were no incidents here before the bombing. And our official stand always concurred with the army’s statements.”
Oppression by Federal Forces Once Minimal
Yugoslav forces drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo, torching villages and killing civilians during the spring. But the eastern region of the province, where Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas were never strong, did not suffer nearly so much as the KLA’s strongholds, and attacks rarely spread into other ethnic Albanian areas of southern Serbia.
Yugoslav soldiers killed six ethnic Albanians in four villages in the southern Serbian region bordering Kosovo during the three-way Yugoslav conflict with NATO and the KLA, Halimi said, citing witness statements to his office.
The soldiers also burned 44 houses and 20 auxiliary buildings such as barns, and looted or damaged 200 houses, often after finding symbols such as Albanian flags, which the Serbs saw as evidence of support for KLA rebels, he added.
Some Yugoslav soldiers also tortured ethnic Albanian prisoners from border villages, according to the witness statements. Nijazi Bajrami, 28, said that more than 10 soldiers supervised by a lieutenant beat him for hours before cutting off his ear and trying to force him to eat it. He was later released.
In Kosovo, the NATO-led peacekeeping force and a U.N. civilian administration are fighting what increasingly looks like a losing battle against ethnic Albanian extremists attacking Serbs and other minorities, who continue to flee almost daily slayings and kidnappings.
Western governments, including the United States, are still officially opposed to independence for Kosovo. But ethnic Albanian leaders across the political spectrum are determined to break from Yugoslavia, making it all the more difficult for NATO to “win the peace” and create a multiethnic democracy in Kosovo.
“If Kosovo ever becomes independent, and if present-day borders remain, people here would feel like they were living in a ghetto, and they would silently leave,” Halimi predicted.
The KLA has been replaced by the Kosovo Protection Corps, a civilian force licensed to carry small arms. The corps is supposed to concern itself with natural disasters and ceremonial affairs, not the struggle for independence.
One of the corps’ members, a young man from Presevo, agreed to an interview in Pristina, Kosovo’s provincial capital, on condition he not be identified to protect family members still living elsewhere in southern Serbia.
Although the KLA chose to fight the Serbs in Kosovo first, the separatists have always seen the mainly ethnic Albanian strip across the provincial border as part of Kosovo and will do whatever is necessary to get it back, the former rebel fighter said.
The KLA has long used the Presevo region as a conduit for weapons and money, and the guerrillas took in about 300 recruits from the area once the NATO bombing began, he added. As long as things continue to get worse for ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia, it won’t be difficult to find more volunteers, he warned.
“If we read all of the signs correctly, these forms of repression are aimed at making people leave the region for Kosovo as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ” he said. “And if these things continue, I’m sure 60-70% of people will leave.
“This brings people to think about armed struggle,” he added. “If no one does something for those left there at the mercy of the Serbs, we will have to do something for them.”