Kosovo Serbs Fear Day They'll Have to Walk Alone

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Radunka Antonijevic, a Serb, lives with her two children in an ethnic Albanian neighborhood of this southeastern Kosovo town. Her apartment is ringed by barbed wire and guarded by peacekeepers 24 hours a day.

The few Serbian children living in the building used to have a United Nations police escort to school, but that ended last month, to Antonijevic's great dismay. "They told us, 'Now everything is secure. You have conditions to walk freely. . . . We can't escort you forever,' " she said.

She and other parents now guard the children on the 10-minute walk to class. "The old residents know us, and they never harass us," she said. "But the young teenagers call us 'pigs.' . . . A few times they threw stones at the children."

Although Kosovo is still torn by ethnic hatred, international police and peacekeepers see some progress toward normality--and no choice but to begin thinking seriously about what happens when they leave.

"We're not going to be here much longer," predicted Derek Chappell, spokesman for Kosovo's U.N. police, noting that the Bush administration is focused on places such as Afghanistan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing for greater attention to Africa's problems.

That means the effort to make Kosovo safe and stable even without international policing must be put "on fast forward," Chappell said. "At some point, the people here have to live together. Protecting people from that reality every day by giving them an armed escort to go and buy their bread and milk doesn't help with any resolution."

Chappell said he sees "small signs of reconciliation," noting that it's now sometimes possible to see a car with Serbian license plates in Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian capital, Pristina. "A year and a half ago that would never have happened," he said. "They'd have been attacked."

Most ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90% of Kosovo's population, still view local Serbs as unrepentant former oppressors. Hatred is especially intense among rural people who fled for weeks at a time into the mountains in 1998 and 1999 when Serbian forces fighting a separatist guerrilla insurgency attacked their villages and destroyed their homes.

Many ethnic Albanians say Serbs could do much to ease tensions by publicly rejecting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic--now on trial at The Hague for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity--and by apologizing for the crimes his forces committed in the people's name. Thousands of ethnic Albanians were slain and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes before NATO forces stepped in, forcing Milosevic to withdraw from the province in 1999 and accept a U.N. administration.

But many Serbs in Kosovo still view Milosevic as a hero and say that neither he nor they did anything wrong. Few see the need for an apology, nor do they make any connection between their support for the former Yugoslav leader and their current life in a virtual state of siege.

Milosevic made some mistakes, but "he was defending his people here against terrorists, just as [President] Bush is defending his people in America now," said Sinisa Petrovic, 37, a Serb who lives in the village of Gracanica. "The army was shooting at houses and demolishing houses--but houses they saw shots coming from."

The U.N. administration in Kosovo has preached the need for a multiethnic society. But in practice, the best that international police and the NATO-led peacekeepers--known as Kosovo Force, or KFOR--have been able to achieve is some measure of protection for Serbs isolated in enclaves.

Ethnic Albanians also feel unsafe in Serbian areas, but that does little to restrict their freedom of movement.

The new head of the United Nations mission here, Michael Steiner, stressed last month at his first news conference that providing better security and the rule of law for all is one of his top priorities. "I think it is vital that there be a safe home for all Kosovo residents," he said.

KFOR still provides protection for 65 convoys a week from one place to another within Kosovo or between Kosovo and other areas of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic, said Daz Slaven, spokesman for the force. In addition, it carries out nearly 100 smaller escort operations a week.

In an effort to blur the geographical divisions between ethnic groups, some of the fortified posts where peacekeepers stand guard to protect Serbian enclaves are being dismantled, with the soldiers sent instead on random patrols, Chappell said. A fixed post can "almost create the sense that 'if I go beyond this point, I'm going to get killed,' " he explained.

That is pretty much the belief of Petrovic, who thinks that he would be taking an enormous risk to venture into dusty but bustling Pristina, just five miles from his home.

"They would kidnap me, which is much worse than being killed," Petrovic explained. "If we were talking just about Albanians born and raised in Pristina, I wouldn't be afraid. But there are a lot of people there now from villages who are not civilized people. I'm afraid of them."

Only Trip Was to Visit Sick Father

Petrovic said he has left Gracanica only once since mid-1999, when Yugoslav and Serbian forces were replaced by peacekeepers and the U.N. mission. That was to take an escorted trip last year to see his sick father elsewhere in Serbia, he said.

Kosovo came under U.N. administration after a 78-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign aimed at forcing Milosevic to end his repression of its separatist-minded ethnic Albanian majority. Although it technically remains a province of Serbia, virtually all ethnic Albanians hope and expect that Kosovo will become independent, something vehemently opposed by almost all Serbs.

Shortly before and after the peacekeeping force entered Kosovo, nearly 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians left the province, many in fear of reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians. About 80,000 Serbs remain among Kosovo's more than 2 million people.

Serbs living in the northern part of the province at least have free access to the main part of Serbia, which abuts that enclave. They also have hopes that if Kosovo becomes independent, only the areas dominated by ethnic Albanians will break away.

But an estimated 30,000 Serbs live in scattered enclaves surrounded by ethnic Albanian communities, where they feel trapped.

Petrovic noted that even the bus convoy he took to see his father, which operates once a week, is not particularly safe, though it is routinely escorted by KFOR soldiers and armored personnel carriers. People along the way often throw stones at the buses, he said.

The worst incident on that route--and the one most responsible for making Serbs feel trapped--was the death of 11 people in an attack Feb. 16, 2001, on escorted buses. The attackers had placed a bomb in a culvert, kept watch from about a mile away, then detonated the device by wire.

A primary suspect, Florim Ejupi, an ethnic Albanian, was linked to the scene based on DNA from a cigarette butt. He was arrested and held at Camp Bondsteel, the U.S. military base in Kosovo, but escaped last May in an incident U.S. officials blamed on human error.

The case against three other ethnic Albanian suspects arrested in the bombing hinged in part on proving Ejupi's role, Chappell said. There also were practical problems in using intelligence information against those suspects in court, he said. U.N. authorities are working under a Yugoslav criminal code that does not allow evidence obtained from electronic surveillance to be used. As a result, a panel of judges freed the three suspects in December for lack of evidence, Chappell said.

For many Serbs, the case reflects an inability or unwillingness of international authorities to protect them.

"I think it's a tragedy for Kosovo that we never had that trial, because it would have been a watershed in establishing the rule of law," Chappell said.

Many Have Their Own Horror Stories

The bus attack and the still-unsolved slayings of 14 Serbian farmers in a field south of Pristina in July 1999 are the two most dramatic incidents that have terrified Serbs. But many have personal horror stories to tell.

Goran Stojanovic, 24, who works at a coffee shop in the village of Silovo, said he was nearly killed last year while trying to walk into nearby Gnjilane with several neighbors. Several ethnic Albanian men waylaid them.

"They had a gun pointed at me," he said. "We were threatened, and some were beaten."

Stojanovic said he has left his village only four or five times in the last year, mainly to drive into the main part of Serbia nearby. "There's no freedom, but when you have to go, you go," he said.

One problem, he added, is that anyone from Kosovo wishing to drive to other areas of Serbia must have Serbian license plates on the car, and so most of Kosovo's Serbs have kept such plates. But ethnic Albanian drivers use U.N.-issued license plates. That means Serbian vehicles are readily identifiable.

Radosava Milosavlevic, 52, also from Silovo, said that U.S. troops used to escort her on visits to the cemetery of a village about two miles away, where she lived for 25 years and where her son is buried.

"But now the police won't provide escorts anymore," she complained. "So I haven't visited his grave for a year. The lady from the police said, 'If you want to go to that village, you can walk.' I said, 'I wouldn't call you if I felt I were able to walk.' "

Asked what she feared, Milosavlevic replied: "My old neighbors will do something to me. Sometimes I call them to see how they are and they tell me, 'Just forget this number.' "

Zagorka Jacimovic, 64, also from Silovo, said her adult son disappeared shortly after KFOR entered Kosovo and "we still don't know whether he's alive or dead."

She hasn't left the village since then, she said. "We just go from one house to another," she said, fighting back tears. "It feels like we're in jail."

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