No sanctuary in town ruled by hate



Chris Bird

The Guardian - Thursday October 28, 1999

Life in the narrow, winding streets of the Serb ghetto in Orahovac was too much for the 155 scared Serbs who left the southern Kosovo town yesterday with an armed escort of Dutch peacekeepers.

The German military police and Dutch soldiers with the Nato-led peacekeeping force K-For were clearly uncomfortable with the task they had been assigned - to protect the convoy of four buses and 30 cars as it waited on a rocky grey hillside outside the town.

Even before it ended in disaster last night the very existence of the convoy was ugly proof that the ideal of a multi-ethnic Kosovo which was proposed by the UN and Nato is not working.

"We don't escort individual Serbs out of Kosovo," said Major Roy Abels, a Dutch officer in Orahovac. "We don't want to be seen deporting Serbs. They must leave on a flagged UN convoy."

The war is supposedly over in Kosovo, but memories of the killing frenzy that gripped Orahovac and the surrounding villages burns as intensely as the Serb houses torched by vengeful ethnic Albanians.

Dutch peacekeepers found and registered the bodies of about 1,000 ethnic Albanians in and around the town, murdered in mass killings by Serbian security forces. The death toll in the area may be as high as 3,000, and some local Serbs allegedly took part in the killings. Orahovac is no longer a place to be a Serb.

The Serbs were outnumbered nine to one, even before the mass exodus that followed Nato's arrival in the province in June. Only a fraction of the Serb population dared to stay behind to run the daily gauntlet of ethnic Albanian hatred. The attack on the convoy will only deepen their terror.

The green camouflage of Dutch soldiers has replaced the blue serge uniforms of the Serbian police in the town. They park their armoured vehicles and mobile artillery at the entrances to a series of streets at the top of the town which now forms the ghetto of about 2,000 frightened, hunted Serbs.

Sallow-looking men who survive on handouts of pasta and beans swap gossip outside the ghetto's Orthodox church or over coffee in the Casablanca cafe.

The women look tired and pale, their childrens' skin matte and wan. To step outside the ghetto means almost certain kidnapping and death as the murders of ethnic Serbs and Gypsies continue unabated in Kosovo.

Predrag Dedic, 67, was wounded this summer when a gunman fired on him and two friends outside his house in Vidovdanska Street, 50 yards from the ghetto's border with the Albanian half of the town.

He and his wife Bozhana, 61, have given up hope of finding their son Boban, 37, so they decided to leave on yesterday's convoy. Mrs Dedic said she was with her son when guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army arrested him, shortly after Nato troops entered the town. There has been no word since.

"We don't see any survival here, Mrs Dedic said. "We get bread but everything is triple the price here."

Few ethnic Albanian tradesmen venture into the ghetto to do business and she has a dwindling supply of Yugoslav dinars, while the ethnic Albanians want german marks.

She says the men are wary of going to their cafes, as young ethnic Albanian men have been known to walk right into the ghetto and sit menacingly at the bar. The Dutch troops try to keep the armed presence to a minimum.

"The Serbs can't move around. They're advised by us they can go wherever they want but they want a guard," said Lieutenant-Colonel Tony van Loon, the commander of the Dutch artillery battalion quartered in Orahovac.

"I don't want to start walking round with Serbs, we'd never hear the end of it [from ethnic Albanians]," he added.

The Dutch soldiers' relationship with the ghetto is made more difficult by the presence of suspected war criminals. Two alleged war criminals who applied to leave on yesterday's convoy were refused permission and subsequently arrested last week, bringing the tally of war crime suspects arrested by the Dutch since their arrival to 11. The Serb men look like packs of frightened antelope, unsure who the Nato military police will pick off next.

Astrid van Genderen Stort is in charge of the UN refugee agency's evacuation list for Orahovac. Belgrade has accused the agency of helping to "ethnically cleanse" Kosovo of Serbs, and ethnic Albanians are suspicious that she is helping alleged Serb war criminals to escape. After four alleged war criminals were taken off one of her convoys and arrested by peacekeeping troops earlier this summer, she received death threats from the ghetto.

She says the refugees are unlikely to get a warm welcome in Serbia, which is the unspoken reason for why yesterday's convoy headed for Montenegro.

As the vehicles snaked their way through Orahovac, small crowds of ethnic Albanians gathered and watched from the pavements, some smiling, some even waving, happy that more Serbs were leaving the town, unlikely ever to return.

Mrs Dedic pulled us to one side before she left and said that despite the loss of her son she could understand the ethnic Albanians' anger.

"Many wrongs were done to them," she said.

And in a liberating whisper, she hissed: "Milosevic is a fascist!"


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