The Age
Serbs chose to fight to the death


Wednesday 23 February 2000

PRISTINA - Like most Kosovan Serbs, Bosko, a former irregular who lives in the bitterly divided northern town of Mitrovica, is brimming with nationalist defiance.

"For us this is now a matter of survival," he said, pledging that all Serbs left in northern Kosovo would fight rather than allow the Albanians back.

"We cannot flee to Serbia. We will fight and maybe die, but a lot of Albanians will die with us."

Once his words would have been intimidating, but now they seem desperate.

For the Kosovo Serbs, the arrival of NATO troops last June marked the beginning of the end of a seven-century struggle for survival. Since then, more than half the Serbs have left the province.

Of the estimated 80,000 remaining, most now live in small enclaves such as Mitrovica, surrounded by Albanians determined to force them out.

The northern part of Mitrovica and its hinterland are Serb-controlled, although some of the houses belonged to ethnic Albanians before the war. Even so, more Serbs are leaving than arriving.

But the Kosovo Serbs were in decline long before the war with their ethnic Albanian neighbors. Emigration and comparatively low birth rates had already taken their toll during Tito's time. When Slobodan Milosevic came to power in the late 1980s, he seized their cause and made it his own.

He used volunteers from Kosovo as storm-troopers of the Serb nationalist movement, deploying them to force out his more liberal opponents.

But for the Kosovo Serbs, Mr Milosevic's patronage was a Faustian pact. For a few years they received rights well beyond their wont. Guns were distributed among them, choice jobs were offered and ethnic Albanians were sacked en masse from the state administration to make way for them.

Today they are understandably bitter. As with the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs before them, they have ultimately been deserted by a regime that has no more use for them.

The decade of savagery that Belgrade handed out to the ethnic Albanians denied them any chance of post-war peaceful coexistence. Many were as much victims of Mr Milosevic's war-mongering as the ethnic Albanians.

In the first days of 1999 I met a Serb farmer whose family had lived in a majority Albanian village for generations in the north of the province. He spoke Albanian well and was at peace with his neighbors.

Then one day a Serbian armored column moved in to "protect" him and his family. They destroyed almost every other house in the village and positioned a tank near his front door. He was bewildered. A few days later the Yugoslav army pulled out with the tank, the ethnic Albanians moved back and he fled for his life.

Now the Serbs in Kosovo live in almost continual fear. Ilija Trajkovic, 49, and his wife Blaguna, 48, remain in their house near the centre of Pristina. But they cannot even reach the church 100 metres from their home without a NATO escort.

Mr Trajkovic said: "Life is difficult. We have no telephone, no television and can hardly go outside. The Albanians shout threats at us and want to kill us. Without NATO we wouldn't survive. What is worse than anything else is not being able to work for my living. I have done that all my life but now we are prisoners."

He condemns the Serb paramilitaries and police who looted and robbed the ethnic Albanians during the NATO air strikes but says his family did nothing wrong. "This is our country. Where should we go? The people who did nothing wrong are the ones that are suffering the most. The guilty ones left long ago."

Original article