What is happening in the south of Serbia?

Vukasin Obradovic

TUE, 07 MAR 2000

Podgorica, 4 March, 2000 - ter a series of incidents that occurred last month in three municipalities in the south of Serbia (Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja - in the former two majority population is Albanian), attacks on police forces, murders of ethnic Albanian citizens and policemen, and wounding even of UN officials, tensions between Serb and Albanian population are increasing especially in Presevo, where, according to the latest information, the situation is highly strained. And while the Albanians are complaining about repression of the police, the Serbs say that they are forced to emigrate pressured by their Albanian neighbours. Police control is intensified in the cities, and fear and uncertainty are growing.

Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, three municipalities on the administrative border between Serbia and Kosovo, which have lived for many years in the shadow of the developments in Kosovo, for the first time caught attention of the broad public on 1 and 2 March 1992. At the time the Party for Democratic Operation (PDD), the most influential political party which gathers ethnic Albanians from this region, organised a referendum seeking answer to the question "Are you in favour of cultural, political and territorial autonomy of the municipalities of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja with the right to unite with Kosovo?". More than 90 per cent of southern Serbian Albanians, as it was declared at the time, answered affirmatively at this single-ethnic plebiscite, and leaders of PDD explained that only through autonomy they can practice their civil and ethnic rights. As concerning the second part of the referendum question, it was stressed that "union with Kosovo" can be considered only if the then autonomous province became an independent state. Serbian authorities did not, of course, look upon the referendum of the Albanians in these municipalities with benevolence, but they did nothing to prevent it either.

In the following eight years, regardless of this referendum, as Dusan Janjic, co-ordinator of the Forum for ethnic relations, recently observed, ethnic Albanians in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja express a comparatively high degree of integration and co-operation with the environment they live in and with republican authorities. Political parties were formed, they ran in Republican and local elections and, as in Presevo, they fully control local administration or share power (in Bujanovac) with the Yugoslav Left (JUL) and the Socialist Party (SPS). On the other hand, political representatives of the local Albanians keep close contact especially with Rugova's Democratic League. They participate in co-ordinating councils and negotiate about joint policy of ethnic Albanians on the territory of former SFRY.

Nevertheless, during all these years and regardless of minor incidents, interethnic relations are mostly stable. The Albanians who in Presevo form 90 per cent of the population, in Bujanovac 60 per cent, and in Medvedja 30 per cent, however, incessantly pointed out to violations of their ethnic and human rights, primarily in the sphere of the use of language or imposing the will of the majority, but their attitude towards the state of Serbia was within the limits prescribed by law.

During the war, according to the words of Riza Halimi, chairman of the municipal assembly of Presevo, 11 ethnic Albanians were killed, and about 20 thousand people left the south of Serbia and mostly found refuge in refugee camps in neighbouring Macedonia. After the end of the war conflict most of the ethnic Albanians came back home. A part of them went to Kosovo, though. They are primarily the Albanians from Medvedja or from the part of Presevo called Karadak, the mountainous region by the border where a large number of houses were burnt down or destroyed during the war. In the first few post-war months, regardless of the tragic developments, the impression was that there would be no spreading of the conflict from Kosovo to this region. Withdrawal of the Army of Yugoslavia and later convoys of Serb refugees from Kosovo were accompanied by a few incidents, but peace was more or less maintained.

And when it seemed that the Albanians from the south of Serbia would manage to successfully maintain the balance between loyalty to the state and loyalty to their ethnic group, on 23 November 1999, a police patrol was attacked near the village of Konculj, in the municipality of Bujanovac, and Caslav Ivkovic, deputy police commander in Vranje, and policeman Zoran Stojiljkovic were wounded. Soon after that, in Presevo, on 7 December, an explosive device was planted in the vicinity of the police station. Nobody was hurt, but it caused considerable damage on surrounding buildings. Just three days later a bomb exploded in the yard of "Branko Radicevic" elementary school in Bujanovac. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

Violence continued in this year. Cemail Mustafi, principal of Muhovac elementary school who is also vice president of Bujanovac municipal committee of SPS, was murdered on 17 January. Some time later, a hand-grenade was thrown into the yard of his brother Cemal Mustafi.

The severest incident occurred on 25 February in Bujanovac. An explosive device was planted next to the city heating plant. Thanks only to sheer luck nobody was hurt. Nevertheless, two key events, which seem to have largely determined later developments, happened in the village of Dobrosin which is inside the demilitarised zone, just a kilometre from the border between Kosovo and Serbia. In this village on 26 January, a police patrol was attacked. In to this day unclarified circumstances, brothers Isa and Saip Salipi, who had not directly participated in the shooting, were killed, and policeman Zarko Guberinic was wounded. Four days later, at the funeral of Salipi brothers whose relatives claimed that they had been killed by policemen, for the first time certain persons in uniform appeared and presented themselves as "Ushtria Clirimtare e Presheve, Medvegje e Bujanovac" (Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac).

The other incident which is also important for understanding of everything that is happening in this region, occurred on 26 February. In an attack on the police near the village of Koculj which is next to Dobrosin, on the main road between Bujanovac and Gnjilane, major of the police Slavisa Dimitrijevic was killed and policemen Dragan Filipovic, Srecko Radivojevic and Goran Dimic were wounded. Fatmir Ibisi from Gnjilane, one of the attackers was also killed. An identity card of Kosovo Protection Corps (KZK) Number 10226 was found on him. This fact served the SPS to accuse KFOR and UNMIK immediately after this event of "complicity in terrorist acts at the south of Serbia". Some time later, colonel Philip Hanning, spokesman of general Klaus Reinhard, commander of the international forces in Kosovo, confirmed that there were information about the existence of armed groups of the Albanians in Kosovo operating in Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja. Colonel Hanning also said that KFOR was "strictly controlling the administrative border in order to prevent the attempt of these groups to cross it".

These two events definitely brought southern Serbia up on the surface as a new possible site of a conflict especially after NATO's warning about alleged accumulation of military and police forces in this region. General Vladimir Lazarevic, commander of the Third Army, but also Riza Halimi, chairman of Presevo municipal assembly, denied these allegations but it was not of much help. The world media promotion of "Ushtria Clirimtare e Presheve, Medvegje e Bujanovac" (UCPMB) followed soon after that, and of the village of Dobrosin as the main seat of the newly established organisation.

Whether the reality of Kosovo is really moving to the south of Serbia is the question hat not only the Albanians and the Serbs from these municipalities are faced with, but also the international community whose representatives are lately often stressing that it is of no interest of the world to cause a new war in the Balkans. The answer to this question will depend on many factors, but however absurd it may seem, least of all on ethnic Albanians from Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja. Between the hammer and the nail, in the sandwich of aspirations of some of the political leaders of the members of their ethnic group from Kosovo who, according to estimates of local analysts, would "gladly exchange Kosovo without the Serbs for the south of Serbia without the Albanians" and repression of Serbian regime, they are trying to keep their heads because they are aware, at least majority of them are, that in case of a conflict, they cannot expect anything good, except suffering and destroyed homes.

Riza Halimi, chairman of Presevo municipal council, says: "This spiral of violence must be stopped. It is of common interest. The only solution, as far as I see it, and that is what we have stressed many times, is better and closer co-operation of state institutions with UNMIK and the international organisations which are present in Kosovo. This also refers to municipalities of Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja. Of course, the precondition for all that is solution of the problems the Albanians are facing in this space".

Members of the southern Serbian variant of the Kosovo Liberation Army ("Ushtria Clirimtare e Presheve, Medvegje e Bujanovac") will have to seek followers in Kosovo or at least among the Albanians from the south of Serbia who joined the KLA during the war and, according to relevant information, there are not many of them. That is why responsibility of KFOR is so big. In its latest statement it is said that "KFOR and NATO do not support rebellion of the Albanians in the south of Serbia and it is not true that KFOR and NATO support these rebels as they themselves keep saying to the local population". It turned out that most of the terrorist operations were planned on the other side of the border of Serbia and that the attackers of police patrols had arrived from Kosovo. Although this is a very rough ground, KFOR will have to intensify border control - as it was announced by its leading men - in order to prevent members of UCPMB from walking along the border and shooting even at vehicles of the UN. In the latest such incident, an employee of UN office, was wounded.

Another aggravating circumstance for the Albanians from these municipalities is that raising of tensions and intimidation of the people with a new war is convenient for the regime in Serbia at this moment. Developments in the south of Serbia fit perfectly well in the old and tested strategy of Slobodan Milosevic, especially in the election year. What it is actually like was felt by the teachers in Vranje who were sharply reproached for lack of patriotism because "while a war is waged in the neighbourhood they want to go on strike". Therefore, a little gunpowder does not hurt, at least to make people forget hunger, poverty and misery for a little while.

But one thing is quite certain. The destiny of the south of Serbia will primarily depend on everything that will be happening in Kosovo. If KFOR and UNMIK manage to establish order and peace in Kosovo, the Albanians and the Serbs from Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja have something to hope for. But, there is not much time because the fuse on the barrel of gunpowder called the south of Serbia is burning very quickly.

Original article