Albanians cling to enclave within an enclave
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia, Mar 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Balkan riddle of war, ethnicity and allegiance is manifest in Xheladin Kajtazi, a gruff bear of a man with a bone-crushing grip, luxuriant eyebrows and steely resolve.
Kajtazi is an ethnic Albanian rebuilding his house in Suvi Do, an enclave on the Serb-dominated north bank of Mitrovica.
As such he is of the ethnic Albanian majority, but surrounded by the minority - a minority nearly hounded out of existence here in the eight months since NATO-led KFOR troops and international administrators took over Kosovo.
Standing on the top-floor of his burned-out house in a wind-driven snow as men hoisted timbers into position for roof joists, he scowled with disdain at an obvious question: "Is he afraid?"
"Do I look like the sort of man who would be afraid?" he grumbled, smacking a ham-sized fist into a scorched brick wall that was once part of his bedroom.
Tough as Xheladin Kajtazi may be, he ran away last year, like all the other residents of Suvi Do, after Serbs swept through the tiny ethnic Albanian enclave of about 100 houses.
"We were destroyed by our Serb neighbours and the paramilitaries from Serbia who came with them. We had seven killed here on March 28 last year," Kajtazi said.
"We knew many of them well, they were our friends and neighbours. We didn't deserve to be treated that way by them."
NATO air strikes against Serbian security forces had begun four days earlier, triggering a backlash of violence against ethnic Albanians that saw the sack of Suvi Do in early April. Houses, shops, schools and mosque were torched as residents fled.
Nearly a year later, multi-ethnicity and tolerance are barely evident in Kosovo, and Mitrovica has become the last battlefield of the bitter three-way war between the international community, ethnic Albanians and Serbs for the province's future.
Serbs on the north bank of the Ibar river in Mitrovica represent the last urban concentration of Serbs in Kosovo. They view the few ethnic Albanians in their midst as the thin edge of a wedge that could drive them out, as happened elsewhere.
Ethnic Albanians believe Kosovo is theirs now and resent the de facto partition of Mitrovica, and by extension the province, that has given Serbs the whip hand on the north side of the city.
KFOR and U.N. administrators who between them share responsibility for Kosovo had been aiming for multi-ethnicity here. They now seem prepared to settle for peaceful co-existence.
With pitched battles between Serbs, ethnic Albanians and KFOR troops occasionally erupting just a few minutes walk down the river bank, the few ethnic Albanians who have returned to Suvi Do since last June still seem highly vulnerable.
The enclave is bordered by the river to the south and by Serb settlements to the north, east and west.
KFOR patrols the area but locals expect no meaningful assistance if Serbs attack them, as happened several months ago.
Strict apartheid is the rule here. Serbs only pass through Suvi Do in buses that flash by at high speed escorted by KFOR armoured personnel carriers.
Security concerns prevent ethnic Albanians from going into the city centre and crossing the Ibar south over the two main bridges, even though those spans are guarded by KFOR.
Instead, the people of this enclave - including children going to and from school - use a fragile foot-bridge that deposits them on the south bank near the city rubbish tip.
Building supplies must be hauled by horse or tractor and wagon through the river, a precarious enterprise at best.
Xheladin Kajtazi has no desire to re-establish contact with his near neighbours among the Serb communities either side of Suvi Do, but he says they might be able to live in peace if trouble-makers from Belgrade were expelled from Mitrovica.
Behind the bluster he seems more hurt and mystified than angered by the collapse of his world.
Kajtazi's real allegiance seems to lie with Josip Broz Tito, who built a diverse but manageable post-World War Two Yugoslavia on the slogan of "brotherhood and unity", an idea that seemingly died here with its author in 1980.
One of the few personal belongings Kajtazi salvaged from his destroyed home was a faded photograph of Tito in full Field Marshal's regalia. Pointing to the picture, he thumped a swelling chest: "Tito, my commander. A first class man".