Handful of Serbs holds out in Pristina

PRISTINA, May 25, 2000 -- (AFP) On Thursday, Marija Ognjanocic drew a line under her existence in the Kosovo capital of Pristina and left for a new life in Belgrade. In less than a year, the Serb population has rapidly shrunk, amid a mix of fear and resignation.

They numbered about 30,000 last June, before Yugoslav troops were forced out by the NATO bombing campaign, but now there are only a few hundred of them, holed up in concrete bunkers, hotels or high-rise flats in a few of the city's neighborhoods, guarded by NATO troops of KFOR.

"There is no future for the Serbs in this city, and if one day the situation changed, it would be too late for me," said 24-year-old Marija, just before she left.

Her life was confined to the ninth floor of the "UN hotel", which also houses most of her Serb colleagues working as interpreters for the United Nations mission here.

She said her life had become "a hell" punctuated by trips in a UN car to her workplace, even though it was just next door, a monthly trip to Macedonia to shop for groceries. "The idea of crossing the road was out of the question", she said.

The murder last week of her childhood friend Petar Topoljski, accused by an Albanian newspaper of having been a paramilitary, was the last straw for her.

"Why did we stay on there? The money," the young woman said. She earned 1,400 marks (about 716 euros) while her mother's pension is 100 marks after she fled to Serbia.

But the Pristina-born woman said she had made "enough international connections" to provide her with a job in Belgrade.

For his part, Aleksander Milosavljevic, 27, is still stuck for the next few months in his KFOR-controlled dormitory. He is staying on because of his interpreter's salary, which he pays to his parents, and also because he never received a copy of a law degree he was awarded just before the NATO air strikes began last year. The university has since been taken over by the Albanians.

"So I live from day to day," he said. He does weight-training and sometimes looks through the window at his old apartment, across the road. But he is confident of one day being able to emigrate to the west.

However, inhabitants of the "Yu Program" here have no idea what the future might hold. About 150 Serbs have found refuge in this former residence for civil servants of the Yugoslav regime, a long building that was once surrounded by shops and restaurants.

Among them are old people who do not know where to go, but also families with children who go to school in the Gracanica enclave, 12 kilometers away.

"I hope things are changing," said Snezana Kovacevic, a 37-year-old mother. She and her husband are jobless, receive food handouts from a non-governmental organization and are living off their savings.

"If nothing changes, I don't think we shall stay," she said. "We are just surviving here."

At KFOR headquarters, officials are apprehensive of the approach of summer. "We fear there will be more departures with the end of the school year and the KFOR mandate - even if it is renewed - runs out, said Major Kent Haworth, a doctor with the British battalion.

The soldiers are trying to set up a clinic and to put on a summer program of activities. That is Haworth's main concern. "We have security. People are surviving. But how to secure a return to normal life?" he said.

Original article