Ex-foes uneasy neighbours in a city divided by hate

For Mitrovica's Serbians, Albanians the war has never really ended


Saturday, March 4, 2000

Kosovska Mitrovica -- Wrong turns can be dangerous in Mitrovica. Driving into the divided city from the north this week, a Globe reporter and his Serb driver and translator turned accidentally into the southern, Albanian side of town.

People on the crowded streets stared at the Belgrade licence plates, identifying the car as coming from hated Serbia, and shot dirty looks at those inside.

No one did anything as long as the car was within sight of the Italian troops patrolling the neighborhood. But as the driver turned around and headed back through the unpatrolled suburbs, trying to find his way to the Serb north, young men by the roadside hooted, raised their middle fingers and stooped to pick up rocks, which whistled through the air just behind the car as the terrified driver stepped on the gas.

Fear and anger, grief and bitterness hang in the foggy air of this grimy industrial city of 100,000, which is dominated by a glowering hill to the north and the smokestack at a mine.

Eleven people have been killed and dozens wounded in the latest wave of violence. Two French peacekeepers were wounded by snipers and a Russian soldier killed.

"In Mitrovica the war has never really ended," said Caroline McCool, a Vancouver lawyer who is head of mission in Mitrovica for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

This city has come to symbolize everything that has gone wrong with the international mission in Kosovo, which was intended to rescue ethnic Albanians from Serb oppression but has ended up facing a wave of Albanian revenge attacks on Serbs. The United Nations' goal of a peaceful, tolerant and multiethnic Kosovo remains as remote as the moon, no more so than in Mitrovica.

"Mitrovica is a metaphor for Kosovo," one Western diplomat said. "The Serbs feel like a besieged minority, and the Albanians feel that justice has not been done."

Once a mixed city with an Albanian majority but significant Serb and other minorities scattered across the town, Mitrovica was in effect partitioned after NATO's 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia ended last June.

As Serb troops pulled out, and NATO troops came in to replace them, a flood of Albanians poured back into the city to reclaim and rebuild their damaged homes.

Fearing reprisals, the city's Serbs and Slavic Muslims fled. Many settled in the pocket of Mitrovica that lies north of the Ibar River -- about one-fifth of the city's total area. Albanians who had fled from the north during the war were too fearful to return. So Mitrovica now has the mainly Serb zone on the north side of the Ibar and the almost exclusively Albanian zone on the south.

The symbol of the divide is the barricaded bridge at the city centre, guarded at the north end by French troops and at the south by the Royal Canadian Regiment.

On the north side of the bridge, Serb vigilantes in leather jackets sit in La Dolce Vita café drinking coffee and cradling Motorola walkie-talkies.

If an Albanian crowd gathers, they can summon hundreds of Serbs within minutes. Among their helpers are a host of street urchins who fan out through the city shouting, "The siptars are coming" -- Serb slang for Albanian.

"People drop everything and come as soon as we call, even if they are in the shower," boasts Oliver Ivanovic, a former karate champion who is head of the local Serb National Council.

The other side is well organized too. The recent round of violence began after someone fired a rocket at a busload of Serbs near Mitrovica on Feb. 2. Two weeks later international troops stopped an ambulance on the road to Mitrovica and found it crammed with weapons: rocket launchers, grenades, AK-47 rifles.

The Serb-Albanian standoff is much more than a local spat. For Serbs like Mr. Ivanovic, northern Mitrovica is a kind of Alamo, the place to make their last stand. At least 100,000 Serbs have been forced to flee Kosovo since the end of North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing campaign.

Mr. Ivanovic says that if the Serbs are driven out of their redoubt in north Mitrovica, the remaining 100,000 Serbs scattered around the province are sure to be expelled, ending centuries of Serb history in Kosovo.

The Albanians, on the other hand, fear a plot by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to hold onto the triangular piece of Kosovo that lies north of Mitrovica, with its gold, zinc and coal mines. The area also happens to be the only part of Kosovo where Serbs still predominate.

"The intention of the Serbs is clearly to divide Mitrovica and divide Kosovo," said Bajram Rexhepi, an Albanian surgeon who is the city's mayor. "This we can never accept."

The ethnic division of Mitrovica is not complete, at least not yet. On the southern side, 15 Serbs hang on in the Church of Saint Sava, where they are guarded 24 hours a day by Dutch troops. Rolls of razor wire block the entrance and a tank points its gun at the street.

Even so, Albanians sometimes throw stones at the church or make throat-cutting gestures when they see those inside -- a priest, his two assistants and their families. Whenever the group ventures out to buy groceries or attend mass across the river, they go in a Dutch armoured car.

"It's getting worse every day," said Father Svetislav Hojic, the parish priest for 25 years. "But as long as I breathe I will not abandon my church."

The Albanians in the north are almost as isolated. About 1,000 of the 2,500 that had been hanging on since last year have left in the past few weeks. The exodus quickened after rioting a month ago.

Those who remain seldom open their doors to strangers, and many have not been outside for weeks.

Adam is an exception. A respected local schoolteacher, he goes out nearly every day to get groceries for his frightened neighbours. Just in case, he always carries his revolver in his pants pocket.

"I'm not afraid of death," said Adam, 53, who prefers not to give his last name and came to an interview carrying a long metal bar for extra protection. "But I'm afraid of what they might do before killing me. They do not kill like men."

That could apply to extremists on both sides. When a Serb man got stuck in a traffic jam a few weeks ago, an Albanian mob beat him with metal sticks and then cut his throat with a piece of broken glass.

While the pockets of Albanians and Serbs live in fear, many others live in anger. Armend Zeneli, 17, was one of nearly a million Albanians who fled Kosovo last spring as the war raged. When he came back, a Serb was living in his apartment on the north side; a woman, as it turned out, who used to work with his father in a local bank.

The woman was friendly when he phoned her last year, but now he hears that she is selling the family furniture. "I feel like a homeless person. It isn't right." He himself is living in an empty Serb apartment on the south side, but insists he has not damaged anything.

Anger in the south is all the stronger because many of the city's key facilities -- its only hospital, its courthouse -- are in the north.

For months, hospital staff went to work in armoured cars. Now they don't go at all.

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