Serbs vow to stand their ground

Mitrovice has become a symbol of resistance for town's minority

Jonathan Steele

Saturday February 26, 2000

Close to 4,000 Serbs gathered in a tense and angry Mitrovice yesterday to hear their leaders proudly proclaim "we do not support violence" and "we are not anti-Albanian, only pro-Serb".

But as the patriotic songs and defiant speeches rang out from a platform erected at the main crossroads of the Kosovan town, the lone Albanian left in one of the tallest blocks of flats in the Serb-dominated northern part of Mitrovice felt a different reality.

The 23-year-old woman was showing a newly arrived United Nations policeman around her building. Two weeks ago, 46 Albanian families lived there. Now they have gone.

A curtain hangs across the space where the front door used to be in the first flat on the ground floor. The door was torn from its hinges and the flat was looted. Cupboard doors swing open and clothes are strewn around where strangers apparently searched in haste for money or jewellery.

The flat upstairs, where the metal door has been twisted open, has half-packed suitcases lying on the bed. The occupants presumably fled in a hurry.

"The Serbs came in like vultures and the Albanians ran for their lives," said a Canadian police officer working for the UN. His American colleague used a different metaphor. "This place was unguarded for just three hours. They took it over like ants and removed everything," he said.

The assault happened after K-For, the international peacekeeping force, had already increased its troop strength in northern Mitrovice and, ironically, in the middle of a search for weapons.

"There were Greek troops on guard here, but they were called away to duties on the bridge. It wasn't their fault," continued the American policeman, who is renting a flat in the building himself. "French troops were doing a search a few streets away and didn't see this."

Two blocks on either side suffered a similar frenzy of looting. Now the three buildings have become the focus of UN efforts to get at least some Albanians back into northern Mitrovice.

A committee started registering the latest refugees yesterday with a view to helping them back. There is also a plan to build a footbridge across the river Ibar to give the three blocks - which flank the embankment on the northern side of the river - direct access to the south.

It seems a strange waste since they are little more than a hundred yards from the main road bridge, which K-For troops have been guarding for months.

More troops and better policing would be a cheaper and quicker way to provide security. "There should be much more proactive policing," said an officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary who arrived in Mitrovice a week ago.

"But the hatred is far worse than in Northern Ireland."

As the Serb rally ended, Bovan, a 40-year-old who did not wish to give his last name, acknowledged that emotions had risen too high. The Serb attacks on Albanian flats only began after Albanians threw a grenade into a Serb bar a fortnight ago, he said.

"The glass was full of violence. Then it overflowed. It was stupid retaliation by Serbs but the Albanians deliberately provoked it. Serb nerves are on edge. It was a bad night. I accept that."

Like many Serbs in Mitrovice, Bovan is convinced that Albanians want to evict all Serbs from Kosovo. Some 6,000 of the roughly 16,000 Serbs in the northern part of the city are refugees from the south or nearby villages which have been ethnically cleansed.

Mitrovice has become a symbol of Serb resistance. "There weren't so many Serbs here eight months ago. We didn't know what our fate would be. Now we know there is no question but that Serbs will stay," Oliver Ivanovic, a leader of the local Serb National Council told the crowd. "We couldn't succeed in Kraljevo or other towns in Serbia, or in refugee camps there. We call on other Serbs to show more courage and come back to Kosovo."

"We Serbs are living here like on an Indian reservation," declared Marko Jaksic to cheers. "Is this justice? We only have this town in Kosovo, or just one-fifth of this town. But should we leave here so that other people are allowed to establish a new state?"

• Macedonian police have found more than two tonnes of weapons and ammunition bound for neighbouring Kosovo, two independent television stations reported yesterday. Sitel and A1 said that police confiscated 120 boxes with automatic weapons and more than 100,000 bullets from a motel in the village of Kravari, 120 miles south of Skopje. The weapons are believed to have been smuggled in from Albania.

Original article