Kosovo heads for ethnic partition

By Raymond Whitaker

27 February 2000

"I don't feel at home here," said Semka Rakic, 25. "I am uncomfortable about taking someone else's flat." A virulent green picture scrolled rapidly on the television, the property of a departed family of Albanians. Clearly Semka had not yet worked out how to operate the controls.

From the window, eight floors up, there was a fine view of the snowy mountains surrounding Mitrovica, the ugly, polluted Kosovo town where the business of Nato's war against Slobodan Milosevic remains unfinished. Below, one could see the River Ibar, which divides the Serbs of northern Mitrovica from the main part of the town, and the heavily-guarded bridge spanning it that has become the focal point for communal enmity. "We found the door smashed," said Semka, "so we moved in."

At the beginning of February, 20 Albanian families lived in this building. Now only one elderly couple remains, too afraid to speak to strangers. The rest fled across the river three weeks ago, after the worst bout of violence Kosovo has seen since the K-For peace-keepers arrived last June.

Two Serbs died when their United Nations bus was attacked, and 15 were hurt when a café was bombed. Eight Albanians were killed by a revenge mob; opinions differ as to whether it formed spontaneously or was organised. A week later the French troops controlling the sector came under fire from Albanians, who regard them as pro-Serb; two French soldiers were wounded and one Albanian died. At the same time Serbs fired at British peace-keepers guarding the bridge, whom they regard as pro-Albanian, and the British fired back.

All this culminated last week in the biggest demonstration the town has seen. On Monday 20,000 Albanians marched to the bridge, and a couple of thousand almost broke through. "We heard they were on their way, and there was panic in the streets," said Semka. "I thought of escaping, but my sister was still here, so we just hid in the flat. We don't go outdoors much, because you can be killed just like that."

Why stay if it is so dangerous? "I did go to Serbia with my husband for a while, but there's no work and no money there. My other sister's husband is unemployed, and she earns only 20 Deutschmarks a month [about £6.60] in a shop. Their rent is DM150. There are no jobs here either, but it's easier, because you don't have to pay rent, or for electricity or water."

This is the little-advertised nature of northern Kosovo's connection to Belgrade. In this enclave, where few Albanians ever lived, the water, the power, the newspapers, the food and the state salaries still come over the border from Serbia. Unlike the rest of Kosovo, almost everyone has a (free) telephone: a homesick Semka and her younger sister, Biljana, occasionally call up Vucitrn, where they used to live, and speak to any Albanians willing to speak to them. "If the people who used to live here come back," said Semka, "we would leave – as long as K-For secures our return to Vucitrn."

She is repeating the line taken by Oliver Ivanovic, the self-proclaimed leader of north Mitrovica's Serbs. In his office nearby, dominated by a huge Serbian tricolour, the dapper, English-speaking Mr Ivanovic questions the speed of the UN administration in seeking to return displaced Albanians to his territory. K-For is also starting to build a footbridge over the Ibar, so that Albanians might avoid Mr Ivanovic's force of "bridge monitors", armed with walkie-talkies.

"In eight months the UN and K-For have done nothing to return the hundreds of thousands of Serbs driven out of Prizren, Pec or Pristina," he says. "This is all we have left, and we are staying."

According to senior figures in Nato and the US who spoke out last week, Mr Ivanovic is Belgrade's man. He denies it, but the more northern Kosovo is purged of Albanians, the easier it becomes to achieve what may be his ultimate aim: to join his enclave to the rest of Serbia, and to make the Ibar the frontier with a Kosovo which all Albanians believe must become independent.

Some link this to a rise in tension at the other end of Kosovo. The former Kosovo Liberation Army is said to be stirring up Albanian villages across the border in the far south of Serbia, where it meets Macedonia, while Serbian paramilitaries infiltrate Kosovo in retaliation. Perhaps an exchange of territory may result, in which Serbia gets northern Kosovo and the Albanians get what they already call "eastern Kosovo".

When the theory is put to Mr Ivanovic's opposite number across the river, Bajram Rexhepe, who has Albanian and American flags on his desk, all he will say is that this is "big politics". But he admits: "It is a reality that the north has a geographic and ethnic connection with Serbia."

Original article