Los Angeles Times - August 17, 1999
SERBS MAKE LAST STAND IN DIVIDED KOSOVO CITY
Balkans: Ethnic Albanians are being driven out of northern Kosovska Mitrovica as Yugoslavs from other parts of the province flee to the area to escape revenge attacks.
By DAVID HOLLEY, Times Staff Writer
KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia--Even as terrorized Serbs flee most parts of Kosovo, what looks increasingly like a de facto Serb-dominated partition zone is taking shape in the northern part of the province, beginning in this divided city.
The overall dominance of ethnic Albanians is clear in the rest of Kosovo. But crossing the Ibar River into the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica is like entering Serbia proper. Signs and posters are in Serbian, Serbian music blares at sidewalk cafes, virtually everyone on the street is Serbian, and visitors from Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, can calmly drive through the Serb-dominated territory--all under the protection of French peacekeeping forces.
Some ethnic Albanians still live on the north side of the river, but they try to keep low profiles. Ethnic Albanians are still being driven out of their homes there and forced to move to the south side of town.
At the same time, the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica has become a magnet for terrified Serbs from other parts of Kosovo, where they face not just revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians but what international officials have begun to label an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing."
The Serb-dominated part of Kosovo stretches from northern Kosovska Mitrovica through villages near the main highway toward Belgrade right to the province's northern border. A major coal and silver mining complex, one of Kosovo's most important economic assets, lies inside this area, which is about 25 miles long and 10 miles or more wide.
About 100,000 people lived in Kosovska Mitrovica and surrounding villages before war broke out earlier this year. After the end of NATO's air campaign and the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to the province, most of Kosovo's estimated 200,000 Serbs fled. It is unclear how many are now living in the Serbian pocket of northern Kosovo.
The international community says it is determined that Kosovo not be partitioned, and French officials insist that no real partition has taken place.
But the problems here cannot be solved without a solution to the security situation for Serbs in other parts of Kosovo, so that those who have taken refuge here can return to their original homes, French officials say.
"Mitrovica is the only remaining city with a huge population of Kosovo Serbs," said Bertrand Bonneau, spokesman for French forces in Kosovska Mitrovica, which is about 20 miles northwest of the provincial capital, Pristina.
"Most of the apartments . . . are occupied by Serbians who are themselves refugees fleeing from elsewhere. A family with two or three children--you can't just throw them out. You have to find another place for them to stay. Winter is coming quickly here," Bonneau said.
Issues of ethnic hatred, housing and secure movement of people need to be solved throughout Kosovo in order for the ethnic division ripping apart Kosovska Mitrovica to be properly solved, Bonneau said.
As Serbs find refuge in the northern part of the city, ethnic Albanians like Sedrije Koca are being thrown out of their homes there.
"Serbian neighbors organized themselves and threw us out because they wanted to loot our apartments and take them over," said Koca, 39.
French forces responded several times when Koca's family sought help in response to earlier threats, she said, but on the night they finally fled, the soldiers were not there.
Koca said the wife of a policeman from another part of Kosovo has played a key role in organizing Serbs to continue evicting ethnic Albanians from that part of the city.
Aleksandar Milentijevic, a 22-year-old Serb from Pristina, is among those replacing the ethnic Albanians.
"I think that Albanians want to ethnically cleanse Kosovo," Milentijevic said. "Serbian feet cannot step south of the bridge because they would be kidnapped, killed or physically molested. . . . While I was living in Pristina, it was quite dangerous for me walking on the streets. I was always afraid someone might kidnap or kill me."
Towns and villages along the road north from Kosovska Mitrovica are now almost entirely Serbian, Bonneau said. But this is not such a big change from how things were before the war, he added.
"There are not a lot of Kosovo Albanians living in the northern villages," Bonneau said. "They have fled. But as far as I know, it was a very small community. . . . Everybody's talking about partition. This is not a real partition. This area was Serb majority before the war. We want things to go back to how they were before."
The desire of international peacekeepers to maintain the prewar Serbian majority in northern Kosovo runs against the expectations of "some people [who] thought that when NATO is here, they will let people do what was done to them," Bonneau said.
Faton Shala, 18, a displaced ethnic Albanian who desperately wants to return to his family's apartment in the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica, is among those who thinks turnabout is fair play.
Shala said his hope now is to drive Serbs out. Until that is done, he won't be able to go home safely, he said.
"We are not going to allow our city to be divided," Shala added. "While the Serbs are here, the city will be divided. Maybe the border will be here."
Such sentiments among ethnic Albanians only make French peacekeepers more determined to protect Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians in the French-led peacekeeping zone, which includes Kosovska Mitrovica and stretches north to Kosovo's border with the main part of Serbia.
French authorities are promoting a plan under which 25 ethnic Albanian families per day would start moving back to their homes in northern Kosovska Mitrovica, escorted by peacekeeping troops.
Announcement of the plan averted new protests Monday by ethnic Albanians who had tried to cross into the Serb-held part of the city and clashed with French peacekeepers on four consecutive days last week. Ethnic Albanian officials said they would give the plan seven days and then decide whether to resume their protests.
But no one claims that international peacekeepers can be permanently stationed at the home of every ethnic Albanian family living in Serbian areas, just as it is impossible to do that for all the Serbs living in ethnic Albanian areas. Even with a target force of 55,000 soldiers, the number of peacekeepers is far too small in a province that had a prewar population of about 2 million.
Rexhep Azemi, 40, said he was chased out of his home in the northern part of the city Thursday.
Staying there until then "was very dangerous, but it was my house," he said. "I did not want them to loot my furniture."
When a group of Serbs confronted him last week, he said, French forces who came to the scene "told me: 'It's not safe for you. You can't stay here anymore. You have to go to the other side.' Now I know that all the things are looted. I'm a refugee in my own city. I'm staying in the factory over here."
Despite the seemingly endless hatred, "we will take the time required to make these people understand they have to live together," Bonneau said. "We stay here until we reach that goal."