As Serbs in Kosovo face continuing intimidation and revenge attacks, the province's Serbian leaders have asked the United Nations to create safe havens to protect them. Based on my own experience in Kosovo before the war, where I researched its ethnically divided schools, I can't help but think that--paradoxical as it may sound--such ethnic segregation may be the only way to preserve what remains of Kosovo's multiethnicity.

Most of Kosovo's Serbs (the prewar population was 200,000) have fled the province since peacekeepers began arriving June 12; the leaders of the remaining Serbs have endorsed the safe-haven idea, which was proposed by Momcilo Trajkovic, the local Serb representative to the U.N.'s Transitional Council, Kosovo's multiethnic consultative body, late last month.

Obviously, safe havens do not promote multiculturalism. But "multiculturalism" is a recent Western concept that never stood much of a chance in Kosovo, where NATO's 78-day bombing campaign forced the end of Yugoslavia's 18-month crackdown on ethnic Albanians. Before the war, the province was multiethnic, but it was hardly multicultural. The Albanian majority and the Serb, Turkish, Muslim Slav and Roma minorities never mixed to create the Western-style cultural "salad bowl." Instead, the Albanians and the Serbs, Kosovo's biggest minority, lived parallel existences as each group sought to dominate the province.

Indeed, voluntary ethnic separation was a feature of life in Kosovo long before the province plunged into crisis in the late 1980s. It was already the pattern by the early 1960s. Twenty years later, ethnically mixed settlements were rare. Segregation was institutionalized after Serbia abolished the province's autonomy in 1989. Serbs expelled Albanians--who made up 90 percent of Kosovo's population--from the province's political, economic, social, educational and cultural institutions. In response, the Albanians built their own separate but unequal society.

This separation initially staved off conflict, but in the longer term it helped make the eventual war more savage. The Albanians' exclusion from power in all fields fueled their determination to achieve independence from Serbia. After 1989, even informal contact across ethnic lines was rare. Inter-ethnic marriage prompted exclusion from the Albanian community. The children of such unions often deny the roots of one parent, preferring to identify with one people or the other.

I am half Serbian and half Slovak--born in Bratislava, Slovakia, and raised in Belgrade. So it's easy for me to understand the complexities of mixed identity, and the very real ways in which it can affect everyday life.

In the fall of 1997, I went to live in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, for a year to do research. I will never forget my first dinner at a tiny, smoke-filled restaurant there, not so much for the meal's Albanian specialities, but for the Serbian police raid that interrupted it. Policemen with machine guns collected our ID cards. My Albanian friends were interrogated, harassed and threatened. This, they explained to me, was routine. But my Belgrade ID shocked the police. What was I, a Serb, doing in an Albanian restaurant with a bag full of Albanian newspapers? At that point, I was truly scared. The police left me alone, but they taught me an important lesson: The inter-ethnic line is not crossed in Kosovo, or, at least, not usually. I had experienced the random harassment, though admittedly not the brutality, that was part and parcel of Albanians' lives in Serb-ruled Kosovo.

Unlike the vast majority of people of Kosovo, I continued to cross the ethnic line--exploiting my own mixed ethnicity. My research focused on the Albanians' "parallel" schooling--in homes, cellars, garages--and so I had a largely Albanian experience. But I played up my Serbian background in rare contacts with Serbs. Alternately, I accented my Slovak identity among Albanians. This was a must outside my circle of Albanian friends, who had the ability and courage to look beyond ethnicity. My situation was paradoxical: I befriended one Serbian couple, but, despite my heritage, my visits with them always gave me the uneasy feeling I was doing something wrong, so strong was the taboo on crossing ethnic lines.

Ethnic mixing brought only insecurity. The other tenants in my apartment building were both Serbs and Albanians--a remnant of the communist policy of encouraging "brotherhood and unity." Yet the mistrust was so strong that not a single neighbor ever greeted me. To say "hello" in the wrong language was too dangerous.

Since the war, the remaining small pockets of Serbs are increasingly at risk--and difficult to protect. Isolated Serbian hamlets provide a target for ethnic Albanians who want revenge for the Serbian violence and ethnic cleansing last spring. In the rare mixed areas where Serbs still live interspersed among Albanians, peacekeepers have tried to protect Serbs by registering Serbian houses and identifying them with stickers to help the NATO-led forces protect them. However, in the absence of a 24-hour guard on each dwelling, this strategy may prove counterproductive. By contrast, Serbs in the town of Kosovska Mitrovica, which is divided by the Ibar River into ethnic areas, feel more secure precisely because they live among other Serbs. It is that division between the Serbian and the Albanian parts of the town that has made Kosovska Mitrovica a place where many Serbs have remained.

As non-Albanians--Serbs, Roma and even Muslim Slavs--continue to leave Kosovo, might the establishment of safe havens, or cantons, for Kosovo's Serbs serve not as a prelude to permanent division but as a way to give remaining Serbs a minimum of dignity? In short, can such purposeful ethnic separation preserve what remains of the province's multiethnicity?

Unlike the separation in the 1990s that stripped Albanians of dignity, division now could help restore dignity. For Serbs it could be lifesaving; for Albanians it could be a means of maintaining international sympathy. If, on the other hand, the Albanians drive out all Serbs and are left with an ethnically pure state, that will surely draw comparisons to the Serbian goal of ridding Kosovo of its Albanian presence.

Eventually, the wounds of war will heal. If separation now helps those wounds heal more fully, it may pave the way for a more hopeful and humane future.

Denisa Kostovicova is a doctoral candidate at Cambridge University and co-editor of "Kosovo: Myths, Conflict, War" (Keele European Research Center). A shorter version of this article was published by the Institute of War & Peace Reporting in London.