In August 1991, Acip Ibrahimi, an ethnic Albanian, lost his job as laboratory chief at the mineral water company and health spa in this eastern Kosovo town when he refused to pledge allegiance to the Yugoslav state.
Almost eight years later, on July 6, Ibrahimi and 53 other dismissed workers returned to their jobs here under the supervision of U.S. troops, and the factory--all but shuttered since NATO peacekeepers entered the Serbian province June 12--began to sputter back to work.
A Kosovo success story? Not quite.
The return of ethnic Albanian workers, and the appointment of ethnic Albanians to the management team by U.S. forces, triggered a month-long boycott of the workplace by Serbian workers, 186 of whom were finally fired on Aug. 5 after they ignored three back-to-work deadlines.
And, in a pattern repeated across Kosovo, the once predominantly Serbian work force in a key industry is now predominantly ethnic Albanian. This has come about despite earnest efforts by the peacekeeping force to bring both sides together--and to produce some revenue in a place where there is no other source of employment other than farming and shopkeeping.
"We kept giving these Serb workers another chance and another chance to come to work," said Army Lt. Jason Green, whose platoon is stationed at the factory and spa. "They just never did show up."
Some of the Serbs, however, say they would like to return to work but that the current security situation makes that virtually impossible.
"I would like to go back, but it's not safe," said Dragon Mirkovic, the former general manager of the mineral water plant, who lives in the nearby village of Partes. "How am I supposed to go there when I don't feel secure? I would have to travel through two Albanian villages to get to work."
Mirkovic's fears are not unfounded. On July 27, in the village of Zitinje, just north of here, the former manager of the spa's hotel, Stankovic Vlasta, was slain along with a female friend when their car was sprayed with bullets outside the woman's home early one afternoon.
There have been numerous other killings of Serbs in the area, and a number of Serbian men have disappeared. "My son's car was riddled with bullets, and the Americans want us to drive to work alone," Slobodan Vlasta said.
On Aug. 16, nine mortar rounds were fired indiscriminately from the surrounding countryside on the Serbian village of Klokot, killing a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl and wounding five other people.
The Serbs said if the American troops are serious about keeping a multi-ethnic work force at the factory they would provide a bus, and an escort, to take them to work. "I don't have [a bus]," Green said. "I have four tanks." The Army did offer to step up patrols along the road when Serbs were going to and from work, but that was deemed inadequate for those who were boycotting.
Some Serbs also suggested that there is a quiet campaign underway in local Serbian communities to discourage workers from returning to the factory. "Certain people are pressuring workers not to work with Albanians," said Slatina Jovanovic, a Serb who remained on as the company's legal counsel. "There is a political element."
Jovanovic is one of 27 Serbs the a current work force of 146 who have decided to continue to work; most live within walking distance of the factory and said they have had no problems with their ethnic Albanian colleagues. Although they are concerned about the general security situation, they said they are continuing to work because they need to feed their families.
"Everything in here has been okay," said Toma Kojic, who has worked at the factory since 1994. "If I'm able to work here I will stay, but everywhere I move outside I face danger."
Ethnic Albanians, too, said they want no problems on the factory floor--only regular, living wages. "Albanian workers will not seek revenge," Ibrahimi said. "We are interested in creating good conditions for all the workers--never mind their ethnic identity."
Green said the factory's seven-member management committee, which includes three ethnic Albanians, two Serbs and two U.S. Army officers, will still consider individual applications from Serbs, including those who were fired.
"There's still a chance for them," Green said.
For now, the factory has other problems--no capital, too few bottles for the mineral water, and an inconsistent electrical supply that allows it to operate only one hour a day, producing just a small fraction of the 100,000 one-liter bottles it can turn out daily at full tilt. Because of the slowdown, workers received just $30 for their first month at work.
"We have great water here," Ibrahimi said. "Unfortunately, we can't work at full capacity."