Kosovo Serbs Fear Revenge
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 9, 1999; Page A1
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, June 8 – Everybody here knows the peacekeepers are coming. No Serb expects them to bring peace.
A door-to-door campaign in recent days by Yugoslavia's ruling Socialist Party has tried to persuade local Serbs to remain in Kosovo's broken and half-empty capital under a peace deal that will return more than 1 million displaced ethnic Albanians to the province under protection of NATO troops. But among many of the Serbs – witnesses and in some cases accomplices to the mass expulsion of the ethnic Albanians – there is a feeling that a new conflict is beginning that will be short and painful.
"We will not be able to stay here; what family will remain when they see the army and police leave?" asked Stojanka Dimitrjevic, a retired cook. "I would like to believe. I lived here for 18 years, but I don't have faith."
The prewar population of Kosovo – a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic – was estimated to be about 1.8 million, 200,000 of them Serbs, including 35,000 in Pristina. A few thousand Serbs are believed to have fled Kosovo to escape the NATO bombing; those who stayed fear that the withdrawal of government security forces under terms of the peace deal, and a resurgence of separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas will make them targets of retribution.
There does not seem to be a general panic among Serbian civilians, but the expectation of a general exodus is strong. Today, an occasional sedan loaded down with personal goods could be seen speeding north along the road that winds north from Pristina to Serbia proper. Rajko Maksic, a farmer in the eastern Kosovo village of Luzane, said he has watched 200 cars full of Serbian families and their belongings pass by his roadside house over the past two days.
"I'll run, too," he said as he fed chickens in his front yard. "When the police and army go, who will guarantee our safety? I have no trust in NATO. The [guerrillas] will come back, and they will kill." His wife and three children fled earlier to escape NATO bombs.
The Serbs' fears may be well-founded; their ethnic Albanian neighbors will return to Kosovo with terrifying memories of their expulsion by Serb-led forces to find homes and businesses that have been looted and destroyed. Serbs here point out too that the chief tactic of the Kosovo guerrillas in the months before the 11-week-old NATO-Yugoslav conflict was to make Serbian lives insecure.
As Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders work out a political settlement that will give Kosovo a wide measure of autonomy, the NATO peacekeeping force is supposed to provide security for all residents of the province, both returning ethnic Albanians and resident Serbs.
On paper, Kosovo is to remain part of Serbia and Yugoslavia, but the scale of the government assault on the Kosovo Albanians, their mass expulsion and now the deep humiliation and insecurity felt by the Serbs hardly seem a recipe for harmony. Serbs say NATO and U.S. officials have been cavalier about their security fears and that the alliance has made no provision for disarming the guerrillas.
Part of the pessimism among Serbs here flows from the belief that the international focus on the large-scale abuse of the province's ethnic Albanian majority will drown out any similar forced dislocation of Serbian families. Asked what became of their ethnic Albanian neighbors, many Serbs here seem to be in deep denial. Asked to explain street after street of abandoned stores and homes with smashed windows, they blame NATO bombs or plead ignorance. It is hard to find anyone who acknowledges that organized expulsions and looting occurred.
Djordje Yevtic, a vice commissioner on the Pristina city council, said he cannot account for the destruction of ethnic Albanian businesses; he was in his house, he said, and didn't see what happened. He is certain, however, that, whatever the truth, Serbs will be held responsible. "Serbs are afraid to stay without protection, and nobody cares," he said in an interview. "We are found guilty of everything."
Yevtic said Belgrade government officials are trying to whip up a stay-in-Pristina enthusiasm by reminding Serbs of their deep roots in Kosovo. But he said he can give his constituents no sound safety assurances. "We don't have anything very useful to say," he said with a deep sigh.
Especially distressing, he said, is that policemen who live in Kosovo are being forced to leave. "These people are really in a bind," he said. "Where are they supposed to live in Serbia? What are they supposed to do with their families?" As for himself, Yevtic said he "will stay until the last" but eventually will leave. "This agreement was no good. It's a vacuum already," he said.
Not all Serbs profess ignorance of the attacks on ethnic Albanians. A retiree named Goran who was relaxing in Pristina's central square said: "People pretend they don't know. I remember some neighbors said they were going to loot. They said there was a sale on tennis shoes and laughed and called me names when I would not go along. Now we'll pay. The [guerrillas] will be back, and our things will be burned."
During the first weeks of the conflict, Yugoslav troops and Serbian police drove most of the Kosovo rebels out of the country, leaving several hundred isolated in hilly, wooded areas. From the military point of view, the rebel remnants were a bother but not a strategic danger. In recent weeks, however, the rebels have tried to infiltrate a large force across the Albanian border into Kosovo, drawing a Yugoslav counterattack.
Guerrilla snipers also have become bold in recent days, with the apparent aim of killing government soldiers and sowing terror on main roads. Last Saturday, a Yugoslav army captain was killed on the main Pristina-Macedonia highway. This week, snipers shot up a bus north of Pristina, killing one passenger and wounding four; last week, gunmen ambushed a bus on the Mitrovica-Pristina road and killed a passenger.
Gunfire occasionally echoes around the half-deserted streets of Pristina, which has been stripped of at least half its ethnic Albanian population, but it is not clear whether the gunfire stems from combat or crumbling discipline among government forces.
Today, a car carrying Israeli reporter Ron Ben-Yishai and Agence France-Presse correspondent Aleksander Mitic was ambushed near the town of Kacanik, south of Pristina. A single bullet from an assault rifle wounded the driver in both legs and Ben-Yishai in one. "Moving around is not safe," said Mihajl Mihajlovic, head of the semi-official Media Center in Pristina.
Rebels are laying mines on main roads, especially in western Kosovo, Serbian sources said. "This is meant to make people feel insecure even before the pullout," said Yevtic – "and it does."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company