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October 05, 2021

ERP KiM Newsletter 09-03-04b

On a life-support machine: Situation of the Kosovo Serbs

Serbs using 'minority shuttle' bus to move between enclaves

Extract (p 21-26, chapter 3) from a report by the The Friedrich Naumann Foundation:
The Kosovo Serbs: An ethnic minority between collaboration and defiance, June 2003

by Anna Matveeva and Wolf-Christian Paes

Full PDF version of the report (1401KB, 58 pages) is available at: http://www.bicc.de/publications/other/report_saferworld_II/report_kosovo_serbs.pdf

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation is based in Potsdam, Germany, works in more than 80 countries around the globe to promote liberal democracy, human rights and economic opportunities through free market policies.


KOSOVO   HAS   BEEN   ADMINISTERED  by the UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) since June 1999 under the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1244. In January 2002 Michael Steiner of Germany was appointed as the new UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), following Bernard Kouchner of France (1999–January 2001) and Hans Haekkerup (resigned in December 2001). The NATO-led peacekeeping force, KFOR, which entered Kosovo after NATO's intervention in 1999, remains in the province. Initially about 50,000-strong (42,500 in Kosovo and the rest in Macedonia), levels were reduced to 38,000 as of June 2002, and on 6 June 2002 NATO Defence Ministers decided in Brussels to cut the force by a further 4,800 by the end of 2002, and then to 29,000 by June 2003. The Commander of KFOR is rotated every six months.

When the protectorate was first established, Kosovo Serbs were given little attention by the international administration and KFOR. The peacekeepers, who had come with a mandate to protect the Albanian population, were slow to realise that it was Serb minority groups who were vulnerable to attacks by the Albanian majority. In Strpce, for instance, German KFOR did not even know that there were Serbs living in the area until they were sent to investigate reported disturbances in the area, which on closer examination turned out to be a gathering to greet a Serb Orthodox priest. German troops discovered that people would not venture out of the territory, after a few groups which had dared to travel out to buy food for the village were killed or abducted; in response, German troops began to provide escorts for essential purchases. Slowly, the international community on the ground has started to recognise the existing reality of the situation and adapt its actions accordingly. Nevertheless, it took a considerable time for internationals to start treating ethnic Albanian revenge and expulsion of Kosovo Serbs as a fundamental problem.

Since the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army from Kosovo, around 100,000 Kosovo Serbs appear to have fled to Serbia out of the estimated 200,000 who resided in the province prior to the conflict.[1] Although around 3,000 returned in 2000, the return is vastly outnumbered by the continuing exodus of the Serb population, which continues to date. It is estimated that minorities currently constitute eight percent of population of Kosovo, against fifteen percent prior to the intervention.[2] The main reason for this is the fact that contrary to international expectations, in the last three years resentment between the Albanian majority and minorities in Kosovo seems not to have reduced at all. Simply put, in post-war Kosovo the tables have reversed: if in the 1990s it was Albanians who were the oppressed minority suffering persecution, it is now the Serbs who are harassed by Albanians. This inter-communal hatred – with the Albanian majority now in the ascendancy – has led to a situation where Serbs live in fear of ethnic violence and are afraid to travel unless protected by international armed escorts.[3] As the Ninth Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Minority Assessment states, 'the situation is still generally characterised by inter-ethnic tensions, violence, and a high degree of impunity'.[4]

The remaining Serbs mainly live in rural or semi-urbanised areas, with the notable exception of North Mitrovica, the only surviving stronghold of Serb urban life. Smaller Serb areas are present in Gracanica and Strpce, and in several towns, such as Gnjilane and Orahovac. In most cases, Serbs live in separate villages within ethnically-mixed municipalities rather than in direct contact with other ethnic groups. Individual Serbs and families continue to live in small numbers in other towns and in a few urban areas. However their security situation continues to be poor and their freedom of movement is often restricted to their own home, forcing them to subside on hand- outs from international agencies. While the rest of Kosovo enjoys an influx of money thanks to international assistance and remittances from Albanians working abroad, Serb areas are growing poorer. Apart from immediate physical security, all aspects of life are problematic, including freedom of movement, employment opportunities, property rights and access to education, healthcare and justice. What sets the Serbs aside from other, potentially even more vulnerable communities such as the Roma, is the fact that they receive political backing from neighbouring Serbia and have, at least in Northern Kosovo, the capacity to organise themselves into a credible political (and to some extent paramilitary) force.


View from 'minority shuttle' bus


Many Serbs who remained in Kosovo or returned after the conflict are rural dwellers with few skills to offer other than basic agricultural knowledge. The southern enclave of Strpce is the largest, with thirteen out of the sixteen villages belonging to the former Strpce municipality populated by Serbs, and the remaining three by Albanians. About 9,000 Serbs live there,[5] some of them internally displaced (IDPs) from other parts of Kosovo. In such a situation the local community can feel reasonably secure within the enclave. Jobs consist mainly of subsistence agriculture and basic local services, but extensive sheep husbandry has almost stopped after a shepherd was killed in an upper pasture, since others no longer dare to venture far. The main issue is isolation from the outside world, as physical security beyond the enclave remains an overriding concern. As one Serb respondent explained, 'our world is this little valley of 20 km along the river, from the first village with a KFOR watchtower to the last one'.[6]

 As these Serbs still feel very threatened, the large majority of movement outside of the enclave depends on KFOR-provided armed escorts. These started in early 2000 after six months of almost complete entrapment. UNMIK, through international NGOs such as the Danish Refugee Council, runs the Minority Bus programme, a system of shuttles that connects Serb enclaves and mixed areas, allowing access to health care, shopping opportunities and a chance for social visits. Armoured vehicles provided by KFOR accompany buses at the front and rear. Such operations are costly, since they are mostly staffed and equipped by international drivers and managers. A similar system is operated by UNMIK Railways to connect North Mitrovica with the Serb enclaves in Kosovo Polje and Obilic, while the same train transports Albanians from the enclaves in Northern Kosovo to South Mitrovica. Dubbed the 'Freedom of Movement', this train is one of the few places where Albanians and Serbs from the enclaves meet, albeit unwillingly.[7] As KFOR has grown more responsive to the needs of local Serbs, mobility has increased, i.e. people can travel more often and to more diverse destinations: convoys run twice a week to Serbia, twice a week to Mitrovica and once weekly to Skopje (Macedonia). It costs € 12.50 for a one-way ticket to Belgrade, and € 5 to Skopje. Routes are growing increasingly sophisticated, passing through smaller enclaves and reaching more people. Travelling by 'minority shuttle', however, is not easy: convoys often start at 5 am, border formalities take 2–3 hours, and escort vehicles change at different national sectors – all of which makes journeys hard work both for locals and internationals. The existence of the convoys provides a strong lever for UNMIK and KFOR against any local protest – in the past, convoys stopped running during times of dissent. As most food comes from outside the enclaves, this is a serious matter.[8]

Life is more precarious in ethnically mixed, semi-urban areas such as Obilic, where people are forced to go out to work or to do shopping unescorted, and continue to be primary targets for violent, ethnically motivated attacks. Occasional killings of Serbs are reported from all parts of Kosovo, although these are on the decrease as inter- national protection becomes more effective. However, incidents of beatings, stone throwing, spitting, and verbal abuse remain common, and do not seem likely to die out in the near future. Low-level violence serves as a reminder that more serious or fatal acts can and do occur, and that the threat of serious violence remains ever present. As an OSCE/UNHCR Assessment Report notes, 'the depth of the problem is perhaps illustrated when it is considered a measure of progress when a Kosovo Serb visits a local shop and manages to safely purchase goods'.[9]

KFOR tank providing protection in Kosovo

 While the number of Serb families provides some degree of protection against isolated attacks by extremists in the more compact rural or semi-urban enclaves, life is most difficult for isolated families or single persons living among Albanians in urban apartment blocks in cities like Pristina and Prizren. It has been estimated that several hundred Serbs remain in the capital of the province, many of them working as local staff for UNMIK and international NGOs, while the number of Serb city dwellers in most other cities and towns of the South is much smaller. As the majority of people staying behind are poor and elderly – often too frail to move and without relatives to take care of them, it has in effect become the responsibility of the international community to look after them. Following a series of attacks on Serb households in the summer and autumn of 1999, KFOR now provides 24-hour protection to individual Serbs, a practice known among British KFOR soldiers as 'granny sitting'.[10]

Given the level of KFOR protection, it is no longer as easy as it was immediately following the conflict to use physical and emotional intimidation to force any remaining Serbs into leaving Kosovo, especially if they have no real prospects of building a new life in Serbia. As a result, some Kosovo Albanians have turned to other techniques to get Serbs to leave. One such method, directed at Serbs in mixed areas and smaller enclaves in central Kosovo, involves making 'strategic purchases' of property in Serb areas. To begin with, a few Serbs living in homes in a good strategic location are offered highly inflated prices for their property. If they prove reluctant to sell, they may be threatened. It is only necessary to acquire a few such houses to make the Serb population feel insecure. Once the population is more ethnically mixed, it becomes much harder for KFOR to protect the area effectively. This in turn increases the remaining Serbs' sense of insecurity, encouraging more to leave. As a result, the Serb population gradually exits, without for the most part having been directly forced to do so.[11] UNMIK, once it realised what was happening, made efforts to counterbalance this trend by passing a regulation (2001/17) in 2001 allowing the SRSG to designate geographical areas in Kosovo in which all housing contracts should be registered with the Municipal Administrator prior to court verification.[12] Such measures have had limited effect, however, as many cases are still settled either in local courts that are beyond UNMIK's control or by informal transactions. Serb communities have tried to prevent such 'strategic purchases' from taking place, but ultimately it is very difficult to prevent individuals, encouraged to sell their property by money or force, from putting their own personal well-being in front of the community's long-term viability.

At the moment, it is not only the lack of security that is driving Serbs out of Kosovo, but also the lack of jobs and education opportunities. Health and educational facilities for Serbs are entirely separate from those provided for Albanians. School education is segregated, even in mixed areas, since parents prefer to have their children educated in their native language. As KFOR reduced the level of escorts in 2002 for school buses for minority children, many parents refused to send their children to school. While basic 'health centres' exist in larger enclaves, emergency services are mostly dependent on KFOR transportation. With the notable exception of the hospital in North Mitrovica, there are no facilities for intensive medical care, as Serbs cannot freely be admitted, let alone travel to Albanian-staffed hospitals. In emergency cases, international staff pro- vide treatment, in other cases the only viable option is to travel to hospitals in Serbia.

In short, many Serbs in enclaves see no future for themselves, nor prospects for their children. In the words of a young Serb woman, 'we live in a cage and know that our kids will have to leave'. The Serb communities in the enclaves are getting older as more young people and families leave, and those who remain and do not plan to leave Kosovo have little aspiration beyond immediate survival.

Bridge over the River Ibar linking North and South Mitrovica


The situation is the reverse in the North, where Serbs constitute a majority north of the River Ibar, and Albanians live in enclaves. Northern Kosovo consists of the three predominantly Serb municipalities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok, as well as the northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica. Unlike the situation in the enclaves, Serbs here enjoy unlimited freedom of movement, and the road from Mitrovica to mainland Serbia allows unhindered communication and trade. With the River Ibar forming a natural border to the South alongside which KFOR troops are deployed, Serbs in Northern Kosovo feel much more secure than their compatriots in other parts of the province.

Having fled from Pristina, North Mitrovica is the only remaining urban centre accessible to the Serbs. Historically, the area to the south of the river was populated mainly by Albanians, while Serbs prevailed in the north. At the same time, the divide was not absolute; with individual Albanians living on the Serb side of the river and vice versa. Following the conflict and the de facto partition of Mitrovica, a population exchange took place; both sides suspect that their community lost more property on the other side than their ethnic adversary. Some observers point out that many Albanians who moved there in 1998–99 were former KLA fighters rather than historic residents with roots in the area. In a similar vein, many of the Serb residents of North Mitrovica are IDPs from other parts of Kosovo as well, often taking more radical positions towards Albanians than the more established Mitrovica families.

The city was also home to a substantial Roma population, which found itself in the most vulnerable position of all after the conflict (since unlike the Serbs they could not expect any support from Belgrade), and Albanians burnt and destroyed their houses, accusing them of serving as informants for Serb security structures. The flattened Roma quarter on the southern side of the river, clearly visible from the heavily fortified bridge, serves as a vivid reminder of the inter-communal violence which flared up in the wake of the departure of Yugoslav troops and prior to the establishment of an effective international presence.

Some of the Roma population relocated to North Mitrovica and, together with 2–3,000 Muslim Slavs, make up the multi-ethnic character of the northern part. Checkpoints and barbed wire are a prominent feature on bridges over the Ibar. A number of Albanians continue to live in the north of the town as well, forming the majority in three high-rise apartment blocks located right on the banks of the river, as well as in some pockets on the periphery of town. In a virtual reversal of the situation on the southern bank, where the only Serbs are the family of a priest living under constant KFOR protection in the Orthodox church compound, the apartment blocks form an Albanian urban enclave in hostile territory. They too have KFOR protection and are linked by a footbridge to the southern part of town.

Petty trade, remittances from Serbia, local handicrafts and smuggling are the main sources of income in the North, although the latter is now reduced as control over the border with Serbia has become more effective. Utility bills and taxes are not paid, and corruption is rampant. Living standards for Serbs in the North are poorer than for those living in enclaves in the rest of Kosovo, as they are not considered as a minority by international organisations and NGOs and little aid reaches them. However, when the euro became the official currency in Kosovo and old Deutschmarks were exchanged for euros, it became clear that the population (or, at least, certain parts of the population) has more money that it was earlier believed, but is reluctant to spend or invest it because it anticipates worse times to come.[13]

Mitrovica remains a focus of tension in Kosovo. The partial expulsion of Albanians from the northern part of the town in early 2000 led to an attack on a UN bus carrying Serbs, which in turn caused Serb riots and serious fighting between two communities divided by the river. In February 2000 KFOR reinforced its presence by deploying riot troops, de facto securing the partition. In August 2000 KFOR closed down the Trepca smelting plant in Mitrovica for environmental reasons after the concentration of lead in the blood of French troops deployed in the area was found to be 10 times higher than the acceptable norm. Serbs regarded the closure of the plant, which had been the main source of industrial employment in the city, as yet another attempt by the international administration to undermine their economy. While UNMIK has stressed its desire to re-open Trepca after an environmental clean-up, and in the meantime has been providing assistance to workers made redundant by the closure, the future ownership and operations of the industrial complex remains a source of tension and potential conflict.

Inter-ethnic tensions loom large. Both communities are on a high state of alert and ready for speedy mobilisation. All crime becomes easily politicised. When UNMIK and KFOR try to arrest criminals in the dead of night, sirens and mobile phones mobilise large crowds within minutes. UNHCR-organised 'go-and-see' trips for potential returnees cause stormy protests by both sides. Even if neighbours get along with each other as individuals, on a community level returns are interpreted as the beginnings of an Albanian, or Serb, 'flood'.


The situation in Kosovo suggests that inter-ethnic relations have been irreparably damaged after the extreme destruction of human life and property that took place. Since international intervention, the province has become even more divided, with young and able-bodied Serbs largely having left the province and former mixed areas growing increasingly mono-ethnic. The trend towards mono-ethnicity in the Balkans, prevalent since the break-up of the SFRY, is powerful, and the only obstacle to full realisation of a mono-ethnic Kosovo are KFOR armoured vehicles. Only in Mitrovica does it appear that there may be some future for the Serbs. Despite the rhetoric about promoting minority integration, it is painfully obvious that if KFOR withdraws, the physical security of Serbs and other minorities in most of Kosovo will be put in life- threatening danger. This is not to pass judgement or to demand that inter-ethnic hatred should diminish – it is simply to register the phenomenon and accept it as fact. Though many individuals may have done nothing wrong, as a whole both communities treated each other very badly, and the international community's faith that both sides will realise that they have a 'common interest' in better jobs, education and healthcare and will work together to achieve such goals reflects little understanding of how much importance local people attach to their security, to their identity, and to their memories of the recent past.

A map showing areas inhabited by Kosovo Serbs (greyed areas)


[1] However, higher figures are sometimes cited without giving corroborating evidence. According to UNHCR estimations, over 170.000 Kosovo Serbs were displaced from their homes in 1999 and 2000, mainly in Serbia and Montenegro, but also within Kosovo (Council of Europe Report, April 23, 2001)

[2] According to Radmila Trajkovic, a Kosovo Serb politician, 92,000 Slavs (Serbs, Croats and Montenegrins) were pressurised into leaving Kosovo between 1961 and 1981, and a further 50,000 left in 1981–1990; see Trajkovic R, 'Reconciling Kosovo', Institute for War and Peace Reporting Balkan Crisis Report, no. 314, 1 February 2002.

[3] According to Trajkovic, 1,300 Serbs have been killed and the same number abducted since international intervention.

[4] UNHCR/OSCE, Ninth Assessment of the Situation of Ethnic Minorities in Kosovo (Period covering September 2001 to April 2002), p 9. www.osce.org/kosovo/documents/reports/minorities/min_rep_09_eng.pdf

[5] OSCE Mission in Kosovo Department of Democratisation, Strpce/Shterpce Municipal Profile, August 2002, p 3. www.osce.org/kosovo/documents/reports/municipal_profiles/22_ST.pdf

[6] Authors' interview in Strpce with Anica Milkovic, February 2002.

[7] Beardsley E, 'Brief Encounters on the people's train', Focus Kosovo, June 2002, pp 20–21. www.unmikonline.org/pub/focuskos/june02/focusksocaffair4.htm

[8] “All our food comes from convoys – if the convoys stop, we'll have no food” – authors' interview in Strpce with Anica Milkovic, February 2002.

[9] UNHCR/OSCE, Ninth Assessment, p 58.

[10] Op cit Clark p 5.

[11] UNHCR/OSCE, Ninth Assessment, p 36.

[12] Ibid., p 36.

[13] In January 1.1 billion DM were exchanged into Euros in Kosovo. One Serb enclave exchanged 1.8 million DM. 110,000 were exchanged in a single day – OSCE and UNMIK in North Mitrovica, February 2002.


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