KOSOVO SERBS STILL LIVE IN ISOLATION?
The following report is a result of a series of interviews which have recently been made with the leading Serb representatives from several Serb enclaves in Kosovo and Metohija. The general impression from this report is that the situation on the ground significantly differs from the public reports issued by international authorities in Pristina. Whereas these reports speak of essential improvement of the freedom of movement and other conditions of life for the Serb population in Kosovo, local Serbs still complain that they are severely discriminated and exposed not only to frequent attacks and provocations by Albanians extremist but also suffer injustice from the newly established Kosovan institutions (courts, police, municipal councils etc). The patterns of discrimination and institutional pressure on Serbs are very similar to those which existed in pre-Milosevic period, when Kosovo was an autonomous province. In conditions in which Kosovo Serbs see the K/Albanian dominated institutions as onesided and unsypathetic towards Serbs it is hard to expect normal integration of the Serb population in a society which is still mostly hostile towards them.
This once again underlines an essential need of the Serb population for decentralization which should offer to them better protection of their individual and collective rights in a society which still seems to pursue the idea of domination of one ethnic group over the others.
REPORT FROM VRBOVAC, VITINA MUNICIPALITY
The life of the Serb community in this municipality is unfolding under difficult circumstances because the Serb people lack basic human rights and freedoms. Attacks on Serb property are still occurring. In a recent attack in Klokot five Serb houses were destroyed. In April two Serb houses were set on fire and one was the target of a bomb attack, demonstrating that the Albanians still have plenty of weapons, which they use against the Serbs despite the presence of KFOR.
This municipality is located at the junction of three borders (Kosovo, Macedonia, Southern Serbia) and the generally unstable situation in the region is reflected in the lives of the Serb people. In the opinion of local Serbs, court officials and the local Kosovo police are biased. For example, a few months ago an Albanian attacked several Serb children; he was released from jail after only one hour. After this incident, no special protective measures were instituted nor were any measures taken against the attacker. On the other hand, when an Albanian is hurt, even in a common traffic accident, strong measures are taken and, of course, suspicion immediately falls on the Serbs. Thus, when a young Albanian was hurt in a traffic accident while driving a tractor, a Serb man was immediately accused, even though there was not enough evidence to determine his guilt. KFOR, the UNMIK police and the Kosovo police acted speedily during the case. This is just one example Serbs cite in support of their claim that two scales of justice exist, depending on one's ethnicity.
Serbs also feel discriminated against in the area of health protection. There are still instances of forcible expulsions of Serbs from their houses or apartments (e.g., the eviction of Ljubinko Miljkovic and the attempted expulsion by force of Miro Dajic by an Albanian physician). The organization HABITAT, which concerns itself with the resolution of housing disputes, after conducting a case and evicting a usurper (an Albanian) frequently moves social cases, again Albanians, into the freed Serb house or apartment, instead of returning the residence to its Serb owner. Instead of going forward in resolving these problems frequently the move is backward because after the entry of social cases into the freed Serb houses or apartments, it is extremely difficult to free them again and return them to their owners. The Serbs are quite critical of the work of HABITAT and consider these cases to be another example of illegal acts to the detriment of the Serb people.
After an extremely difficult period, when there were all kinds of pressures from murders and theft to arson and abductions, there was a short lull prior to the Kosovo elections and briefly following them. However, it is the opinion of the Serbs in this region that the situation is again growing worse. Especially frequent are criticisms of the work of the police and the courts. Additionally, recent protests near the border with Macedonia served to further increase tensions which endanger Serbs. The Albanians openly rejected the border agreement achieved between the governments of Belgrade and Skopje. While on their way to these demonstrations, the Albanians frequently stoned the Serb houses they encountered along the way and threatened the inhabitants. For example, the house of Cedomir Markovic sustained the greatest amount of damage in these attacks.
Through the efforts of local Serbs, a multiethnic school was opened in the Serb part of the village of Mogila, and another multiethnic school is in the works in the village of Binac. Despite frequent provocations and existing discrimination, Serbs are ready to work together with others in order to create a multiethnic society. However, the Albanians are continuing to put pressure on the Serbs to sell their houses. In the opinion of many Serbs in this region, Albanian brokers have a plan to buy up Serb property. On the other hand, Serb land is frequently usurped, especially in the villages around Vitina. Freedom of movement still exists to some extent and many venture on trips at their own risk. For example, in the town of Vitina as soon as there is some improvement in freedom of movement, a new incident occurs by Albanian extremists which again forces the Serbs into isolation and proves that there is no way they can consider themselves to be completely safe.
Despite serious problems, reports are being sent to the United States that the situation is improving, which in the opinion of the great majority of Serbs in this region simply is not true. This is best demonstrated by the actual situation in the field. Approximately 7,600 Serbs have fled from this municipality and are now located in Central Serbia, especially in the towns of Bujanovac, Jagodina, Smederevo, Nis and Kragujevac. Only 76% of the pre-war population still lives in the municipality. Unfortunately, people are still departing after being subjected to various forms of pressure, while returnees are rare.
GORAZDEVAC VILLAGE, PEC MUNICIPALITY
In the opinion of the residents of this village, security conditions have not changed significantly since 1999. Serbs are still not free to go anywhere outside the village without a mandatory KFOR or UNMIK police escort. In such conditions of isolation and military protection, contact with extremists is almost impossible, and this is the main reason why there are no incidents or victims. The area of this village covers some 10 square kilometers but the Serbs are free to move about only in a smaller nucleus of some three square kilometers. Members of Albanian communities from other villages pass through the village freely and very frequently verbally provoke the Serbs; the Serbs seldom fail to respond.
Only land within a 1.5 km radius from the village center is actively and freely cultivated. A KFOR escort is essential in order to go to more distant fields and forests. Almost everyone in the village is forced to farm the land and only six people are otherwise employed. More than 100 former recipients of social assistance are no longer receiving any benefits because they allegedly no longer satisfy the criteria of the social services agency. For example, the land maximum is 0.5 hectares of arable land. Anyone owning more land is not eligible for assistance regardless of whether he can cultivate the land or not. These impractical solutions, in the opinion of many, cannot be implemented in the exceptionally specific circumstances in which this village is living. In general, the economic situation of all residents of the village is very difficult and many describe their current situation as bare sustinence.
Currently there are about 850 Serbs living in Gorazdevac. Because this enclave was never wholly abandoned, recently there have been a number of individual returnees. However, there have been no group returns to the Pec region to encourage the residents of Gorazdevac.
The residents of this Serb village do not have access to medical facilities in Pec because a self-initiated visit to the city without a military or police escort represents an open risk. There is a small first aid station in the village; serious cases are transported to the Italian KFOR hospital and less urgent cases are escorted to the hospital in the Serb part of Mitrovica or to Central Serbia. The school system in the village continues to function despite difficult conditions of isolation. There is a primary and secondary school in the village with a total of 250 students, a relatively high percentage for the 850 residents of the village. The village also has telephone service and electricity, even though people complain about the astronomically high telephone bills which they are most frequently unable to pay. In conditions of isolation, the telephone is frequently the only means of communication between divided families.
For travel to Central Serbia KFOR regularly provides a military escort.
PLEMETINA AND PRILUZJE VILLAGES, OBILIC MUNICIPALITY
On the basis of testimony of the residents of Plemetina, the general impression is that in this municipality discrimination toward the Serb community is being carried out with unreduced fervor. Especially great dissatisfaction was voiced by the members of the Serb National Council of Kosovo and Metohija, who feel they have been neglected by the international community even though they were among the first to express their willingness for cooperation.
In the town of Obilic itself, the life of the remaining Serbs remains difficult. Serbs in this town live primarily in Cerska Street. Besides the Serbs and the majority Albanian population, which has doubled in population since the end of the war, there is no sign of the other communities that lived here before the war. The Roma suffered the most and their part of the town was systematically destroyed, just like in Southern Mitrovica. According to the testimony of the Serbs, the Albanians humiliated Roma women and girls in terrible ways, forcing them to strip naked in front of their families. There were many murders and properties set on fire until they were finally expelled from the municipality.
The remaining Serbs in Obilic complain that they have more problems than before because they are putting great effort into preventing the sale of Serb houses and other property. This had invoked great fury among the Albanian community. Residents say that allegedly Norwegian government money was used to buy up Serb houses in order to resell them to Albanians later on. Security is provided in Obilic by a Norwegian KFOR battalion. There are also complaints that various forms of coercion and blackmail are used by the Kosovo police, especially when a Serb reports an attack on his own or another Serb's house. The police generally does not react when houses are set on fire or otherwise destroyed, and it is the opinion of local Serbs that there is a strong link and cooperation between the police and Albanian transgressors in order to expel all the Serbs from Obilic. Unfortunately, the lack of activity by Norwegian KFOR to stop these misdeeds is frequently interpreted as tolerance of the extremists. The Albanians are buying Serb property in strategic locations in the Serb parts of the town. For example, recently great pressure was being applied to sell 20 square meters of land near the house of Zagorka Nacic only because it is the starting point for Serb convoys and for school transportation for Serb students .
The multiethnic school in Crkvena Vodica village near Obilic is a daily target for Albanians trying to steal everything that can be lifted. In just one month there are several thefts and there was also one arson attempt. A bomb was tossed at the house of Zoran Milic in the center of Obilic. In Janina Voda village eight attacks were carried out in only four days at the end of March and the beginning of April of this year. One of the most drastic examples of the lack of freedom of movement and security is the case of two students who walk two kilometers every day from their house to school and back in front of an armored military transporter.
In Priluzje as well the situation is not much better. At the beginning of April the Albanians tossed two bombs which worsened the security situation a great deal. Only 500 souls out of a pre-war population of 3,000 still live in the village. Thefts of livestock are frequent and even thefts of tractors when Serbs are tilling the land, since that is their only source of income. The attacks usually come from the neighboring Albanian vilalge of Donje Stanovce. Land is cultivated only where it is somewhat safe while an enormous area of 300 hectares remains untilled due to security considerations. Neither local elections nor last year's parliamentary elections have brought any improvements. On the contrary, the situation has significantly deteriorated due to the presence of institutional terror which is now being carried out not so much by a group of extremists as by the institutions themselves which are dominated by the Albanians. The Serbs of this region remember this kind of situation well from earlier times, especially during the 1970's and the 1980's. Now everything is repeating itself again and the only difference is that it is happening in the presence of KFOR and UNMIK, and with the involvement of the Kosovo police. The local Serbs are prohibited from erecting a monument to the Serbs in the village who were killed during the NATO bombing in 1999. When they asked why they were denied this right when monuments to Albanians are being raised throughout Kosovo and Metohija, the local Albanian leaders answered that they were deserving, whereas the Serbs were not.
The local Serbs are especially concerned about the school system and health care in their village, as well as about the people who are currently employed in these areas. So far school and health institutions in Serb enclaves have functioned with the support of UNMIK and Belgrade but there is a fear that they will be placed under the control of Albanian ministries which have little understanding for the Serbs or their needs. Those capable of work are concerned about their future employment. Before the war, approximately 7,700 Serbs were employed in the Kosovo Electric Company alone and their work status has been completely up in the air since the arrival of the UN mission and KFOR. These Serb workers worked for only about 20 days since the end of the war, only to be immediately subjected to various pressures, kidnapping and murders of workers. Soon they were forced to abandon their jobs for security reasons. Now these workers have neither the conditions necessary to perform their job nor do they receive any compensation for work formerly done.
The Serbs from Obilic claim that the thermoelectrical power plant is built primarily on Serb land which was expropriated and in return the owners received the right to work in the electrical plant. Now with talk of privatization in the air the workers are worried and believe that privatization must not be carried out without their participation. Many believe that the reason they were forced from their jobs is to facilitate the illegal privatization of the electrical industry in Kosovo.
ORAHOVAC AND VELIKA HOCA, ORAHOVAC MUNICIPALITY
The position of the Serb people in Orahovac has not changed significantly in a while. Approximately 450 souls are still living in the Serb quarter near the church and despite the recent removal of checkpoints at the entrance and exit of the Serb part of the town, they continue to live in isolation. Although efforts are being made to enable the integration of Serbs in this town, the results are negligible or almost nonexistent. Attempts are being made to enable Serb children to attend classes in the Albanian school and joint departments are being planned. But, the general security situation makes these plans hard to achieve. The German NGO ASB is especially active in assisting personnel from both communities in creating multiethnicity. The Serbs have no access to health institutions under Albanian control and are obliged to travel to Northern Mitrovica or outside the Province altogether for all medical exams and treatment.
There is still no freedom of movement and Serbs can only travel on their own by car on a secondary road to the village of Velika Hoca, the only other Serb enclave in this region. Any travel outside Orahovac, and even to certain parts of the town itself where Albanians live, is impossible without a KFOR or UNMIK police escort. A group escort is organized three times a week. The first day is for those who are traveling outside Kosovo and Metohija, the second day is for those who are going for medical exams outside Kosovo and the third day is for merchants or those performing other work.
A total of approximately 3,000 Serbs fled from Orahovac and most of them are temporarily housed in Kraljevo, where their needs are met by the Holy Archangel Society. All natives of Orahovac would gladly return to their homes tomorrow if they were able to live and to work there. Unfortunately, under the present conditions the life of the remaining Serbs in the town has been reduced to bare sustinence and there seems to be no prospect of a better future. The return of the Serbs now exclusively depends on the readiness of the Albanians to guarantee their security upon return. To date serious commitment to the realization of this process has not really been expressed because many Albanians have usurped Serb property and have no intention of giving it back. The most that some are willing to do is to purchase land and other property from the Serbs who are willing to sell, and some Serbs in this situation have no choice but to do so.
The Albanians frequently do various kinds of damage. In the beginning this included setting houses on fire and stealing property, and not infrequently Serb vineyards are also being damaged. Two monhts ago the Serb Orthodox cemetery was found desecrated.
The situation in Velika Hoca where some 600 Serbs are living is not much better because Hoca, too, is a kind of ghetto. This is a wine growing region and Serbs traditionally are involved in growing grapes and producing wine. Many were employed by the ORVIN winery but after the end of the war they were expelled from their jobs. The biggest problems for the residents are security in order to tend to the vines and the impossibility of selling their product. In addition, provocations by local Albanians are frequent. At one time mortar attacks were common but those ended in April of last year after German KFOR troops opened fire in the direction from where the projectiles were coming. Still, two months ago the houses belonging to the Serb families Matic and Dedic were set on fire. Damages in the fields are an almost daily occurrence. All incidents are regularly reported to UNMIK which is, however, too slow to react and as a rule does not find the perpetrator; consequently, the Serbs of Velika Hoca have less and less confidence in police officials.
Freedom of movement has not improved. Cultivation of the vineyards and other land is regularly performed with a KFOR escort. Escorts are obtained through the established practice of neatly filling out an application for escort. Cooperation with the municipal (Albanian) administration is still difficult and examples of institutional discrimination are frequent. For example, the Serbian language is not used and all local government materials are printed exclusively in Albanian, even though UNMIK provisions state that all documents must be bilingual, especially in areas where there is a Serb population.
The Albanians are using various ways of infiltrating this ethnically pure Serb village whose history dates back to the early Middle Ages, when it was an estate (metoh) of the Monastery of Chilander on Mt. Athos. For example, recently an Albanian named Gani Thaci, who until recently was a citizen of Albania, obtained documents from UNMIK and as a citizen of Kosovo arrived in Hoca and demanded the return of his house which was allegedly taken from his family after World War II. Currently a Serb family is living in the house and claims that it never belonged to Albanians.
Very frequently inaccurate and malicious articles regarding Velika Hoca appear in the local press stating, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary and the existence of 11 Serbian Orthodox churches dating back to the Middle Ages, that the village was once Albanian and inhabited by Albanians who were allegedly forced to convert to Orthodox Christianity and thus became Serbs. Generally speaking, the Serbs in this region feel that as a result of this kind of behavior by the Albanian authorities and individuals, it will be extremely difficult to build a common future.
The Serbs who worked in the ORVIN winery in Orahovac before the war confirmed that at the time of the UN mission's arrival to this region, there were 11.5 million liters of quality wine in the company's cellars. After the Serb workers were expelled from their jobs at the winery, this wine is now being sold exclusively by Albanians. The Serbs who produced the wine receive no compensation from its sale, and after not working for three years, have no other source of income.
SILOVO VILLAGE, GNJILANE MUNICIPALITY
The security and human rights situation of Serbs in the Gnjilane region does not differ much from that of Vitina. However, the situation is even more difficult in the 11 villages of the Novo Brdo municipality because the economic situation in this region has always been more depressed. Travel to other parts of Serbia by way of Bujanovac and Presevo has improved considerably after the situation in Southern Serbia improved. As well, travel to the towns of Gnjilane and Kosovska Kamenica is safer now, especially by automobile. Without a car, movement is restricted to the immediate center of town during daylight hours.
The Serbs in this region complain of discrimination in the electricity supply. Frequently Serb villages lack electricity up to 20 hours a day. Telephone service works only locally and the distribution of newspapers from Belgrade is irregular. It is not possible to pick up the broadcasts of Radio Television Serbia or Serbian radio stations which makes it very difficult for the population to get information. Unemployment is high because all Serbs were expelled from their jobs after the end of the war and the arrival of the UN mission. A few Serbs have gotten jobs in public utility companies for small salaries. In the better paying companies, such as the Electric Company, PTK, the Tobacco Company, etc. there is no room for Serbs, one of the most obvious examples of discrimination in hiring practice. Social assistance is also smaller and more restrictive with each passing day. Since Serbs have stayed only in the villages, in addition to social assistance they make a living by working the land, at least in areas where security conditions permit it.
In the villages near Novo Brdo, theft of livestock by Albanians is commonplace. Livestock for the Serbs is one of the chief means of making a living. Without their livestock families experience economic collapse and eventually must move away in search of bread and jobs. All cases of theft are regularly reported to UNMIK police but perpetrators as a rule are neither found nor punished.
About 30,000 Serbs fled from this region to other parts of Serbia. Recently Serbs almost stopped moving away; however, there is increasing pressure on them to sell their land, especially in places where it has never been for sale before. Serbs who fled from this region primarily found sanctuary in Bujanovac, Vranje and Nis.
One of the basic conditions necessary for Serb returns is for HABITAT to be more active in returning usurped Serb houses and property.