YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Kosovo Serbs Fear Day They'll Have to Walk Alone

Balkans: Unescorted villagers are sometimes attacked by ethnic Albanians. The U.N. force protecting them won't be around forever.


GNJILANE, Yugoslavia — Radunka Antonijevic, a Serb, lives with her two children in an ethnic Albanian neighborhood of this southeastern Kosovo town. Her apartment is ringed by barbed wire and guarded by peacekeepers 24 hours a day.

The few Serbian children living in the building used to have a United Nations police escort to school, but that ended last month, to Antonijevic's great dismay. "They told us, 'Now everything is secure. You have conditions to walk freely. . . . We can't escort you forever,' " she said.

She and other parents now guard the children on the 10-minute walk to class. "The old residents know us, and they never harass us," she said. "But the young teenagers call us 'pigs.' . . . A few times they threw stones at the children."

Although Kosovo is still torn by ethnic hatred, international police and peacekeepers see some progress toward normality--and no choice but to begin thinking seriously about what happens when they leave.

"We're not going to be here much longer," predicted Derek Chappell, spokesman for Kosovo's U.N. police, noting that the Bush administration is focused on places such as Afghanistan and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is pushing for greater attention to Africa's problems.

That means the effort to make Kosovo safe and stable even without international policing must be put "on fast forward," Chappell said. "At some point, the people here have to live together. Protecting people from that reality every day by giving them an armed escort to go and buy their bread and milk doesn't help with any resolution."

Chappell said he sees "small signs of reconciliation," noting that it's now sometimes possible to see a car with Serbian license plates in Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian capital, Pristina. "A year and a half ago that would never have happened," he said. "They'd have been attacked."

Most ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90% of Kosovo's population, still view local Serbs as unrepentant former oppressors. Hatred is especially intense among rural people who fled for weeks at a time into the mountains in 1998 and 1999 when Serbian forces fighting a separatist guerrilla insurgency attacked their villages and destroyed their homes.

Many ethnic Albanians say Serbs could do much to ease tensions by publicly rejecting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic--now on trial at The Hague for alleged genocide and crimes against humanity--and by apologizing for the crimes his forces committed in the people's name. Thousands of ethnic Albanians were slain and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes before NATO forces stepped in, forcing Milosevic to withdraw from the province in 1999 and accept a U.N. administration.

But many Serbs in Kosovo still view Milosevic as a hero and say that neither he nor they did anything wrong. Few see the need for an apology, nor do they make any connection between their support for the former Yugoslav leader and their current life in a virtual state of siege.

Milosevic made some mistakes, but "he was defending his people here against terrorists, just as [President] Bush is defending his people in America now," said Sinisa Petrovic, 37, a Serb who lives in the village of Gracanica. "The army was shooting at houses and demolishing houses--but houses they saw shots coming from."

The U.N. administration in Kosovo has preached the need for a multiethnic society. But in practice, the best that international police and the NATO-led peacekeepers--known as Kosovo Force, or KFOR--have been able to achieve is some measure of protection for Serbs isolated in enclaves.

Ethnic Albanians also feel unsafe in Serbian areas, but that does little to restrict their freedom of movement.

The new head of the United Nations mission here, Michael Steiner, stressed last month at his first news conference that providing better security and the rule of law for all is one of his top priorities. "I think it is vital that there be a safe home for all Kosovo residents," he said.

KFOR still provides protection for 65 convoys a week from one place to another within Kosovo or between Kosovo and other areas of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic, said Daz Slaven, spokesman for the force. In addition, it carries out nearly 100 smaller escort operations a week.

In an effort to blur the geographical divisions between ethnic groups, some of the fortified posts where peacekeepers stand guard to protect Serbian enclaves are being dismantled, with the soldiers sent instead on random patrols, Chappell said. A fixed post can "almost create the sense that 'if I go beyond this point, I'm going to get killed,' " he explained.

That is pretty much the belief of Petrovic, who thinks that he would be taking an enormous risk to venture into dusty but bustling Pristina, just five miles from his home.

Los Angeles Times Articles