KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia – Mohamed Beceri crosses the bridge over the Ibar River with disbelief and fear radiating from his eyes. For the first time in three months, the young ethnic Albanian has stepped outside his parents’ apartment. With deliberate steps he follows his sister Shanaj, who leads him through a city he no longer recognizes.
On the north side of the river, where Mr. Beceri was hiding from Serbian paramilitaries, ethnic Serbs have established their last stronghold in Kosovo. South of the river, returning ethnic Albanian refugees have seized control since a withdrawal of Serbian forces last month. Caught in the middle of a city divided by hate, French troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force maintain an uneasy peace.
“I’ve forgotten how to walk, how to talk,” Beceri says haltingly, as his sister leads him to the safety of her home in the south part of the city. He gazes incredulously at the bridge he has just crossed. French armored vehicles are parked on both sides, and on the far bank, a group of Serbian men stare over toward the Albanian side. It is unlikely that Beceri will be returning to his parents’ apartment soon.
Nowhere in Kosovo are ethnic lines as starkly drawn as in Mitrovica. Because of its proximity to Serbia proper, the area north of the Ibar has become a concentration of Serbian refugees and incorrigible Serbian fighters in the past weeks. The de facto partitioning of the city has continued in the presence of KFOR troops, and Albanians are beginning to lose patience.
During NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, Serbian forces raged through the city, expelling Albanians and torching their homes and shops. Today, women and children are about the only ones who dare venture into the now Serb-dominated side of the city. Men who cross the divide from either side are at extreme risk.
“I’m afraid that somebody could kill me, even though everybody there knows me,” says Tatlji Tupela, an ethnic Albanian returning from the Serbian side of Mitrovica. “The people look at me as if I were a stranger. They don’t say a word.”
Mrs. Tupela says that Serbian police expelled her family from their apartment only a few days after NATO airstrikes began in March. She moved in with her brother on the south side of town, but her husband and son – like hundreds of other ethnic Albanian men – were taken to Smerkovnica Prison outside Mitrovica and later deported to Albania.
Even with the end of hostilities and the KFOR presence, Tupela says she is too scared to stay in her home in the Serbian part of the city. Tupela says that many of her Serbian neighbors have fled from Kosovo and that strangers – Serbs she has never seen before – now live next door.
Before the mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians, Mitrovica had a majority Albanian population on both sides of the river, with Serbian, Turkish, and Gypsy minorities. As much as 75 percent of the Albanian population was hounded out of the city, and Serbian fighters took over empty apartments. When Serbian forces retreated from Kosovo as part of last month’s peace agreement, many ethnic Serbs who decided to remain in Kosovo settled on the north side of Mitrovica.
Yet local Serbs make the same claim: that with the return of refugees, fighters from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from other parts of Kosovo are flooding into the city.
Sitting in front of the Cafe Dolce Vita on the north side of the bridge, about 20 Serbian men suspiciously monitor everyone who passes the French checkpoint.
“This is something like self-defense,” says Nikola Ralevic, a student of hotel management. “We’re only scared if young boys or the KLA come and provoke us. It’s not a problem for residents of this town to come here.”
Stubbornly defiant, the remaining Serbs blame current tensions on ethnic separatism and NATO.
“The Serbs from this side don’t want any border. We want to live with the Albanians who were here before the war,” said Dragan Marjanovic, shortly before French gendarmes arrested him Friday morning for illegal possession of firearms.
The self-styled mayor of the Serbian side, Mr. Marjanovic insisted that ethnic Albanians had left the city on their own volition and that the widespread destruction on the south side of town was a result of NATO bombs. Yet almost no property on the Serb-run side has been damaged – with the exception of a few Albanian homes and the old mosque, now a vacant lot.
Marjanovic has not been officially indicted by The Hague, but many Albanians accuse him of mass murder.
Own brand of justice
Some returning Albanians have taken justice into their own hands. Two weeks ago, angry Albanians burned and looted their way through the Gypsy quarter on the south side of the river. Albanians generally regard Gypsies as collaborators with Serbian forces.
Ethnic Albanians have also moved into houses owned by Serbs, and plainclothes KLA members patrol the streets.
The French KFOR troops stationed in Mitrovica have come under harsh criticism by local Albanians, who say that the soldiers often side with the Serbs.
“For us it’s only one town. We’re trying as best we can to make it like it was before,” says Maj. Michel Koplewsky, one of 135 gendarmes assigned to the French contingent to take over policing functions in Mitrovica. “Step by step, it’s getting calmer. You have to remember that just a few weeks ago there was a war here.”
Others are more cautionary. “If the French don’t disarm the Serbs, anything can happen,” says Ajri Begu, a political commentator in Pristina. “Maybe the Albanians will attack one day, because if KFOR doesn’t intervene in time, a partition of Kosovo could be possible.”
Last week Albanian staff began working in the hospital on the Serbian side, and every day some 50 Albanians receive a French escort to Trepca, a sprawling industrial complex north of town. Many ethnic Albanians suspect that the real reason for the Serbs’ last stand in Mitrovica is the economic value of the mines and minerals processing plant there.
The process of reuniting Mitrovica is slow and tedious. It is no coincidence that the United Nations has named Sir Martin Garrod the international community’s civil administrator of Mitrovica. His last posting was in Mostar, a city in Bosnia-Herzegovina still divided by a river, fear, and ethnic hate.