Mitrovica in Kosovo is one of the tensest places in the province, with ethnic Serbs and Albanians divided by much more than just the Ibri River that cuts through the city. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz visited both sides of the river to talk with residents.
Mitrovica, Yugoslavia; 30 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo has become a divided city. Ethnic Serbs live to the north of the Ibri River, while ethnic Albanians live to the south. The two communities seem to have only one thing in common -- residents on each side say they fear they will be killed if they cross the river without a military escort.
Mitrovica's three bridges are blocked by barbed wire and concrete barricades erected by the French KFOR troops who are trying to keep peace in Kosovo's northern sector. KFOR is not preventing anyone from crossing the bridges. But our correspondent watched (June 28) as French troops stand idly by while Serbs less than 50 meters away threatened ethnic Albanians who were trying to return to their homes in the north. The passivity of the French peacekeepers is in sharp contrast to the aggressive street patrols of British troops in Pristina.
Gani Hajrizi, an ethnic Albanian who fled his home in northern Mitrovica earlier this year, says he has spent the last three days asking KFOR to help him visit his apartment. He says that so far, his requests for an escort have been to no avail.
"There is a lack of work among the French soldiers. The Serbs in the northern part of town are armed and they are dominating all that part. They are threatening ethnic Albanians. I think the KFOR peacekeepers have not reached the goal of their mission here, which is to bring security for all people no matter what part of town they live in."
On the north side of Mitrovica's main bridge, near two burned out and bullet-ridden cars, our correspondent watched as 20 Serbs sat at a cafe drinking beer and keeping a constant vigil for ethnic Albanians. Some discreetly carried pistols and knives in the waistbands of their trousers. When an unescorted ethnic Albanian tried to cross the bridge, the Serbs jumped up from their tables, shouted death threats and flashed their guns in a way that could not be seen by the French soldiers nearby.
The supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, General Wesley Clark, recently described Serbs who carry weapons near the bridges of Mitrovica as paramilitaries. Indeed, a gauntlet of outdoor cafes to the north of the main bridge is filled with Serbs who are wearing uniforms typical of Serbian paramilitary forces.
One such Serb at the bridge (June 28), Nenad Dimovic, described himself as a "professional soldier" and said he will use his gun on any ethnic Albanian he sees in the Serbian side of the city. Ethnic Albanians who have dared to face this gauntlet say the residents of apartment blocks also point rifles at them and shout death threats.
Lindita Suhodolli, a 32-year-old ethnic Albanian refugee who returned to Mitrovica this week with her four children, says she doesn't know how she can go back to her former home on the Serbian side of the river. Two days ago, she stood in a line of more than 30 people asking French soldiers for an escort.
"I live here. I live on the other side of the bridge. On the north side. And some Serbs are in my house. They broke in. They stole everything. And I wanted to go there, but they don't let me. I called them on the phone. They told me 'If we see you here we will kill you.' I am afraid to go there. And he told me to go somewhere else and break [into] some Serb's house. I don't want to break [into] somebody else's house. I want to go to my house."
The French troops told Suhodolli they were too busy to help her. They said that, for now, they can only provide escorts in urgent cases -- such as when people need emergency treatment at the hospital.
When Suhodolli attempted to visit her apartment block with a group of reporters, the Serbs in the building refused to allow her inside. Several of her old neighbors said they had never seen her before. After about half an hour, one young Serbian girl finally admitted that Suhodolli was her "former neighbor." But still, no one in the building was willing to allow Suhodolli inside.
On the ethnic Albanian side of the bridge, uniformed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) stood outside of the French Gendarmerie headquarters (June 28) where people were queuing to ask for escorts to the hospital or to their former homes. When our correspondent started interviewing them, French Colonel Vicaire Claute told the group that they cannot wear UCK uniforms near the military police headquarters.
"We should not make people panic. We are trying to make the tension go down here. I don't want any provocation. Some Serbs should be able to come here and the UCK uniform is a provocation to them. Right now, I am the police here. You are not."
One UCK fighter who called himself Shaban complained that he was not carrying any weapons and that the demilitarization agreement between NATO and the UCK did not forbid him to wear his uniform in public. But Shaban later admitted to RFE/RL that he and the other UCK fighters have their guns hidden nearby where they can quickly get them if they see Serbs.
"I didn't [surrender my weapons to NATO]. I've got them in a sure place. Everybody [in the UCK still has their guns]. We're not stupid. That deal [NATO] made with the [UCK to surrender weapons], involved the [UCK] commanders, not the soldiers who were fighting on the ground. Nobody asked us. Nobody. All these guys who signed this agreement, I think they signed too quickly." At the Mitrovica hospital, on the Serb side of town, several Serbian doctors told RFE/RL that they had once lived south of the river but no longer felt safe there. The doctors admit that all seven ethnic Albanians brought in for surgery during the last three weeks have required a French escort to reach the hospital. One angry doctor told RFE/RL that if Mitrovica's ethnic Albanians really need help, they should go to the hospital in Pristina, some 40 kilometers away.
Another surgeon who has lost his home on the south side said Serbs are right to feel threatened there. He said many Serbs who used to live in the south have fled to the north because of death threats against them by ethnic Albanians. French officials have confirmed that at least two Serbs have been killed on the ethnic Albanian side of Mitrovica in the past week.
Ethnic Serbs and Albanians are not the only ones caught in the violence. In a Romany (Gypsy) neighborhood in the south, nearly every building has been destroyed by angry ethnic Albanians in the past week. The ethnic Albanians accuse the Roma of collaborating with Serbs to loot and burn their property. They say revenge is justified. Our correspondent saw more than 20 freshly lit fires burning there (June 28), and French soldiers could do little to control looters.
NATO's General Clark has pledged that Mitrovica will not become, in his words, "an East-West Berlin." But at the moment, both Serbs and ethnic Albanians say they feel they are living in just such a situation. At least for now, the partition of Mitrovica is a fact.