It's been nearly three months since the arrival of NATO-led forces in Kosovo and the exodus of more than four-fifths of the province's nearly 200,000 Serb inhabitants. Despite pleas for ethnic harmony by KFOR, the UN and Albanian leaders, relations between the remaining Serbs and returning Albanians continue to be tense. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited the Istog district in northwestern Kosovo to look at the challenges of post-war co-existence.
Cerkolez, Kosovo; 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the uplands northeast of Istog lies a patchwork of isolated hamlets that constitute the village of Cerkolez.
Serbs and Albanians are living in a form of self-imposed apartheid, kept apart by Spanish KFOR troops who patrol the hamlets. The troops control access to the uppermost part of the village, where nearly 200 Serbs -- mainly men -- have sought refuge close to a large Orthodox church.
Istog district council member and spokesman Ylber Lipaj says tolerance prevailed in Istog before the war. He predicts the Serbs will eventually be able to return:
"I think we still need some time. We need to create the conditions for them to be able to return. First of all, we have to get out of the current crisis that we're in. Winter is coming. Living conditions here are very bad. The chairman of our municipal council, Jonus Jonusi, in a recent meeting with Muslims/Bosniaks in one village, declared he does not want to be the mayor only of the Albanian population but of all of Istog district's inhabitants: Albanians, Muslims, Serbs and Montenegrins."
Lipaj says the mass exodus of Serbs shows they feel collective guilt for the forced expulsion of Kosovo's Albanian majority.
But the Serbs with whom our correspondent spoke in Cerkolez appeared to be concerned with their immediate plight, rather than with its origins. Some declined to reveal their names -- perhaps an indication of a guilty conscience, but just as likely a reflection of the pervading fear among the remaining Serbs in the village.
Lipaj says 64 percent of the more than 5,000 Albanian-owned homes in the district suffered considerable damage (between 40 and 100 percent destruction) during the war. But he notes that after the war, the Serbs suffered proportionately more, with some 80 percent of their (365) homes destroyed.
Of the nine mosques in the district, the Serbs burned one, demolished three and damaged two others. In contrast, Lipaj says the five Serbian Orthodox churches have survived unscathed. However, unknown assailants torched the two-year-old parish office in Istog in July. Spanish KFOR troops now guard the burned-out building and the adjacent church.
Most of the 195 Serb men in Cerkolez have sent their families to safer Kosovo Serb communities or else out of the province. Lipaj says the Serb men are armed. The men watch and wait, looking down the slope toward their homes and farmlands, but unable to visit them. One of the Serbs in Cerkolez is Miki Ivanovcovic, a farmer. He says Albanian returnees in July burned two buildings he owns, leaving him with nothing.
"They burned the house to ashes. I wanted to get my things but they were shooting at me. One has to return, start life anew, care for the family, raise the kids. But now I am really out on the street. I don't have anything anywhere -- no house, no firewood, no bed. The kids want to come home, but they can't. It's really difficult."
What is needed most, Ivanovcovic says, is freedom, in his words, "the freedom to go to bed without fearing that someone will burn down your house while you are asleep."
Ivanovcovic says he is afraid of his Albanian neighbors. He says he does not speak to them and ignores their taunts. But he says he is too afraid to go back to what is left of his property, just one-and-a-half kilometers away.
Another Serb villager, Zoran, is even more despondent. His house is still standing but is inaccessible to him. He whispers that it, too, will probably go up in flames.
"We have nothing. Everything is burned. Everything. Nothing is functioning. No one is working."
In contrast, the village's Albanian community is working hard to rebuild its homes, which the Serbs damaged during the past year and a half. Lingering anger at the devastation is palpable in the voices of the Albanian returnees.
Sixty-six-year-old Sul Sadrijaj says he has no idea who has torched the Serb homes in the area. He says he has no intention of harming the Serbs. But he points at the Serb-inhabited neighborhood up the hill and says, "Those who have blood on their hands should know what to do -- leave."
"What kind of relationship can we have with them (the Serbs) now? They are the same ones who ordered us to leave our homes. They gave us just 20 minutes to flee."
Sadrijaj says three of the Serbs who ordered him and his neighbors to flee to Albania last March were from nearby hamlets. His house sustained damage from grenades and was completely looted. As he puts it, "They even took the nails from the walls." The Serbs torched other houses in the neighborhood, including his brother's. He points to two neighboring houses, one of which the Serbs burned during the war. The other, he says, the Serbs burned after the Albanians began returning in late June.
Sadrijaj says the Serbs also slaughtered all his farm animals, leaving him with nothing more than one hen and a puppy. But he has already started anew, raising several calves, foals and lambs. Sadrijaj says there was no justification for what the Serbs did to the Albanians in Cerkolez:
"In our village, there was no member of UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army). Our neighbors knew this very well. They staged two attacks on our village. Just look at the bullet holes."
Sadrijaj says that, although no one was killed in his hamlet of 14 homes, the Serbs slaughtered four Albanians, including his niece, in another part of Cerkolez.
Spanish KFOR staff sergeant Felix Alonso commands a company of well-armed soldiers that keeps the Serbs and Albanians of Cerkolez apart. But the Spanish soldiers in their red-tasseled caps do not appear to command universal respect. The Serbs say KFOR protection is inadequate. Some Albanian residents do not appear to take the KFOR presence seriously.
Last month, Alonso's troops came under automatic weapons fire and fired back. No one was hurt. He says he has no doubt the shots were fired by Albanians. He says the assailants were trying to show the Spaniards they are not afraid of them and can continue to torch Serb homes.
"We know every family in all the towns, especially up here because Cerkolez and Suha Grela (a nearby hamlet) are the two worst places with the worst problems we have had. So we know every family -- Albanian and Serb."
Despite claims by Serb and Albanian residents that they have no contact with each other, Alonso says the two sides do meet occasionally, to discuss ownership of a missing or stolen cow or control over water pipes. But he says KFOR does not interfere. In his words, "We are between the two sides. We leave them alone to see how they get along."