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Serbia: Coexistence Tense In Ethnically Mixed Village In Kosovo

One year ago this week, the Yugoslav Army and Serbian police and paramilitaries evacuated Kosovo, and NATO-led peacekeeping forces entered the province. Nearly 1 million forcibly exiled Kosovar Albanians returned home to a devastated land, while the majority of Kosovo's Serbian community fled the province out of fear of retribution. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited the ethnically mixed village of Binac in southern Kosovo to see how residents are faring one year later.

Binac, Kosovo; 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Binac is a deceptively idyllic village nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains of southeastern Kosovo, an assortment of old Serbian farm houses, newer Albanian houses, a modern Roman Catholic church and an older Orthodox church. The nearest mosque is a short walk down the road in the larger village of Kabash. The tall minarets of other mosques in hillside hamlets glisten further up the slopes.

At present, Binac is home to some 850 Albanian Catholics, a few Muslim families and about 150 Serbs -- only about one-third of the number of Serbs in the village before the Belgrade regime capitulated to NATO one year ago. The rest of the Serbs have since fled to Serbia.

Although Catholics are a tiny minority in Kosovo as a whole, they make up the majority of the Albanian population in Binac, Kabash, and the district center, Vitina. Most of these Catholics are known as "Karadak," Turkish for Black Mountain, and although their forebears were forced by Ottoman Turkey to accept Islam, they secretly maintained their Roman Catholicism.

Tuesday (June 13) was Saint Anthony's Day, the patron saint of the local Roman Catholic church. Several hundred Catholic Albanians, some of the women dressed in Turkish pantaloons, were gathered in sweltering heat for an open-air mass.

As a chorus of villagers sings in Latin, KFOR reconnaissance helicopters clatter overhead. U.S. KFOR foot patrols amble through the village, chatting with children, as the congregation recites the Lord's Prayer in Albanian.

In recent days, there have been several shootings just over the hills on the Macedonian side of the border.

Down in Binac, the tensions are of a different sort. They are between Albanian and Serbian neighbors.

The village priest, Don Lush Gjergji, says coexistence is possible as long as it is based on three points: international protection for all ethnic groups, demilitarization and disarmament, and the local tradition of good multiethnic relations.

"So now, this is not the time for war or fighting, but rather it is a time to struggle for values and virtues. The time has come to go forward by increasing [emphasis on] these values and to defeat evil."

Don Lush Gjergji says "there must either be freedom for all or freedom for none." He says the post-war period is difficult for everyone.

"First of all we have to conserve what has been built over the centuries, so that nothing is destroyed. We have to condemn evil in the direction whence it came and we must seek and build for the common good, because life, truth, justice, peace, love, forgiveness are neither Serbian nor Albanian but universal (values)."

The Catholic priest says he cooperates well with the Orthodox priest and the Muslim imam. He says that after the Yugoslav army (VJ) withdrew one year ago, he told his Serbian Orthodox colleague that if anyone were to threaten him, he would always have a place to stay in the Catholic priest's home.

"Now, the security of Serbs is threatened. As long as even one citizen of Kosovo is threatened, I personally feel threatened. Because, as a Catholic cleric, as a writer, as an intellectual, I am on the side of the little people, the persecuted, the devastated."

As Don Lush Gjergji puts it, "the international community did not come here to pit Albanians against Serbs, but for the good of everyone." He says he feels he represents everyone in the community, not just the Albanian Catholics, adding, "as long as there is no love between us we are all orphans, regardless of whether they killed us or we killed them, because every killing is self-destruction."

Binac, like Vitina district as a whole, experienced relatively little violence and destruction last year. But as elsewhere in Kosovo, the violence it did see did not cease with the departure of Serbian forces, but rather switched to Albanian retribution against Serbs.

Binac's Serbian Orthodox church is ringed by barbed wire and guarded by three U.S. KFOR vehicles. As with other Serbian churches in the area, there is no resident priest. The bishop of Vitina comes as needed.

Serbian inhabitants, though polite toward a visiting reporter, are cautious and decline to give their last names. One Serb, an unemployed worker who calls himself Markus Dragan, lives with his family in an old farmhouse near the Orthodox church. His family can feed itself thanks to a vegetable garden and orchard. A young pig -- next winter's meat ration for the family -- wanders around the patio sniffing for scraps of food.

Markus insists the situation in Binac is normal.

"The atmosphere here is normal. So far there have not been any tensions. We live normally."

Markus says there have been no provocations against Serbian residents, either after the war or at present. But when asked how he views the future, he says, "Fine -- once the violence ceases." Fear plays a role in how he and his neighbors respond to a foreign correspondent's questions. Neighbor after neighbor urges the reporter to speak to the local Serb leader, Mr. Djuric -- who they say is at the Serbian school, which operates in a private home. Seven children attend morning classes there.

Just 15 meters from the school, an elderly Albanian resident, when asked where the Serbian school is, responds: "This is the Muslim neighborhood, there is no Serbian school here."

At midday in the house that serves as a school, several Serbs sit around in a gutted room upstairs, smoking and waiting. No one is willing to admit just which one of them is Djuric. Finally, one of them, who says his name is Dragan, nervously speaks up.

"The situation is quite tense here. Life here is difficult. I think we don't have -- how shall I put it -- a way out. If we go to Vitina, we are taking a risk, someone could target us along the road, so I just stay at home. That's the way it is."

Dragan, like many other Serbs in Kosovo, says that before KFOR peacekeepers arrived, Serbs worked together with Albanians and life was good. But he adds, all that changed after the NATO air strikes last year.

Dragan's version of the past ignores the institution of a de facto system of apartheid by the Belgrade regime in Kosovo through the 1990s, in which Albanians were fired en masse from jobs from the civil service and state-owned enterprises and were replaced with Serbs. That decade of oppression culminated in the forced exodus of nearly one million Kosovar Albanians last year.

Now it is the Serbs who are most victimized. Dragan says Serbs' homes have been blown up at night and two Binac Serbs have been killed, one in July, the other in November. Dragan says he is afraid.

"There are provocations. They attack old women with stones. There is heckling. God, it's hard for us. God help us."

Dragan says that a week ago, after he mowed his field, Albanians burned the hay. He says cannot let his three children play in the road because their former Albanian playmates taunt them with slogans like "UCK" and "Go Back to Serbia!"

Dragan says he has had no work or income for a year. He says he might be able to hold out a few more months, but then he may have to leave for Serbia. He says the Orthodox bishop of Vitina, Dragan Kojic, is the one who decides whether the Serbs will stay or leave. (The bishop was away when RFE/RL tried to visit him).

Dragan says he has nothing against the KFOR peacekeepers, that their presence ensures peace and the security of his eldest child, whom KFOR escorts every day to middle school in Vitina. But he says it is now up to Kosovo's Albanians whether someday everyone in Binac will be able to live together as before.