Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis 1999
The Kosovo exodus continues
Now that the tables have turned in Kosovo, Serbs in the eastern town of Gnjilane (Gjilan) are selling up and moving out of the province for good.
By Ridvan Berisha in Gnjilane
It is getting dark in the small village of Cernica (Cernica), Kosovo. Camped just above the village are KFOR soldiers from the US Marines. Small valleys and hills surround the camp and make it difficult for the marines to see the village. Seven months have passed since Serbian paramilitary troops, police and army left Kosovo and international forces arrived. About 450 Serbs and 3,000 Albanians live in Cernica, in the Gnjilane municipality. They are full of fear, anger and thoughts of revenge. Two US KFOR armoured vehicles are stationed on a hill, day and night, 50 meters from Serb homes. But no matter how close KFOR soldiers patrol, attacks against Serbs have become an almost daily occurrence.
During the night of January 14, the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Ilija was severely damaged in an explosion. A large bomb was planted in the church grounds and the resulting explosion destroyed half of the church and three nearby Serb houses. The US KFOR checkpoint is situated only 70 meters from the church. In August Bozidar Stojanovic, a shepherd, was killed while working in his meadow. A few days later, several hand grenades were thrown into the yard of another villager, Milorad Simic.
In September six mortar shells hit the Serb part of the village. In December, a strong explosion destroyed the houses of two brothers, Dragan and Slobodan Vasic. At the time Slobodan was having dinner with his wife, Blagica, and nine-year-old son, Igor. His wife died instantly and Slobodan spent hours digging his son from the wreckage. After Blagica was killed, a group of 50 angry Serbs were drinking beer in small shop. The more afraid they become, the more aggressive they behaved. With their eyes burning the men said they were waiting for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to "give the order" to "liberate" Kosovo.
"It is only question of time before our army comes. Then we will show them. We will do it for sure," said one of the men. "If I can't believe in that, I will kill myself." "We will not move from here, we were born here, we will stay," said Slobodan Vasic, but he sounded less than convinced.
Serbs in the Gnjilane municipality now live largely in a ghetto - and they are leaving Kosovo. A pattern exists. After a series of explosions it becomes clear KFOR cannot protect Serb inhabitants. Serbs then leave the village in a group. After their departure, their property is looted and houses burnt. The pattern almost identical to the fate of Albanians during the last two years when they were "visited" by Serbian police and army personnel. Indeed, one hundred metres from the shop where the locals drink beer, at the meeting of the Albanian and Serbian parts of the town, stands a burnt out mosque - testimony to the crimes committed against Albanians by Serbian paramilitaries during the NATO air strikes.
In Gnjilane municipality, in the village of Zitinje (Zhitin), there were 136 Serb homes and 100 Albanian homes before the NATO air strikes. There are no Serbs in the village now. The Serb houses were burnt and their occupants now live in villages nearby or have left for Serbia. Goran Dimic, a Serb from Zitinje now living in Cernica, claimed the Serbs left in August after four people were killed. In the village of Zegra (Zheger), the Serbs left in June. Zoran Trajkovic, a refugee from Zegra said, "they were shooting at us every evening and we didn't have weapons. Then the American KFOR captain came and said, 'It is better to leave, we can't protect you.'"
Serbs made up 10 per cent of the population in Kosovo, but most of them have been effectively expelled since the departure of Yugoslav police and army and the arrival of KFOR. "We have not succeeded in protecting the Serbs," admitted Bernard Kouchner, chief of the UN mission in Kosovo, at a news conference marking the sixth month of KFOR's presence in the province.
In the town of Gnjilane, most Serb inhabitants used to live along the road leading to Pristina, a street which has changed a lot in recent months. Very few Serbs remain and those that have spend much of their time waiting outside their homes for potential buyers. Signs reading "For sale - anyone interested in buying, please contact me at the church" are pinned to several front doors. Albanians are buying these homes but most of the purchasers are reluctant to discuss the matter. Serbs, who no longer feel safe sharing the town market with Albanians, have improvised a small market place of their own close to the church. Local Serbs from the villages around the town come to sell produce every Monday and Thursday. The villagers are always brought by the UN relief agency, UNHCR.
"I have a wife, a son and a daughter, my wife and me have stayed behind, while my children are already in Serbia, " said Branko Zivic, a Serb from Gnjilane ." My whole family has gone to Serbia. I am only waiting for someone to buy my house." So far no one has offered to buy his house. "I have been on good terms with Albanians, Turks, and Roma as well. But now things have changed," said Zivic. "Even though we have not been attacked by anyone yet, there is no security for us here." Zivic called for fair trials for those accused of crimes against Albanians. "All crimes against the Albanian population should be punished severely, " he said. "All those who committed crimes have left the province, while those of us who have done nothing are still here. If this situation does not change, we will also leave."
Another Serb, Predrag Danic, is making final preparations before leaving Gnjilane with his wife, Vesna, and 18 year-old-son, Denislav. "We are leaving because there is no life here," said a tearful Vesna. Before the war, Pedrag had a job in the Gnjilane battery factory while his wife worked in the local textile plant. "We have lived in this house for 25 years, everyone has gone to Serbia, my mother left three days ago," said Vesna. The family have been trying to sell their house prior to going to live with Vesna's uncle in Kraljevo. They have had two offers for the house but the prices were too low. Vesna blames politicians for the current situation. "What have we done wrong?" she said. "But it is always like that, it's the good people who suffer because of the bad ones."
Stojana, 70, shares Vesna's opinion. "I am alone here. We are isolated. I have two daughters who are married and live in Kragujevac. They have asked me to join them, but I am waiting to sell my house first." She said that unknown people have threatened her. "It is thanks to KFOR forces that I am still here."
Rela Nisic, the former manager of the Kristal Europa hotel said, "I live with my old mother. I took my wife and children to Serbia. All my family have gone back there. I am only waiting to sell my house before joining them."
The surrounding villages of Pasjan, Budrike and Partesh are inhabited by Serbs. The local Albanian population believes these Serbs were responsible for their forced expulsion from the villages of Vlastince (Llashtice), Zegra and Ugljare (Uglare). Vlastince is a village in the commune of Gnjilane, inhabited only by Albanians. The village was completely destroyed by Serb military and paramilitary units. The inhabitants of this village suffered terribly at the hands of Serb paramilitaries from Pasjan, a village only a few miles down the road from Vlastince.
One eyewitness, Mustafe Berisha, a 75 year-old-man from Vlastince, recalled that "on March 27, at around 7.30 in the morning, grenades were launched from Pasjan. It went on until 2 o'clock the next morning. Luckily there were no casualties that day. All the villagers had moved out to the mountains at Likovate. One week later, Serb inhabitants from Pasjan village came to our village and started looting and burning houses. Two weeks later they attacked civilians hiding in the woods. They killed five people, three men and two women. That same day they expelled some of the villagers to Presevo [Preshevo], and the rest to Vitina. Only two families remained in the village, and my first cousin. They were massacred two weeks later in the house of Rifat Shabani. We do not plan to live together with them. They have killed us and looted our homes. We are waiting for them to go to Serbia."
Fellow Albanian villagers from Zegra, Ladovo (Lladove) and elsewhere reiterated the old man's views. "We are here to testify to the international community that we cannot live with criminals, and that there is no future for us together," they said.
Ridvan Berisha is a journalist from Gnjilane. Gordana Igric contributed to this report.
© Institute of War &Peace Reporting
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