The eye of Kosovo's ethnic storm

The first of an eventual 300 new UN police arrived in Mitrovica this week after an eruption of violence.

For two weeks, Myhedin Prekazi and his teenage son, Fisnik, and daughter, Luljeta, have dared not go outside. They sit in their three-room apartment, watching television when there is electricity, taking calls from worried friends and relatives, cooking meals from their dwindling stock of food - and wondering what will happen next in their ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo.

More than 1,000 ethnic Albanians, like the Prekazis, have fled Serb-controlled northern Mitrovica since simmering tensions erupted into riots and sniper attacks in the city two weeks ago, leaving at least 11 people dead and more than 20 wounded.

Other families in their building have left and the Prekazis are asking themselves how long before they, too, must go. "It's difficult to stay," says Mr. Prekazi, as he sits in the dim afternoon light in his living room. "We are like in a prison."

Once ethnically mixed, the small, shabby industrial city has resisted international efforts at integration. Sporadic ethnic clashes erupted with new force after a rocket attack Feb. 2 on a bus carrying Serbs between Mitrovica and isolated Serb villages. The most recent unrest came on Sunday, when French soldiers clashed with ethnic Albanian snipers, killing one of them.

Tensions have abated during the week, but it is like the eerie stillness in the eye of a storm. Few expect it to last.

"We're going to have a fight on our hands for a while," says J.D. Luckie, an American who commands the United Nations police in northern Mitrovica. "We're going to try to stop it before it gets that far."

More police, and a judge

Faced with a growing crisis, international officials this week announced a broad range of measures designed to head off further violence and to help ethnic Albanians like the Prekazi family, who live on the Serb side of Mitrovica, to stay in their homes.

They have begun to reinforce the UN police in Mitrovica with what they say will be a total of 300 new officers. They have beefed up the French peacekeeping forces with units from Britain, Greece, Denmark, and the US. And they have brought in a foreign judge in an effort to start up an effective court system that failed with local judges.

By mid-week, new police officers were arriving in the city. On the north side, police are planning more vigorous efforts to disarm both Serbs and ethnic Albanians. In the meantime, soldiers from the NATO-led peacekeeping force were setting up new checkpoints on the highways coming into Mitrovica, trying to stop guns from getting into the city.

"We're going to take control of this area," Mr. Luckie told fellow police officers at a briefing in his office. Until now, he said later, police have been reluctant to confiscate weapons from Serbs for fear of drawing a hostile crowd.

Ethnic Albanians are not the only ones feeling nervous in northern Mitrovica. While Serbs can walk the streets freely, they feel outnumbered and threatened by the 50,000 ethnic Albanians on the south side of the city.

Many Serbs have already been pushed out of southern Mitrovica or other towns in Kosovo, as ethnic Albanians seek retribution for the mass expulsions and killings by Yugoslav forces that led to three months of NATO airstrikes last spring.

"The Albanians want to take this all for themselves," says Zoltan a student in his 20s. "They are animals. They are killing people." He stands on a cold street corner with a group of friends, who nod grimly. "I think we should be separated," says a young woman named Biljana. "We can't live together. We tried, but we can't."

In a sense, the violence in Mitrovica is simply a continuation of the conflict. The arrival in June of the NATO-led protection force in Kosovo, still technically a province of Serbia, allowed almost a million ethnic Albanian refugees to return from surrounding countries. But northern Mitrovica has remained largely off-limits.

Kosovo's Albanians see it as remaining under Serb occupation. On the streets of the southern part of the city, "Free Mitrovica!" posters are clearly visible, and there is little sympathy for displaced Serbs.

Extremists hold sway

International officials blame extremists on both sides for the trouble in Mitrovica. Ethnic Albanian leaders have been vowing since summer that they would fight rather than allow the city to be divided permanently.

After French soldiers on Sunday killed a former fighter for the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought the Serbs, the next day UN police found an ambulance loaded with antitank rockets and other weapons, headed, they believe, for Mitrovica.

"If one load got through," a police officer says, "you have to figure that there are 10 more we didn't catch."

For their part, Serb leaders have organized their own security force in northern Mitrovica. Its most visible components are the men who monitor the bridges that split the city. The police say these men do more than watch, however; they also intimidate and beat ethnic Albanians who come across. And police suspect that Serb security forces controlled from Belgrade are operating in northern Mitrovica. The Serbs "have their police down here, they have their paramilitaries," says a UN police officer who declined to be identified. "It's no secret here."

No talking, even to neighbors

The obstacles to coexistence between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are huge, Prekazi says. He describes a politics of fear and intimidation that has made it impossible for people of good will on either side to reach out to one another.

He seldom talks to Serbs, even the ones living in his building. "If we speak with Serbs, Albanians say you are with Serbs," he says sadly. "If Serbs speak to Albanian, Serbs say you are with Albanians. It's not possible."

When asked about the future, Prekazi gazed silently into his coffee cup before answering. "We don't have a future here," he finally says. "I don't work. My children don't have a school. We are living more inside than outside. We don't have contact with people night or day. I ask myself, 'How much longer can we stay in this situation?'

"I used to think that I could stay," he continues. "That Albanians and Serbs could live here together. Now I see it's not possible, not for the moment."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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