Savo Drobnjakovic fled his home in the town of Vuciturn, along with his wife and three sons, as NATO tanks rolled into Kosovo and ethnic Albanians poured back in last June. But instead of going all the way to Serbia proper, as many Serbs from Kosovo did, Mr. Drobnjakovic and his family stopped here, in this grimy little town in the northern part of Kosovo.
Eight months later, they are still here, trying to hang on. Drobnjakovic works in a friend's grocery store. His wife teaches; his three sons are unemployed. The family lives in the apartment of an ethnic Albanian family that has fled to the other side of the city.
Drobnjakovic has not given up hope that his family will someday be able to return to Vuciturn, about eight miles down the road. But he is under no illusion that they will be able to anytime soon.
"We don't sleep peacefully here," he says, as he stocks shelves at the store.
There has been little peace in Mitrovica since unidentified attackers fired an antitank rocket early this month at a United Nations bus carrying Serbs between the city and Serb villages nearby. Two elderly Serbs were killed, and the violence that followed left nine more people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians, and dozens wounded, including two French soldiers. Early yesterday, a land mine exploded beneath a Serb bus on the north side of Mitrovica, hurting no one but destroying the bus.
The unrest has raised alarms in Western capitals and prompted calls for more peacekeeping troops in Kosovo - a move that the North Atlantic Council, NATO's governing body, decided to put off last Friday. It has also forced Kosovo's military and civilian officials to look for new ways to overcome ethnic divisions in what has become the province's most volatile city.
In the past few weeks, both the peacekeeping force and the UN police in Mitrovica have been reinforced from units in other parts of Kosovo. Last week, some 2,300 soldiers, including 400 American paratroopers, undertook the largest operation yet in Kosovo to search for illegal weapons. In the meantime, officials are beginning to carry out a plan to establish a security zone in the heart of the city, which they say will allow many ethnic Albanians to return to the north side and a few Serbs to return to the south.
The plan has alarmed Serbs, who say it is unfair and unworkable - unworkable because no Serb family will feel safe going south of the Ibar River, and unfair because there is no plan that would permit Serbs to return to other towns and cities.
"If someone talks about multiethnicity in Mitrovica and not in Prizren, Pec, Kacanik and Pristina, it's not fair," complains Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb leader on the north side. Mr. Ivanovic says he could foresee a time when Serbs and ethnic Albanians could live together again in northern Mitrovica, but not yet.
Recently, Western officials have detected the hidden hand of Slobodan Milosevic in Mitrovica's troubles. They have accused the Yugoslav regime in Belgrade of using plainclothes police and secret radio links to foment violence in order to undermine Western efforts in Kosovo and nearby border areas where an Albanian separatist threat looms.
George Robertson, NATO's secretary general, said on Sunday, "My message to Milosevic about anything that he is doing just now is that he should not meddle with NATO, and he should not be up to mischief."
Amid the flurry of threats and accusations, little was said about the ordinary Serbs living in Mitrovica. They have little use for Mr. Milosevic, who they say abandoned them after Yugoslav forces capitulated to NATO last spring. But they worry about attacks from Albanians.
Maja, a young schoolteacher too afraid to give her full name, says she receives threatening phone calls almost every day from Albanians. "They are saying they want to kill me and my family.
The trouble in Mitrovica has been brewing for months. It is the one place in Kosovo where thousands of ethnic Albanians have been unable to return. But the city also suffers from the same problems that have hampered Western efforts all over Kosovo. These include a shortage of police officers and the lack of a court system that could begin to curb violence against Serbs and other minorities.
The UN administrator in Mitrovica, Mario Morcone, says the recent violence did not discourage him. Like many people, including local residents, he blames extremists on both sides and says that Serbs and ethnic Albanians who once lived together in Mitrovica might still live together again.
"Now, the needs of common people are coming out," he says. "People in the north and in the south want their kids in school, they want money, they want jobs, they want an opportunity to go to the hospital. They want a normal life."
Yet the differences between Serbs and ethnic Albanians are profound. To ethnic Albanians, the north side of Mitrovica is little more than a haven for war criminals and paramilitaries. Many of them consider all ordinary Serbs to be in some degree guilty of crimes against ethnic Albanians.
"We would like to live with the Serbs who don't have bloody hands," says Fitim Ferati, a student who took part in a massive demonstration last week. "But there are just a few of them, believe me."
The Serbs, for their part, look across the Ibar River and see a mass of implacable nationalists who want to drive everyone who is not an ethnic Albanian out of Kosovo. After all, they say again and again, there are still ethnic Albanians living in northern Mitrovica, but no Serb dares set foot on the south side without NATO protection.
There are still more troubling differences. Many ethnic Albanians remain unembarrassed by the violence against ethnic minorities in Kosovo, which has made the province more dangerous for Serbs today than it was for Albanians during most of the years of Serb rule. And Serbs remain unrepentant about the violence that was carried out in their name, if not by them personally, against ethnic Albanians.
All this has made northern Mitrovica a gray and cheerless place. The Serbs who live here are poor, fearful, defiant - and uncertain. Most have come from somewhere else, some years ago, to work in the local factories, now idle; others recently, like Savo Drobjnakovic's family, to escape the wrath of vengeful Albanians. At the tiny store where Drobnjakovic works, the conversation is muted, the customers' faces somber.
"We and all Serbs who are here want to go back to our own homes," Drobjnakovic says, trying to drive to the heart of the issue. "And Albanians want to come here to their own homes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society