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New Series no.11/12 August - November 1999
Fears grow over the de facto Partition of Kosovo
by Steven Erlanger — Mitrovice, Kosova

Senior Western and United Nations officials say they are increasingly worried about a de facto partition of Kosovo, and they fear that President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia may be using the north of the province to undermine international efforts to bring Kosovo peace and normality.

In a vivid and troubling way, these officials say, Serbia proper begins at the heavily guarded bridge here in Kosovska Mitrovica, some 30 miles south of Kosovo's actual border with Serbia.

French troops guard the bridge between the predominantly Serbian northern part of the city and the ethnic Albanian south, effectively dividing the city. But what began as an effort to prevent ethnic violence has turned into a strategic problem for the NATO-led peacekeeping force and the United Nations officials who are supposed to govern Kosovo.

Peacekeeping and United Nations officials have not extended their authority in any meaningful way north of the bridge, reportedly fearful both of significant violence and of enraging and frightening the Serbs. How they might assert some control has become a pressing topic of discussion not only in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, where United Nations and peacekeeping officials are meeting on the issue, but also in key NATO capitals.

There is evidence that Milosevic has been helping to organize security and ordinary life in the northern part of the city and in northern Kosovo itself, assigning at least some police and military intelligence officers to the city and the areas of Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan, the Western officials say.

Most believe that Belgrade is using the north, which it supplies with money and goods, to try to destabilize Kosovo or to prevent its normalization after Milosevic's security forces killed thousands of Albanians last spring and drove hundreds of thousands from the province as NATO bombed Yugoslavia.

Milosevic appears to be trying to make sure that at least part of Kosovo remains in Serbian hands and under some influence of Belgrade, which feels that Western governments have flouted Serbian sovereignty over the province and fears that Kosovo will eventually seek real independence.

The possibility of a de facto partition of Kosovo – the north contains most of the access to the valuable Trepca mines – had always been one of the options Milosevic might choose to exercise in a career marked by constant maneuvering for convenience, abandoning and embracing goals as needed to survive in power. Belgrade also regards the protection of the Serbian population in Kosovo as part of its responsibility.

`We simply cannot say we have accomplished the basic task of the military operation until every person in Kosovo can at least go home,' said a senior Western official in Pristina. `It is not a stable situation and we cannot allow it to harden. The trend toward the de facto separation of the north from the rest of Kosovo needs to be halted.'

A senior United Nations official said the peacekeeping force `hasn't finished its job in the north.'

`It's vital,' he said, `that we go hard after the extremists of both sides, who are building up their resources and playing with the population in the middle.'

Still another senior United Nations official said there was urgency to the discussions. `There has been a rapid and progressive hardening of Serb positions, some of it externally driven,' he said. `It is clearly encouraged if not always orchestrated by Belgrade.'

`Belgrade would like to treat the north as part of Serbia and to make 1244 unworkable,' he said, referring to the United Nations resolution governing Kosovo and the end of the conflict. `De facto partition is something we simply cannot allow.'

While the peacekeepers and the police patrol in the north, the French troops are reluctant to act in a way that could provoke serious violence, the first United Nations official said, adding that the former head of the peacekeeping force, Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, `didn't want to do it, either.'

The new commander, Gen. Klaus Reinhardt of Germany, is also finding it difficult to establish clear authority over the various national commands of the multinational force, peacekeeping officials say. Sometimes it is hard even to get the different sectors to apply regulations and carry out patrols in similar ways, they say.

Partition `could undermine the whole project of Kosovo,' said the Western official, and it would have `a corrosive effect' on efforts to set up a successful, self-governing Kosovo.

He and others have been arguing that the peacekeeping force should do a better job of interrogating and screening Serbs who cross into Kosovo. A United Nations order, made here in August with Mitrovica in mind, allows the expulsion from Kosovo of anyone who creates trouble or who has no clear business in the province.

`An awful lot of hard young men with no apparent ties to Kosovo are coming,' one official said. `Some of them are bound to be police or army intelligence, and of course some of them are Kosovo Serbs who served here before.'

But since Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, by law and the United Nations resolution itself, it is difficult for the peacekeeping force to arbitrarily stop Serbs who want to enter, particularly if they only seem suspicious, a senior peacekeeping officer said. There is a narrow security zone between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.

`We check for weapons, but if people have proper identity documents, what can we do?' the officer asked. He noted that the Kosovo-Yugoslavia border with Albania is even more open and that there are no visa restrictions on anyone entering so long as each traveler has a passport or identity document.

Some of the divisions hardening here have occurred almost randomly.

While they denounce any `cantonization' of the province into ethnic enclaves, United Nations and peacekeeping officials have allowed the Serbs to concentrate in areas where they are more numerous and feel safer. An effort to force the opening of this town – with some Albanians committed to breaking down the border at the bridge – risks serious violence, which would cause more Serbs to flee the province, said the head of the United Nations administration, Bernard Kouchner.

`You have to think of the Serb reaction,' Kouchner said. `The only place they feel protected is in the north – that's simply the fact. But the bridge cannot be a permanent border.'

Neither Kouchner nor peacekeeping officials want a blood bath, as he put it, that would further heighten ethnic hatreds and cause more Serbs to flee Kosovo.

Yet the Albanians are insisting on freedom of movement throughout Kosovo, as the West has promised, and say war criminals are taking refuge in the north. The Serbs themselves are terrified about venturing into the south of the town, even though the only Serbian Orthodox church and the main cemetery are there.

But various United Nations efforts to keep a multiethnic staff in the large hospital on the Serbian side have failed so far – even after firing a particularly hard-line Serbian doctor – with Albanian doctors and staff members intimidated and generally refusing to go to work.

The atmosphere here is heavy and oppressive, and there have been numerous riots around the bridge in which French soldiers and the new United Nations police have been hurt. This month, on the Serbian side, a young Albanian police trainee had her jaw broken and her foreign superior had his gun taken away. But in an indication of organization, officials say, a quiet request by peacekeeping officials to the self-styled Serbian authority in the town resulted in the return of the weapon.

Tough Albanian youths hover around their side of the bridge, where the United Nations has its headquarters. One of them, Fatmir, said: `The French won't let us cross. They're worse than the Serbs.'

`If KFOR won't solve this,' he added, using the acronym of the peacekeeping force, `we'll have to do it ourselves.'

On the other side of the bridge, tough young Serbs interrogate anyone who crosses the bridge, deciding who enters and threatening others.

These men are in civilian clothes and apparently self-appointed, but clearly they are organized and have authority. Some have walkie-talkies. A Turkish interpreter was softly threatened and turned back, and a journalist and photographer were allowed through only when they loudly insisted.

Yet in the town itself, Serbs are both welcoming and frightened. The feel is of Serbia: the day's Serbian newspapers are on sale, there are Serbian products and the currency is the Yugoslav dinar. Across the bridge, the currency is the German mark and all the products come from Macedonia or Albania.

Workers in the town, people stopped on the street and the teachers in the Branko Radi_evi_ school all say Belgrade is paying salaries and pensions on time and in full, which it does not do in Serbia itself.

Such payments are in sharp contrast to practices in the rest of Kosovo, where the United Nations administration, short of cash from its international sponsors, is paying small stipends, almost derisory, to public employees.

The school brings together some 300 students and teachers from six other schools in the other part of town, and of course many Serbs have left for Serbia. But Serbs from other parts of Kosovo have also settled here, and they are in general more aggressive than the locals, the teachers say. Still, the ethnic Albanians who live in the northern part, along with ethnic Turks, say they are largely left alone and not threatened.

Biljana Jaksic, who was born here and teaches Russian, said, `Life is very difficult, obviously, after the war.' There is little electricity, and the phone lines to Serbia were cut off this week by Albanians who control the post office on the other side of the bridge.

'It's dangerous here, when Albanians can come over and walk around,' sometimes with police protection, `while I cannot go over there,' she said. But she and others praise the French troops for their `neutrality.'

Travel to Serbia is regular and easy on buses, which the peacekeeping forces escort. A teacher, Zoran Virijevic, said that he could not go to his apartment on the other side, where all his belongings are, and that an Albanian family from Tirana had moved in. `Only a suicidal Serb would go to the other side,' he said.

Still, Mrs. Jaksic said, `Mitrovica is the only place where Serbs can live a more or less normal life.' She and the others say that Belgrade does help – Serbian authorities replaced the blown-out windows of the school, for instance -- but, she asked, `how much can they do for us, with all the problems there?'

The Serbs here are full of bitterness toward the Albanians and defend Serbia's actions during the war – the killings and the mass expulsions – as antiterrorism. But when it is suggested that everyone knows that Serbian forces did terrible things in Kosovo, most of the teachers nod quietly.

Shenaj Zamin, an ethnic Turkish teacher, said she felt safe in the north. `It would be wonderful if it could stay like this, but I doubt it,' she said. `If both the Serbs and the Albanians can calm down and relax a bit, it's our only hope. But the feeling of anger and revenge is there and will stay a long time.'

She used to work in a school in the south, but dares not travel there now. `There is definitely an informal partition of Kosovo,' she said.

She knew about the Serbian atrocities, she said quietly. `What happened wasn't nice or decent and I don't blame any of them,' she said of the ethnic Albanians. `For now I don't see the possibility of forgiveness. But time will heal everything, because if not, we cannot live here.'

Kouchner also believes reconciliation, over time, is the key to everything. `This society needs love,' he said. `We can't import that like food and roof tiles.' He, at least, is considering spending the New Year's Eve of the millennium on the bridge here in Kosovska Mitrovica.

This article was published by The New York Times, 14 November 1999.

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