De-Facto Ethnic Partitions Form in Kosovo

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Yugoslavia -- Even as terrorized Serbs flee most parts of Kosovo, what looks increasingly like a de facto Serbian-dominated partition zone is taking shape in the northern part of the province, beginning in this divided town.

The overall dominance of ethnic Albanians is clear in the rest of Kosovo. But crossing the Ibar River into the Serbian-dominated northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica is like entering Serbia proper. Signs and posters are in Serbian, Serbian music blares at sidewalk cafes, virtually everyone on the street is Serbian, and visitors from Belgrade can calmly drive here through Serbian-dominated territory - all under the protection of French peacekeeping forces.

Some ethnic Albanians still live on the north side of the river, but they try to keep a low profile. Ethnic Albanians are still being driven out of their homes and forced to go to the south side of town.

At the same time, the northern part of Kosovska Mitrovica has become a magnet for terrified Serbs from other parts of Kosovo, where they face not just revenge attacks but what international officials have begun to label an organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing.''

The Serb-dominated part of Kosovo now stretches from northern Kosovska Mitrovica through villages near the main highway toward Belgrade, right to the province's northern border. A major coal and silver mining complex, one of Kosovo's most important economic assets, lies inside this area, which is about 40 kilometers long and 16 kilometers or more wide.

About 100,000 people lived in Kosovska Mitrovica and surrounding villages before war broke out earlier this year. After the end of NATO's air campaign and the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians to the province, most of Kosovo's estimated 200,000 Serbs fled. It is unclear how many are living now in this Serb pocket of northern Kosovo.

The international community says it is determined that Kosovo not be partitioned, and French officials insist that no real partition has taken place.

But the problems here cannot be solved without also solving the security situation for Serbs in other parts of Kosovo, so that those who have taken refuge here can return to their original homes, French officials say.

"Mitrovica is the only remaining city with a huge population of Kosovo Serbs,'' said Bertrand Bonneau, spokesman for French forces in Kosovska Mitrovica, which is about 32 kilometers northwest of the provincial capital Pristina. "Most of the apartments ... are occupied by Serbians who are themselves refugees fleeing from elsewhere. A family with two or three children - you can't just throw them out. You have to find another place for them to stay. Winter is coming quickly here,'' Bonneau said.

Issues of ethnic hatred, housing and secure movement of people need to be solved throughout Kosovo in order for the ethnic divisions ripping apart Kosovska Mitrovica to be properly solved, Bonneau said.

"I think that Albanians want to ethnically cleanse Kosovo,'' Aleksandar Milentijevic, a 22-year-old Serb from Pristina, said. "Serbian feet cannot step south of the bridge, because they would be kidnapped, killed or physically molested. ... While I was living in Pristina it was quite dangerous for me walking on the streets. I was always afraid someone might kidnap or kill me.''

Towns and villages along the road north from Kosovska Mitrovica are now almost entirely Serbian, Bonneau said. But this is not such a big change from how things were before the war, he added.

"There are not a lot of Kosovo Albanians living in the northern villages,'' Bonneau said. "They have fled. But as far as I know, it was a very small community. ... Everybody's talking about partition. This is not a real partition. This area was Serb majority before the war. We want things to go back to how they were before.''

Faton Shala, 18, a displaced ethnic Albanian who desperately wants to return to his family's apartment in the northern part of the city, is among those who thinks turnabout is fair play.

Shala said his hope now is "to drive Serbs out of here.'' Until that is done, he won't be able to go home safely, he said.

"We are not going to allow our city to be divided,'' Shala added. "While the Serbs are here, the city will be divided. Maybe the border will be here.''

Such sentiments among Albanians only make French peacekeepers more determined to protect Serbs as well as ethnic Albanians in the French-led peacekeeping zone, which includes Kosovska Mitrovica and stretches north to Kosovo's border with the main part of Serbia.

French authorities are now promoting a plan under which 25 ethnic Albanian families per day would start moving back into northern Kosovska Mitrovica, with military escorts back to their homes.

But no one claims that international peacekeepers can be permanently stationed at the homes of every ethnic Albanian family living in Serb areas, just as it is impossible to do that for all the Serbs living in ethnic Albanian areas. Even with a target force of 55,000 soldiers, the number of peacekeepers is far too small in a province with a prewar population of about 2 million.

Bonneau stressed that despite the seemingly endless hatred, there will never will be a "real partition'' of Kosovo.

"We will take the time required to make these people understand they have to live together,'' he said. "We stay here until we reach that goal.''