Inside the "Serbian Zoo"

by James T. Phillips

"Did you come to see the zoo?"

A teenage girl wearing a colorful headband and dangling earrings stared at me as she asked about my intentions. The look on her face was a mixture of defiance and bemusement. Journalists prowling around her turf were once a common sight and, since the neighborhood is a small Serb enclave in the center of Pristina, noticing a man with a camera wasn’t very difficult.

The teenager’s home is located in a six-story block of apartments. One hundred and seventy-four Serbs live in the apartments, and other buildings housing thousands of Albanians surround the enclave. The Serbs have access to one small store, a fitness center and, when I asked where do the children play, the teenage girl pointed to a dusty courtyard that functions as a football pitch. Twenty British KFOR soldiers live in one of the apartments, and they guard the Serbs day and night. The soldiers are alert, well armed and, like the Serbs in the courtyard, easy targets for those staring in through invisible bars that encircle the enclave.

"We are like prisoners here," said the girl. "We live like animals in a zoo."

* * *

Yugoslavia was once multi-ethnic and modern, a member of the United Nations and, until 1991, ruled by communists. Eleven years after the beginning of the endless warfare in the Balkans, the nation of Yugoslavia has been cleaved into pieces by various nationalist leaders identified in the international press as freedom fighters (Croats), democrats (Bosnian Muslims), rebels (Albanians) and butchers (Serbs). With the assistance of politicians, diplomats and bomber pilots from the United States of America – and compliant members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Association) and the United Nations – the leaders of these various entities have succeeded in creating ethnically pure regions carved out of the carnage of war.

Capitalism has replaced communism in these new nations and, although many of the same leaders continue to rule, the cleansing operations during the past decade have assured the people of the former Yugoslavia a future free from oppression, fear and ethnically incompatible neighbors.

Except, of course, in Kosovo.

During the Balkans Wars (1991-2002), Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians (Croat, Serb and Muslim), Macedonians and Albanians fought and died for the right to be independent and free. The Serbs living in Kosovo also fought and died, yet three years after the end of NATO’s brutal war against Yugoslavia they are still not free.

Statistics about the success or failure of the mission in Kosovo, gathered and published by KFOR, UNMIK and humanitarian aid groups – and reported by journalists and writers looking to confirm their own biases and agendas – are available in many busy offices located in bustling city of Pristina. The dissemination of this information and propaganda sometimes seems to take priority over the delivery of food and supplies to the people concentrated in a few ethnically pure enclaves scattered throughout Kosovo.

The simple stories about the lives of Serbs, Roma and other minorities living in these enclaves have gone missing, and the less-than-equal undesirables of Kosovo continue to live in fear, loathing the rise of a government dominated by Albanians and the fall of their own precarious living standards.

* * *

"I’m sorry," said the man sitting next to me. "My son, he is full of energy."

I met Jovica Rajkovic and his seven-year-old son Milan on the train that runs from Zvecan to G. Jankovic. Milan was sitting in the seat across from me, and he was kicking the edge of my seat. His father gently admonished the boy. Milan stopped kicking and tried to stand up on his seat and look out the dirt-encrusted window. Jovica reached over and took hold of his son’s arm. Milan sat down. He remained still for less than five seconds.

Zvecan is a small town located north of Mitrovica, the "flashpoint" city where Serbs and Albanians live, separated by the polluted Ibar River. Serbs live north of the river and Albanians live in the southern areas of the segregated city. The railroad station in Zvecan sits in a cleft between crumbling hills and shares a small valley with the rusting remains of the Trepca mining complex, the source of the pollution that flows in the Ibar River. G. Jankovic is a large town located near the border crossing between southern Kosovo and northern Macedonia, and it is the end of the line.

Three years ago, in the spring of 1999, the same train and the same tracks were used to transport thousands of Albanians to the Blace refugee camp in Macedonia. On a hot and humid day in June of 2002, a Serb father and son boarded the ancient train and traveled the short distance to their home in Kosovo Polje. Armed KFOR soldiers from Greece provided protection for the passengers as the train chugged slowly through areas populated by Albanians. The damage done to the Albanian towns and villages during the war has been repaired, and the new houses dotting the landscape would be considered small mansions in North America.

Jovica peered through the window. He pointed towards blackened shells of burned-out houses in abandoned Serb villages.

"Look there," said Jovica. "The Albanians have destroyed our homes."

There was very little rebuilding or remodeling occurring in the Serb villages, and there were no large homes being financed and constructed for Serbs, as was being done for the free and independent Albanians of Kosovo. Since the end of the war between NATO and Yugoslavia, thousands of new structures have been built by Albanians and paid for by the international community. However, three years after the war ended many Serbs continue to live in tents and small pre-fabricated shelters, surviving on what little aid and assistance that is trickling down to them after the Albanians have siphoned off most of the money, goods and services being provided by the international community.

"It is a catastrophe for my people," said Jovica.

When we arrived at the station in Kosovo Polje, Jovica and Milan said goodbye and stepped down onto a platform crowded with passengers waiting to board the southbound train. Gripping his son’s hand tightly in his own huge fist, Jovica quickly threaded his way through groups of Albanians standing in and around the railway platform. The atmosphere was tense. Hostile stares and smirking laughter by the Albanians quickened the pace of the Serb father and son, and they were out of my sight within seconds.

* * *

UNMIK is the acronym for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, the international organization responsible for re-organizing a shattered land and people. Although the landscape of Kosovo has seen some definite improvements, many of the people still live broken lives. And, fittingly for this surreal province of Serbia, UNMIK has not even been able to provide a secure environment for its own Serb civilian employees.

"This is terribly humiliating," said Marija, a young Serb woman who works for UNMIK.

I was escorting Marija to her job in Pristina. She lives only three blocks from her office, but is afraid to walk through the streets alone. Although she speaks excellent English and passes herself off as an American, the young woman, a hard-edged and proud Serb, is scared to acknowledge her ethnicity.

Marija is not her real name. A Serb working in Albanian areas of Kosovo can easily become a target of Albanians who want to continue the cleansing of the ethnic minorities that began immediately after the end of the war in June of 1999. UNMIK also disapproves of any disparaging comments from the local staff. Marija could lose her life or her job if her real name was published. Like others Serbs, Marija has lost her identity as well as her freedom.

"The internationals want to get rid of us," said Marija, referring to the enclaves populated by minorities, and protected by UNMIK and KFOR. "They want to get rid of a problem, and the problem is the Serbs."

* * *

"The Serbs are not free."

David Pierson is a 48-year-old American from Colorado working as an UNMIK policeman in the city of Pristina; he agrees with Marija.

"They are always under escort," said Pierson. "I don’t call that free. They Serbs have to come and go in groups."

Officer Pierson was sitting at a table outside a small kiosk, drinking coffee and watching the people pass by when I stopped and said hello. His perch was only a few blocks from Marija’s office. There are more than 500 American policemen currently working in Kosovo. They try to offer protection to the minority communities, but walking a beat in Pristina usually means driving around in a brand-new Sports Utility Vehicle painted to resemble a Coca-Cola can with wheels. Their contact with the people is limited to responding to calls for assistance from Serbs, and ordering coffee at Albanian cafes.

"Crime is down, murders are down," said Barry Fletcher, a press spokesman for UNMIK. Fletcher is also American policeman. "Now, it’s just street crime, car thefts and sexual assaults. But if we pull out of here in the next few years, the situation will return to what is was in 1999.

"Both side view themselves as victims," said Fletcher. "They do not accept that they are also the perpetrators. Only time will heal the hate."

The Albanians once lived under Serbian rule, and they rebelled against their alleged oppressors. With the assistance of other Americans – politicians and diplomats, aid workers and soldiers – the Albanians won their won of liberation and have created a society that is discriminating against the Serbs, Roma and other minorities. The policemen now stationed throughout Kosovo have to deal with the problems.

"It’s apartheid," said Fletcher, the UNMIK spokesman, acknowledging the fact that good cops cannot change bad behavior, and giving credence to the Serb complaints about whether the international community really cares about protecting innocent lives. "If you give us information about a crime, and give us a name, we’ll book them. We’d love to."

* * *

Marija thinks it is a crime when her right to walk to work is denied, and does not believe that freedom for the ethnic minorities of Kosovo is very high on the agendas of the Albanians or the Americans.

"The internationals want to get rid of the Serbs," said Marija as I escorted her to her job at UNMIK headquarters.

"The Serbs are going to remain in a cage."

James T. Phillips is a freelance reporter. He has covered wars in Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. He can be reached at: james@unet.com.mk

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