In the second half of February, I visited Kosovo and Metohija with a Russian humanitarian team that brought 12 tons of food, medicines, and school supplies to the surrounded Serbian enclaves of Lipljan, Batuse, and Priluzje, where the inhabitants have, over two months, had their electricity, heating, and water cut off by the newly elected local Albanian administration. Among the supplies we brought were heaters for the schools.
Traveling through the remaining Serbian communities in Kosovo from Mitrovica southward is much like taking a journey through a huge prison: from the most humane correctional workshop (the Kosovska Mitrovica region) to solitary confinement (Lipljan). Lipljan dwellers have been confined to a ghetto of two small streets. Their children have been cast out of the 140-year-old local school and now meet in a hut that resembles a ruined stable and is heated with improvised ovens. We did not visit Gorazdevac or Orahovac, so I can only take Lipljaners at their word when they call their village “paradise” compared to those places.
As in a prison, the notion of “freedom” was constantly on the lips of the inmates: “In Gracanica, the Serbs have real freedom, compared to Lipljan” said Boro, a Lipljan school official. “In Mitrovica, it’s freedom, compared to Gracanica,” said Dr. Ljubisa Foljevic, professor of Pristina University, now a refugee in Mitrovica.
You soon begin to understand why they appreciate freedom above all. They cannot travel safely between their enclaves. Every journey through Albanian-held territory is like Russian roulette—the locals of Kosovo determine one another’s ethnic allegiance in a matter of seconds. And there are no convoys of peacekeepers for common villagers—only for foreigners.
We entered Kosovo at about 6 P.M. and did not seen electric light in a single house all the way to Mitrovica. Gracanica looks like a real ghetto—people just mill around the small city perimeter, with nothing to do. For the past six years, these farmers have not been able to go to their fields. Now, they regard as the luckiest those who have a small plot of land in the near vicinity or in their own backyards. A field that is four kilometers away is as far as one on Mars. Some farmers tried to venture out that far to work their fields but were killed by their Albanian neighbors.
The small shops that we observed looked more like status symbols than genuine business ventures; no customers were around to buy the modest goods, proudly displayed in the morning and shyly put away in the evening.
The mind-set of ghetto dwellers and prison inmates is much alike—constant fear, dependence on another’s will, poor but more or less stable housing and food, no freedom. Darko, an official from the Belgrade Kosovo Coordination Center, told us stories about Kosovo refugees in Serbia who give dozens of reasons not to apply for work, similar to ex-prisoners with their socialization problems. Their weathered houses are old and small compared to the ongoing building boom of Kosovo Albanians.
Even in such awful conditions, the people of the Serbian ghettos still maintain their dignity, friendliness, and bravery. Mr. Crvenkovic of Lipljan told us that there are more babies born now in the enclaves than before. They would not fear the Albanians if they were free to defend themselves, but the KFOR “peacekeepers” prevent them from doing so. Teachers boasted of their pupils, who are most inspiring—dignified, cultured, though they live in constant danger and total isolation from the outer world.
As we rode by Pristina on a gloomy afternoon, architect Ljubisha Foljevic pointed through the bus window to the house where his flat was in Pristina, the university where he taught, the buildings he had built in the city. He hasn’t been to his flat in six years and has no hope of seeing it again. Bobana Sokic, a language teacher from Pristina who is now in Lipljan, feels crippled without her dictionaries and textbooks.
No resolution to this crisis is on the horizon; the two main Kosovo communities are still extremely hostile toward each other. Both believe that the land belongs to them. The mantras of tolerance and multiculturalism have not affected the real behavior of the common people. The local Serbs do not recognize the newly elected Kosovo officials as their legitimate government, nor does that government recognize them as citizens: The utilities crisis, for example, was the result of action taken by the new Kosovo Albanian officials who cut off supplies from the Serbs. The Albanians claimed that the Serbs have not paid for utilities since 1999—but neither have the Albanians.