An old Mercedes draws up on a quiet street. Out of it gets a middle-aged woman accompanied by four teenagers three girls and a young man. The woman (she may even be the mother of the 4) proceeds to kick and thump one of the girls while the young man delivers a blow to her on the back for good measure. They all get back in the car and drive off leaving the victim sobbing in the street. Welcome to the small town of Bujanovac in south western Serbia on a normal Sunday afternoon in March.
Like 62% of the population of Bujanovac these people were members of the ethnic Albanian community that straddles the Serbias south western border with Kosovo. Centred around Bujanovac and the neighbouring towns of Presovo and Medvedja the region has been causing concern among the international community for the past few weeks as fears have grown that the Kosovan conflict might spill over into the area.
There are rumours that a new KLA formation, the UCPMB (Liberation Army of Presovo, Medvedja and Bujanovac) is operating in the region and recruiting young men to join its ranks. Bombs and explosives have reportedly gone off, houses have been burnt and looted while 13 people have been mysteriously killed in the last few months. After the police chief of Bujanovac (a Serb) was assassinated in January, 2 Albanians were killed in what many see as a revenge attack as they returned home from gathering wood in the forest. In other words, the situation looks remarkably like what went on in Kosovo itself during 1997-8. But how similar is it?
Although the people in the Presovo valley are overwhelmingly Albanian and took part in a 1992 referendum which voted for incorporation in Kosovo they never distanced themselves from Belgrade by setting up parallel structures of government and education. They have participated in both state and municipal elections since 1990. For example, of the 38 deputies in the Presovo local assembly 32 are Albanian while the rest are Serb. The mayor of Presovo, Riza Halimi is an outspoken critic of Belgrade but he does not seem to have suffered any persecution or harassment for so doing.
On the whole, the tortuous Yugoslav policy towards minorities is observed signs all of over the towns are in both the Serbian and Albanian languages. Education is provided in Albanian although there are complaints about its quality and the lack of language teachers particularly in English and French. It is conceivable that if the Kosovan war had not happened these communities would have carried on as they had done before. But the effects of the war have, inevitably, spilled over to them.
The economy is in collapse with mounting unemployment due to sanctions and the general crisis in the region circa 40% of the population is out of work. One of the surviving factories in Presovo which made shoes was closed down and turned into an army barracks after the war to house soldiers previously stationed in Orahovac. The workers were forced to leave without any consultation with the local authorities. Locals also say that the army has taken over agricultural land and an electrical factory in Presovo.
While Albanians are represented in the local political structures there are few of them in the police, the judiciary or the teaching profession. In fact, many teachers have gone to Kosovo since the war ended. However, there has not been any serious persecution here: when 25,000 people left Presovo for Macedonia during the NATO bombing they returned to find that none of their properties had been damaged in their absence.
For the young of the region Kosovo is like El Dorado. People travel to and from fro the province without any difficulty, climbing the precipitous mountain range towards the province in their battered cars and returning with tales of excitement and prosperity. The American KFOR contingent is just over the border and in a busy pizzeria in Presovo several young men tell of their visits to Camp Bondsteel itself where they marvelled at the burger bars and boutiques. They say that over 1000 people from the Presovo region have found jobs with the international organizations in Kosovo. The bright lights of Bondsteel and the high wages paid by UNMIK, the OSCE and other such acronyms have certainly whetted their appetites.
The young men of Presovo also admire the KLA and talk freely about joining up. 550-600 fought in the KLA during the war and have stayed behind in Gnjiline. Little wonder. Albanians in this part of the world watch the UN sponsored Radio/TV Kosovo both at home and in the local bars and restaurants. Last Sunday it was relaying (one imagined for the hundredth time) a long programme dedicted to the ceremonies held to commemorate the second anniversary of the killing of the Jasheri family in 1998.
For the KLA this was a defining moment in the struggle for independence. There are massive torch-light processions; parades and speeches from Kosovan leaders both civil and military and a Maoist cultural revolution-style opera re-enacting the events surrounding the murder. If the UN wants to calm things down in Kosovo the broadcasting of this kind of show is designed to do the opposite.
While the Albanians dream of Camp Bondsteel and the riches it represents the Serb police both regular and special forces patrol the area in huge numbers. Like the army, many came from Kosovo when the war ended but others have undoubtedly been drafted in as tensions have risen since the beginning of the year. Some sit around desultorily drinking in the local bars but others are heavily armed and ready for trouble. In the headquarters of the local police station in Bujanovac two UN personnel who claimed to have “got lost” in the demilitirized zone last weekend were about to be repatriated to Kosovo. The two refused to say why they were there and it was impossible to find out anything from the tight-lipped police officials. All requests for information are met by a blank stare or a reminder that permission must be obtained from a whole range of officialdom in Belgrade before anything can be said.
On the other hand, the Albanians are friendly and communicative. Both on a personal level and in the town hall of Presovo they are eager to explain their grievances to foreigners. My visit to Presovo appeared on Albanian-language news in Macedonia several hours later a fascinating example of the professionalism of the Albanian propaganda machine compared with the old Communist nyet inspired world of Belgrade.
It is for these reasons that the Albanians have won the propaganda war with the West over the past 10 years. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case they seem approachable while the Serbs are morose and obstructive. It is easy to see how one group can easily be seen as the victims while the others fall into category of ethnic cleansers.
But tensions here are not only on a personal level. What is happening in the Presovo valley is a matter of great strategic import not only for Serbia but also for the whole region. Presovo and its surrounding towns and villages lie along the road linking Skopje and Belgrade. It is a narrow plain, three or four miles wide, surrounded by high mountains. It is also the only proper route connecting Serbia with the south, with Greece and Macedonia. Should this region fall into the hands of the KLA or become officially part of the Kosovo it would effectively cut Serbia off from its southern neighbours. Well aware of the implications for its sovereignty, Belgrade has flooded the area with army and police as a warning to potential trouble-makers.
But, Serbia is not the only place to be alarmed by the prospect of violence in this region. Macedonia, ringed on the north and west by Albanian-inhabited areas, could be cut in two if the Presovo valley came under Albanian control. Its sovereignty would also be compromised. Over the past year ethnic Albanians under their radical leader, Arben Xhaferi, have declared de facto independence in the western part of the country which is awash in weapons and drugs. 3 Macedonian policemen were killed after they attempted to search the Albanian village of Arachino on January 3. The police in the town of Tetovo (where Hashim Thaci maintains a large residence) are no longer appointed by Skopje but by Xhaferis political party, the DPA.
In the last few weeks Western newspapers have begun to publish more and more hostile stories about the activities of the KLA. Television programmes have begun to show the world that last years war was not as clear-cut and humanitarian as presented. Journalists like The Guardians Maggie OKane who once only saw Albanian victimhood have started to use previously unmentionable words like drugs and prostitution in their articles. Meanwhile, the politicians have warned the Kosovo Albanians that they will not tolerate any intervention in south western Serbia. The Americans even went as far as raiding a KLA command post last week and seizing weapons.
However, nothing in this conflict should be taken at face value. Some of this new-found criticism may be pure posturing to put the Serbs off the scent. It is possible that a plan exists to invade southern Serbia but with troops from Macedonia and Bulgaria rather than KFOR. Many of the incidents the attacks, the lootings and burnings reported from this area could be phantasms aimed to distract the Serbs and bog them down while the action moves elsewhere, say to Monetengro.
However, whatever the world of NATO and KFOR decides to do they should act with caution. Many Americans, particularly in the military, are disenchanted with the Kosovo episode. Politicians like Senator John Warner have been openly demanding to know when Americans are likely to see the end of the tunnel there. The mothers of American soldiers in Kosovo have been writing to the White House demanding to know when their sons will be coming home from the Balkans. And, an election looms in November.
Sitting tight and saying nothing has, so far, paid off for the Serbs. Milosevic is still in power and the West is squirming. It is not entirely impossible that as the allies squabble and the Americans worry about appearing in public unless dressed in full body armour worthy of Laurence Olivier in Henry V attrition will have paid off for the Serbs yet again. But this should not be taken for granted. There is nothing more dangerous than a bear when he is cornered. And the bear in this case is the West.