By SLAVISA LEKIC
Today in Kosovo the Serbs control four towns: Zvecan, Zubin Potok, Leposavic and Lesak. And a part of Kosovska Mitrovica, which is divided into southern, Albanian and northern, Serb parts. Once it was called Kosovska Mitrovica, for brief interval it was even Titova Mitrovica; now Mitrovica is Serb and Albanian.
The two parts of the city are connected by three bridges. Or, more accurately, divided by them.
"You see, [Ivo] Andric knew how to describe bridges beautifully," says an old geography professor. "When you encounter an obstacle, you don't stop; you conquer it by building a bridge over it. Even in this case, when bridges do not connect but divide two peoples, two riverbanks, two cities, we have encountered an obstacle. They are a people with whom one cannot live, that is the obstacle! How to overcome it? Stop them from crossing the bridge and leave them to perish on their own!"
As far back as the 1970's, when the only form of entertainment was the promenade, the division was apparent in Mitrovica. Walks on the promenade, which regularly began at seven in the evening, summer or winter, took place in what is today the northern part of the city. The Serbs would walk on the right side of the main street, from the bridge toward "Polet" and Zvecan; the Albanians would walk on the left. There was no mingling. Exchanges of information and rare greetings would take place in the middle of the street.
But there was no hate at that time.
No power on earth: "Today the only thing we have in common is hate. Even our Holy Father could not bring us back together," says the professor.
It appears to be true: on the basis of the reactions of others interviewed by Reporter, it is apparent that there is no power on earth, no tactics, no logistics that would contribute to making peace between people formerly joined in brotherhood and unity [a catch phrase of the Communist era].
"Make peace with them?! There is a nice English phrase for it: science fiction," someone adds.
"It's like putting a hedgehog and a snake into the same pit," says a third.
"As soon as they start talking about mutual coexistence, I grab myself between the legs," says a fourth with pride.
Three comrades-in-arms kept guard on Kukavica, the hill which dominates Mitrovica, for more than a month. They observed the Micro settlement, a part of the city populated exclusively by Albanian residents. They are all 35 years old. They introduce themselves: the first is one of the leaders of the anti-abstention revolution; the second is well-known for holding a strike every day between two bars; the third's hobby is breeding stones in the windows of Albanian houses.
"We did not fire a single bullet, so help me God," swears the "stone breeder". "We lay around, ate, went home once in a while to take a bath. One day we received an order to secure the exit from the buildings of a column of Albanian women and children. I almost broke into tears. In every child, I saw my child; in every woman, my wife; in every old woman, my mother... It was the worst day of my life, so help me God, and then..."
Then the first victims fell.
"People were walking in front of guns and that is how casualties happened."
News began to arrive about the burning of Serb houses in places surrounding Mitrovica. An Albanian house went up in flames, another, a tenth... In the very center of the Serb part of the city, right next to a residential building, the "Merlot" wholesale store was set on fire. The residential building could have gone up in flames as well.
"One spark is all it takes... The paramilitaries and the newcomers, so help me God. But after everything that they have done to us, now I would strangle them with my bare hands."
"Newcomers" to blame: The leader of the anti-abstention revolution would also strangle them, meaning the Albanians, with his bare hands but before doing so he heaps abuse on the "newcomers".
"From the very beginning when they chased Albanians from their property, they looted and burned everything that fell into their hands. After a while, this stabilized a bit. What can you do?"
How did the "newcomers" know which houses were Albanian?
The "guy on strike" explains how the Territorial Defense worked.
"We had explicit orders from the commander to expel no one. Yes, we did go from house to house and make lists of people who were not duly registered [as tenants: a state requirement throughout FR Yugoslavia] and who obviously came from God knows where. We explained to those people that they would have to leave the city but there was no use of force involved. I give you my word of honor that the army and the old residents of Mitrovica behaved exceptionally correctly."
How then is it that Mitrovica balconies are crammed with furniture and household appliances?
"Brother, go ask the bandits on the other side of the bridge."
I. lived in the southern part of Mitrovica, in the center of Bair, a settlement where few Serbs ventured before the war. We attended "Aziz Sulejmani" elementary school together. Although he was Albanian, he attended classes in Serbian. We talked together last time in October of last year when the craziness began. It turned out he was still here. He was here but so was the craziness.
At first, silence.
"What brings you here?"
He is uncomfortable and his responses are curt.
Then, he thaws just a little.
He claims that the southern part of the city is unrecognizable. Nothing is working on their side, either. "Fafos", "Akumulatori" and the zinc factory have been looted; the machines have been taken God knows where. The "Stari trg" mine is also no longer working. The streets are crowded with people walking aimlessly. There are new people, bosses, who are in fact peasants from Bajgora and Cicavica, the surrounding mountains; some of them are from Albania. It's as if they have never been to a city before, he says. The local Albanians call them "Indians." They control this part of Mitrovica. They are obnoxious, rude and inconsiderate. Kidnapping and rape is a common occurrence. Whoever has an 18 year-old daughter must bring her into the house at first dusk.
"So there is no hope," I say.
"I see none," he responds and at the very end he tells me:
"We were not lacking in people who could without pangs of conscience kill another or burn down a house but your people truly went overboard. Ask your people there."
So I asked "my people".
Unbelievably, no one would admit they had blood on their hands.
The round house: At the top of the northern part of the city, right next to the police station which was destroyed in the bombing, there is a round house. That is what we called the Mitrovica prison. In front of the prison, a combat vehicle and armed KFOR soldiers. Inside are 43 prisoners, 32 of whom are Serbs. Among them is minor V.V., a mentally retarded 17 year-old, who was arrested on the basis of an anonymous report by some Albanian.
After the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army and police, and the deployment of KFOR, chaos reigned in Kosovo. Everyone could report anyone and have them put in prison. Many people took to this new "parlor game" and there were some truly comical situations: a kid who once upon a time was slapped by a neighbor reported him as the looter of an Albanian house close to the City Hospital. Fortunately the "looted" Albanian was an honest man.
When V.V. ended up in prison, many residents of Mitrovica had cause for fear. The boy, who completed a special school and who had been teased by many of his neighbors for comic effect, had the ideal opportunity to seek revenge. Even though V.V. has been in prison for months, the details of his interrogations are unknown. For now, it is only known that in a subsequent written declaration to Kaplan Baruti, the president of the Mitrovica court, he refuted everything that he had previously said.
"The declaration which I gave to the gendarmes and at the hearing before the judges was given under great duress and pressure and fear because I was there," says the declaration, which Reporter succeeded in obtaining. "I was frightened as a witness and conscious of the moment, I made things up because they said they would let me go if I said so. Since I have no money to pay an attorney, that is why I am now asking you to listen again to my declaration because everything I have said so far is not the truth..."
Those who know V.V. say that it is possible that he may have stolen something but that he certainly did not do anything worse. And they also say that there are people walking freely around the city who have derived considerable profit from ill-gotten gains or grabbed hold of at least a couple of Albanian small businesses. Some vanished at the right moment.
They tell me their stories with caution: one of my relatives, not so distant at that, went a little overboard. Wearing a policeman's uniform, he got so carried away that he did not spare either Albanians or Serbs. He is on some of the various lists and when KFOR entered Mitrovica he had to flee without turning back. He settled in Kraljevo. He has a house, a garden but he also suffers from nostalgia. Every once in a while he phones. One day, just to tease him, they tell him that KFOR will soon enter Serbia and that he should look out.
"Where can I go now, woe is me?!"
"You better do something," his former neighbors say to even the score.
"I've been thinking that perhaps the only salvation for me is Greece."
"How are you going to get to Greece when KFOR is in Macedonia?!"
"By way of Salonica!"
"Hello, genius, how are you going to get to Salonica?"
"By way of the Salonica front line, poor wretch that I am! It won't be my first time!"
"Have gun": Residents of Mitrovica no longer care about front lines. They have had enough of that, they say, but they will not surrender their arms. Every single house has at least one rifle. A well hidden rifle.
"Have gun?" asks a French soldier.
"No gun," responds the Serb mechanically.
"Have, have," smirks the Frenchman.
"Have, have but you don't know where it is," grins the Serb and salutes him.
A real idyll!
"All of my bones are over there," says a man, pointing with his finger at the southern part of the city, toward the Orthodox cemetery. "My father, my mother, two brothers, my brother's son, poor boy; he died in Krajina... I heard from the priest that the vermin knocked over the tombstones. Even when we are dead we are in their way, the dogs, may they be damned and have no peace even in death!"
He is crying!
Then the same finger points at a building several hundred meters from the railway bridge, in which there is an enormous black hole on the fifth floor instead of an apartment.
"What a fool! One of ours, a Serb. As soon as the shooting started, he doused everything in gasoline, lit a match and floated off toward Smederevo. He must have been thinking: if I can't live here, no one else is going to live in my place either. And our people are swarming in basements."
Then, more about the cemetery.
They have been repeating the story about the cemetery, the Serb Orthodox cemetery which remains in the southern part of the city, at the mercy of the Albanians who are carrying from it entire blocks of marble [i.e., tombstones], to me for days.
"If only we could get to the cemetery!"
It's like a Buddhist mantra.
"Where have we left our cemetery, damn it..."
Sitting in a cafe, in the space of only an hour I am forced to listen to the song "Oh, cemetery, cemetery, you green garden..."
A fine line: Nowhere have I seen a finer line drawn between depression and having a good time.
It is ten o'clock before noon. In the tavern "At Baca's" (the place is officially called "Old Serbia" but everyone calls it "At Baca's", just like "Sfension" is called "At Boza's" or "Zlatibor" is called "At Kome's" and so on) the accordion is playing, reverberating to high heaven, people are on the tables. A regular parade of pride is carried out here.
First King Peter's guard marches, then a message to Serbia not to despair, the Chetniks are getting ready; the crescendo arrives with "Vidovdan" [references to old Serbian national songs with wartime overtones].
"Wherever I go, I return to you again, who can remove you from my soul, Kosovo," the young men engage in training of the vocal chords from their tables and chairs.
There is no pause except for "crossings". That is where you take your drink, select an adopted brother, cross yourself, then both cross your arms and both down your respective drinks. Then you kiss three times [traditional Serb greeting]. Later this is repeated in your chair, on the table... It's easy to get on but hard to get off the tables... And so on until everyone is dead drunk.
Like in any normal city, the sociopolitical life of Mitrovica takes place in the cafes. Kosovo-Serbia, Serbia-Kosovo and Cobe.
They call HIM Cobe.
"If only Cobe knew how they betrayed us," an elderly compatriot complains after a "crossing".
The man is convinced that Cobe does not know the truth, that he is in the dark about the entire situation, that he will eventually discover what is going on and then...
I cannot believe my ears.
All semblance of congeniality and listening skills have been cast aside.
We are already communicating in terms of "eat shit; no, you eat shit."
"Where is that doctor and that lawyer who walked around Pec a year ago? Those bastards! They set the people at each others throats and then they disappeared," my compatriot friend is not giving up.
I want more on Milosevic.
He'd make me put on Vesna Pesic's girdle but she ran away to a foreign country. He'd pull off my nose, just like Djindjic's. He'd piss on my epaulettes, and on those of some other generals as well...
I'm saved by a new "crossing."
"Where are your Serrbs, o Serbs," some peasant is yelling from the door and kissing everyone at every table. He is among the first to have left for Berane [Montenegro]. He opened a restaurant there; no one knows where he got his money.
The compatriot is irked... He leaves the table... Half an hour later he comes back and offers me a handshake in forgiveness. He sits and starts humming to himself:
"Comrade Slobo, extend your right hand to your brother Vuk Draskovic."
"Vidovan" and "Cemetery" one more time.
"My son," says the compatriot, "do you know that Serbia is being defended in Mitrovica?"
"Vidovdan" and dancing on the tables.
Some three hundred meters away, not far from the Zvecan train station, a couple of dozen Serbs. They have come to get food and now are waiting for Russian trucks to deliver them safely to Gojbulje or Kosovo Polje. Only one hundred meters away from them, at a bus station, another couple of dozen unfortunates are waiting for the bus which will take them on an indirect route, through the mountains, to Zubin Potok. With the first snow they will be cut off from Serb territory. "Oh, Serbia, our mother, don't despair" - one hundred dinar notes are flying throughout the cafe.
Absurdistan: Outside the cafe the situation is as merry as at an autopsy. Nothing is working except the street vendors. People are reluctantly spending their last money. And waiting for heaven knows what.
"I am an optimist. I know the day will come when the uninvited guests will be forced to leave," Novak Bjelic, the general director of "Trepca", tells Reporter.
"We will return to Trepca what belongs to Trepca. Whatever is achieved by force is transient. Might makes right but God does not like might. [An old Serb proverb: 'Sila Boga ne moli, ni Bog silu ne voli.'] Since the signing of the Kumanovo agreement we have 118 million dollars worth of direct losses and 74 million dollars worth of indirect losses. Our factory has be usurped; more than 5,000 people, representing a third of the employees, are now jobless but all things will pass, things will return to what they were. I guarantee it."
"An independent Kosovo? Yes, we'll call it Absurdistan," a school friend comforts me.
They will resist. Even if the Albanians set out with weapons. Then everything that occurred earlier will look like a tea party in comparison with what could happen, those here insist. And they advise their "Serb brothers" to even if they are not helping them, at least not forget the Kosovo Serbs.
After four days in Kosovska Mitrovica, in a half-empty bus we set out for Belgrade. I am haunted by the words uttered in the cafe by the compatriot:
"Serbia is being defended in Kosovska Mitrovica."
She was not defended in Knin [Serb majority town in Croatia]. Nor in Erdut [Serb majority village in Croatia]. Nor in Serb Grbavica [Sarajevo].
We are close to Rudnica, the administrative border of Serbia and Kosovo.
Neither the photo reporter nor I talk.
Then the policeman waves his hand.
The photo reporter and I look at each other. We are almost ready to hug each other for joy.
We enter Serbia.
Behind us we leave Kosovo.
The eternal wound. And to some, by the will of God, an eternal symbol.