Serbian Enclave Vows Never to Secede

Surrounded by working-class, Tito-era skyscrapers, a triangular dirt area sits at the center of northern Mitrovica, the main Serbian enclave in Kosovo.

In this muddy, grim and miserable setting sits a brand new beautiful bronze statue. Erected in the middle of the plain earth, it features a handsome man with mustache, wearing a coat with starry decorations. But this isn't some Serbian hero of the liberation wars of the 19th century against the Ottoman occupation.

The character, a certain Chcherbina Gregory Stepanovich (1868-1903), was a representative of the Russian tsar in Mitrovica, which at the time was the largest city of Kosovo. He spent his time hunting. One day, wandering alone in the woods, he was assassinated by "katchaks," Albanian bandits.

Two tall poles surround the statue. One flag has horizontal stripes -- the red, blue and white of Serbia. On the other pole waves a Russian flag with similar white stripes, red and blue. To make things even clearer, a banner hangs from the intersection crying: "Rusijo pomozi" (Russia, come to our help).

While the Albanians -- who make up 90 percent of the province's population and are supported by the United States -- are preparing to proclaim a unilateral declaration of independence, Russia has informed the United Nations that it would veto recognition of the new state as long as Serbia does not agree.

The United States is admired by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians for its support of their struggle to separate from Serbia. A U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign halted a Serb offensive against ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999. Kosovo is the only predominantly Muslim territory where people are completely pro-American. American flags are everywhere and the main street of the capital Pristina is called Bill Clinton Boulevard.

The United States and most European Union members, except the countries that have their own separatist problems like Spain, Cyprus and Romania, support Kosovo's independence after years of international administration.

But Russia, a traditional Serb ally, showing Orthodox Slavic solidarity with the Serbs, has objected to any unilateral declaration, fearing it would encourage other separatist movements in the region. Russia is using Kosovo for its tactical advantage, as part of a strategy to reassert itself on the international stage.

"International law is clear: Kosovo is an integral part of the territory of my country, Serbia, I would never accept its independence, or even its division," explains Velimir Krstic, a retired high school teacher, who has always lived in Mitrovica. "I do not want Serbs to be expelled from here, as they were in 1999, expelled from Pristina or Metohija ( in the western part of the province, which historically belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church)."

It is almost impossible to find a difference of opinion within this community. Even among the more moderate like Bojan Vasic, a 24-year-old law student.

"Both sides are ethnically homogeneous too, it encourages extremism. Therefore, nationalism against nationalism," he says. "And if the United States and the Europeans rush to recognize an independent Kosovo, this will only enlarge a sense of humiliation among Serbs and their radicalization. But we will not leave."

In the spring of 1999, a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign halted the onslaught of forced evictions and killings of up to tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians by Serbian security forces and paramilitary bands.

Belgrade authorities were forced to withdraw its forces, and NATO deployed thousands of peacekeeping troops, allowing the estimated 700,000 ethnic Albanians to return from Albania and Macedonia. NATO forces, however, failed to prevent a revenge ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Albanians led by the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Fleeing murders, kidnappings and arson, more than 200,000 Serbs left for Serbia. During the summer of 1999, Pristina was "cleansed" of it's 40,000 Serb inhabitants.

Only the northern part of Mitrovica (separated by the Ibar River) withstood the wave of vengeance, thanks largely to French troops who put up roadblocks on the two bridges spanning the Ibar River.

Since then, the situation has not changed. Representing nine percent of the area of the province, the enclave is home to 50,000 Mitrovica Serbs, who use Serbian money, read Serbian newspapers, use Serbian license plates and have neither the intention to flee, nor to accept authority from anywhere other than Belgrade.

Oliver Ivanovic, former Deputy Director General of the Feronikl mining company, was the main organizer of the Serbian self-defense mobilization in the summer of 1999. When asked what his reaction will be to the day when the Albanians unilaterally proclaim their independence, he replies quietly, with the calm of a former national karate champion: "I will simply ignore that statement, it's illegal under international law."

Situated in an enclave where industrial production has steadily declined since the fall of Tito's communist regime, the Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica know that the winds of history do not blow their way. But they do not care. They are proud of their "inat," a Serbian word meaning both stubbornness and spite.

"This is the same inat that had the Serbs reject the ultimatum of Austria-Hungary in July 1914, and the dictates of Hitler in April 1941," says orthopedic surgeon Marko Jaksic, chairman of Parliament of "Municipalities of the Serb enclave of Mitrovica".

"We have lived here for centuries. Why abandon our land, under the pretext that the Americans demand it? The wind of history [will] eventually turn in our favor. As always in the Balkans, whoever wins is the one who is able to show more patience. You see, one day we will return to Kosovo as a whole," exclaims this huge supporter of Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica.

When asked if people would be ready to defend themselves against Albanian assaults (according to a UN report, there are 400,000 Kalashnikovs secretly stashed on the territory of Kosovo), the surgeon simply replies: " Belgrade will never drop us. Ultimately, Serbia ia a guarantee for our security!"

Young Serbs here, mostly condemned to unemployment and inactivity, never cross the river to the Albanian neighborhoods or to the capital of Pristina, because they are scared. In March 2004, the old Serbian Orthodox church was burned during a massive pogrom that NATO was unable to prevent.

The tombs of a Serb cemetery in southern Mitrovica were vandalized, while the Albanian cemetery north Mitrovica has remained intact (thanks to the intervention of Oliver Ivanovic).This time, Kosovo's NATO-led security force, known as KFOR, whose numbers throughout Kosovo total some 16,000, is confident it can keep the peace whatever happens in the territory.

On a hill overlooking the north of the city, not far from the communist concrete monument commemorating the resistance of Kosovo children to Nazi occupation, a sports center is under construction with funding from Belgrade. Nothing else new is being built in North Mitrovica, a city that vaguely feels that it is doomed, but does not accept it.