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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 08:44 GMT
Kosovo Serbs face hard choices
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Mitrovica

Much of the UN's final status proposal for Kosovo is devoted to protecting non-Albanian minorities but it is a commitment few Serbs believe in, BBC News finds on a visit to Mitrovica.

Mitrovica's new Serbian Orthodox church of St Demetrios

"When you get two armies and you pick a point where you are going to fight, that's Mitrovica - it's the front line," says Alban Deva, a 26-year-old ethnic Albanian finance officer on the south side of the city.

We stand drinking coffee in a bar 100 metres (yards) behind the central bridge.

For Alban the distance to the other side of the Ibar river is vastly greater - he had an apartment there before he was forced to come south by the ethnic violence which split Mitrovica.

"If I went into the north of the city, that would be a huge problem," he reflects. "I might get beaten up, maybe killed. People know me there and know that I'm an Albanian because that's where I used to live."

And for a Serb coming south?

"It would be the same," he replies. "They would get beaten up, yes. It's the reality."

As if to emphasise the ethnic chasm the city's modest river now represents, nobody I ask on the way to the bridge can tell me if I can use euros - Kosovo's adopted currency - in the Serbian dinar-priced cafes and shops on the north side.

I glance up at the hills of the north and see a church on one, and on another what appears to be a set of standing stones straight out of Stonehenge, which lends the urban landscape a sinister, prehistoric feel.

Communication breakdown

A few hours mixing with Serbian students from the university clears up two points, at least.

Belgian K-For armoured lorry parked in south Mitrovica, just behind the bridge
K-For soldiers keep a 24-hour watch on Mitrovica's main bridge

Firstly, I do not have to worry about currencies because, like the Albanians in the south, nobody allows me to pay for my coffee and secondly, the standing stones are a Yugoslav-era monument to local miners, both Serb and Albanian, who fought the Nazis as communist partisans.

Little else in northern Mitrovica is simple. In the words of 23-year-old Serbian student Marko Jaksic (no relation to a local politician of the same name):

"My old Albanian friends don't understand me when I talk about Serbian problems and I don't understand them when they talk about an independent Kosovo."

Marko takes me to the new church of St Demetrios, consecrated in 2005, which has served Orthodox Christians since St Sava's on the south side was torched during the violence of March 2004.

Coming back down the hill, we see the remains of a row of razed Albanian houses.

"I used to have 20 or 30 Albanian friends," says Marko, who went to school on the south side. "Since the war I speak to just a few of them. We only communicate by telephone."

Preparing to leave

No Serb would agree to an independent Kosovo, Marko believes.

Trifun Todorovic
I don't understand why the Albanians hate Serbs so much
Trifun Todorovic
Serb student from Obilic

"The Albanians see final status as some kind of magic which will solve all their problems and Serbs see it as the start of big problems for the Serbian people," he says.

At the university, students from enclaves in the province's centre equate final status with leaving Kosovo.

Aleksandar Trajkovic, 25, says hundreds of Serbs in his community, Ugljare, will simply leave for central Serbia.

The family of student Trifun Todorovic, 23, has been living in Gracanica since they were burnt out of their home by Albanian rioters in Obilic, near Pristina, in March 2004.

His brother, he says, had to shoot in the air from a hunting-rifle in order to get the family out.

"I personally could never trust Albanians now," he adds, recalling how Kosovo police had failed to protect Serb homes in Obilic.

"The way things are going, people are planning to leave. I don't understand why the Albanians hate Serbs so much."

It is a question many Albanians might also ask of Serbs after the temporary exodus of about 800,000 ethnic Albanians in 1999 amid a violent crackdown by Belgrade.

Neither independence nor partition

The wave of ethnic violence in 1999 and its sequel in 2004 drove Mitrovica's Albanians and Serbs in opposite directions and today there are hundreds of non-Albanian refugees living in the north.

Oliver Ivanovic
Since 1999 we have had the impression that Serbs are not welcome in Kosovo
Oliver Ivanovic
Kosovo Serb politician

According to OSCE figures for 2006, about 17,000 Serbs live in northern Mitrovica while a further 36,000 live in three nearby areas with small Albanian minorities - Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan.

Pressed up close to the administrative border with Serbia and linked to Belgrade economically, the area seems de facto partitioned from the rest of Kosovo, if formally under K-For and Unmik control.

The idea of partition is intolerable to the UN administration in Kosovo, committed to a single multi-ethnic state.

Perhaps surprisingly, Oliver Ivanovic, the Mitrovica politician who often speaks for the north's Serbs, whether in Serbian or fluent Albanian, is also opposed.

"Nothing of any importance to Serb culture, tradition or history is in the north," he told the BBC News website.

"If there was partition, the 60% of the Serbian population that lives in the south would see it as a trigger to leave."

Mr Ivanovic, who advocates extensive autonomy for Kosovo as part of Serbia with a view to eventual EU membership for all, says Serbs are already leaving.

He dreads the end of this school year and the possibility of Kosovo Serb families re-registering their children at schools in Serbia proper - a prelude to selling up and going.

"Since 1999 we have had the impression that Serbs are not welcome in Kosovo," he says.

This is the second in a short series of features from Kosovo. Coming up - views from Pristina's clubland on whether Albanians and Serbs can live together again.

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