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Saturday, 4 March, 2000, 12:55 GMT
Mitrovica: K-For's hardest test
Orthodox priest
Only one Serb family remains in southern Mitrovica
By Jeremy Bowen in Mitrovica

The surgeon flourished a handful of Polaroid photos. At first sight they looked as if they showed a variety of gnarled pieces of blackened and gristly meat. In fact they were human organs and intestines.

"Look", he said, "it's part of the liver of a young girl. Look at the shrapnel damage. I fought to save her but she died on the operating table. And you know what - she was an Albanian."

Kosovo: Special Report
"And look at this one" - he brandished another photo - "it's part of another woman's gut. She had bad shrapnel wounds too and unfortunately I also lost her on the table. And SHE was a Serb. As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference. They're all patients and I want to try to save them."

As the surgeon spoke, the lights went out. He did not let the sudden darkness interrupt his flow. They get a lot of power cuts at Mitrovica General Hospital.

The surgeon's rapid Serbian sentences kept on coming out of the gloom, explaining what happened to the casualties in the recent bout of ethnic violence in the town.

His nurse nodded fiercely as he spoke and took hard drags on her cigarette.

Hospital without patients

Like most of the reporters who have spent almost a decade, off and on, hanging round the Balkans, I have become a bit of an expert on the hospitals of former Yugoslavia.

I hope this does not sound like the confessions of a vulture at work, but hospitals are good places to find out what is going on.

Divided city
North Mitrovica
Serbs 16,000
Albanians 200

South Mitrovica
Albanians 100,000
Serbs 15
The one in Mitrovica is like so many others that were built up during the years of expansion under old Marshall Tito in the third quarter of the last century. It has big buildings set in a quite a pleasant park with lots of pine trees.

But unlike the teeming, busy, often bloody hospitals in Sarajevo or Mostar at the height of the Bosnian war six or seven years ago, Mitrovica general felt empty and spooky.

The reason is that it has lost most of its patients.

The hospital is on the north side of the river that runs through the middle of the town, which puts in the Serb section. But many of the people it used to serve are Albanians, on the south side - and since the two sides do not mix, the hospital is almost empty.

River barrier

A strong force of Nato soldiers holds the two bridges that link the two sides of Mitrovica. Everybody thinks there would be much more bloodshed if they were not there.

Mitrovica was a mixed town until the orgy of ethnic cleansing that followed the Nato bombing almost exactly a year ago.

French K-For soldier
Peacekeepers try to keep the rival groups apart
When the Albanians came back after the war the Serbs on the south side fled to the north - but instead of keeping on running all the way to Serbia, like most of their ethnic brothers and sisters in Kosovo, they stayed in the north.

The river is a natural barrier keeping the two sides apart.

The south side of Mitrovica has about 100,000 Albanians and 15 Serbs (the Serbian Orthodox priest and his family, who live behind French razor wire at the church.)

The north side has around 16,000 Serbs and a couple of hundred Albanians, most of whom also live behind French razor wire.

The south side bustles. The pavements are packed. The shops are full. The Albanians do not have easy lives, but they are usually relaxed, even happy.

They think they've won the war and many, maybe most of them would love to send the Serbs on the north side packing, back to Serbia.

The north side already feels like poor, depressed, battered Serbia. There is not much to buy, except great lumps of meat and slivovica, Serbia's pungent plum brandy.

Welcoming committee

If you have the right identity card, you can cross the bridge from the south, through at least three separate lines of Nato troops.

Immediately, in and around a café called La Dolce Vita - the sweet life - you meet the welcoming committee. It is made up of anything from a few dozen to a few hundred angry Serbs.

Western governments say these include former paramilitaries - and that they are under the orders of President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

The people outside the Dolce Vita say they are just citizens ready to protect their families. I do not know who's telling the truth. I suspect both claims could be true.

The crowd outside is well-organised, by men with walkie-talkies. They order around young fellows with matching jackets, who say they are all members of the local basketball club.

Some of them were detailed to be the BBC's bodyguards, not that we had any choice in the matter.

Everybody in Mitrovica thinks there could easily be more violence. Keeping the place quiet has become Nato's biggest priority in Kosovo.

But enforcing a sort of peace is not nearly as hard as persuading Serbs and Albanians peacefully to live side by side once more. And that is the real test.

If Nato can make it here, it can make it anywhere. So far, though, the signs are not good.
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See also:

03 Mar 00 | Europe
Mitrovica Albanians return home
04 Feb 00 | Europe
Analysis: What went wrong?
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