Mistrust fuels intolerance in divided Kosovo

GORAZDEVAC, Kosovo Wed Nov 19, 2008 4:47pm EST

1 of 3. A partially destroyed Serbian Orthodox cemetery is seen in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica November 13, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Adam Tanner

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GORAZDEVAC, Kosovo (Reuters) - Darko Dimitrijevic lives in a Serbian enclave of Kosovo that is protected by international troops and rarely interacts with ethnic Albanians in surrounding villages.

Better-stocked Albanian stores and cafes, as well as a cinema and other amenities, are minutes away by car from his village of 1,000 Serbs in western Kosovo.

But like almost all residents of Gorazdevac, he stays away, fearing intolerance and perhaps violence.

"We are Christians, they are Muslims. They have a different way of life," said Dimitrijevic, a 24-year-old radio station manager who like most young Serbs does not speak Albanian.

He said violence often seemed to set back hopes of better relations, referring to an incident in which two Serb youth in the village were shot dead in 2003.

Dimitrijevic says he could move to Serbia for a better life but wants to stay in the village where his grandfather and great grandfather lived and his family and friends are today.

He hopes politicians can bridge the differences between Serbs and Albanians.

"I'm too small to change anything by myself," he said. "It has to come from the leaders."

The international community is hoping in coming days to win approval for a European Union police and justice mission (EULEX) to help run police, courts and customs in Kosovo, a small region with a population of about 2 million people.

Kosovo has long been a source of tension in the volatile Balkans and remains so following its Albanian leaders' declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17.

About 16,000 NATO peacekeepers oversee the peace in Kosovo following a war between Serbian forces and separatist Albanian guerrillas that killed 8,000-12,000 civilians in 1998-99.

The Albanian separatists rose up after long complaining of oppression by the Serbs and following a surge in Serbian nationalism stoked by late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

ETHNIC DIVIDE

Most Serbs in Kosovo -- just 10 percent of the population -- now live in protected enclaves, mostly in the north.

Although Kosovo's population is dominated by largely secular Albanians of Muslim heritage, Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church and nation.

Nowhere is the ethnic divide more clear than in Mitrovica, a city divided by a river into a northern, Serb half with about 26,000 people, and a southern, Albanian half with up to about 75,000 people. City residents rarely cross the main bridge.

When south Mitrovica Mayor Bajram Rexhepi last visited the center of the northern half just a few blocks from his office four years ago, a riot broke out and several people were hurt.

As Kosovo's prime minister at the time, he was leading an international delegation considering investing in Mitrovica.

"They lost investment of probably 10 million euros," he said.

Marko Jaksic, the north Mitrovica Serbs' nationalist leader, went south in a guarded convey this year to the city's main Serb cemetery. The Orthodox Church there lies in ruin, after an Albanian crowd broke many gravestones.

Jaksic, 57, said he would never walk alone over the bridge into the Albanian half.

"If I wanted to commit suicide, I would choose another way rather than going over the bridge," he said.

About 127,000 Serbs in the north and in enclaves around Kosovo refuse to acknowledge Albanian-run institutions. Serbia pays for north Mitrovica's hospital, schools and other institutions but does not administer the area.

Organized crime has a strong hold in north Mitrovica in the absence of regular police, and many people do not pay taxes.

PREDICTIONS OF WAR

"Serbia will never give up Kosovo," Jaksic said, predicting war would eventually restore the area to Serbia's rule.

"Whether war happens in five, seven or 10 years depends, but if diplomatic means fail, we are prepared to fight for it," he said. "We have had crisis for 20 years; it can't get any worse."

South Mitrovica Mayor Rexhepi condemned such language.

"Many of the hardliners promote this hardline nationalism," he said. "They encourage tensions and crisis ... Only in this situation can they be important persons."

Kosovo officials say ethnic violence has slowed in the past few years and any violence stems from individuals.

A Gallup poll of at least 1,000 people released this week found just 17 percent of Kosovo Serbs said they could live in peace with Albanians, although 72 percent of Kosovo Albanians said such relations were possible.

Mayor Rexhepi, a former guerrilla fighter, hopes Kosovo will approve the EULEX force to help bring calm to his region.

"If they don't have rule of law, nobody will invest," he said. "We have to be maximally generous to calm down nationalism, bring rule of law, investment and better perspectives."

Foreign diplomats hope Kosovo will do more to lure back ethnic Serbs who left in the 1990s. Kosovo officials say they also want to move on.

"There was a war and people will not forget very easily," Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Hajredin Kuci told Reuters. "But now is the time for cooperating."

(Additional reporting by Branislav Krstic; editing by Timothy Heritage)

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