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Serbs in Kosovo Fear Looming Decision

Milorad Radivojevic places flowers near the vandalized gravestone of a relative buried in the town of Svinjare. He has been unable to return to his village since an ethnic Albanian mob burned and looted Serb property there in 2004.
Emily Harris, NPR
Milorad Radivojevic places flowers near the vandalized gravestone of a relative buried in the town of Svinjare. He has been unable to return to his village since an ethnic Albanian mob burned and looted Serb property there in 2004.
Sasha Radosavljevic owns the a café in North Mitrovica, a Serb controlled part of Kosovo that is threatening to not recognize independence for Kosovo, should a decision be made to give the province sovereignty.
Emily Harris, NPR /
Sasha Radosavljevic owns the a café in North Mitrovica, a Serb controlled part of Kosovo that is threatening to not recognize independence for Kosovo, should a decision be made to give the province sovereignty.

This is the second piece in a two-part series.

As the United Nations Security Council ponders a proposal to launch Kosovo as a sovereign nation, dividing it from Serbia, ethnic Serbs express concerns about their futures.

Many Serbs who still live in Kosovo fear that a decision either way about the country's sovereignty — independence or no independence — will force them to leave because of violence or discrimination.

Some in this ethnic community have discussed seceding from Kosovo and aligning with Serbia.

The small town of Svinjare, in Kosovo, acts as an example of how life has changed.

Eight years ago, both ethnic Serbs and Albanians lived in the town. Now stray dogs guard a knot of empty Serbian homes.

Milorad Radivoiovich lives in a four room, one story house. It was built by the Kosovo government to replace his home that was burned three years ago by a rampaging crowd of ethnic Albanians during a flare up of violence.

"They put almost in the same place, connection for a sink and for a stove," Radivoiovich says. "This is a bathroom before, and now is a bathroom. But there's no bath. It was stolen."

The proposal for Kosovo's supervised self rule the United Nations is now considering includes detailed guarantees of security and rights for ethnic Serbs. Radivoiovich says it is like wolves caring for sheep.

"Don't you know how many guarantees we have had by now? A lot of a lot of. And our pockets are full of promises," Radivoiovich says.

The place most Serbs feel most secure in Kosovo is not far from here, in the north part of the town of Mitrovica.

The main bridge separating the north from the rest of Kosovo is still watched by United Nations and Kosovo police. Cars in the north use Serbian, not Kosovo, license plates. Cell phones use different country codes north and south of the bridge.

Money to support Serbs and this double system comes from Belgrade – much through one local Serb politician, Marko Yakshich. He is confident Russia will block the proposal for graduated independence for Kosovo. And if Kosovo simply declares itself independent, Yakshich says Serbs here won't go along.

"If that happens then Serbs in Kosovo, not only in the north, but Kosovo-wide, are going to declare that this is illegal and not obligatory for us," Yakshich says.

He says, if necessary, Serbs in Kosovo would ask Belgrade for political support, and the ask the Serbian military for protection. But there are different voices within the Serb community here.

"I am not for independence," says Petar Miltic, a politician and former journalist. It's very unpleasant. But I know that will happen. And it's better to prepare people."

Miltic is clearly a maverick here – so radical he's banned smoking in his office. He goes out on a limb to say publicly that Serbs should work with Albanians to secure their rights in Kosovo. But he finds that Serbs here are so obsessed and uncertain about independence they can't focus on problems Miltic believes they could affect, like unemployment, or unreliable electricity and water.

"They're afraid Albanians will try ... ethnical cleaning in Kosovo, and they are afraid about that," Miltic says. "So if you speak about water, they will say, oh, give me a break, don't speak about water, we don't know what will happen tomorrow."

At the Dolche Vita café in North Mitrovica, Lubisha Radosavlevich predicts a mass exodus of Serbs from an independent Kosovo. He says he'd let his kids decide whether the family would leave.

"Personally, I will never leave this place," says one of his sons, Sasha Radosavlevich, who owns the café. Most Kosovo Serbs have no where to go in Serbia, he says. His café is right next to the river that separates the north from the rest of Kosovo. That will stay a dividing line, he says, and that's not a bad thing.

"I'm not a nationalist but I see the reality," Sasha Radosavlevich says. "There is no possibility for us to live together. Probably, yes, to live one next to the other, but not together at the moment."

For now Sasha Radosavlevich does business with Albanians. Most goods are cheaper coming through Kosovo than Serbia. In fact, he says, every morning he meets an Albanian friend from grade school to buy oranges for fresh squeezed juice sold at his café.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.