Lynne Mastnak

An elderly Serb in the Kosovo village of Mlecan told me that, for him, trouble had begun only a few days before, when Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers had searched a man in the woods nearby for weapons. ‘We have lived here for years and years and we have never had problems,’ he said, ‘but things are spoiled now.’ ‘There have always been good relations in this village,’ the woman with him added. ‘We are not interested in outside problems. I talk to them and they talk to us, I bought food in their Albanian shop and never paid for a year.’

Mlecan is a small village: 13 Serb families, 140 Albanian. It looks a picture of tranquillity, with a circle of red brick buildings around a village green. The walled compounds contain family houses, barns and stables; there is no way to tell if a house is Serb or Albanian. The dirt road from the village runs down to the Pristina-Pec highway, now controlled by the KLA. In one direction is Kjevo, where Serb police forces set up a checkpoint in January. From the grain tower in the town, their snipers have shot at Albanians working in the fields. In the other direction, the highway leads to Malishevo, the tiny capital of a small ‘free territory’, where KLA soldiers in their army-surplus uniforms mingle with ordinary citizens. For Albanians in mixed communities, the presence of Serbs is both threatening and protective. They know what can happen to villages with no Serbs.

In Mlecan there was an agreement. It came about when two Serb police-reservists from the village told Rustem Gashi, the head Albanian, that the Belgrade chief of police had asked them to leave because the Albanians in Kjevo had fled. ‘I asked them: what does a guy from Belgrade know about this place?’ Gashi said. ‘You know what it’s like, he knows nothing. I told them to stay; that no one would harm or bother them and they agreed.’ Gashi consulted with activists in the LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) and came back with a proposal. ‘We met, three plus three, and I requested that police from Kjevo should not come into the village, and that the Serbs, who we knew were armed, should not go out with their weapons, and they should guarantee we would not be harmed. They said: you are asking for no police, but the KLA passes through here. I admitted it, but then I asked who was burning houses and massacring people? They admitted it was the Serb police. I told them if the KLA drove through they would not harm anyone.’

The two communities made an agreement that if either heard of an impending attack they would warn the others. A few days later, however, Gashi noticed that some Serb children had gone away with their father. When he asked their grandmother she told him that they had gone to the doctor. ‘But they never came back and today the father was here to collect his things.’

We found the grandmother crying loudly as the remains of her family packed. Around the front a group of men were bundling the entire contents of a small shop into a van. One of them spoke to us in German. ‘Yesterday fifty KLA men came here with masks and automatic weapons and told us to leave. I have a gun and could stay, but it’s the children. The Serb police told us they could not guarantee our safety. The old woman will stay to watch the house.’ Meanwhile a small crowd of Serb neighbours had gathered and were talking with our Albanian interpreter, a local man whom some of them knew. The stories became increasingly confused: it was not masked men, just a few KLA who had come to see why the children were leaving.

‘They didn’t threaten anyone, just said the children should have stayed.’

‘I am not going,’ one woman said. ‘I have a machine gun and I am going to fight.’

Miloslav Staletic, the head Serb who had made the agreement with Rustem Gashi, was upset – he knew nothing of fifty gunmen. ‘A man in Kjevo caused a similar panic and they all left.’ He thought it was the weapons search that had caused the panic. ‘They evacuated the kids because Rustem was away and we could not talk to him,’ he said. ‘Then twenty men came from Malishevo. They thought all the Serbs had left so it was necessary to protect the village in case it was attacked by Serb police. Then they saw the Serbs were still here and talked to Rustem and he told them to leave. We still have an agreement that if we find something bad is going to happen, we tell each other and leave together.’

An Albanian man, a local teacher, joined in. ‘We are panicking a little. We fear the police will tell the Serbs before they plan an attack, so if they leave us on our own it means the village will be attacked.’

‘I swear to God we have not been told anything.’

‘The police told you to leave, and you were going to go.’

‘That was before we made the agreement. We were going to go because the police said the KLA was going to attack, but then we made this agreement.’

Gashi insisted the agreement still held. By now the Serbs had drifted away from the discussion and the crowd of young Albanians seated on the ground around him weren’t so sure.

‘They are all deeply involved with the police so they want to leave,’ they said of the Serb villagers.

‘Two Serbs with flak jackets came to the shop and drank beer – we did not stop them. If the KLA comes and builds a barricade in Mlecan, we won’t stop them.’

‘We are all KLA here.’

‘If the Serbs disarmed and made a commitment to protect and live in this village we would protect them.’

‘If the KLA try to harm them we will protect them, but they won’t protect us.’

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[*] Kosovo: A Short History, Macmillan, 544 pp., £20, 24 April, 0 333 66612 7.