Thursday, February 22, 2007

Serbs Face Tough Choice as Kosovo Independence Looms

Very good article from the NYT. You got to feel for ordinary folks like her. It shows once again the heavy philological pressure most Serbs in Kosovo are going through. The fact that the spin machine from Belgrade feeds into this fear constantly doesn’t help either. Living in this kind of isolated situation, she probably doesn’t understand that she could walk around in any city in Kosovo without any problems. Artile below:

UGLJARE, Kosovo — To go, or to stay.
The New York Times

Snezhana Jovanovic, 51, has faced that choice many times since war tore apart her tidy life nearly eight years ago. Now, with this long-disputed province promising to declare independence, she and many other Serbs are facing it again.
“Everyone is talking about this,” Ms. Jovanovic said, drawing on a Drina cigarette in one of six concrete houses along the side of a narrow road here half an hour from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.

“Bergen” is painted on one of the buildings like an advertisement on the side of a barn. It is the name of a city in Norway, the country that has sponsored this small cluster of homes for Serbs displaced during the 1999 war over Kosovo.
Ms. Jovanovic says she will wait and watch and do what most other Serbs do. But she understands the psychology of fragile, frightened groups and is worried.

“When things are like this, one man can create panic by shouting,” she said as the room filled with the throb of a NATO helicopter skimming past outside. “I’ve lived through this before. One man says something and everyone packs up and leaves.”

The war, between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces, killed thousands of people, mostly on the Albanian side. Entire families were massacred. Many men are still missing. NATO put a stop to the fighting with a 78-day bombing campaign in 1999, and Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations ever since.

Now a diplomatic effort is afoot to give Kosovo its independence. A proposal put forward by a United Nations mediator would grant Kosovo de facto nationhood — an army, a constitution and a flag — but it would still be overseen by the international community. A small number of Kosovo Albanians say the proposal does not go far enough, and Serbia is outraged by the whole package.

Amid the uncertainty, the estimated 120,000 Serbs left in the province, many of them natives, are wondering what to do.
Ms. Jovanovic was born elsewhere in Serbia, but her parents moved back to their hometown in southern Kosovo when she was 2. She grew up in Prizren, then a mixed community, and speaks Albanian as well as Serbian.

That sets her apart. Most Serbs in Kosovo do not speak Albanian, leaving them cut off from and wary of Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of the province’s population. But even Ms. Jovanovic now lives in a parallel world.
After she married, she moved to a house in the hills on the outskirts of Prizren. Her neighbors were mostly Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Albanians.

She worked at a textile factory and drew a salary equal to roughly $110 a month taking care of the looms, a job she liked. But the war came and swept that life away.
She recalled the morning she and other Serbs left their homes to gather in a church as gunfire from ethnic Albanian militias drew near and the Yugoslav Army’s protective cover drained away. After eight hours of waiting, a German NATO commander arrived to say he could not guarantee their safety. With that, people gathered their belongings and fled.
Ms. Jovanovic’s son drove her to a ski resort in the mountains to the east, but after a few days a man arrived shouting: “They are coming! They are killing people!” and everyone grabbed what they could and left. “It’s fear that does it,” she said.

Her son drove her north to Serbia proper, but she returned after a week. She called an Albanian neighbor and learned that her house had been destroyed. She never went back to see it. “I don’t want to,” she said. “I couldn’t take that.”
The United Nations moved her and other refugees into a school near Kosovo Polje, just outside the capital. She spent two years living in a converted classroom before moving to other temporary quarters. Depression took its toll.
“I was thin and starving back then,” she said. “I was ill.”
A visiting United Nations psychologist eventually asked her why she was so sad. “I looked at him and started to cry,” she said. He took her to a hospital and helped her register for financial assistance from the United Nations-administered government in Pristina. He eventually helped settle her at the Bergen camp.

There are 24 families in the small cluster of houses: one per room, four per house, 54 people in all. Ms. Jovanovic points out the fixtures in her room: a range, a refrigerator, a wood stove, a table. There is a gas water heater above the sink, though the water runs sporadically. She demonstrated by opening the tap, which produced only a sucking gurgle.
Now she spends her days on a pink sofa crocheting white doilies in her tiny yellow room.
It is a life, though not a very full one. But Ms. Jovanovic feels settled and is afraid of the physical and emotional strains that would come with uprooting herself again.

“I don’t want to move again when I remember what I went through,” she said.
Her mother did not flee, and while Ms. Jovanovic’s house was destroyed, her mother stayed through the turbulent years after Serbia’s withdrawal without any serious trouble.
“If that German had said, ‘We can guarantee your safety,’ I would have stayed,” Ms. Jovanovic said. She boils Turkish coffee and pours a guest a shot glass of homemade eau de vie from an old vodka bottle, with absinthe leaves suspended in the clear liquid. On the television, a fashion show from a Belgrade station plays, pulled in by an antenna connected to a cable that snakes up from behind the set and through a hole drilled in the ceiling.

She keeps an Easter egg in a white porcelain holder on a shelf beneath the television set. The egg, from last year, is dyed reddish brown and painted with an ochre cross. If the egg inside is still firm and white when it is peeled on Easter this year, tradition holds, she will be assured good health for another year.

“We call it the guardian of the house,” she explained with a smile.
She left her old egg holder behind in the house in Prizren when she fled.
Eventually, she will have to leave the Bergen compound. After five years in there, the refugees are encouraged to return to their original homes.

But she says she will never go back to rebuild, even though her mother still lives in Prizren. “There are only 16 Serbs in the whole town,” she said. “I can’t go back there and stay all alone.” Fair use.

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