The hostages of Kosovo

Serbian refugees trapped in Kosovo want to get out - as do the local Serbs in whose name Albanians are being murdered, reports Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE kept as virtual prisoners, deep in the bowels of the sports stadium in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. They spend their days lounging on their creaky, buckled beds or cooking a little of the miserable thin soup and rough-cut white bread that keeps them going. In theory, they are free to come and go as they please, butthere are fat padlocks on the doors leading to the staircase and the outside world, and they depend on their minders to let them in and out.

These people are perhaps the most desperate of all the victims of the crisis in Kosovo. One might think they must be Albanians, members of the province's majority population which has been denied its right to self- determination through a mixture of strong-arm politics and Serbian police repress- ion. But they are not: they are Serbs, refugees from an earlier Balkan conflict, the war with Croatia, who have been dumped here, hidden as far from public view as possible and forgotten.

Their tired, haggard faces, their expressions of utter hopelessness and their terror of even acknowledging the presence of inquisitive foreigners speak volumes about the perverse cynicism of the Serbian government's nationalist rhetoric. They have already survived one armed conflict and lost everything that they had. Now, with Serbian police attacking Albanian villages and killing scores of men, women and children, they face the grim prospect of being caught up in fighting all over again - this time between people they neither know nor have any reason to care about.

"We have a hard enough life here without a new crisis, so you can imagine what it feels like," explained Milica Caravic, a refugee at another centre near the stadium where the inmates felt a little freer to talk. "Nobody makes decisions for us, or even cares."

When the Serb population of the Krajina, in Croatia, was expelled by the Croatian army in 1995, several thousand of them were sent to Kosovo - ostensibly as the vanguard of a new population of settlers who would challenge the presence of the Albanians, much as Israeli settlers in the West Bank have done with the Palestinians.

Kosovo was where the nationalists first nurtured their dreams of a Greater Serbia and where Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, played on the distrust between the two national communities to launch his career. The politicians have always talked of the province as the cradle of Serbian civilisation because of its history as the seat of the first Serbian kings and the Serbian Orthodox Church, and they have repeatedly vowed to prevent it slipping into Albanian hands by all necessary means.

But when it came to resettling refugees, the Serbian authorities had neither the resources nor, ultimately, the will to make their idea work. The ovewhelming majority of the refugees had no desire to be in Kosovo, and soon saw through the government's empty gestures of support. "We were promised money, steady jobs, housing - everything, if we came down here," Ms Caravic said. "In fact all we can do is manual work, the jobs that nobody else here wants to do."

The stadium, housing around 175 people, is perhaps the grimmest of the 40 or so refugee centres dotted in and around Pristina. On the ground floor, families are crammed into the stadium's offices, coloured paper taped on to the glass doors in a vain attempt to create a little privacy. Upstairs is a large communal dormitory in what looks like a former basketball hall. The base-ment is the most depressing area, a cluster of gym rooms without natural light occupied mostly by old people too helpless to protest against their appalling living conditions.

Ms Caravic and her family live just a few hundred yards away in a prefabricated office building next to a police station. They have a slightly easier life, because they have jobs - she is a cleaner in a bank, which may not do justice to her previous experience as a lab technician in a ceramics factory, but at least brings in 100 DM (pounds 33) a month - but they too are clearly afraid to voice criticisms of the police or government.

It was not clear whether they would be allowed to leave if they wanted to; they said a few families with friends in other parts of Serbia had left in the past fortnight, but other reports, as well as the evidence of the stadium, suggest the police and the Serbian commission for refugees are doing everything they can to make them stay put.

The refugees are not the only ones aching to get out. All over Kosovo, Serb families are giving the lie to the nationalist dream and running away. The exodus has been slow but steady for the past decade - ever since Kosovo lost its autonomy and the paramilitary police arrived to face down the deeply aggrieved Albanians. Since the killings in the villages began, however, the trickle has turned into a stampede.

One Albanian journalist who lives in a mixed block of flats said every last Serb family had cleared out. At the university, wholly Serb since Albanians chose to boycott it, there are no more than 10 students still in residence, out of a campus of more than 2,000. Even the Church is making surreptitious plans to clear out if necessary; some of its most precious library material has already been moved to Belgrade.

The nationalist rhetoric suggests that every Serb would gladly lay down his life to defend Kosovo; the reality, however, is radically different. "Of course nobody is going to fight for this dump," said one Serbian government employee, speaking with remarkable frankness on condition that he remain anonymous. "When I look at my high school graduation picture, I notice that only 20 per cent of my fellow students are still here. It doesn't make any sense to start a war here. We had enough of that already in Croatia and Bosnia."